Reading through the Dog Days

Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and David Shankbone.

August began with BlogHer, and I lost a week of reading due to the confluence of conference-travel-sightseeing-playgoing in New York City. Thank goodness for novella-length books from several great writers – they saved the month yet again and got me through the dog days of reading.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of August’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I purchased the first two books reviewed here, borrowed the second two from my local library, and received the fifth as a free review copy from the publisher. The Brzezinski and Updike books are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

August

5 down, 14 to go!

REVIEWS

Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski
Katie Couric recommended this book to me (me and 4,999 others, during her keynote at BlogHer ’12…but, c’mon, how often do you get to start a sentence like that?). It’s been an instructive and depressing read.

Depressing because women still earn less than men, even when they have the same skills and perform the same job at the same level. We’re still underrepresented in the boardroom, among CEOs and other leadership positions, and in technology and science careers where there is greater earning potential. Worse, research suggests that human resources professionals and MBA students, when presented with the exact same resume, consistently rank a job applicant as less experienced and skilled when a women’s name, instead of a man’s, appears at the top.

If this sounds overly familiar to you, it is. Researchers who study the world of work have described these biases since the middle of the last century.

What’s new here is that Brzezinski frames discussion of the gender wage gap, valuing your skills, and salary-negotiation tactics with her own story. It’s one that may come as a surprise to anyone who looks at television as a glamorous, high-paid industry.

Brzezinski is cohost of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC anchor and author. Right off the bat, she tells you she’s made mistakes in her salary negotiations – and they’ve set back her earning potential over the long run of her career.

She describes being so grateful to have a job after a lengthy period of unemployment that she accepted what was offered and didn’t ask for what she needed to support her family. Doing so led her to a point where, while her morning show was exceeding all expectations in terms of ratings and pulling in plenty of ad dollars for MSNBC, she was struggling with an overdrawn checking account every month.

Brzezinski is clear that her problems stemmed from not understanding the value of her worth to the network. She gives vivid descriptions of several failed attempts to renegotiate her contract, where she went wrong and why.

“What makes a persuasive argument are solid facts and figures about what you’ve done and what other people, with the same skills and experience and accomplishments, are making for the same job,” she notes. “Let me say it again: You are not prepared unless you know the market value of your contributions.”

With the advent of the Internet, this information is no longer a deep, dark secret, and Brzezinski discusses how women can find out that information and put it to work in negotiating their worth.

Through interviews with experts, like Suze Orman, Jack Welch, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, Tina Brown, Donald Trump, Nora Ephron, and others, she presents a variety of viewpoints on the current state of women in the workplace – they don’t all agree with each other, which is refreshing.

Brzezinski dares to address the uncomfortable topic of whether women support each other enough at work, offers some nuanced advice to women who want career and family, and explains the important difference between mentors and support networks.

“Encouraging women to take control of their own destinies is very much at the heart of this book,” she writes. And this book is a great place to start understanding the knowledge and behaviors required to steer your own ship.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
It’s probably a good thing we’re assigned books like this in high school.

Stability – via Henry Ford’s “principle of mass production at last applied to biology” – is the goal of the society Huxley satirizes. Leaving behind the sticky complications of love, marriage and “viviparous reproduction,” these Brave New clones remain forever youthful, productive at work, dedicated to consumerism, and continuously blissful, thanks to the Prozac-like soma.

Re-reading Huxley, it doesn’t surprise me that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a stronger cultural influence. We’d read the two books back-to-back in my high school English class, and they’d stood, in my mind, as equals. Now, I don’t get what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, this doesn’t work as a novel. Even alongside the clumsy attempts at world-building that can be the hallmark of dystopias, this is clunky stuff.

There’s the tedious opening, done as a guided tour of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Always a bad sign when an author doesn’t recognize that the inhabitants of his world already know this stuff and, if you design a world around mind control, you probably don’t show off your conditioning process to the people being oppressed.

There’s the heavy-handed quoting of Shakespeare (the title, my 15-year-old’s scrawl informs me, is lifted from “The Tempest,” wherein the word “brave” means “wondrous” as opposed to “courageous”) – except now I see that the whole Prospero-Miranda-Caliban reference (nor the “Romeo and Juliet” allusion that’s also thrown in) doesn’t translate.

There’s the choice to remain a distant, omniscient author, jumping around from one character’s head to the next. This device is perhaps necessary because the supposed protagonist, Bernard Marx, is such a weasel – hardly brave-courageous, he’s disloyal to his friends and serves only his ego. Even the author doesn’t introduce Bernard till Chapter 3, and then halfway through the book, he’s usurped as protagonist by the Savage, discovered among the Native American reservations, which have been crammed into the state of New Mexico, along with the few remaining practitioners of world religions.

The opening tour is bookended by a long argument between the Savage and World Controller Mustapha Mond (many of the characters are staggered with awkward mantles). Mustapha, one of the few allowed to read banned literature and study independently until he chose to give up the ability to think critically in favor of political power, acknowledges the trade-offs.

“…stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability,” he explains. “And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Neither is the ending. (Spoiler alert!) Rather than a revolution, the subversives merely say their lines. Then, like Prospero, they’re banished to islands, where, along with others of their ilk, they’ll apparently form reading groups and have rap sessions, enjoying the intellectual freedoms they’d always desired.

It’s far from the frightening shore that Winston Smith washes up on, which ultimately for me is what makes Orwell’s the more powerful and lasting commentary.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike
I struggled with this book all summer, renewing it twice, and still wound up returning it to the library five days late. It’s not my favorite of Updike’s books, but still hard to put down because his writing is always so darn good.

I’d hoped to pair my review of this with The Age of Miracles; they share some striking similarities. Both take place in a near future, where life as we know it has been altered (by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation in Miracles; the devastation of the Sino-American War in Updike).

These are slight dystopias, though. Updike makes small attempts at building a post-apocalyptic world, where welders replace dollars, states replace the federal government, and every form of network – from communications to commerce – is broken down. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe still arrive every morning like clockwork.

The clockwork of nature – “time that churns the seasons” – is what Updike seems most concerned with here. The beauty of the book is the way it captures all those small changes that denote the turning of one season into the next. Along the way, his protagonist, Ben, experiences similar upticks and spirals in mood and health.

Here is Ben in winter:

“I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses, like collapsed gyroscopes, that we see dangling from cobwebs – did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?”

And admiring the barn swallows of late spring:

“It happened today: the air was suddenly full of careening baby birds. They fly swervingly up and down, on the edge of control, like children first on a bicycle…In a mere two weeks the helpless and hideous babies have been fed into feathers and wingpower enough to be launched, blue-backed and roseate-bellied, as darting, dipping predators in their own right.”

Perhaps the reader is meant to take time with this book. It was certainly a pleasure to be reading it over summer in New Hampshire, as Updike describes the steady march of flora and fauna that appears between June and August in nearby eastern Massachusetts. It made me wish he’d dropped the flimsy post-war premise; the glorious peek into his journal of a man in his waning months was more than enough.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I’d never read Ephron’s novel, a famously (if barely) fictionalized account of the demise of her equally famous marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.

As I’ve mentioned, I admired Ephron’s essays as a journalism student. What I didn’t say was that I met her around that time and, as the saying goes, it’s way too soon to share that story. But, in recalling the opportunity – fledging journalist getting to see a favorite writer in person – it suddenly dawned on me that the fiasco that led to the implosion of the Ephron-Bernstein marriage was probably quite fresh and may have had something to do with her demeanor at the time. Which brought me to Heartburn.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the gossip columns, you’re familiar with the outlines of this novel. Rachel, writer of chatty cookbooks, marries famous journalist Mark, moves from cultural mecca Manhattan (where there are “six kinds of smoked salmon”) to the backwaters of D.C. They trade rat-a-tat-tat screwball comedy dialogue until she discovers him cheating while she’s pregnant with their second child. Pour in a bowl, mix with assorted erudite friends and shrinks, and watch as the farce rises.

If you’ve read any of Ephron’s essays, you quickly note that this is a novel in name only; it’s basically a journal of the break-up of her second marriage. But, her voice as an essayist is so strong, so funny and self-deprecating, you tend to go with it just to savor the way she makes a point.

Here is Rachel, for example, recounting the rationalization that enabled her to marry a man who’d already cheated on her while they were dating:

“I believed in change. I believed in metamorphosis. I believed in redemption. I believed in Mark. My marriage to him was as willful an act as I have ever committed; I married him against all the evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being. I see all that now. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. I honestly believed that Mark had learned his lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson he learned wasn’t the one I had in mind: what he learned is that he could do anything, and in the end there was a chance I’d take him back.”

Mark manages to be just as persuasive in wooing her back to Washington a second time. A recipe for disaster, surely, but by this point, Rachel’s cynicism is fully baked.

Of her husband’s tearful entreaties to come home, she observes, “It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

Through her fictional proxy, Ephron also manages this dig at Bernstein’s writing: “He’d write it in that dumb Hemingway style he always reserved for his slice-of-life columns.”

Ouch! Never anger a writer.

What it lacks as a true novel (genuine characters with depth), it makes up for in brain-confectionary. It’s perfect for a summer afternoon hammock break, full of Ephron’s trademark wit and storytelling.

Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever by Ric Dragon
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Making Sense of Social Marketology,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

New Titles and Old Favorites

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of July’s selections.

SCORECARD

July
4 down, 19 to go!

REVIEWS

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Walker’s first novel has been compared to The Lovely Bones, another elegy for a lost childhood.

One Saturday morning, just before soccer practice, 11-year-old Julia’s entire world is upended. At this age, everything feels like a catastrophe – from break-ups with BFFs and crushes on boys to parental betrayals – and she’ll have to go through those traumas, too, but on this day, Julia is just one of billions whose life on Earth changes, literally and irrevocably, by the slowing of the planet’s orbit.

Some of Julia’s friends turn to religion, other families stay on “real time,” rather than “clock time,” as the days gain minutes and then hours, stretching to 30 hours and beyond, followed by equally long, frosty nights. Birds, whales and even people succumb to “gravity sickness.”

There is some hoarding and looting, but mostly folks cling to ordinary life and hope things will go back to normal. This means Julia enters middle school on schedule and has to cope with everything that adolescence (the Age of Miracles of the title) brings with it, including loneliness.

“Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.”

The one person who seems to understand her is Seth, the boy she has a crush on, but he’s experienced a personal catastrophe, which leaves him standoffish, serious and a bit morbid.

“We collected the neighborhood’s last blades of grass. We kept the final flowering of daisies, of marigolds, of honeysuckle. We pressed petals between the pages of dictionaries. We lined our shelves with relics from our time. Look here, we pictured saying someday, this one we called maple, this one magnolia, this aspen, this oak. On dark days, Seth drew maps of the constellations as if those bodies, too, might soon fall away.”

As you can see, there’s some beautiful writing in this novel. There are also some real clunkers, especially at the beginning:

“Bare of the glasses, his eyes always looked squinty to me, and too small.”

“I was glad to be sitting in a classroom full of kids who had none of them been at the bus stop.”

“At the appointed hour, my alarm clock exploded.” (It rang loudly.)

Basic science is discarded in favor of lyricism:

Describing the astronauts stranded on a space station because of the slowing: “They’d been away for ten months, the last humans left who had not yet experienced a day longer than twenty-four hours.” (Well, no. Space stations don’t simply float around in space, they orbit the earth, like satellites, yet none of these man-made heavenly bodies apparently is affected by the change in gravity from the slowing Earth. Nor are insects. Only birds.)

Later, when the Earth’s magnetic fields weaken and sunlight brings risk of radiation exposure, no one goes out during the day again. So it was odd to read that, weeks later, Julia spies Seth’s tan stomach.

Simple editing and scientific fact-checking would have gone a long way to making this book more accurate. The story also would have benefited from a bit more extrapolation: it moves along on the rather unbelievable premise that there is no panic, rioting, looting, or war as food supplies dwindle, huge swaths of territory grow arid and water dries up.

Ultimately, Julia, at far too young an age, becomes a lot like her octogenarian grandfather. The story sings when these two are together, each locked in a house of memento mori.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
When Ephron passed away June 26, many news stories credited her as the ultimate Hollywood hyphenate: screenwriter-director. Growing up as one of four talented daughters of two screenwriters, this second career was probably inevitable. But, she started out as a journalist and essayist, and a darn good one, too.

After learning the news of her death, I immediately pulled this essay collection off my bookshelf and began re-reading. This is one of the books I cherished as a journalism student, learning about literary journalism and magazine writing.

More than a salad, this book is a smorgasbord of subjects that were buzzing around the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The fact that they were buzzing was thanks to Nora Ephron’s brilliant observations about Linda Lovelace, Dorothy Parker, breasts, Gloria Steinem, bake-offs, feminine hygiene, sex fantasies and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to name a few.

It was quite funny to realize that Ephron gave Sally Allbright in “When Harry Met Sally…” her own sexual fantasy. And to read again about consciousness raising, encounter groups and The Rap (not a type of hip-hop, but a very formal-sounding way of describing “rapping,” also known as “letting it all hang out”). I was going to say this is what people did before reality TV, but ever ahead of her time, Ephron includes a discussion of the Louds, the family with “no selectivity index whatsoever” when it came to letting it all hang out in the spotlight.

Ephron is up front with her concern about reporters “getting really involved in what they were writing about.” But, one reason she was hired by Esquire and New York magazines was to represent what women were thinking, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the American psyche.

“I would still hate to be described as a participatory journalist,” she writes in one essay, “but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict…ever since I became loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it.”

Personally, I think Ephron’s honesty about some of the divisions in the women’s movement, between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for example, is what keeps this book relevant some 37 years after it was published.

She allows everyone their say and if sometimes people hang themselves out to dry, Ephron lets them do it in their own voices, on their own terms. And, with a sharp wit, she lets you know what she’s thinking about it all, too. (Like the brief fad among consciousness-raising groups for – this is as delicately as I can put it – bodily self-examination, about which Ephron sighs, “It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge.”)

She aims her wit at anti-feminists, as well, penning excellent pieces on the man who brought feminine-hygiene sprays to market, the porn industry that corrupted Linda Lovelace, and Bobby Riggs, among others.

According to Entertainment Weekly, which wrote a moving tribute on Ephron’s legacy, Crazy Salad is “tragically out of print and unavailable as an e-book.” Ephron died at 71, having written six essay collections, 13 screenplays, plays and the novel Heartburn. Her latest collections, 2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, shared her thoughts on aging.

I’m sorry we won’t have Ephron’s insights and humor to get us through the crazy salad days ahead. But, gosh, it was delicious tucking in to this well-worn book again.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I had the opportunity to hear Didion speak at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hamshire, in late June, and combined Didion’s comments on writing with a few thoughts about her latest memoir in a previous post, “A Blue Night with Joan Didion.”

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.