Sunday, May 5, 2013

April Reading (and Television Viewing)

April was not a great month for me for reading, at least in terms of volume.  In fact, looking back on the month, I'm a little shocked to find that I only finished four books last month.   Here they are:

1.  Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg.   I wanted to read this book but I also needed to read it because the women at my firm decided to have a discussion about it at a brown bag lunch one day. And it turned out to be great discussion.

While I think that any woman could read this book and get something out of it, it clearly isn't directed to all women. Sandberg is pretty up front about that.   It will appeal more to women who see themselves in a career rather than a job, and will especially appeal to women like me who made the decision early on to climb some kind of ladder - either because that is what drives them or, like me, because I am in a career that is "up or out" (i.e. you either keep rising or you are asked to leave). Women whose priorities in life are not, and may never be, related to their job may not find themselves as interested in this book.

Our work discussion was great because all the women in the group were lawyers committed to practicing law for the rest of our lives.  While some have young children and have cut back on their hours temporarily, they do not see that as taking them off the career path (indeed it can't because, as I say, law firm life is generally "up or out" still, no matter how much people may deny that it still is).  These women fully expect to return to full time work when their kids are older.  And all of us, whether we have children or not, face the same issues during the work day.  When I say we discussed the book, it would be more accurate to say that we used the book as a jumping off place to discuss the many issues that we face every day in our work day. 

Sandberg does fill the book with a lot of helpful data (backed up by many pages of footnotes).  None of it was news to me but it was helpful to have it all in one place written in accessable language.  I found myself wishing that some of the MEN in my organization would read the book so that they could more fully understand what the women are up against from an institutional point of view.

I've read a lot of reviews of the book.  The negative reviews mostly seem to complain that it isn't a different book.  Many wished  that Sandberg had spent more time discussing how to change institutional barriers (and reviewers who say that she doesn't discuss them at all are totally off base - in fact, I found myself wondering if some of the people who wrote negatively about the book had even read the book.  Sandberg manages to touch on almost everything, she just doesn't explore everything).

This is definitely a book that focuses on women taking control of what they can control and helping them with some strategies for that.   That appeals to me and I found it appealed very much to the women in our discussion group.  But then, it would.  Women who go to law school tend to be self-starters, very independent, and, most of all, pragmatic.   We recognize that institutional barriers exist (oh trust me, we recognize it all the time) but, in the meantime, while we wait and hope and work toward removing them, we have to get on with our own careers.  Talking in practical terms about what we can do in the here-and-now to help those careers is always welcome.

I've gone back to one of reading groups I had temporarily dropped out of and they will be discussing this book next month.  It will be interesting to compare the discussions.  I recommend this book. 

2.   Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.   As I said, I've returned to one of my reading groups and this was their choice this month.  I know that I've read Cannery Row before, many many years ago when I was on a John Steinbeck kick.  But I really didn't remember it, so it was all new to me.  I had a recollection that I loved the way Steinbeck wrote and wondered if I would feel the same 20 or 30 years later.  I did.  This novel is a series of vignettes of the people (most of whom are down on their luck but don't see it that way) living in a California coastal town whose main employer is the fish (sardine) canneries.   Not that any of these people work for the canneries except occasionally when they really need money. There isn't much in the way of plot, which is fine with me.  Lots of characterization - Steinbeck makes me think well of people who, if I met them in real life, I'd probably run away from.  And, oh how he can string together sentences.    Recommended.   Although if you've never read any Steinbeck, I'd recommend Grapes of Wrath instead.

3.  Ancient Lights, by John Banville.   I've been reading this through my NOOK app for a few months now.  It took me a long time to finish even though it is not a long book, partly because I used it as my lunchtime reading and I didn't have much time for lunch reading but also because I wanted to read it slowly.  Like Steinbeck, Banville is an expert at stringing together sentences.  I found myself re-reading paragraphs, sometimes aloud, just for the joy of his language (another reason it was hard to read at lunch unless I was alone).  There is, again, not much of a plot.   The book is written as a stream of consciousness memoir by an older character remembering the sexual relationship he had as a young boy with the mother of a friend of his (which at first gave me pause) combined with his more or less present day writing about a film he is in (he is an actor) and his thoughts on the death by suicide of his daughter.   I didn't realize until I reached the notes at the end that this novel is the third of a trilogy.  I might go back and read the first two books.  Recommended.

4.  Arcadia by Lauren Groff.   When I first started practicing law I worked with a woman who had lived in a commune in the 1970's.  I never talked about it with her, other people told me.  I remember thinking "How horrible.  I would never want to live in a commune." This novel about a boy who grows up in a commune in upstate New York was not, therefore, something that I expected to really find myself relating to.   And I didn't.  Groff did keep my interest through the first two sections which covered the main character's childhood and adolescence at the commune.  But it was downhill for me from there.  The third part takes place years later after the commune fell apart and his own marriage has fallen apart.  Since I couldn't see the joy of communal living and certainly didn't see the appeal of the character's missing unstable former drug addict wife, I kept waiting for him to come to his senses and just move on. The fourth part takes place in an apocalyptic near-future when the climate has changed so much that some food is no longer available and some kind of flu is wiping out much of the population.  I think it was 2018 (which I found hard to buy into since that is right around the corner).  I disliked that section intensely in terms of plot and characters.

Groff writes well which is why I kept going.  And I can't say that her characters were caricatures - she made them very real to me.  And she certainly didn't portray the commune as a utopia, nor did she portray it as a terrible place (at least not until the end).  Her portrayal seemed even handed to me.  The truth is that I have, and have always had, a viscerally negative reaction to the kind of people are most likely to think living in a commune is a good thing and especially to the kind of character who, after escaping from one, would actually miss it.  That's really just me and not a problem with Groff.  So while I can't recommend this novel since I mostly just wanted it to be over by the last part, people who don't have the kinds of issues I have might enjoy it.

And that was it for April.  One of the reasons I read fewer books was because I became caught up in a number of television series.  Oddly, all of them were on cable and I don't have cable.   But the descriptions intrigued me enough that I bought iTunes season passes for them.  They included:  (1)  Spies of Warsaw, based on a novel by Alan Furst that I read last year; (2) Top of the Lake, an original Sundance Channel series directed by Jane Campion, set in New Zealand and starring Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter; (3) Vikings, an original scripted drama from The History Channel (!) about, well, Vikings and based on Scandinavian sagas about Ragnor Lothboke; (4) Doctor Who ('nuff said); (5) Orphan Black an original BBC America series about a group of human clones all played by Tatiana Maslany; and (6) Defiance, set in a post-apocalyptic, post-alien invasion, St. Louis (how could I not watch it, if only to see how they kept the Arch still standing despite missing a chunk). I enjoyed and recommend all of them.

I wasn't wild about the novel Spies of Warsaw when I read it, I thought it moved kind of slowly and didn't have a real ending.  The television show is much better (and has more plot than the novel; I think I read somewhere that the screenwriters also used parts of other Furst novels), although it still moves slowly and doesn't have a real ending.   Top of the Lake reminded me a bit of Twin Peaks.  It was full of odd characters and, in many ways, the actual solution to the mystery wasn't all that important - although it did manage a few surprises for me at the end. 

I truly loved Vikings and am thrilled it is coming back next year.  It is violent but not gratuitously so - after all it's about ... Vikings!  Someday, someone should adapt Dorothy Dunnet's epic novel King Hereafter as a series.  It takes place about 200 years after this television show, during the late days of the Vikings, after Scandinavia becomes nominally Christian.

Of all the shows I've watched, the one I can't stop telling people to watch is Orphan Black.  Tatiana Maslany is doing amazing work playing human clones who look alike but have completely different personalities (including characters impersonating other characters).   In a just world she would get an Emmy.  And the story is odd and entertaining. I regularly think that this series is what Dollhouse should have been and wonder if Joss Whedon is watching it.  I might write about it when it is over.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Defiance has just started and while it seems somewhat derivative of other science fiction shows, I love this kind of science fiction.  Hopefully, once the writers set the stage and establish all the characters it can develop a unique voice.  And they still haven't explained the Arch fix yet.

Doctor Who - well,  Doctor Who.  :)