Monthly Archives: April 2010

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace

2009. 208 pages. Hardcover. Doubleday.

From: The Public Library

For the challenge: Take a Chance: All in the Family challenge

In a nutshell:

I was aware of Ayelet Waldman for her now famous 2005 New York Times article where she stated that she loved her husband more than her children: “Truly, Madly, Guiltily”.  After starting Bad Mother, I realized I’d never read that article myself, so I went back to it.  I recommend reading the article before reading Bad Mother as Waldman refers to it several times in the book, and you’ll want to know what she’s talking about.

In the article, Waldman muses that she might be considered a “bad mother” because her husband is still the center of her world, not replaced by her children.  In Bad Mother, Waldman expands upon the concept of the “bad mother.”  She tells stories about her own experiences with motherhood, her efforts to be at least a “good enough” mother.


I am nowhere near having kids right now, but as I observe relatives and friends starting families, it makes me think about what I would be like as a mother.  I am aware of the impossible standards that have been set for mothers by society.  Waldman calls this type of society the Bad Mother police: strangers ready to reprimand you in public for any slip in the perfect mother composure, online commenters in mommy forums, mothers of your children’s playmates and classmates.  Motherhood is scary enough and then one has to worry about being constantly judged on your parenthood choices. Waldman herself admits to times when she has been unjustly judgmental of other mothers.

The primary strength of Bad Mother is in Waldman’s often startling and articulate honesty about her experiences and feelings.  She opens the door to a discussion of motherhood that is not about finger-pointing but about sharing one’s struggles.  From her battles with being bi-polar and a mother to her feelings about her mother-in-law, she has really laid herself open.  The chapter “Rocketship” is particularly personal as she describes her and her husband’s decision to have an abortion when an amniocentesis reveals a genetic defect in their third child.  It’s a chapter that deserves to be mulled over, no matter where you stand on the issue of abortion.

One of the best parts of Bad Mother for me was her discussion of household labor.  I had heard statistics on this before and Waldman also presents them, but basically, even when the wife and husband both have full-time paying jobs, the wife usually ends up spending much more time doing housework than the husband.  It is hard to condense here, but Waldman writes fantastically about how equal sharing of housework is beneficial to both marriage partners.  My favorite quote: “There is nothing sexier to a woman with children than a man holding a Swiffer.”

I also liked Waldman’s chapter, “So Ready to Be the Mother of a Loser” where she realizes that she has been ready to have her children go through the same ostracism that she did, but it turns out they are well-adjusted and liked at school.  It throws her for a loop.  I was so happy to hear her talk about this because I’ve wondered what one does when your child has a completely different childhood experience from your own.

I am not like Ayelet Waldman in many ways – in stage of life, in some opinions and perspectives – but I find her account of motherhood in Bad Mother to be both encouraging and thought-provoking.  It’s a book I expect I’ll be referencing in future conversations.

Other reviews:

Booksie’s Blog

Find Your Next Book Here

From My Front Porch Looking In


Filed under Book Review, Non-Fiction

Teaser Tuesday: Bad Mother

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

My teaser is from Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.  To give some context for the teaser, Waldman has learned that her children are playing dodgeball at school and is recalling her own experiences with dodgeball.

I remember quaking under the gaze of a huge blond girl who even then I knew was destined to consider eighth grade as the apogee of her life.  She smiles, heaves back her strong arm, and whales the ball.

p. 105


Filed under Uncategorized

Dead Run by P. J. Tracy

2005. 324 pages. Hardcover. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense

In a nutshell:

This is the third book in the Monkeewrench series, authored by a mother-daughter writing team that goes under the name P. J. Tracy.  The series is set in the Twin Cities mostly, with forays into Wisconsin.  The Monkeewrench gang consists of a team of odd tech wizards, led by the tough, wary Grace MacBride.  In the first book, the gang got tangled up with a police investigation of a serial murderer.  This brought in Minneapolis detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, Wisconsin sheriff Mike Halloran, his deputies Bonar Carlson, and Sharon Mueller.  While the Wisconsin crew was absent for the events of the second book Live Bait (and they were missed!) they return in this third thriller.

In Dead Run, the Monkeewrench team has been traveling the country, donating the use of a profiling software to police departments.  Sharon Mueller, now working with the FBI, has called in a favor with the team to help out with a case in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  While Sharon, Grace, and Annie (one of the Monkeewrench people) are traveling in Wisconsin, they get stranded in a remote part of the state.  They walk into the village of Four Corners, but all the residents are eerily missing.  Something has gone very wrong, and the three women soon find themselves in survival mode.  Meanwhile, their colleagues and friends, a couple of whom have romantic attachments to the women, are desperately trying to find them.


Dead Run is definitely an intense thriller from the beginning, when the reader is given an unsettling snapshot of Four Corners’ quick transformation into a ghost town.  The creepy atmosphere and danger faced by Grace, Annie and Sharon pulled me right in.

There’s an interesting dynamic to the book as all the main female characters are together and all the main male characters band together to search for them.  The authors are definitely aware of this dynamic and emphasize that this is not a damsels-in-distress story.  The women are not perfect, but they are highly resourceful and pool together their strengths and intelligence to try and stay alive and figure out what’s going on. When the guys do arrive, it’s not so much a rescue as a reuniting of a team for the purpose of defeating an impending disaster.

I really enjoy the tone and style of P. J. Tracy.  They manage to have a wicked sense of humor even while being quite capable of ratcheting up the suspense.  (For a sample of their humor, Exhibit A is the first page of Live Bait.)

I find the characters immensely likable.  I was especially happy to see Mike Halloran and Sharon Mueller back as they were my favorites from the first book.  Still, I can’t say that character development is the series’ strong suit.  I didn’t walk away from Dead Run feeling like I knew the characters much better.  I did appreciate seeing the enigmatic Grace through the eyes of Sharon and Annie as that did give some nuance to her.

There was a Goodreads reviewer who gave the book one star because she was annoyed by how all the female characters had some traumatic backstory and also how the bad guys constantly underestimate the women because they are women.  I bring up this review because I noticed these two things as well.  I did find the women’s flashbacks jarring and they took me out of the story.  I also thought the authors included a few too many instances where men (both good and bad) make snide, snap judgments about the women’s abilities and motivations.  In some instances it worked quite well, but in others it seemed less natural and more like the authors were trying too hard to make a point.  However, unlike the other reviewer, for me these were minor distractions from what was overall a worthy, exciting thriller.  I am definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series.


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

2008. 294 pages. Hardcover. Pantheon Books.

From: The Public Library

Recommended by: A Life in Books

For the challenge: What’s In A Name? (musical term)

In a nutshell:

Lavender “La” Stone is an ordinary woman whose marriage falls apart right before World War II breaks out.  She moves from London to a house in the country.  She joins in several home-front initiatives to support the war effort.  One of these initiatives is an orchestra, which joins together villagers and men from the nearby military base.  A Polish airman attracts her attention, but all of La’s relationships including this one, are tested by the demands of war.


A back-jacket blurb from The Scotsman states that McCall Smith’s character portrait of La is “[a]n excellent re-creation of a woman of her time.”  I have to agree with this.  It’s refreshing to have a character who is somewhat blinkered by her societal upbringing.  La is optimistic about the war’s outcome, but it comes off as naiveté to the other characters, rather than as miraculous foresight.  Though a generally trusting person by nature, she is influenced by the tense atmosphere of the times, where the public was regularly cautioned about possible enemies in their midst.  Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the betrayal of her husband is probably to blame for her shaken trust in others.

I enjoyed seeing the development of La’s relationships to the other characters, especially the arthritic farmer who she helps as part of the war effort, her friend Tim, and the Agg family.

I was expecting more of a romantic plotline between La and Feliks, the Polish airman, based on the book jacket’s summary.  However, as the book unfolds, I realized that it’s more about La’s conflicted feelings about Feliks than on the development of a romantic storyline.  And that seemed more in tune with the subdued nature of the book.

It’s a quiet book about a quiet life.  Plenty of things happen, but they are not epic or dashing.  It’s a home-front story about regrets, hopes and small victories.  I would describe it also as a contained story.  It doesn’t go off on rabbit trails but stays solidly on La.  I did appreciate the way the book highlighted the Polish contribution to the British war effort, and particularly on the subsequent feelings of betrayal when Poland was ‘given’ over to Russia.

Though it’s not a book that made a deep impression on me, I enjoyed it well enough.  If you like the time period and setting, it’s worth checking out.

Other reviews:

See link above for A Life In Books review

Bookworm with a View (finds it similar to Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society)

Hope is the Word

Rebecca’s Reading Rants and Raves

Sparks’ Notes


Filed under Historical Fiction

Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin

2001. 213 pages. Hardcover. Random House. 

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Gaskella

In a nutshell:

Murray Tepper is a middle-aged denizen of New York City who works in the direct mail business and has recently started the habit of reading a newspaper in his parked car.  However, he doesn’t need to park on the street as he pays for a garage.

This odd habit bewilders his family and also attracts the attention of strangers.  Other drivers are confused and angry that he is not leaving the spot that they want.  Members of the public find him either eccentric or a heroic figure: someone who is asserting his constitutional rights, someone who is somehow ‘sticking it to the man’.  People seek him as one does a guru, and they sit in his car and tell them about their problems.  The mayor, who finds hailing taxis from the street an act of anarchy, claims that Tepper is purposefully causing chaos.  Tepper himself is a calm, placid enigma at the center of the hubbub.


I don’t read a lot of comic novels, so this book was a nice change of pace from my usual reading material.  It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is slyly humorous throughout the story.  The comedy lies in how Trillin takes mundane things like parking or the direct mail business and makes them the main focal point of characters’ energy and strong opinions.

The mayor in particular is a figure of ridiculousness. He institutes a level of security in the city hall that is at a paranoid level, and fixates on parking as the root of all the city’s ills.

The mayor sat staring into the middle distance for a while, occasionally muttering a word like “fool” or “degenerate,” like a motor that is basically about out of fuel but is still coughing a bit irregularly.

There were some comic bits that didn’t work well for me, such as a repeating joke involving a sushi restaurant, but the best parts were those involving Tepper himself and the ongoing parking saga.  The punchline at the end, which ties together the parking and the direct mail themes, was clever.  Tepper is made to be a folk hero by most characters but the end hints at a possible different interpretation, leaving it to the reader to make the final judgment.

This is not a book I can necessarily rave about but it was pleasant and enjoyable, and makes me think I should try more straight-up comic novels in the future.

Other reviews:


No Charge Bookbunch

Puss Reboots

The book is also one of Thomas from My Porch’s all-time favorite books.


Filed under Book Review

Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll

1999. 292 pages. Hardcover. Houghton Mifflin.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Biodiversity Challenge

In a nutshell:

David M. Carroll is a naturalist and artist who resides in New Hampshire.  Since childhood, he has had a love for the wetlands.  I did not know this until after I’d finished the book, but Swampwalker’s Journal is the third of what Carroll calls his “wet-sneaker” trilogy.  The first two books are The Year of the Turtle and Trout Reflections.  In Swampwalker’s Journal, he records field observations of the creatures and plants in the wetland ecosystems near where he lives.  He uses these observations to underscore how much would be lost and has been lost by human destruction of the wetlands.  The book is divided according to wetland type: vernal pools, marshes, swamps, ponds, floodplains, bogs and fens.


I love reading non-fiction, but I can’t deny that it is often a slower reading experience than reading fiction, especially when it is so dense with detailed observations and facts as Swampwalker’s Journal.  The reward of such a reading experience is the deepened understanding of wetlands and the creatures that live in them.  Also, I feel smarter.

I am not one who is driven to cross oceans or continents . . . “Here and now” is a ruling concept for me, and I seldom stray from familiar places. p. 173

Carroll’s years among the wetlands are clearly evident in the book.  He makes a point of seeing the first salamander migrations of spring.  He treks to ponds hoping to see the first of the turtle hatchlings.  He knows where to find animal burrows and nests.  And yet, it is a pleasure to see how nature continues to puzzle and surprise him.  As he says at another point in the book:

I do not look for human meanings out here; one who looks for human meanings in nature will never see nature. p. 44

When I first started the book, I was a bit daunted by Carroll’s paragraphs about plant life.  Though his writing is not dry, I found it hard to picture what he was describing sometimes and lists of plant types and names meant little to me.  Where the book shines is in Carroll’s ability to show wetland creatures as individuals.  He’s not anthropomorphizing them, but his encounters do imbue them with personality.

The moment I was hooked was when I read Carroll’s description of a wood frog in distress.  This happens on about page 10.  The account begins when Carroll hears a pathetic cry in the night and he is surprised to see that it is coming from this little wood frog which is being laboriously dragged away by a small snake.  In this instance, Carroll frees the frog because he judges from experience that this snake cannot possibly eat a frog of that size.  And Carroll muses on the fact that wood frogs are generally a silent species, but this one was compelled to cry out.  What could it gain by crying out?  Frogs do not come to each other’s rescue.  Carroll concludes: “And yet, in the face of unfathomable unhearing, life cries out at times.”

The book is threaded with these kinds of up-close interactions from turtle hatchlings, to beavers, to even a bear.  Carroll rarely intercedes as he does with that wood frog, but it’s interesting to see when he does decide to break the role of observer.

This is not a book I would recommend to someone who has never read nature writing before, but if wetlands and/or frogs, turtles and salamanders interest you, then it is definitely a worthwhile read. And don’t just take my word for it.  The book’s cover listed praise from such authors as Bill McKibben, Annie Dillard and Sue Hubbell.  It also won the John Burroughs Medal for Best Natural History in 2001.

For another review, see:

Willow House Chronicles (includes nice photos of the variety of wetlands)


Filed under Non-Fiction

Library Loot: April 7th

This Library Loot is actually from a couple of trips.  It’s mostly young adult novels and one short novel because I still have longer books hanging around from earlier loots.  Also, I have Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman out from the university library and it keeps getting passed over in favor of the books with imminent public library due dates.

So here is my loot!

Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin – I heard about this book via Gaskella.  It sounds like a light, fun read about a guy who likes to read the paper in his parked car and because it is New York City and his parking spots happen to be desirable, this simple action causes consternation and admiration from fellow NYC denizens.

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean – The teenage protagonist has obsessed with the Antarctic as is her uncle, but when he takes her on a journey to that continent, it is a tale about survival.  This was also a recommendation from a book blog – The Bluestocking Society.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson – I have seen rave reviews for this one everywhere.  A seventeen-year-old girl wakes from a yearlong coma and slowly has to piece together her memories and happened after the accident that put her in the coma.

Enna Burning by Shannon Hale – This is the sequel to Hale’s Goose Girl which I enjoyed.  This follows the path of a supporting character from the first novel.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva and Marg.


Filed under Library Loot

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

2006. 372 pages. Hardcover.

From: The public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense Challenge

In a nutshell:

In 1985, a string of three murders in D.C. indicate the work of a serial killer.  The victims are all children and they become known as the Palindrome Murders, as all the victims’ names are palindromes. The murders are never solved.  In the present-day, a teenager is murdered in a manner that recalls the Palindrome Murders.  Some wonder if it’s the same killer resurfacing again.


This is the first book that I’ve read by George Pelecanos, though I’ve seen the first season of HBO’s The Wire, where he was one of the writers.  It was not the author’s television credentials that drew me to The Night Gardener, however, but rather the fact that it is a non-political D.C-based thriller.

Pelecanos clearly knows the area well, much more than I do.  I live in the Maryland suburbs and my knowledge of the District proper is more limited.  So at first, I was impatient with Pelecanos’ level of setting detail.  It almost seemed that he wanted the reader to plot out character movements on a map.  Here’s a random sample:

Conrad Gaskins came out of a clinic located beside a church off Minnesota Avenue and Naylor Road, in Randle Highlands, Southeast . . . He had been up since 5:00 a.m., when he had risen and walked over to the shape-up spot on Central Avenue in Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

To be fair, Pelecanos does not just name-check street names and locations.  He describes the type of neighborhood it is, whether it’s a place that police ignore, or a place that is getting gentrified, and so on, so that you get a picture of the D.C. environs. Furthermore, that level of street-name detail came to be valued by me when Pelecanos started describing extremely familiar places in the Maryland suburbs.  One of the characters lived less than five minutes from an apartment in Greenbelt where I lived for a year.  That was fun.

So that’s my requisite ramble about setting.  The Night Gardener follows a small group of characters, most of them police.  The main character is Gus Ramone, who was a cop when the Palindrome Murders occurred.  In the present-day he works as a detective for the Violent Crimes Division of the Metropolitan Police.  I loved that Ramone was a family man and how Pelecanos showed Ramone balancing his work and family life.  It’s refreshing as usually police detectives in thrillers are unlucky in their personal lives.

Indeed, overall, The Night Gardener has fleshed-out characters.   I liked how Pelecanos used different characters to display the range of approaches toward police work.  In addition to Ramone, there is a retired police detective who gets reinvigorated by the new case’s similarity to the serial killer case which still haunts him.  There are Ramone’s fellow detectives, a few who are stand-up true partners, and some that are not quite up to par.

More than the solid characterization, the descriptions of police work feel grounded and credible.  This is a book that was engaging throughout, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner.  There is a definite climax to the story, but it’s not predictable.  What would be red herrings in another mystery are actually used as full story arcs in their own right.  They may not relate to the teenager’s murder, but that does not mean that they aren’t worth reading about.

Based on my enjoyment of The Night Gardener, I would definitely read more by this author.


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers