Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food is the memoir of a long-time food critic at the New York Times, which should be a fun and well-informed story. Alas, the ego of the author needs to show its size on a frequent basis — and remind us, among other facts, that he went to Harvard (as another obnoxious character reviewed here did, must be something in the waters of Cambridge, MA) and inexplicably was not hired there as a professor. This is not to say that the book is not interesting, whether the author crisscrosses France to eat at great classic restaurants, or the US to look for great local eats, or even that the author does not display considerable charm and wit when describing his adventures. But he is so pleased with himself!
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story is the autobiography of a woman who raised baby elephants (whose mothers had been killed by poachers) as well as a large menagerie of various exotic animals in Kenya. Beside the story of her animals, she also describes her own life, sometimes in startlingly candid details, as well as the transition of Kenya from British colony to an independent country, viewed through her family’s travails and those of the vast national reserves where her husband worked. I found the stories of the park and the animals captivating and often charming, as well as reminiscent of the Alexandra Fuller’s books. The personal stories I did not care for so much.
There is something rather charming about The Imperfect Environmentalist: A Practical Guide to Clearing Your Body, Detoxing Your Home, and Saving the Earth (Without Losing Your Mind), and that’s the completely unpretentious format of each entry, giving a short summary of what we can do easily to be greener, followed by a technical explanation of why, and then amusing vignettes of what the very rich can do vs. the budget-constrained. The problem is that each dilemma is presented on its own, without any context between them. So it makes it appear as is recycling the innards of toilet paper rolls is on par with cutting down on air travel, or taking care of pets — no reflection whatsoever on what may be truly detrimental to the environment or not, not to mention what could be cut out entirely versus not. The result reads like a quick book for a quick buck.
Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love attempts to measure and rate the ethical conduct of six companies, ranging from Apple to Tom’s of Maine. I must admit that I was puzzled by the book. First, it’s not clear how the author chose the six companies. I suppose that Tom’s of Maine or perhaps Timberland would qualify as having an ethical bend from the start but Apple? Starbucks?? But going with the program I ploughed through the description and ratings and guess what: Timberland uses leather in its boots, which means that perhaps animals are killed for this. Who knew?
The main lesson front he book is that the marketing vibe of companies may not quite match what’s happening inside. Again, who knew?
Snapper is the unpretentious story of a man who finds a living as a bird researcher, traipsing through the wilds of the Midwest listening for songbirds. His attempts at a romantic life are difficult and funnily rendered. The novel is, at times, as awkward as its hero, but heart-warming.
For the first two thirds of The Rest of Us, a no-longer-so-young woman pines after an older man, a college professor of hers with who she had a passionate affair while in college. For the last third, the two improbably resume a relationship, at first cautious but soon close, and the author manages to pack a soap opera’s worth of intrigue, including a baby and a death. Critics lauded the book as a second-chance story, which it certainly is, but I found it very challenging to care for the vapid worries of the beginning of the book, and equally challenging to accept the torrent of events in the end, despite the careful and accomplished writing.
The Amish is an often ponderously written description of the Amish communities in the US, with a focus on the wide variety of practices and customs, since each community can and does define its own rules. Beyond buggies and bonnets, the authors explain how the Amish define what parts of the modern world they want to embrace, what to reject, and what to accommodate.
In addition to the occasionally jargon-laden language mentioned above, the poor quality of the graphics and the love for detailed data tables that could be advantageously replaced by graphics (if only good graphics could indeed be created!) detract from the overall experience. So is a puzzling need to defend all things Amish. I’m willing to admit that women do have a strong voice in Amish communities, or that Amish schools are very successful, but why should the author try to evade the fact that Amish society is patriarchal, with no leadership roles for women, or that depriving all children from a high-school education may indeed deprive children of an important way to exercise their intellectual curiosity?
Still, a great book to delve into the lives of a group that has managed to grow manyfold, and successfully, in the past 50 years.