Time for the roundup of this month’s great books. I liked and I recommend:
No novels this time. That’s interesting…
We Two tells the story of the marriage of Queen Victoria of England and her husband, Prince (never King!) Albert, starting with the childhoods and complicated family trees of both and ending with the death of the prince, who apparently wore himself out being the stay-home dad for nine children (no worries, he had plenty of help!) while putting his nose into political business he should have left to his able and more astute wife.
The marriage, although heavily engineered by family, national, and political interests, was a success by all accounts and Queen Victoria strangely but perhaps understandably considering the general Zeitgeist chose to defer to her husband for most domestic decisions and even state decisions, even when she had the power to act independently (in the political sphere) or disagreed (in the domestic sphere). The book must have taken a lot of research since Queen Victoria left only heavily censored diaries which were further obscured by her daughter. Still it does a great job of painting a couple who had to live in a fishbowl, who managed to create a reasonably intimate home life for them and their children, and who reacted against the excesses of their elders in ways that seem sound, modern, and not at all repressed as “Victorians” are wont to be. I would have liked to hear more about the destiny of all the children but of course the focus was on the marriage, and Albert died rather young.
The End of Overeating makes exactly to points: one, that we human beings are preconditioned to love sugar, fat, and salt (and even more a combination of the three, preferably packaged as something that needs little to no chewing) and two, that food manufacturers and restaurant chains know this well and have evolved to create foods that deliver the miraculous trio in quantities that are more than sufficient to create obesity problems.
It’s not clear why we need 250 pages to learn that — perhaps it’s because the 250 pages are mostly packaged in three- or four-page chapters, the equivalent of little or no chewing? In any case, we apparently should preplan our meals and practice resisting those bad foods to keep to our ideal weight. Who knew?
Death of a River Guide tells the story of, well, a dying river guide. Aljaz Cosini is drowning in a Tasmanian river, trying to save a tourist from the swollen water, and as he dies he tells the complicated story of his family (over 300 pages worth, which made me think of those opera characters that sing long arias while dying, but in a good way.)
The story is quite complicated and occasionally hard to follow as it jumps between multiple generations on two continents but it’s quite satisfying both as a family saga, complete with wars and rapes and babies dying, and also as an interesting angle of what it’s like to be an outdoor adventure guide, although it would have been nice to develop the characters of the tourists a little better. An interesting, although bleak look at Tasmania.
I picked up Face to Face because I thought it would be interesting to hear about what it takes to do face transplants and how patients recover from such an ordeal — and I did not quite get what I had bargained for. I did read, ad nauseam, about how smart and hard working Maria Siemionow is, and how dedicated, selfless, and scrupulously honest with the ethics commission all surgeons are (yeah, right). I must say that she does a great job of explaning why face transplants are so complicated, which is a feat since it requires so many visual details. But there’s little warmth in the book.
Wedlock is the story of fabulously rich Eleanor Bowes, who, after finding herself widowed at age 24 (with five children!), has a good time with several overlapping boyfriends and haplessly marries one, thinking he’s dying for her when in fact he had staged the duel that seemed to be killing him (yes, it’s 1777). She then embarks on a horrible second marriage as a battered woman since her new husband is a vicious abuser and she happened to have lost all her civil rights by marrying him, as was the case for all women in England at that time — and probably most of the world.
After fantastic adventures and many years of cruel treatment, the least of which is her complete estrangement from her children, she manages to escape him and successfully sues him for divorce, helped only by her servants, almost all female. And she promptly finds a married man who doesn’t say he’s married to hang out with. So she had terrible taste. But thank goodness the laws have evolved to protect women better, although it took time, as described in The Sealed Letter.
What could be better than a book that provides a rational explanation of why it’s good to contribute to charity? Infortunately, The Life You Can Save doesn’t quite reach its goal and alternates between a shaming exercise of various well-known rich folks who really should be a little more generous (Larry Ellison, Paul Allen) and… many reasons why we can’t really trust charities to spend our money properly. By the end, I was rooting for Ellison to buy another yacht — I kid, but the book just did not work for me.
Heroic Measures tells the story of an elderly New York couple who is trying to sell their current apartment and buy a new one with an elevator while coping with their dachshund’s medical problems and a potential terrorist attack. There’s a valiant effort to write some chapters from the point of view of the dachshund — not a terribly successful effort since, after all, dachshunds are not the great thinkers of the universe, and the ritualistic playing of the bidders for the apartment one against another is both boring and grating.
Maybe this book would be more interesting to an animal lover?
Our Lot tells the same story as Busted, reviewed here yesterday, with more details, without the personal angle (except for a glimpse), and with a combative, how-could-the-government-and-big-business-stick-it-to-the-little-people tone that I found annoying, even making me wonder whether, a few years ago, the complaint would not have been that said government and big business were conspiring to prevent the little people from owning a piece of the American dream.
Read Busted instead.
Written by a New York Times economics editor, Busted is the twin story of the editor’s descent into foreclosure after a very foolish house purchase and the housing market’s descent into meltdown. On the personal side, a newly-divorced, wanting to remarry professional wants a real home and closes his eyes has he signs more and more improbable loan agreements while he knows very well that he cannot both pay the mortgage and his child-support payments — or perhaps he could, if he did not also have to feed the children under his roof, pay the phone bill, or buy any clothes. The personal stories can be painful at times but they keep a human dimension for the larger story, while highlighting how even people who should know better — and we are talking here about someone who had professional access to Alan Greenspan and the heads of assorted banks and mortgage companies — got sucked into the great lie of never-ending home price increases. As he discussed with his mortgage broker, he knew very well that after the teaser rate he would not be able to pay the mortgage at all, but “don’t worry: the value of the house will be higher in five years and you’ll refinance.” Not so.
The larger story is told with just the right amount of details so the lay reader can understand clearly what happened. It is an eloquent discussion of how the capitalist system can go very, very wrong. Anyone who could make a buck (or a billion) jumped in to the housing market and pretty soon the fact that the majority of home loans being made were so-called liars’ loans, in which borrowers simply “state” their income with no verification whatsoever, stopped to be of concern to “the market”, with horrible consequences to come.
I recommend this book as a personal and highly understandable story of the housing bubble.