I loved three books this month, all very different from each other:
- A Happy Marriage, a description of a fraught and very loving long-term marriage, supposedly a work of fiction but I have my doubts about that
- Border Songs, the very sweet story of an unlikely border patrol agent
- The Woman behind the New Deal, the life story of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary who brought us Medicaid and Social Security, and came very close to bringing us universal health insurance!
A young widow and assistant prosecutor with an ambitious boss takes on a suspiciously-acting man who appears to have killed his soon-to-be ex-wife — and wins the trial, although she has her doubts on his culpability. Meanwhile, a serial murderer is planning her demise. There’s a gratuitous transplant story to boot, but it does not interfere with the nicely twisted plot. There are the usual cliches (is anyone a “sought after bachelor” anymore?) and the usual perfect details, such as the stream of consciousness ruminations of the witness’s wife who takes it all in, the young assistant prosecutor with a tragic past and her mean boss.
Just Take My Heart is a satisfying one-night read. Lock your windows and doors ahead of time, though!
Continuing my foray into scientific book I picked up Life Ascending, which promised to discuss “The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”. Cool, huh? Well, I supposed it would be if only I could understand what the author is talking about.
It all started very auspiciously because I learned something on the first page of the book, namely that in the early day of our planet a day was only five or six hours long. I suppose I should have figured this out for myself but I was so happy to have learned something so swiftly. Then, I sank. The author’s first nomination for the ten inventions is something miraculous called the Krebs cycle — and I still don’t understand what it is, which is quite pitiful since, apparently, it’s how life started. How about a little diagram perhaps? But I valiantly soldiered on to chapter 2, DNA. Clearly that has to be a great invention. But soon I encountered mysterious chemistry babble such as ” the base pairs really want to bind to each other”. OK, if you say so. Can inanimate objects want anything? And photosynthesis similarly confused me with the Z scheme (despite a diagram, but not an illuminating diagram). Fortunately the chapters became easier and easier to understand, starting with a very lovely diagram of eukaryotic cells.
I guess all my problems lie with chemistry, which is a little less than half of the book…
And two nits: it’s a good idea to get the editor to review (1) the dedication so it actually makes sense and (2) the author’s picture, which I’m sure could be swapped with a better one!
This is a very unique and strange book! One Hundred Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know claims to talk about how math explains our world — and of course math explains most things in the world, from the perspective of many mathematicians, including defrocked ones, hence I just had to read it. Instead, I found a bizarre collection of random thoughts about just about everything, from everyday odds (lots of stories about that), soccer tournament rankings, criminals, spaghetti, square wheels for bicycles, best ways to push a car, and, well, you get the idea, peppered with formulas sure to repel most of us as surely as the thought of having to take a calculus class… Strange? The author suggests that candidates to the American presidency should be able to prove the Pythagorean theorem (but not British politicians, interestingly enough, although the author is British).
To be fair, a few of the 100 stories are interesting and fun, if rather impractical. For instance, having grown up without a 25-cent coin and loving the idea of the quarter coin, I loved the discussion on the best way to set up a system of coins for a particular currency. It turns out that there are two methods, one using 1, 5, 18 and 29-cent coins and the other 1, 5, 18 and my beloved 25. Making change would be really fun with either one, huh?
A special note about pylons. I managed to get through almost 45 years of reading without reading about them but here’s the second book that mentions them in less than a month (see The Pleasures and Sorrow of Work). Clearly pylons are in vogue, at least for British authors. Remember: you read it here first.
A Short History of Women tells the stories of five generations of women who share just a couple of first names, to the great confusion of the hapless reader (me). Note to self: do not name your daughter after your mother or worse, after yourself!
In any case some of the stories are quite captivating, and in particular the story of the first woman in the book, who starves herself to death in an effort to get the right to vote for women (in nineteenth century England), leaving her children orphaned. Others seem plain silly, like the one of the contemporary mother who gets drunk on a play date with her young daughter (no worries, her drinking companion is the mother of the daughter’s friend; the children stay quite sober). It’s hard to care about the travails of that rich, stay-home, with nanny, neurotic New Yorker mom…
I thought Cold, which promises “Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places”, would be a great book to read in early Fall, while it’s still comfortably warm here. And it was, indeed, refreshing in a way, but also loaded with corpses of adventurers, school children, soldiers, divers (bring me to Maui instead!) and animals of various kinds who all perished in blizzards, avalanches, and other temperature-related accidents. How macabre. The ones that are not dead are victims of frostbite, described in excruciating and gory details. Yikes!
There are some funny moments, like the author’s caterpillars, which he freezes (but does not kill, thankfully) while he’s off travelling. And a non-political story from Wasilla, AK (of a young man who almost, but did not die of exposure.
Great book! With echoes of The Little Giant from Aberdeen County, Border Songs tells the story of a tall, dislexic, Asperger’s suffering border agent who lives with his parents, pines for the girl over the border in Canada, works as a border patrol agent, and lives to birdwatch, which brings him to out of the way locations where he finds a steady stream of immigrants and drug smugglers. Brandon is sweet, misunderstood by most, except his mom who is drowning into Alzheimer’s, and cares so little for his career successes that he readily quits when his dad falls ill and he needs to take over the dairy farm.
The story includes unlikely adventures and crazy characters entwined in a small-town community where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business — but who knew what the scoool pricinpal was up to? A wonderfully gentle book that reminded me of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, probably because of the same theme of parents’ love for their children.
Crow Planet is a strange book. It’s a book about crow behavior, but it’s also (mostly?) a book about the author’s tortured life as a depressed would-be country girl living in a large city.
The bits about the crows are interesting. Crows (which I don’t like now any more than I did before reading the book) are very intelligent who do well amongst humans. The only thing I did know before reading this book was that they recognize faces, as proven through a hilarious experiment in which researchers donned masks of cavemen (the villains) and Dick Cheney (the good guys!) and proved that crows would retaliate reliably against the villains. But the book describes many minute behaviors observed by the author, who is a patient and careful observer, including a funny passage on nest construction, with female decorators vs. male builders. Occasionally she lapses into non-science. For instance she claims that unlike robins crows cannot get drunk. Based on what?
The bits about her inner travails are not that interesting. And there are many of them (travails and bits.)
Talent Is Overrated claims that high performers achieve because of (smart) hard work and not at all because of any inborn talents. While it’s refreshing to think that great performance is possible for all of us I remain very doubtful that truly outstanding achievement doesn’t require at least a modicum of talent (plus lots of work, I agree on that point) and the author never makes a completely convincing argument to the contrary. He does make several interesting points, including the fact that better performers not only know more about their field but have organized their knowledge in more efficient ways than beginners, hence googling our way through the world may bring lots of good information but not the structure that we need to develop for deep knowledge. And as a heavy sleeper I loved the idea that people who sleep more also achieve more.
Now why did I not like this book? First, the author is an editor at Fortune magazine so the book is focused on business people, but most of the examples are from the world of sports and despite the author’s efforts it’s just a little difficult to imagine how a business person would practice their craft… Also the paeans to the usual business suspects and especially GE and JAck Welch are annoying. Why worship greed? (I get it, perhaps we need to worship advertisers.) Finally, what’s up with a chapter title like “Performing Great at Innovation”. Really? What did you learn in 7th grade English class?
Strangers tells the story of a lonely retired bank manager who needs to witness the death of a similarly isolated cousin and experience a bizarre relationship with a woman who seems to have absolutely no guilt in sponging off him to finally go forth, take some risks, and live a little. The author takes great pains to describe the many inhibitions, anxieties, and self-inflicted limitations of the hero (among which the belief that at his age he cannot find love, who knows why?) so the very slow pace of the story is filled with the reasons why he cannot move fast and the strange decisions he makes are always put in context. Nicely done.
And for once, all the French quotes are perfectly correct. Yeah!