It’s quite a hodgepodge this month, with very different genres of books:
Beware of little books designed to be easy Christmas gifts (no, I did not learn, and I was not scared away by the risque cover, either). You Better Not Cry is a set of un-Christmas stories that range from boring (boring! from the author of Running with Scissors!) to revolting, even considering the usual range of the author. Only the last story redeems itself with a sweetly ironic house flood and assorted cast of characters that attack the problem with their sometimes inept and always idiocentric ways. Delightful! But that’s only one story out of seven.
Brooklyn is the story of a young woman who is stuck in a circumscribed life in a small Irish town, living with her mother and older sister and unable to find proper work despite her accounting skills. By chance she gets to immigrate to the US where she finds employment, career opportunities, a house that’s heated through the night (she particularly enjoys that!), and a sweetheart. She then returns to Ireland for a vacation that may well be a permanent return.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of the book that describes her journey to America: how difficult it is for her to set on a solitary long-distance journey, her surprise at the different lifestyle in the US, the double reality of her new life and the unchanging Irish town. Then the story got less interesting. Her Italian boyfriend is almost too good to be true and it’s not clear what exactly she sees in him. And then she goes to Ireland on a visit and gets sucked into another romance? That doesn’t make much sense either. Too bad, this immigrant story started well.
Scroogenomics has a simple message: Christmas presents cost more than they are appreciated by the recipient, hence should be eschewed in favor of more “efficient” transfers of wealth like money. What a heart-warming thought. Now, it seems that we are “allowed” to give presents to our children and significant others because we know them well enough to know what, exactly, will please them. That’s a relief!
It seems that the general public doesn’t agree with economists since it treats Christmas expenditures like necessities rather than luxuries (page 97 in the book). I guess that the smart economist packages his Grinch message into small books perfectly suited to be stocking stuffers. A bit cynical, no?
How I Became a Famous Novelist starts brilliantly, with a naked attempt to gain fame (to impress an ex-girlfriend) by writing a successful novel. So the her, whose day job is to write college admission essays for barely articulate foreigners (a very entertaining part of the story), decides to create a book by the numbers, as it were, becoming more of a marketeer than a writer. It’s very funny at first, including the fake best-sellers lists and the skewering of “a year of being weird” books I’ve wondered about myself (No Impact Man, The Year of Living Biblically).
But the satire runs less and less funny and more drawn out and by the time the marketeer-author shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding we know and hope that he will embarrass himself. (He does not disappoint.)
Daniel Mendelsohn is a media critic and How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken is a collection of reviews he has written over the years about books, plays, and movies, putting me in the strange situation of reviewing the reviewer. Now Mendelsohn’s approach is vastly more erudite and sweeping than mine: his reviews go on for pages , minutely analyze the nuances of the piece, and contrast it with others and past performances when applicable, so much so that reading the reviews pretty much requires that the reader be familiar with the piece to begin with. Indeed, I found that the reviews of plays I did not know were almost impossible to understand.
And for the ones I did know, I found the critic to be o so picky: nothing is ever perfect enough for him and it seems that his goal is to find the flaws, which he does, always! Where is the pleasure of reading (or watching a play)? Can’t he ever get moved by a glorious story and let the inconsistencies and imperfections just lie there, perhaps noticed but who cares if they don’t get in the way of the work?
It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and the pickings at the library are slim: now is the time to grab a book just to have one more to read, and let’s not worry too much about what it is. So that day I picked Highest Duty, the memoir by the pilot of USair 1549 that landed into the Hudson River in January 2009. Cheesiness risk: very high.
And… I loved the book! Sure, it’s not the literary masterpiece of the century, even of the month, but the ghost writer (Jeffrey Zaslow, identified right on the cover) did a wonderful job of spinning the story of the fateful five minutes of that flight into 300 enjoyable pages that are intertwined with the life story of a regular guy who takes great pains to explain that he just did his job that day. What a contrast with Bill O’Reilly, the memoir of each I reviewed yesterday! Mr. Sullenberger is always gracious, thankful for his mentors from the very first chapter, and remarkably transparent about his strengths and weaknesses as a pilot, a husband, and a father. He speaks candidly but never bitterly about the radical changes in the airline industry that result in silly practices like not feeding the pilots during flights (whoever thought that up?) or paying them only once they have pushed from the date (I now understand why waiting on the tarmac is so common!)
It would be good to think that every pilot is as dedicated as the author to safety. He was lucky that day, but also supremely well-prepared. If you like the story, I recommend listening to the conversation with the air traffic controller: it’s a great performance both of the pilot and the controller.
A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity is that Bill O’Reilly’s memoir and I started reading it with an open mind: always try to understand where others are coming from, right? Alas, in the very first chapter he very seriously explains that the people who were stranded in New Orleans during the Katrina hurricane were not to be pitied (or helped) since they could not afford a bus ticket and had no friends or relatives outside New Orleans. Say what? Since when is poverty and social isolation a badge of unworthiness? Where’s your charity, ex-Catholic school student?
He tells many stories of his sorted adventures in Catholic school, often funny and even familiar, as when the kids select the deaf priest to hear their confessions… And perhaps he should have stuck to that yarn, which is delightful. Instead we see a lack of compassion that would not be approved by Sister Mary Lurana. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, and the proof is that I, Bill, am very successful even though my parents were working class. That may well be, but his dad had a college degree and his parents steadfastly helped him and pushed him to work hard — and he was lucky enough to be born smart and healthy. The fact that a few outstanding individuals can do well regardless of their origins doesn’t prove that being poor is a reflection of one’s lazy habits.
Inherent Vice is a detective story set in the 60s in LA, and I can only imagine that people who can remember the 60s in LA will enjoy the many references to the music, cars, and drugs (lots of them, apparently). For the rest of us, the haze of smoke is not worth penetrating and the story hardly makes sense at all.
I hesitate to recommend a book I had to struggle to read but here it is: The Dollmaker is Germinal or The Grapes of Wrath set in the war factories of WWII, and told from the point of view of a Kentucky farm woman who can do everything on the famr, including performing a tracheotomy on her son (the gruesome first chapter) but whose skills come to naught in the dreary factory housing. The book is full of overblown symbols, dying children, and extreme misery — and it paints an unforgettable picture of life in the shadow of war and poverty.
It’s a mystery to me why this book seems to be promoted as a book for girls since it’s very long, close to 700 pages, full of tough scenes, and entirely suitable for adults! It’s also full of Kentucky dialog, which made the reading challenging for me, probably less so for native readers.