Lots of good books this month! The one I liked best by far is The Imperfectionists, a wonderful and clever story of the staff of a doomed English-language newspaper based in Italy.
And three more, limiting myself to the usual reasonable number:
She Looks just Like You, my favorite memoir of pregnancy (by a never-pregnant mom!)
Critical Care, a smart look at nursing, hospital politics, and caring for the dying and their families
Brilliant, the story of how technological improvements in lighting have changed the way we live
I was hopeful that a book with a subtitle that reads Living Better than Ever in an Age of Less would provide some inspiration and innovative thinking. Alas, The New Good Life is an insipid collection of tips on washing in cold water (has the man ever laundered really dirty clothes?), avoiding soft drinks (do we really need to be told this?) and not buying a house larger than our needs. I’m sorry that the author was one of the many victims of Bernie Madoff, but does he have to make up the difference by selling books with so little substance?
Written by a terrorism expert, Denial discusses her rape as a young teen in a quiet suburban community, her quest for the rapist, and her own struggle with post-traumatic disorder. It is a wrenching story, because of the rape of course but also because of the strange circumstances of her upbringing, with a father who bizarrely remarried but left his daughters to live with his estranged wife (their stepmother, not their mother), and whose supervision and warmth were lacking, in my view at least — but I did not find it particularly interesting or affecting.
Another British book! The Rehearsal is a devilishly clever book that describes a drama school whose first-year students are creating a play based on an affair between a teenager and her teacher at another school, with the sister of the teenager being the girlfriend of the main playwright. Is your head hurting yet? This novel within the play made my head spin, and not in a good way. Even with insightful comments about the mothers of budding artists and well captured portraits of teachers, the story folds onto itself and repeats too much.
I must be the last person on earth to read Harry Potter for the first time… After the debacle of Twilight, my younger daughter insisted that I read a book of her choice, which turned out to be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Now I’m not going to keep reading the entire series, but I’m happy to report that I had a good time reading the book, despite my sell-documented dislike for fantasy. Unlike Twilight, I found Harry Potter to be pleasantly well written, the dialogs to properly advance the action, and the action to move briskly towards uncovering some of the secrets of Harry’s tortured family past (naturally the author needs to save some for the following six tomes!). That being said, this is a book for older kids, not for adults. And I encountered the usual problems I have with fantasy. If this is all make-believe, why does the wizards’ school function exactly like a standard English private school? Why do students of magic strive to play Quidditch, with its bizarre rules, when they could easily apply their powers to tweak the game? And why do they rely on those silly message-carrying owls when they could use good old email? Fortunately the action managed to make me forget those quibbles while I was reading!
The heroin’s husband dies in an oil rig accident and she can’t quite let go, for years and years afterwards, while raising their three children with very few resources in a bleak Newfoundlands town. The best part of February is the description of the small town and its determined, practical, kind people. The rest of the story didn’t work so well for me. The constant longing, the small events of everyday life, the remembering of each little event in her married life, years later, the minute descriptions of the dresses she sews all added up to a boring whole for me — so I started to look for every false note, from the overdone sprinkling of current events to mark time, to the peaches in November (peaches!)Too bad there were not more Newfoundlands tidbits.
Brilliant tells the story of artificial lighting, starting with the Cro-Magnon caves in Southwestern France. The focus is not on technical improvements but rather on how the availability of light transformed society, the relationships between social classes, work hours, and the way we sleep (and no longer tell stories in the middle of the night). I very much enjoyed this book, which I found to be both well-written and eager to investigate the deeper effects of technological advances.
The Shadow of Your Smile is the rather improbable story of a nun who had a child, saintly physicians, crooked and greedy brothers, and the dying woman who knows the secret of the child and will very unwittingly start a series of murders in an attempt to cover up that story. Can’t work, right? Well, not with the author’s deft touch. Even if my eyes rolled a few times (come on, what are the chances, in New York City, that the hired driver of the dying woman would turn out to also know the long-lost grandchild?), I kept turning the pages, all the more since the chapters shrink to no more than a page or two by the end of the book. Perhaps it’s the well-oberved cameos (the policewoman who helps frame a picture and jokes about being a model)? Even the thickly laid convictions that miracles do exist could not wreck the suspense.
What a treat! The Imperfectionists is the story of an American paper based in Rome, and more importantly of the people who work at the paper. Remember how I said that Mr Peanut was clever? Well this is clever too, but the various stories that make the book — each chapter is essentially a very short story about one character — are almost all fun, very well observed, and each bring a slightly unexpected side of the hero to light, one that makes the reader feel more sympathetic to his or her plight, even for characters that are not to attractive in the first place. I especially loved the story of the bitter, less than competent copy editor as well as the sweet young reporter being taken for a ride (and more) by the remorseless foreign correspondent veteran.
And there’s hardly a false note in the stories of many cities and travels (just one, that travelling from Los Angeles to Rome via Frankfurt would take 24 hours — I think not), which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable novel. This is a first novel so I look forward to many more!
The topic of Jesus, Jobs, and Justice is African-American women and religion, and is a quote from one of the women mentioned in the book — many of them taking leadership positions in churches and political groups at a time when the race and gender pressures were formidable. I found the book very interesting as it highlights inspiring women, most of whom I had never heard about, and delves into the complicated relationships between white and black women, even when they could or should have been united, as during the fight of women’s suffrage and the early days of feminism. It also explains the creation and evolution of black churches, and the puzzling role that women were forced to play in them: no, they cannot preach, but they are in charge of fund-raising. Who said money was power?
On the other hand, the book is so detailed that my eyes glazed over repeatedly, especially at the long lists of women who contributed to this cause or that. It seems that the author was overly concerned about leaving no one off those lists, while I felt that the book would be more digestible and more didactic if it stayed at a more global level and focused on historical trends, highlighting a few special women.
Boring expose but terrific topic.