I guess I’ve been in a vacation mood this summer… as I realize I simply forgot to post the “Books of the Month” for July… and that’s not because the July reading list was disappointing. I found several gems including
- Little Bee, the stunningly told story of a Nigerian would-be refugee in the UK (don’t be put off by the grim subject matter, the first chapter is just about perfect)
- Art and Madness, a sobering memoir of life as a wife who should have a brilliant career of her own but cannot because it’s the sixties
The harvest his month was not good, hence the plethora of half-stars I used to try to distinguish the boring from the mediocre from the really bad… I will try not to use so many half-stars in the future; they are confusing and wishy-washy.
And with that, only three books of the month, each a little imperfect.
My favorite of the three is Spacesuit, which tells the story of how the heroic outfits of the Apollo astronauts were designed and made by the Playtex Corporation — and I think would be better if it stayed with that story without aiming to place it in too ambitious a context.
The other two are
- My New American Life, a light-hearted and lightweight story of an Albanian nanny with secrets. Good summertime reading.
- A Bittersweet Season, a surprisingly successful, if messy memoir cum advice on how to take care of aging relatives. The personal story is what grabbed me.
(Have hope, the book I will review tomorrow is quite good!)
The Good Muslim, alas, offers a conventional story of the good son turned Muslim fundamentalist while the rebellious, liberated daughter comes home just in time to tend to her ailing mother and to blunder into her nephew’s life with deadly consequences. The story has many cosy, well observed descriptions of family life just like the ones I liked in the author’s previous novel, The Golden Age, but the heavy-handed manicheism, the overly tidy coincidences of history and personal life, and the eyebrow-raising declarations of the protagonists that ploddingly punctuate this book were all turnoffs for me this time around.
Sorry for the procession of mediocre books… Bed has a wonderfully intriguing premise,a monstrously large man who cannot leave his bed, let alone his house, or rather the house of his overprotective mother — but unfortunately nothing much happens past the description of the humongous body (hint: it’s not exaclty a pretty sight), the aforementioned overprotective mother (we are not amazed to learn that she has trouble letting go), and a rather bizarre romance between the younger brother and the older brother’s past girlfriend that doesn’t seem to relate in any tangible way to the travails of the largest man in the world. The story is dark and quirky but it doesn’t really go anywhere. What a waste of a great premise.
Soul Dust is a more challenging book than the usual novels and non-fiction exposes reviewed on this blog and I would classify it as a philosophical inquiry into the nature of consciousness. It starts with a rather obscure and not exactly welcoming parable of of an alien investigating our world but it gets better, and I quite enjoyed the discussion the descriptions of the beauty of what the author calls “presentism”, an ugly word to denote the intense emotion of simply enjoying the moment. Perhaps we should apply ourselves to that activity more often.
Then it gets a little crazy, as the author tries to explain how consciousness is uniquely human by asserting that animals cannot be conscious because they don’t understand death — and does a rather poor job of demonstrating that they don’t. The fact that chimps can stay with the dead seems to imply exactly the opposite, that they know their mate is dead and they are mourning him… The author also seems to imply that Neolithic drawings speak of consciousness (true enough), but because they resemble his doodles. That seems to be a bit much..
“There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me is written by the long-time companion — but alas not wife of Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo and the rest of the trilogy, and it is a strange mix of a great love story (very soberly told), many insights on how the books came about and the personality and life of the man who wrote them (very satisfying to the eager reader of said books), and the sordid treatment of Eva by Stieg’s family after his death, when his father and brother (legally, but with apparently a mean spirit) essentially stripped her of all legal connections with Stieg’s financial or literary estate.
The love story is formidable. The biography illuminates many of the attractive and mysterious aspects of the trilogy, in particular the troubling far-right groups depicted in it as well as the strong feminist streak, rather unusual with a male author, and I loved that. Unfortunately the family dispute ends up sounding simply bitter and whiny, although my sympathies lay on the author’s side. A fair warning to all of us to set up our legal affairs before we ever think it’s necessary.
I found The Lotus Eaters to be a schmaltzy, hard to believe romance set in Vietnam during the war and starring an American woman photographer with little experience but motivated by her brother’s combat death to work in Vietnam, her American lover, also a photographer, who makes his own rules about work and everything else, and his Vietnamese assistant, a deserter and spy, and ultimately her lover after the death of the first one, whom she arranges to get evacuated by helicopter from the American embassy at the end of the war. So she somehow manages to be present at all the iconic moments of the war while befriending a caricatural sophisticated French emigree, the pho-making grandmother down the street, and assorted urchins, and spending some idyllic time in the countryside with her lovers. All that sandwiched between often puffed-up descriptions of the beauty of the country and the horrors of war and some pretty unlikely Manichean discourses by the main actors. The rest is pretty good.
I fear boredom so I was looking forward to reading Boredom to finally understand why but I was left unsatisfied — although, fortunately, not bored by it! Why? I’m not sure but I suspect it’s because I could not quite agree with the author’s definition of boredom. He sees it on a continuum with disgust, and I don’t agree. I see boredom as much less emotional than disgust, more of an intellectual emptiness. I also fail to see boredom as loneliness (one can be bored in the company of others, it seems, even others one considers to be interesting human beings), nor do I consider boredom to be a useful emotion that signals we should remove ourselves from a bad social situation (methinks the realization comes way before boredom sets in!). And I disagree with many of the (beautiful) works of art the author chooses to display as examples of boredom, seeing instead sadness, indifference, or depression. (He does have a priceless example of a bored little boy, though, on page 9.)
But I feel so much better now having reflected on boredom and concluded, unlike my younger self, that there are so many ways to fill boredom with diversions or productive enterprises that it’s almost never a problem for me these days.
I wanted to love Weeds. As a gardener, they are some I loathe (Oxalis, anyone?) but I have to marvel at their tenacity. Plus, some are quite pretty. Unfortunately this book put me in a mood of turning pages just a little too fast. The main problem was that I just did not know what the author was talking about, as the (British) author used mostly British examples and who knows the Latin names of weeds? Yes, there are some illustrations here and there but none is labelled and many of the examples in the text have no matching illustrations.
There are some funny stories here and there, including a 16th century insect excommunication (crazy French people!), dubious remedies suggested entirely by the looks of plants rather than any type of experimentation (I guess it’s funny today, not to the poor recipients of the remedies), and how brave scientists used post-Blitz London to anlayze the weeds growing in craters there. But the long quotes from Shakespeare and others that reference weeds are, for the most part unreadable.
A Bittersweet Season is a rather messily organized book, with frequent repeats, and about a depressing topic: how to take care of aging relatives. Moreover, it’s articulated around the author’s personal experience, which is often a recipe for disaster. And yet, it works. The author’s travails as she struggles to find appropriate care for her mom, a once fiercely independent woman laid low by age and infirmity, are touching even as (perhaps because) she explains how she went wrong and would choose other strategies today. Her resentment of the division of labor with her brother makes perfect sense even if we want to tell her to take that vacation, right away, and don’t even call in for the week. And her mom’s sarcastic sense of humor shines through despite her increasing despair and frustrations.
Along the way are lots of practical considerations for how to plan for our future and the present and future of our elders. The most crucial may be to face reality and not let emotions overwhelm logic. While a nursing home may not be our dream housing option, it may be the right place to be. The only area of disagreement I may have with the book is the idea that it’s somehow disgraceful to ask seniors to contribute their resources before they can receive government help. But overall I found the book both useful and human.