You all knew that 1Q84 was going to make it to this month’s list, since I already named it my book of the year, and potentially of the decade!Yes, it’s 900 pages long, yes, it’s fantasy, yes, it’s translated — and I loved it anyway.
The Buddha in the Attic is another favorite, with its delicate, evocative stories of Japanese picture brides in California.
I also liked Blood, Bones & Butter, an unconventional chef’s memoir, and Love and Shame and Love, a family saga that reads like a memoir.
I very much enjoyed Love and Shame and Love, the story of three generations of a Chicago family, written as a series of short chapters that move from one writer to another, from one era to another, with the random quality of personal memoirs. Nothing amazing happens but the stories ring true and do not shy away from the sad stuff, whether it’s the dog’s death or spouse abuse, but they are told without undue drama. The stories are full of comical appearances, such as the man who throws rocks at the moon at night, and strong supporting characters like the family’s African-American housekeeper (a male housekeeper, mind you). A well-told family saga — of an ordinary family with ordinary troubles.
In The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker tries to do two things: convince the reader that society has gotten less and less violent over time, despite what the 11 o’clock news would like us to believe, and also explain why that might be the case. I don’t think he succeeds completely on the first count and he definitely does not hit the mark on the second.
When it comes to violence diminishing over the millenia, his case is quite tight (if, perhaps, surprising to some) when looking at overall trends. Despite the limitations of crime statistics in olden times, it seems clear that murders as well as less lethal violent acts such as child abuse or even rape decline — not necessarily smoothly, not necessarily for a given small area, but definitely in the aggregate. What’s less obvious (and, in my mind, not true) is that massive-scale events would not reverse the trend. Sure, the world has been peaceful (again overall, not in every geographic area) since WWII, but if we had another WWII, or worse, tomorrow, the lovely downward trends would suddenly shift. It would have been a suitable time to evoke the possibility of Black Swan events.
Assuming we are evolving to a less violent society, why is that? I suppose it’s always difficult to explain large-scale phenomena and Pinker struggles mightily to show that the “civilization process” is at work (when in doubt, invent a new word to explain the unexplainable?) And then he goes to the brain, of course! But since our brains probably have not changed much at all in the past few hundred years, it’s hard to follow the arguments without smirking. I dutifully smirked.
I did not find Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, to be very sweet, in fact I thought it was about as appetizing as a bowl of porridge, albeit with the occasional raisin to relieve the tedium, especially when the author traces sweets through countries and time periods. Go eat some chocolate instead.
Ghosts by Daylight is messy, with plenty of gory violence and personal loss — and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a very personal account of a woman war correspondent, hence the violence, but coupled with a matter of fact account of what it’s like to live, say, in the shell of a Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo, crawling under the windows to avoid snipers. The book centers on a complicated affair and eventual marriage to a French war reporter, with whom she has a child and lives for a few peaceful years in Paris before they separate, with many flashbacks to their old lives and how the very skills that allowed them to survive the chaos of war are not just useless but even counterproductive in normal circumstances. The chapters move back and forth from one war or another to the present, sometimes confusingly so and even perhaps plain incorrectly, to the point when I had trouble following the exact chronology of her pregnancy. But no matter, the story is engrossing and I would warmly recommend the book to anyone who has wondered about the lives of war reporters.
I was disappointed by Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, in part because the book, perhaps inevitably as the biography of a movie critic, refers to a great many movies I have not seen — but mostly because it exposes how this critic, if not others, seems to have used her position to reflect her biases and personal preferences rather than open the world of movies to the public. She is also described as quite egocentric, using her daughter as her personal assistant without much regard for her daughter’s happiness, and, even worse, dishonest as she appropriated materials from others to write a book she published under her own name. I dutifully turned the pages to the end, but without enthusiasm.
I was never able to grasp the point of Rights Gone Wrong. The author gives a number of eminently ridiculous examples of how civil rights and other rights-related legislation has given rise to ridiculous lawsuits — but doesn’t seem to have much of a solution for the problem. So while I agree that high school seniors and their parents can exploit so-called learning disabilities to get the unfair advantage of unlimited time to take SAT tests, or that suing a baseball team for giving gift bags to women on Mother’s Day is a waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s not clear that we should (a) change the laws (b) give more latitude to judges or (c) raise our lamentations to the sky. And some of the examples are uncomfortable. Sure, it’s hard to prove that Walmart discriminates against women managers just by looking at the proportion of women in the management ranks, but surely if there are no more than a third at Walmart and over half at Walmart’s competitors that may well suggest a pattern of sexism that could be legitimately pursued in the courts, no?
Blood, Bones & Butter is another memoir, this time, of a chef who once thought she would be a writer (and writes beautifully!) The story is in three parts, the first two I greatly enjoyed. It starts with a reasonable, if bohemian childhood that ends abruptly when her parents divorce, leaving her, the youngest child, essentially on her own (and hungry!) at the young age of 13, which propels her into menial restaurant jobs, starting a long series of lies about her age.
The second part of the story tells of her transition from catering cook, with a frightening view behind the scenes of elegant parties and weddings, to restaurant owner who will do all it takes to keep the restaurant open, even as she is learning the business side she never had to grapple with as a chef. Which brings us to a rather strange marriage of convenience, apparently designed to obtain a green card for her Italian boyfriend, while she seems to prefer women, but after many years they have two children and enjoy yearly vacations in his close-knit and food-obsessed Italian family, so perhaps nothing is quite so clear anymore. And those vacations sound a little too precious. But still, a good read.
In the Isabel Dalhousie series, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth reads almost like a detective novel since Isabel is looking for a woman’s lost biological father and finds him, eventually, after the usual detours with the fox in the garden, the child in the nursery, the housekeeper’s occult stock tips, and poisoned mushrooms. Much more satisfying than the last one, I’m happy to report, even though the fiance and now husband seems to be less and less interesting and have less and less of a role.
The Arrogant Years is the memoir of the author, born in a Jewish family of Cairo who came as refugees to New York City when Egyptian religious tolerance abruptly ended. It meanders elegantly between the author and her mother, raised in elegance and refinement (and poverty, and French schools), married to an affluent man in an unhappy marriage, and then transported to New York against her will and back to poverty. Her trajectory from keeper of the library in an exclusive Egyptian school to librarian in the New York public library, effortlessly weaving essays on 19th century French authors, is breathtaking. So much so that we almost forget her daughter, who has her own dramatic life including rebelling against the strictures of the synagogue that divides men and women in her youth and her chaotic college life after a bout with cancer, which is somehow presented as a temporary inconvenience. Must be the elegant and refined upbringing.