Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire is not just the story of the author’s family, but an ambitious history of the island of Barbados, complete with plantations, immigrants’ stories, both impoverished migrants from England and slaves from Africa, both of which are represented in the author’s genealogical tree, hurricanes, and the economics of the sugar business that shaped island life. The author does a masterful job of covering a wide range of historical topics in the context of her family and is able to transition gracefully from one to the other. Highly recommended, even if you do not like history!
Category Archives: Non fiction
Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism makes some good points about the dark side of the travel industry but too often rants against mass tourism in a way that only entitled, rich Westerners can. Of course hordes of tourists are wrecking Angkor Wat (and, on hot summer days, the Eiffel Tower for that matter). Of course the cruise industry has managed to simultaneously outsource its staffing to cheap countries and bring the staff to rich countries. But not everyone can afford a luxury ecotourism trip to Costa Rica. Does the author mean that poor people should just stay home?
And while she makes an excellent point that tourism is a vast industry, she can stretch the point to silly ends. For instance, I doubt very much that the French government, in its infinite wisdom, built the bullet train system for tourists, or that the reason for the drop in foreign tourists to the US in recent years is the lack of a good pan-American tourist website. (To be fair, she later explains how the tightening of the entry process after 2001 contributed to the problem, but late enough to make the reader, me, shake her head in disbelief.)
The Great Indian Phone Book: how the cheap cell phone changes business, politics, and daily life is a non-fiction book (but would be a great title for a novel, right?) that soberly explores the transformations brought about by massive access to telecommunications, in a country where getting a landline used to require years of waiting. The strength of the book is its measured approach. The authors never claim that cheap cell phones changed society, but they show how they allow boatmen to build a clientele, bring picture evidence to a reluctant police force, and are even changing the way wives, traditionally oppressed, can communicate with others, starting with their families of origin. I also found the description of the business model for cell phones in a poor country very interesting, from the rule of the prepaid card to the small entrepreneurs who service the phones outside the official repair centers. Well worth reading!
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success is an optimistic book that generous people (called “givers” in the book”) can succeed better than selfish ones (“takers”) — but only in the long run, and only, apparently, for some givers (others do finish last, as common wisdom suggests and the book conveniently sweeps under the carpet.)
Still, it’s wonderful to see proof that nice people can do well because of their generosity. And good to see that harmonious work relationships improve performance of surgeons and others who depend on larger teams. Even better to see that humans can be tricked into working better and more accurately by personalizing their work. The perfect book for givers who wonder whether they are being taken advantage of — and the people who love them.
One rant: we don’t get to meet a single female giver until the last third of the book. Surprising, no?
When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests is a rather awkward mix of a self-help manual for patients (to speak up more) and a blistering attack on what the authors call “cookbook” medicine, medicine by following predefined pathways without (apparently) thinking too much, or at all, about either the patient or a proper diagnosis.
While the stories are compelling and common sense tells us that listening to patients should help doctors make better diagnoses, not to mention make patients feel heard, it’s a little hard to believe that the pathways method is generally disastrous. It would be good to have a more balanced view. And the idea that patients can and will use the probing questions the authors suggest with their own doctors strikes me as rather preposterous. That being said, interesting book and ideas.
Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm is the amazing story of Paul Du Chaillu, the son of a French merchant marine and a carefully concealed and conveniently dead mother from the Reunion island, raised by an American missionary in Gabon, who discovered a new species of primates, the gorilla, to be feted at first but them doubted and ostracized by the scientific community.
The best parts of the book for me are the ones set in Gabon, during du Chaillu’s treks to find the gorillas. (He had to go back to gather tangible proofs of his initial discovery.) It’s hot and dangerous and the killing is tremendous, along with fevers, tribal jealousies, and assorted disasters. The British scientific community’s disputes and intrigues pale in comparison.
The contrast between Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and the book reviewed yesterday is striking and I managed to read this one as an interlude to the other so the juxtaposition of 18th-century imbecilic oppression of women and 21st-century confused frustration on why (big) gaps remain kept me chuckling for several days.
This book is a lot more balanced than its critics have portrayed it to be. The author does not claim that all the problems that women have in getting to the top are self-inflicted. She clearly highlights the essential role that men, especially fathers, can play in allowing their partners to pursue a career of her own: they need to “lean in” at home, learn what the kids want for their lunch (and pack the lunch), know their shoe sizes, and their teachers’ names. She is also clear that corporations need to address both the practical issues of allowing employees to have a life as well as the subtle snubbing of women for high-profile positions. And she speaks openly and rather endearingly of her own life and challenges, whether it’s waddling through the parking lot while pregnant or admitting that she is the one who plans the birthday parties rather than take responsibility for paying bills.
In the introduction to the book she says that it is not a feminist manifesto. That puzzles me, especially when she adds that she hopes it will inspire both men and women. Isn’t feminism for everyone?
How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate is a Pygmalion real-life story of an 18th-century man who, having had trouble finding a suitable match (perhaps if he had deigned to comb his hair and learn a few dance steps he would not have found himself in this predicament) decides to fetch a young orphan from a respectable orphanage under false pretenses and, yes, raise her to be his perfect wife, following his beloved Rousseau’s suggestions. Clearly, the best wife is one that’s very intelligent and accomplished and will want nothing more than submitting to her husband’s every whim, right?
Note that Mr. Day, our hero, also managed to write passionate anti-slavery pamphlets as well as well-known children’s story books, so his tone-deaf wife-raising experiment is all the more shocking. The good news is that, in the end, the orphan does not marry him (since she is not submissive enough for him!) and despite many travails manages to have a very successful life on her own. We all cheer for her.
Written by a woman who is herself married to a man of another religion, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America explores the difficulties of such couples and their families (and yes, mostly the difficulties; there seems to be few advantages enjoyed by interfaith couples). The author interviewed 100 couples but there’s no clear description of how the sample was recruited so the book and the argument work mostly through anecdotes, unfortunately, but the stories flow well and are interesting, whether the author is describing the attitudes of various religious institutions towards the other religious part of the couple (we could all learn from the Mormons, it seems) or the complications of choosing appropriate holidays and celebrations for the children.
The author’s message seems to be that interfaith marriages have many challenges, almost all of which are ignored at the time of the marriage. But people get married at an age when religion seems to hold the least importance in their lives, which would be a partial explanation — and many other differences that become meaningful later seem to be overlooked as well, right?
Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self shows how the so-called humanistic psychology of the sixties is making a large impression to this day on popular culture while its theoretical underpinnings have been mostly disputed and replaced. The massive subtitle is a clue that the author is a scholar, and beyond writing long subtitles she can produce clunky prose, as in “[T]he founders of humanistic psychology [...] shared several things in common”, as well as linger in details that may obscure the more interesting question of the long-term effect of the movement.
If you are curious about this period, I would suggest reading instead Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, which does not include the interesting narrative of the theoreticians but I thought was much more entertaining.