** Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden

At its best, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is the very moving story of a family living through the last days of one of theirs, dying of a brain tumor. But it’s also a book about politics, since Joe Biden continued to serve as vice-president throughout the ordeal and was pressed to decide whether to run for the presidency to boot. And at times the narrative reminds us of how necessarily detached from regular folks’ lives privileged people can live — with private planes, round-the-clock security, and a certainty that access to care or specialists is always possible. I thought I would think solely of the private suffering, but I found myself uneasy with the privilege.

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** Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Written by a scientist who is also a buddhist, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment is an outsider-friendly discussion of Buddhism, with the author joyously (and encouragingly) sharing his own failures at meditating “properly”. The core idea of the book is that meditation is a powerful way to counter-balance our natural instincts, so whether we are annoyed at someone’s snoring or worried about our own pain, mindfully observing that feeling can give us the time and space to react in a different way than aggression and anxiety. It’s clear that the book cannot replace a good teacher or years of practice, but it is a wonderful glimpse.

 

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*** Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

I found Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing to be frustrating to read because it lacks a unifying purpose. Instead, each chapter focuses on a single idea (for instance, is there a connection between using a lot of adverbs and overall quality of writing) and shows how big data — counting words, phrases, or more sophisticated literacy devices — can inform the study of literature.

I have some quibbles with the way the author presents his information. He likes big charts where I would prefer to see charts, for example, but I was astounded to see how far one can get with this kind of approach.

 

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** The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

I’m hesitant to recommend The Story of a Brief Marriage because it is so bleak. Not the marriage itself, however very brief and tragic it is, but the setting, in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, which is regularly bombed by the army and where everyday life is about dead bodies, amputations without anesthesia, and general despair. I almost closed the book after twenty pages of horror.

But if you persevere, you will encounter a wonderful scene of the husband taking an improvised bath next to the well, washing away months of grime, and delighting in the simple pleasure of being clean, with trimmed fingernails and hair, and clean clothes. It’s a magical moment. But it’s just a few pages long.

 

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** The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

Ever wondered why city A (Richmond, say, in the San Francisco Bay Area, which the author uses abundantly as an example) is black while another (Milpitas) is not? The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America shows how many decades of zoning and building law boldly laid out cities where races were kept well separated. The federal government, through the Federal Housing Agency (FHA) for a long time would only guarantee mortgages to developments that excluded African Americans. Local zoning often prohibited apartment buildings in single-family home neighborhoods, at a time when non-white families could rarely afford single-family homes. Famously, during the Great Depression banks redlined entire neighborhoods and were supported by government agencies to do so. And the list goes on — to a scandalous length.

That said, I felt that the outraged tone of the book detracted somewhat from the message. Let the facts speak for themselves: they are appalling enough to persuade.

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*** Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters

Did you know that Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, was a reluctant and picky eater as a child? T hat she trained and worked as a Montessori teacher? That she almost married David Goines? I did not either, until I read her memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, which interestingly focuses on her life before she became a restaurant owner, although she interleaves vignettes about the restaurant throughout the book.

She grew up in the turbulent era of the Free Speech Movement (paying $98 tuition at the University of California, those were the days when students could afford to travel and experiment, even taking in count inflation!) and meandered quite a bit before founding the restaurant. This would be a good book to share with a young adult trying to figure out what to do (or the parents of said young adult who wonder when their kids will ever find themselves and contribute to society).

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** Breaking Sad by Shelly Fisher & Jennifer Jones

Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up is a compilation of personal stories from people who experienced various losses and who share their stories and their recollections of best and worst comments and help they received afterwards. Some of the “bad” comments are astonishingly insensitive; it would be most charitable to think that people are intimidated by death and blurt out these things without thinking.

What was more interesting to me were the recommendations for what to do and say. There were so many different approaches, reflecting the preferences of the receivers, so that piece of advice #1 is probably just that: adapt to the mourner. And don’t think you have to fill the silence with any words at all. Maybe that’s the hardest part.

 

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