** Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered presents twin stories of two struggling families, in different centuries, living in the same house, or so they think, in what was created as a  utopian subdivision (but probably “utopian” mostly for the pockets of the developers). The contemporary family suffers from multiple ills, from the lack of good academic jobs to an ailing grandfather and the sudden death of a young mother, and the story is well told, but still strange in parts. Why would loving parents, even distracted by a job loss, not ask their young adult daughter why she returned abruptly from a year abroad? Why would they not at least guess about her predicament? And why would a young father, even distraught, casually abandon his baby to his parents? There are no good answers in the story.

The other story is of a fascinating woman who pursued a learned correspondence with Darwin (of On the Origins of the Species fame), and clearly the book was crafted to highlight that story. I kept finding that the handoffs between the two stories felt a little overdone, so the book did not quite come together as it could have.

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Filed under New fiction

*** P is for Pterodactyl by Raj Haldar , Chris Carpenter, et al.

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a children’s book on the blog (well, Harry Potter, but that’s for big kids!) and I’m so happy to recommend a very wonderful picture book, perfect for kids and adults who wonder how English spelling got so screwed up. You will discover G for gnocchi, T for tsunami, and of course K for Knight, with appropriately silly illustrations and commentaries. A gem.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Becoming by Michelle Obama

I wish I could say that I loved Becoming, and I did not. But I loved many aspects of it, in particular how direct she is sharing her family’s life (without ever giving details too private to be shared), how she details the many limitations of living life in the glare of media, unable to take a stroll or escape the White House unaccompanied, and how she was able to raise functioning children in a very un-child friendly environment.

What I did not like so much was the workaday prose, the sometimes stifling avoidance of political controversies, and the overall feeling of how much she sacrificed to her famous husband’s career. Still, I know you want to read the book, and you should!

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Filed under True story

** Invisible by Stephen Carter

 

The woman at the center of Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster must have been a formidable lady (and the author, her grandson, confesses to having be a little afraid of her growing up!). At a time when women and African Americans had very few professional opportunities, she went to college, went to law school, prosecuted the mob in New York City, and was active in many women and African American organizations. And apparently threw great parties to boot!

Alas, her contributions to the New York justice system did not allow her to rise to higher offices, perhaps because of her brother’s communist affiliations. And she seems to have pretty much abandoned her son to be raised by others (not that her husband did much to raise him either!) It’s an exceptional life, but told in what, to me, was excruciating detail.

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** Futureface by Alex Wagner


If you go looking for your ancestors, you may find a racist grandmother, a corrupt banker great-grandfather that helped create an economic meltdown, another great-grandfather who was the bastard son of a miner and who hitched his star to that of his employer  — but perhaps not the Jewish great-grandfather from your family’s legend, as the author of Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging discovered. She undertakes research on three continents to accomplish her search, and surprises herself when she finds that knowledge of the local language and customs is pretty much required for success (duh!). The third part of the book, when she delves into DNA analysis, is more predictable and was, to me, less interesting.

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** Asking for a Friend by Jessica Weisberg

Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed gives us three centuries of advice-writing, presenting both well-known advice givers (Benjamin Franklin, Dear Abby, Dr Spock, or Ms. Manners) and lesser-known figures, whom I thought were all the more interesting that they have not yet been chronicled to death. The book is both a series of portraits, interesting on their own, and excerpts of the ever-evolving principles of the advice given, sometimes within the span of the advice-givers themselves.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Bible of Dirty Jokes by Eileen Pollack

The Bible of Dirty Jokes is hilarious! Don’t make the title scare you–although it may not be the best book to read on public transportation, if you know what I mean. It stars a recent widow (whose now deceased husband was compiling a book of dirty jokes) who goes searching for her brother in Las Vegas, helped by a long-time friend, and not helped at all by her brother’s spendthrift wife. Along the way, she uncovers a child pornography ring, her family’s mobster ties, and unsettling truth about her dead husband. It’s fast, entertaining, and at times surprisingly sweet and deeply felt. The most risqué dirty joke is very mild, if you are worried about that.

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Filed under Mystery