*** Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — albeit lonely, misunderstood, and an alcoholic. But she finds herself pushed into what is for her an active social life when she rescues a man who fell in the street, and through his family and a delightful friendship with a coworker she renounces her crazy crush on a bad popular singer, renounces vodka, and deals with her nightmarish childhood.

The book reminded me of Convenience Store Woman, but set in England and with a more uplifting ending. It’s funny but also sweet.

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*** The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Like a good mystery? You will enjoy the very real story told in The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, bringing together a brazen museum theft, a close-knit community of fly-fishing nerds, and a dedicated amateur detective who uncovers not the theft itself (that was done by the UK police) but the network of buyers who took advantage of it. It’s a thrilling entry into a world where possessing rare feathers blinds otherwise respectable people to not only thievery but also evasion of international law and willful destruction of scientific specimens. Fascinating even if you don’t care about bird, let alone fly-making!

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* After the Education Wars by Andrea Gabor

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform brings together a series of in-depth articles about various school districts located in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and New Orleans, all with stories of either failed or successful changes — and the author clearly pushes the initiatives in Massachusetts and Texas, both instigated and implemented by insiders, as the best way to pursue improvements. It’s also clear that the reforms she described were tried in New York and New Orleans, inspired and in some cases paid for by outsiders inspired by the business work, were utter failures.

Her conclusion, that outsiders don’t know what they are doing and insiders do, is not sustained by her descriptions. Sure, the two examples of successful reform that she presents are successful, heartwarmingly so, lifting hundreds of students from outright failure and mediocrity. But that does not mean that insiders are always right. After all, there are hundreds of insiders in any school district and not all of them are successful, let alone trying to turn things around. And it’s striking that, even for the two districts she presents that were very successful, little seems to have been collected and shared outside the district that could help lift others. Finally, it’s all well and good to point out the evils of using test scores as the only measure of success — but wouldn’t it be good to agree on some simple metrics that would allow parents and others to decide how successful schools are? The author does present many examples of egregious cheating on metrics, but that does not mean that metrics per se are bad, only that they need to follow rigorous definitions and audits.

I wholeheartedly support the idea that schools are complex systems, and that no quick fix or magic metric will suffice to cure problems unless the system is changed, refined, and embraced by teachers and parents. But pretending that the teachers or even principals have all the answers and that any outside ideas or interventions are doomed to fail is not reasonable.

 

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*** Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Tin Man is the story of a lost love, told so beautifully that I thought the book was perfect almost to the end when it seems to lose some of its taut and heartbreaking flavor. It starts with an apparently simple story of a stoic man who works the night shift in a car factory, who is very lonely after his wife’s death but who is befriended by a young version of himself, it seems. The reality is much more complicated and unspools in flashbacks that go all the way to his own childhood when a kind neighbor took him in so he could escape his father. I don’t want to say too much of the story so you can enjoy it in this short and delightful book.

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*** My American Dream by Lidia Bastianich

Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in  My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.

 

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** Aroused by Randi Hutter Epstein

Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything tells the story of the development of endocrinology as a medical specialty. The author is generous both with stories about charlatans touting this or that hormone as a cure-all (vasectomies for better libido, anyone?) and tales of serious physicians recommending unproven treatments in a manner that would be unthinkable today (as in the recommendations to parents of intersex babies to raise them in the gender determined by the physician). Despite the technical nature of the discussion the book is easy to read for a non-specialist, and even fun.

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* Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

A cheesy title does not mean a cheesy story, but in the case of Give Me Your Hand, it’s truth in advertising. Despite the enticing research lab setting, headed by a woman no less, and the always-welcome main character of a female psychopath, the very dark story of murders and coverups had too many bated-breath chapter endings, not to mention a wholly improbable succession of events. If you want to try reading it anyway, prepare to relish a wonderful secondary character: the mouse house caretaker, who reigns on his domain and judges everyone. He is the best part of this forgettable story.

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