Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family with a father and son with severe depression and for me the best part of the story was how the other family members manage to hide the problems from each other and to the outside world, and continue to believe that all will be well. That said, no touch happens in the story and more patient readers than I may enjoy it more than I did.
Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies is an erudite review of how weather figures in the work of British artists. (English artists? That’s what the title says but she makes reference to Wales; how can a non-Brit figure it out?)
So we start, with Roman-time orders for some nice woolens. Poor Romans, they must have felt cold, and damp, in Britain… We plow through Chaucer, and Ms. Harris insist we read it in the original language. Maybe a footnote would suffice? We peek at toes being warmed on a fire in medieval illustrations. I liked the art better than the literature, both because the illustrations are perfect and because much is lacking in my knowledge of British literature. A treat for literary Anglophiles, and an interesting read for everyone else.
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years is couched as a memoir but reads more as a series of essays about motherhood, written by a mother of now-tweenaged children. It took me a long time to get into the book, I thought because the immersive approach of the author to motherhood seemed to be simply too much. And then I understood that she is a world-class worrier. How difficult it must be to raise children while being pathologically worried about them! Amongst all the worries, there are many little gems, stories of lovely moments with her children when they make new leaps of logic and ask questions we did not think they could ask.
I doubt that many people will read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets cover to cover, but even a limited exploration is eye-opening. What the author has done is stitch together conversations and extended monologues with ordinary Russians about the demise of the USSR. Viewed from afar, it’s easy to see the fall of the communist regime and the breakup of the country as progress, but it’s not simple or easy to live through a revolution. And while many of the participants recall truly horrific episodes of torture and killing, it makes sense for them to also regret the old days, when daily life was indeed a little easier, if you were not yourself, at that moment, being tortured or killed. As one of the interviewees says, “What was the point of all that? All that’ll be left of us will be a couple of lines in a history textbook.” The book shows what happened between the lines.
If you were to find a loaded gun in the glove compartment of a rental car and your husband, who has had serious depressive episodes in the past and is currently going through tremendous financial difficulties, told you that the previous renter must have forgotten it and that he will be sure to tell the counter agents about it upon return, would you simply close the glove compartment? Of course not, but the nitwit wife in The Good Life does (with horrible results, needless to say). This is not the only irrational part of the story: said husband, a developer of shopping malls, appears not to have set up a legal structure that separates his business assets from his personal assets, hence his business difficulties force him to uproot his family as well as sell his car. He moans more about the latter than the former, even as his sister lays dying in a hospital. What a wonderful guy! Not that the nitwit is much better. She delays getting a job despite the dire financial circumstances, choosing instead to bemoan the fact that her children will no longer have access to Hungarian lessons in the (gasp!) public schools they will now be forced to attend. She feels demeaned by having to do the laundry in a shared laundry room, alongside (horror!) housekeepers. I suppose the attraction of the book is a voyeuristic look into the world of rich New Yorkers. But surely you will find better books to read this summer.
Lab Girl is the memoir of a geologist, and does she know how to speak about soil (soil!) and trees. The way she writes about how trees grow and survive tough conditions will open your eyes to the wonders of the world.
The rest of the story is hers, and as becomes clear by the middle of the book, she struggled for a long time with untreated mental health issues that make for some strange adventures, or rather a rather strange affect. Still, the description of how labs such as hers are funded is enlightening (and a little depressing) — not to mention the casual sexism she had to work through.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time carefully and systematically analyzes how con artists manipulate their preys. The author interleaves stories of deceptions, from fortune tellers to Bernie Madoff, with descriptions of the psychological mechanisms deployed by hucksters. Despite all the evidence that cons exploit the very instincts that normally protect us, it’s still mind-boggling that people will hand over vast sums of money to people whose credentials are obviously off. Well written and easy to follow.