The co-authors of How May We Hate You?: Notes from the Concierge Desk used to work for various hotels in New York City and recount their adventures with difficult customers with humor, yes, but a snarky, condescending, even hateful bite that makes one wonder whether to ever approach a concierge desk again. Sure, there are awful human beings out there and some frequent hotels and harass concierges, but surely the clueless tourist who does not realize they are already on 42nd street, or thinks that reservations to sold-out shows are obtainable by all-powerful concierges are simply confused and deserve a little pep talk rather than a nasty harangue. Pass on this one.
Like books? From the moment you grab this one, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, you will know it’s a winner, since its very cover embodies the topic: how books are printed, illustrated, and made. It’s a history of books that starts in ancient Egypt and China and even if you are curious about books and know quite a bit of the history I guarantee you will find new and delightful factoids, from the proper way to cut a papyrus stem to create a usable sheet to how Holy Roman Emperor Frederik II banned paper because he saw it as a horrible Muslim invention. We are introduced to typesetting technology and lithography, and how books are stitched and formed (have you noticed that hard-cover books are concave in the front? I had not!) And nary a whine about the upcoming death of books in favor f electronic media. A delight.
I just love Mary Karr’s memoirs (reviewed here, here, and here), so I was looking forward to this book, which, if I had read the description more carefully, I would have known was not a memoir, or at least not just a memoir, but a compendium of how to write a memoir, based on her experience as a professor. I confess that the best parts of this book for me were, no surprise, the memoir fragments: who can forget the image of her breaking her delete key by overusing it while writing her last memoir? Her suggestions to would-be memoirists are fine, I suppose (I’m not in the market to write a memoir so not a good judge) but they sometimes read as dry, common-sense lists. And her literary analysis of various memoirs written by others are often hard to follow without having actually read the pieces. If you are a fan of Mary Karr’s read this, of course. If not, read her memoirs!
Harmony is based on interesting themes, of how challenging it is to have a child on the autism spectrum (perhaps, the diagnostic is uncertain), and how desperation can bring parents to unproven gurus, and in this case to a strange summer camp to work as an unpaid slave. There is also a clever plot centered in the set of children at the camp, perfectly crafted to exploit the fears and decision making of tweens.
The chapters that carry the story are written in the voice of the mother or the younger, neurotypical daughter. The mother’s chapters are written in a rather irksome second person. The daughter’s chapters improve over time; they start with a slightly wrong, too-old voice in my view. And the story seems not to be able to soar above the promise of its themes, especially the trite ending.
You Will Know Me and its murder will get under your skin and keep you wondering about the next plot twist to the end, while offering a well-crafted immersion into the strange world of highly competitive sport (here, gymnastics) and its crazy parents. There is also a marvelously drawn little brother who keeps spouting tender and magically appropriate comments. That said, some of the clues are a little too obvious and mar the surprise of the whodunit.
The Gene: An Intimate History is a masterful summary of the history of genetics, delicately tied together by the sad history of mental illness in the author’s family.
Although parts of the history of genetics are well known (including the sad story of Carrie Buck at the height of the eugenics movement) the author injects small and delightful details. I did not know that Mendel failed his teacher-certification exam, for instance. Or that 901 mice had their tails excised in an effort to prove that acquired characteristics could not be passed on (poor mice, it seems so obvious today, thanks to them).
The last few chapters discuss, carefully, gene therapy and its risks, making it very clear that, since genes rarely equal diseases, it’s a delicate business and not the simple matching game that we wish it were.
Be patient with Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History, as the first few chapters seem to need a little time to (ahem!) settle down. And you will be rewarded, for the author deftly guides us through chairs of all styles, from Antiquity to now and across continents. There are many hand drawn illustrations but sadly not all chairs are shown, and none of the paintings that are discussed in the book either. Highly recommended despite these nits!