** The Life Writer by David Constantine

Alert to you packrats: it may be a good idea to dispose of old correspondence before leaving this earth. Otherwise, your bereaved widow may plow through it to write the story of your life before you met her. (Of course, this presumes that (1) you wrote and received actual letters, you know, the kind with stamps on it, which few people do these days and (2) your widow writes biographies for a living.)   The Life-Writer delves into her husband’s lost first love in exquisite, painful, and obsessive detail, culminating in a meeting with the French woman he loved and lost. A perfect book for ruminators. For me, not so much but I was carried through the first half, and maybe farther, by the beautiful examination of the woman’s grief.

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*** I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

Written by a science journalist, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life is an enthusiastic and nicely detailed exploration of research into bacteria, especially how bacteria interact with other organisms, human or not. There are stories of dung trafficking in zoos, mosquitoes infected by bacteria that defeat Dengue fever, breast milk that is designed to feed not babies, but bacteria inside their guts, weird deep-sea organisms that feed on sulphur, and utterly useless “active culture” yoghurt.

 

The author is careful to present bacteria as both helpful and dangerous, and to highlight the great complexity of the symbiosis processes (hence the useless yoghurt). An inspiring and quite accessible science book.

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** Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

Death of a Red Heroine starts with the body of a national model worker and ends with a political vengeance against a so-called HCC, high-cadre child. In between is a leisurely investigation of an admittedly complex crime that takes Inspector Chen and his faithful sidekick Yu through bustling Shanghai, a detour through the traffic bureau, many restaurants, multiple poems and a karaoke session with spying undertones.

The ponderous historical briefings seemed less annoying than in the previous installment I read , but perhaps it was because I am more used to them. Still, if you like fast-moving action this is not the book, or the series, for you.

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** In Praise of Forgetting by David Rieff

In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies tackles the widespread opinion that we must never forget difficult moments because it will somehow inform a better future with incisive examples that show that it’s not always the case. From the Edict of Nantes to 9/11, from King’s Philip’s War to the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, the author  fearlessly examines well-known and obscure examples to show that history curricula are highly selective, on the one hand, and that a little bit of forgetting can help greatly with the forgiving part of building the future. Expect erudition and nuanced moral judgments.

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*** Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce returns to the UK after a disastrous stay in Canada and finds another body on her first day back, the identity and manner of death of which will occupy her for the rest of the book, while her father lies very ill. She is older now so can take the train to London to pursue her investigations, and her sisters barely appear in the story.  There’s less chemistry than in earlier books and more traditional deductive powers. I thoroughly enjoyed the book but I’m not sure it has the same power of surprise that others in the series have had.

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* Messy by Tim Harford

If you think tidy desks kill the soul and innovation, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is the book for you.

I’m not so sure. The book, rather messily organized, does contain some wonderful ideas for innovation. My favorite is a set of cards with opaque commands developed for musicians but that would be helpful to spur any of us to get out of a creative rut (one of my favorites “Not building a wall; making a brick”). But the overall effect is a laundry list of times when messy was helpful rather than a well-reasoned thesis. Which may be the whole point.

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** America The Anxious by Ruth Whitman

Ruth Whitman, as a recently-arrived Californian (from the UK), is an interesting observer of mores on this side of the Atlantic. In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, she explores the constitution-enshrined pursuit of happiness that does not seem to be producing very satisfying results. She goes to expensive EST-derived seminars, lunches at Facebook, visits Mormon wives in Salt Lake City, and eavesdrop on what must be her Berkeley mother-friends in search of answers.

She has a good sense of irony (she describes Facebook as having the slight feel of a prison, where wives and young children can catch a glimpse of Daddy by dropping by at lunchtime), but she often forgets she lives in the essential Northern California bubble (no, attachment parenting is not mainstream in California as a whole, let alone the US). That makes for an often entertaining book, but not a very deep one.

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Filed under Non fiction