Written by the New York Times bureau chief in Paris, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs is a well-informed ode to the street where she lives, and beyond that to Paris, although not, refreshingly, the well-worn Paris of tourists. To my taste, there is a little too much swooning over obscure crafts and the loveliness of small shops when, as a journalist, the author could also recount the labyrinthine zoning and labor laws of France that protect the shops at the expense of consumers. But, as the book progresses, the stories get less superficially charming and more about the individuals who, like the author, love the street and make it an urban village, much more human than one would expect in a large city.
My Name Is Lucy Barton finds the eponymous heroine in a hospital bed, stuck there for weeks as mysterious infections prevent her discharge, sick enough to be in the hospital but not sick enough to think solely of her bodily worries. In walks her estranged mother, summoned by her overwhelmed husband who can barely cope with his job and two small children. She will stay for weeks. It’s an awkward dance between mother and daughter, with memories of a harsh childhood bubbling up, two very different lives, but still much love, or at least affection between them. It’s sad and lovely.
Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea is not a story of ghettoes per se, but rather an exploration of how social scientists studied and wrote about the American “ghetto”. I would have preferred a more direct approach but found enough direct glimpses of the history, starting with the segregation of Jews in Rome, thanks to Paul IV (before Venice gave its name to the word ghetto), all the way to Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem’s Children Zone.
Sadly, the scientists who studied (American) ghettos don’t seem to have contributed many solutions to the phenomenon, perhaps because they were guided more by ideology than observation, let along first-hand knowledge.
Wash your hands and avoid crowds. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond will make you squirm at the dangers of cholera, Ebola, flu, and other MRSA infections. The author, following on her earlier book, The Fever, which tackled malaria, shows how urbanization, environmental changes, war, and especially poverty and corruption all conspire to make epidemics more common and more explosive. There is not a lot of good news in the book, and perhaps the most important lesson is that, in a connected world, the rich countries cannot ignore the poor ones, for they, too, will suffer, albeit less, as well-known and new virus and bacteria spread faster and wider.
Innocents and Others follows two filmmaker who started out as best friends but find themselves on different tracks. I expect that movie buffs and would-be filmmakers will like the story, which is told, overly preciously to my taste, partly in the form of scripts and blog posts for a film class. There are some lovely observations here and there: the mother who automatically accepts any scheme that stars a favored friend of her daughter’s, the woman who hopes her husband won’t get into a writing program that would require a long separation — but overall I felt the story was plodding, even aimless, although well-written and carefully unfolded.
Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth reads alternatively as an anguished defense of criticism as bona fide art and a careful analysis of the role of critics and literature and the arts (the author being a film reviewer). Naturally, I preferred the latter and did not quite understand why such an aggressive defense of the genre was necessary. Of course critics will themselves have their critics. For instance, if the author likes the movie Ratatouille then he should say stand no one should find it objectionable as long as he does not think of himself as the arbiter of good taste. Maybe that’s the whole problem.
The Story of a New Name follows My Brilliant Friend and takes the two friends through high school and college, for the writer, and for her friend through a fraught marriage, motherhood, separation, and back to a tough working life. I found the plot to be less trite than the one in the first book, and with more unexpected twists, especially as the newlyweds fight, cheat, storm out, plot against each other, and generally despise everything the other does. Still, despite the period details, some of the petty fights and rivalries get tedious.