Monthly Archives: March 2008

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

How about a book where almost nothing happens? A book in which a ten-year old boy is simply loved? Loved by his widowed mother and his three bachelor uncles, Jim the Boy grows up in a small town in the South where the big news might be electricity finally coming, or going to the beach for the first time. There’s no molestation, no violence, no cursing even, and at the same time no cutesy, over-sweet harmony (the boy is fatherless, after all.) How refreshing!

A wonderful novel to read on days when you need the solace of little action and the knowledge that there are families out there who just do the right thing, day after day.

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The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs

Written by an editor at Esquire Magazine (Esquire!) The Year of Living Biblically is a hilarious report on how one man tried to live for a year by following all the rules in the bible. He starts by writing them all down (72 pages) and makes a serious effort to understand all of them and live at least a few. It’s tough since some of them are contradictory and others frankly difficult to achieve in the modern world: you will chuckle at his attempts to stone adulterers…

Along the way we meet wholly unexpected professions. Did you know that you can hire a garment fiber analyzer (to ensure that you’re not wearing “mixed fiber” garments, prohibited by the bible — and interestingly poly-cotton is ok, it’s the dreaded linen/wool combination that needs to be avoided)? Did you know that there are at least two companies that “sanitize” movies, removing bad language, sex scenes, and much more? (Unfortunately they seem to also remove the plots!) Did you know one can find ritual chicken slaughterers in New York City?

Beyond the funny stories Jacobs also tells of his personal transformation brought about by his strange appearance (he’s not trimming his beard, although strangely it’s fine to trim his hair, and he’s also wearing all white clothes in a black-clothes city) as well as his meditations on the more substantive rules (for him , consistenly telling the truth and keeping his anger in check is a challenge.) While you may be sick and tired of all the “Year of” books currently on the shelf, this one is funny and touching all at once.

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Microtrends by by Mark Penn & E. Kinney Zalesne

Microtrends describes several dozens small trends that may shape the world (or the authors’ view of the world, i.e. the US) in years to come. Penn has worked a lot with political candidates so there’s an over-abundance of tips on how to woo different slices of voters. It’s like watching sausage making: better abstain if you intend to eat the sausage. But the trends are interesting, many hit close to home (delaying kindergarten entrance, home-schooling, neglected dads, home-based workers), and each group only takes up a few pages so it’s easy to read in short spurts — and you can always skip the boring parts.

A great way to reflect on the society we live in.

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Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen

Having read and loved The Love Wife by the same author, I picked up Mona in the Promised Land for another long plane ride and I wasn’t disappointed, although the depth and complexity of The Love Wife is simply not there. Mona in the Promised Landis the funny, lighthearted, and not always believable story of a Chinese American high school student struggling to integrate into her Jewish friends’ crowd. She actually converts to Judaism, to her mother’s dismay, but it’s only a small part of her adventures that include befriending her parents’ African-American cook, who’s a little suspicious; sleeping in a teepee with her boyfriend; and floating between the world of scholarship students and rich kids.

A fun read if you don’t want to think too much about exacting details — with a classic story of integration and generational differences between the FOB parents and their thoroughly American children. A good vacation book. The Love Wife is much more accomplished if you’re looking for something more serious.

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My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

My Year of Meats has a unique, loopy premise: the Japanese Beef Board, in an attempt to increase meat consumption, sponsors a series of TV documentaries on “average” US housewives who, in the course of a thirty-minute episode, will cook a meat-centered meal for their family. The first episode focuses on an apparently standard Midwest family, in which the wife cooks an all-American rump roast with Coke (really!) but then the husband reveals — on the air — that he’s having an affair. Things get much stranger from then on, to include a lamb-chop cooking family (not good for the beef board) and a lesbian-headed, vegetarian-only family (definitely not acceptable for the producer, on either count.) Great fun is had by the reader as well as, we are told, by the enthusiastic Japanese audience. In this happy state, the reader easily ignores the boring sex life of the Japanese-American female filmmaker (is there a new rule that every woman-written novel must include detailed descriptions?) and appreciates the sweetly sad sub-story of the Japanese producer’s abused wife.

Then, unfortunately, the author moves into crusader mode as the documentary lands in a Colorado feedlot where hormones are used freely, little girls grow breasts, and much questionable beef is produced, and the story gets stuck in self-righteous tirades, an avenging mother, and multiple firings. Why ruin such an off-the-wall novel with a lecture?

I suppose you could try to stop reading 60 pages from the end…

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The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

The Ministry of Special Cases is a strange book. It tells the story of Kaddish and Lillian, a Jewish couple of a “fixer” and a well-born woman rejected by her family because of her marrriage, whose son disappears during Argentina’s bloody junta rule, and who then undertake an epic and unsuccessful quest for him. Some parts are full of imagination, such as the walled part of the Jewish cemetary reserved for prostitutes and pimps, or the plastic surgeon who, unable to pay Kaddish’s fee, offers him a nose job instead. Others are dreadfully familiar but moving: Lillian’s pleading with the heartless bureaucrats at the Ministry of Special cases. But overall the story is plodding and the lightness and humour of Englander’s first book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, is lacking, alas.

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The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann

The Mercury 13 tells the (to me, completely unknown) story of thirteen women who, in the very early sixties, went through the initial screening program for astronauts, passed the tests with flying (ha!) colors, and were then summarily dismissed when the decision was made to use only military jet pilots, that is, men. The book is written in a rather dull and occasionally annoyingly detailed journalistic style but the story is fascinating. Here are women who were incredibly accomplished: many had thousands of flying hours, many more than the men who were chosen to be the first astronauts; they ran businesses, including air freight; they were engineers and journalists. And most trained very hard to pass the tests, including some puzzling ones such as the isolation tank, in which candidates had to float in a tank with no sensory input for hours. This has the lovely effect of inducing schizophrenic hallucinations — but not, apparently, in these hardy women who were able to stay in the tank until the hungry experimenters finally had to pull them out so they could go have their dinners.

The story is a vivid reminder of the sexist climate of the sixties, where congressmen (and they were all men) thought nothing of speaking on the record about the inherent incapability of women to function during their periods — or at all, actually. Since African-American and Asian-Americans were also excluded from the space program at that time women were in good company.

The author makes a concerted effort to point out how much better the women were than the male candidates: more flying experience, more time in the tank, more everything, and that’s ok, to a point, but she seems unaware that the very fact there were only thirteen of them meant that a serious self-selection had occurred beforehand. It reminded me of the first year when women were allowed to compete for Polytechnique, France’s best Engineering school, and it turned out that the “major” [valedictorian — Polytechnique has a military pedigree] was a woman, Anne Chopinet. I remember staring at her picture with longing (although not for that awful hat the school uses) and suspecting that she had been an overachiever since birth. I just checked and she apparently has five children, so over-achiever all around… A few exceptional women don’t signal that all women are better than the men — although they certainly prove that discrimination is silly. Another interesting tidbit the author fails to comment on is that, although the thirteen women came from a variety of backgrounds, it’s startling to read how many were daughters or wives (or both) of upper-class men: I guess money can be liberating.

Interesting story, well worth reading.

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