Monthly Archives: June 2008

What now? by Ann Patchett

If you won’t be attending a graduation ceremony this year, What now? is the book for you: the perfect commencement address sans the harsh sun, the uncomfortable chairs, or the awkward small talk with the other parents. And if you are on graduation duty, I bet the speeches won’t be as good as this one. Without spoiling the fun, there’s a wonderful story about baking at the very beginning…

My only gripe is about the graphics. The “book” is really quite short so the editor found it necessary to intersperse a plethora of photos and drawings of paths, mazes, and other heavy-handed imagery about choices all throughout the book. One would be wonderful (like the cover); such a large number is intrusive and annoying.

P.S. An especially nice treat for Ann Patchett’s fans.

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The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I happened to read The Ten-Year Nap right after the dreary Opting In and I could not help but notice how an entertaining, if mindless novel can make a much better point than a serious expose on the very same topic. The women of The Ten-Year Nap have, for the most part, left high-powered careers (sometimes rather improbably high-powered) to take care of their precious 4th graders, all attending a posh private school in New York City. One of the rare moms who is still working (albeit with a seriously light schedule) is having an affair: bad working mom (she gets her comeuppance, no worries!) And by the end of the book many moms have started working again, liberating their finances, themselves, and perhaps their children of their overtight embraces.

I’d vote this to be a great beach book. Won’t stretch the brain too much but fun and entertaining.

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Opting In by Amy Richards

Opting In has a wonderful title: written in response to the insidious “opt-out” movement through which educated women are supposedly dropping careers for babies, it aims at describing how feminists relate to families and children.

In fact, it’s a very awkward book: half personal anecdotes about her children, her non-husband partner, and her role as the main wage-earner (all fairly non-remarkable) and half angst about how can she ever keep her head high when she chose not to give birth at home, her sons prefer trucks to dolls, and other faux pas. I thought feminism was about liberation and not automatically judging other women by the standards of the day, or our own. Did we just change the standards to home births, not staying home with the kids, and giving dolls to boys? What kind of liberation is that?

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Death Benefits by Jeanne Safer

Death Benefits is written by a psychologist and claims to describe how losing a parent can be an inspiration for making positive changes. In fact, it’s more a self-reflection of how the author felt liberated by her mother’s death and was finally able to come to term with the patently unjust fact that she did not inherit her mother’s great legs. For crying out loud! Where is it written that our parents’ assets simply must be passed on to us? And how could a psychologist not be able to come to terms with this difficult situation before her mother’s death?

Find something else to read.

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Beautiful Boy by David Scheff

Beautiful Boy describes every parent’s nightmare: the addicted kid (to meth, of all possible horrible choices!) The author is a journalist and tries to tell the story from an impartial, outside perspective – but his anguish pokes through the surface. He seems very convinced that his divorce from the boy’s mother created all the problems, although his second wife seems to have a wonderful relationship with his son. It seems to me that the divorce was much less important than other unwise decisions, like smoking a joint with his son for instance. But the story is not about blame: it’s about the pain of seeing a child just slip away, again and again.

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A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Tolz

A Fraction of the Whole is a grandiose saga of the Dean family, starting and ending in Australia but ranging to Paris and Thailand with unprobable situations every few pages but anchored in the outsized and definitely out-of-the-norm personalities of the narrator’s father and uncle. I thought the first part (based in Australia) was brilliant. The second part (based in Paris) seemed more forced, and he got a few details wrong. The last part, back in Australia with a little Thailand detour, is also pretty good so don’t get discouraged in the middle. It is a very long book.

A wonderful vacation book: you’ll want to read it in long installments so you can stay with the complicated story.

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Hullabalo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai

Hullaballo in the Guava Orchard is a goofy comedy built around a failed post office clerk who climbs into a tree and unexpectedly becomes a revered holy man. There’s a gallery of funny characters and glimpses of the corrupt Indian civil service (the postmaster uses his clerks to prepare for this daughter’s wedding, for instance) but nothing of much substance. Much lighter and easier to read than her Inheritance of Loss. Kind of a Carl Hiaasen in India (but without the fun ending.)

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Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit

Sneaker Wars is the story of Adidas and Puma, founded by feuding brothers in a small town in Southern Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. I picked up the book because I felt I was a faithful contributor to Adidas and wanted to know more about its origin. The detail that caught my attention most was the origin of the name: one of the brothers was called Adolf (!) Dassler, nicknamed Adi, hence Adidas. This came in the first chapter so there were another 390 pages of sneaky intrigues against Puma, bribing athletes to wear the shoes at the Olympics, and (weirdly) competing between the French subsidiary of Adidas (led by Adi’s older son) and headquarters. A bit tedious..

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Black, White, and Jewish by Rebecca Walker

Rebecca Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker and a white, Jewish father (long since divorced from Alice Walker and remarried) and Black, White, and Jewish is her autobiography. A “child of the [civil rights] movement”, Rebcca had a few apparently idyllic years living with both parents, but they soon divorced and settled on a bizarre custody schedule of two years with one parent, then two years with the other (Alice Walker had moved to California by then while her ex-husband stayed in the New York area), guaranteeing that Rebecca could not make lasting friendships in either place.

She also recalls an amazing degree of freedom, or neglect, allowing her to sample sex and drugs starting at age 12, which seems just a little too young for me…  And it’s not just her mom choosing her work over her daughter: she seems to have enjoyed the same freedom while staying with her dad and his second family. The book focuses on her inability to ever fit in either world, her mom’s bohemian San Francisco artsy crowd or her dad’s conservative white suburb, but it’s the appalling lack of adult presence in her youth that got to me.

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Mudbound is the story of a woman who follows her husband – unwillingly – to life on a farm in the Mississippi Delta complete with dirt floors, racism, and wife-beating husbands. (Re)enters her husband’s younger brother, back from World War II, along with a black tenant’s son who also fought in a much more egalitarian situation than the farm and complications ensue.

The ending, however horrifying, is easy to foresee but the story is well told and when the book ends you’ll want to know what happens to Laura and Florence, the black tenant.

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