Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

It seems disrespecful to diss The Last Lecture, a book written by a father of three young children and professor at CMU who was told he would die shortly of pancreatic cancer (and has since died) and wanted to leave behind a tangible memento to his family. I am told that the actual last lecture, which was videotaped is very inspiring.

The book is not. Randy Pausch comes across in turns as arrogant (which he says he “used to be” — what must that had been like?) and naive, with would-be inspiring sections such as “Tell the Truth”. The book is assembled from converations Randy Pausch had with his ghost-writer, and I imagine under heavy time pressure, and it shows. Read something else.

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Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh

I know it’s supposed to be a satire. I know it’s supposed to be over the top. But Mother on Fire wanders not only over the top but sideways and over to the next valley, leaving the reader confused and often bored by the diatribe approach. About what? Ms. Loh is telling us about her quest to find a kindergarten for her daughter Hannah in Los Angeles, which happens to have a mediocre public school system, a system that inspires such fear and collective hysteria that she visits multiple private schools, each of which subjects her daughter to various tests, and ends up giving serious consideration to paying a $22,500 tuition (plus fees) to protect her precious daughter from the terrible stain of attending the “Mexican” (her word) neighborhood school. After her husband calmly computes that no, it won’t be possible to find $22,500 (they have a younger daughter as well), she finally visits the dreadful neighborhood school and finds an oasis of calm complete with a child-centered staff. Eventually her daughter gets accepted into the (public) magnet school she thought would be acceptable all along.

There are some funny portraits of crazy moms (yes, crazier than her! it’s possible); greedy private school administrators; and a harsh depiction of her pushy and stingy dad. Unfortunately the book is too long and too busy ranting about everything in sight to fully appreciate them.

And now my own rant:  how can apparently sane and educated parents take leave of their senses so easily? How can one decide a school is unacceptable without ever visiting it? How can anyone believe that paying twice the (public) university tuition for a kindergartner could be required for success? Are we creating our own drama here? Get real. Go vote instead of reading this book.

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Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you All by Christina Thompson

Come on Shore and we will Kill and Eat you All has to have the best title of the year – nah, make it the decade, perhaps the best title of any book I’ve ever read. It turns out to be a quote from the explorer Cook, who had several experiences with the ferocity of the Maoris.

The book itself is hard to classify. It starts out as the relatively straightforward story of how the author, the daughter of an upper-class mother and an academic father, meets, marries, and makes a life with her Maori husband, but the family story is interspersed with many tales of the discovery and subsequent conquest of New Zeland by the Europeans — a story that sadly resembles other conquests in other parts the world. The book is not a sorry tale, however. It tells lovingly of the beauty of New Zealand, which I hope would come through convincingly to readers who have not been there. It sure made me want to go back.

It also talks about marrying someone very different from oneself. Seven, her husband, not only looks different (and sticks out in the affluent Boston suburb where they eventually move in with her parents) but is also a blue-collar worker when she is a highly-educated academic and approaches life in the most relaxed manner, something she has not liked to do since her younger days. (After all she met him in a bar in  on the Bay of Islands, having decided not to get on her bus back to the airport…)  Their life together is, as expected, a full of compromises, mostly gracious ones.

The weakest part of the book is the last chapter or two, in which for unknown reasons she decides she must tell the story of her mother’s family, for balance. I would gladly have stayed in the Southern hemisphere instead.

A delightful, different, deep book. Highly recommended, and not just because of the title.

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The Legal Limit by Martin Clark

The Legal Limit is a legal thriller that tells of two brothers, one crushed by his abusive father and the other one apparently capable of sublimating his difficult childhood into a judge’s position and a stable life. When they were young adults the bad one killed a guy and the “good” one covered for him, which will haunt him for life, not so much through his conscience but more as he fears being found out for lying, and later as his brother tries to exploit the lie to his advantage.

What I found interesting inThe Legal Limitis the non-perfect goodness of the good brother. Wait until you see what else he’s up to later in life; “good” is only the superficial impression. I also enjoyed the description of small-town life where everyone knows everyone else’s business, bringing both comfort and lack of privacy.

The Legal Limit has some messy aspects. For instance the judge’s wife is killed for no particular reason. That’s fine: perhaps there’s never a good reason to get killed, but the author never makes much out of her death, except for her husband’s subsequent depression, which could have occurred just as naturally with a less spectacular event, say if she had left him to return to the big city. And the last few pages of the book are bizarre: why not just end at the end of the legal saga? No need to tie things up with a grandchild. But those are nits. Good read, kept me turning the pages.

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The Colony by John Tayman

The Colony tells the true, often romanticized, but shameful story of the lepers’ colony in Molokai, Hawaii, which was created in the late 1800’s and lasting through the middle of the 20th century. Before I read this book all I knew about it was the figure of Father Damien, a Belgian missionary who volunteered to live in the colony and take care of the exiles. Father Damien is indeed discussed in The Colony, and he appears to be as good a person as the stories about him make him to be, but unfortunately he did not get to Molokai until decades had passed and dozens of inmates had died in terrible circumstances: very little food, abysmal housing and sanitary conditions, and in many cases even the wrong diagnosis. It also turns out that leprosy is not, in fact, very contagious, and in any case most people have a natural immunity to it so for them it’s not contagious at all. In other words, most of the people banished there could have stayed in their homes and with their families without any problems, even in the absence of treatment – which consists of antibiotics, hence was not available until the end of the existence of the colony.

So the topic is interesting and chilling: there are misguided medical “experts” who sway governmental bodies to make drastic decisions; operators who don’t hesitate to pocket the money dispensed by the state and never are found out since no one is looking too closely; potential targets for exile who hide their condition or are helped by their families, which means they are not treated at all and infect others (leprosy is not very contagious, but it is contagious.) The problem for me was that I found the book to be pretty boring, with too many details I did not care much about, like the exact dates on which patients were brought to the island. I found myself flipping pages at times. Still it’s worth reading about the dangers of excluding human beings from society for any reason, and it certainly gives a different aspect to the vacation-oriented islands we know.

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Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

CSI Jeddah: Zoe Ferraris’s first novel,Finding Nouf,  reads like an exotic CSI story, complete with a death in the first few minutes, illicit sex (yes, even in Jeddah), family members who may be telling the truth but rarely the whole truth, suspicious foreigners (a la the South Americans in CSI Miami), a determined and attractive investigator, herself (!) entangled with the victim,  a twisted plot that unfolds both through standard detective work and the wonders of modern biology, and special local customs, from using potholders to open car doors when it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit to, naturally, the condition of women in Saudi Arabia (a bit thickly laid on, that last one, but tolerable.)

Like CSI, Finding Noufis engrossing, occasionally unbelievable, and not always very subtle but fun. A great choice for a quick dose of exoticism.

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The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg

The Prince of Frogdown is a cleverly-told story of the author’s father interleaved with the story of his relationship with his young stepson. His dad was a poor Alabaman blue collar worker who drank too much, abandoned his family, and died young. His stepson, a well-loved, well-protected little boy is having a totally different childhood than one in the shadow of a drunk father — so the author finds himself ill-equipped to share his experiences with him, and indeed angers the boy’s mother when he gives him tips on fighting other kids and other necessities for a rough childhood.

Rick Bragg writes compelling descriptions of the rural South; of company towns where the employer controls everything, from housing on down; of why bright women marry losers. But I just could not get into the book. I guess I’ve read too many other stories of tough childhoods and the only special features of this one, the touching interactions with the stepson, just were too few and far between. Read something else.

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