Monthly Archives: December 2008

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

A Person of Interest opens as Dr. Lee’s office mate receives a package in the mail that contains a bomb that shatters his and Dr Lee’s office. Dr. Lee, a mathematician who immigrated from China, is a solitary man whose two wives have deserted him and whose daughter moved away and is rarely in touch. In his solitary, strictly logic-driven life, he seeks for an explanation to the bombing and accumulates odd behaviors —  odd to the uninitiated eye; they are perfectly logical for him —  that prompt the FBI to declare him a person of interest. The declaration scares and humiliates him, and starts a torrent of distrust at first, then outright hatred from his neighbors and his colleagues.

As the story of the criminal investigation unfolds the story of Dr. Lee’s life unfolds with it, because indeed the bomber is tied to his past and also because his new precarious position makes him revisit his family and professional history. I very much liked how the author linked the life of the hermit immigrant to the criminal investigation — and how well she understands the real-life challenges of good mathematicians… The bomber turns out to be a close relative of the Unabomber and we could have wished for a more inventive perpetrator, but the person of interest is, indeed, interesting.

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The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper

In The Book of Joe the hero, Joe, comes back to his hometown after many years’ absence because his father is very ill. While he was away Joe published a heavily autobiographical novel in which he told all the dirty secrets of the town inhabitants, therefore his welcome is cold. The first part of the novel is fast-paced, sarcastic, and funny as Joe stumble from one misunderstanding to another. The second part, after his dad dies, descends into cliches and self-righteous discoveries, unfortunately.

Easy to read throughout, but you may feel a bit unsatisfied and even guilty during part 2.

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Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

Within the space of this novel the 11-year old narrator of Tomato Girl has to contend with a mentally-ill mother, an adulterous father, a dead chick, a resurrected chick (different chick), incest, a miscarriage (not hers but witnessed and assisted by her), epilepsy (again, not hers), and many more minor mishaps. That’s a little much for an 11-year old, don’t you think?

Rounding off the case of characters we find a voodoo-making African American woman (she of the resurrected chick), lesbian schoolteachers, an amorous sheriff, and a kind store owner. It would be difficult to imagine a more stereotyped bunch.

The worse aspect of the novel is neither the piled-on disasters nor the hackneyed characters, but the unsteady voice of that narrator, who sometimes sounds like a much younger girl and sometimes like an older teenager, adding to the general discomfort. There are great books about tough childhoods: see The Glass Castle
or Bastard Out of Carolina. They are poignant and they ring true and they stay with you for a long time. This one doesn’t work.

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The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

Franklin County, VA gained its reputation as the wettest county in the US during and following Prohibition because of the almost incredible number of moonshiners it harbored. The Wettest County in the World is a novel based on the true story of the author’s family members as they set up stills, distribute their wares through complex, indirect mechanisms, and shoot, maim, and torture competitors who want a piece of the business. If you think you can look forward to a couple hundred pages of car chases and filthy living conditions, in addition to the aforementioned murders and torture sessions, this is the book for you.

Not for me.

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Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes is afraid of death. And aging. And he did not get along with his mother — at all. He has read an impressive array of philosophers and philosophers sans le savoir, and he is able to quote and cross-reference their thoughts effortlessly, or so it seems; I want to believe he had dozens of sticky-noted books surrounding him as he wrote. And he’s pretty sure he is not a religious man, even if religion could bring him solace in his death fear.  

Nothing to Be Frightened Of is an unusal memoir, and it took me a good 100 pages to start enjoying it. That’s when he explained how his doctor would need to tell him how many pages he had left to write if he found that he had some dreaded disease, as in, “Well, Mr. Barnes, 250 pages, maybe 300 if you hurry.” I bet he would, indeed, spend his remaining time writing his quota of pages.

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The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Written by a Canadian journalist, The Science of Fear tells us that we are afraid of a lot of things that are not worth worrying about because they are extremely unlikely while we ignore fairly common dangers. So we worry about plane crashes but not car crashes; we worry about breast cancer but not diabetes; we worry about pedophiles preying on our children but not about the cars that may hit them on the way to school (well, I worry about the cars, at least sometimes…)

The author then dissects the reason for our misplaced fears: we are afraid of what we cannot control, of what is spectacular, of everything having to do with children, our own or others, and of course of what the media tell us, and the media loves to delve on plane crashes, breast cancer in young women (even though breast cancer is much more common in older women, and lurkers who prey on children. We also tend to fear what our gut tells us to fear, and that’s not always what our heads would tell us: if we would simply pause and analyze dangers we would usually make a much better assessment of dangers and correctly conclude that driving a long distance is much more dangerous than flying, for instance.

Enjoyable and informative.

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Whatever Happened to Thrift by Ronald Wilcox

Whatever Happened to Thrift is a most timely book since it talks about the dismal savings rate of Americans, the problems this causes, and what could be done to reverse the trends. Some of the ideas seem fantastically difficult to implement (e.g. a consumption tax replacing the current income tax) but others seem almost too obvious, from automatic enrollments in retirement savings plans, as recommended also in Nudge, to a more transparent disclosure of fees in mutual funds (I feel much better knowing I’m not the only one who cannot make sense of them!)

All this in a mercifully short book – what more could we wish for? Well, for starters, some basic recommendations of how much thrift to aim for. It’s a beautifully done academic dissertation but the people could use some basic guidelines here. Is 10% saved for retirement enough? 15%? More? Perhaps one of the main causes for the low savings rate is the lack of clarity on what we should do. We seem to know more about how to tip our stylists than what to deposit in our 401Ks…

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Split by Suzanne Finnamore

Publishing an intimate diary, or what passes as one, is tricky (see Accidentally, on Purpose.) Split proposes to do just that for a very painful divorce: the author’s husband came home one evening, paid her a compliment (nice), went upstairs to change as usual, then came down to announce he was leaving and got into the car. All that with a two-year old in the house. Wow.

The book is the story of what happens in the year following that lovely day, from rage to depression to recovery.  Not having been in that boat myself I can’t quite understand how weird it must all feel, but weird behaviors are observed, most notably her sleeping with him, multiple times, even though she knows he is seeing someone else and has been for a long time. Why? I would be so very angry… And while I understand her affection for her mother-in-law (who shares my first name, so must be a wonderful woman) and I understand that she wants to preserve her son’s relationship with her, wouldn’t it be better to put a little distance between them? Her own mother is nearby and very generous with help, so it’s not like she’s all alone in the world.

There are funny parts in the book, most notably when a massive transgendered woman (assistant to one of her good friends) swoops in to help her cope, including digging up many tangible pieces of evidence that her husband cheated on her for years. She had seen all the signs but somehow refused to put two and two together, and even the copious credit card receipts require additional persuasion from the massive and kind woman to finally paint the picture.

A puzzling book for me.

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Orange County by Gustavo Arellano

Orange Countyis a memoir of Gustavo Arellano’s upbringing mixed with a history of the much-maligned Orange County, which, as Arellano points out, is much more than either orange groves (which have been replaced by houses anyway) or right-wing republicans (who are now replaced by democrats.) Other books (see here or here) have not been successful at mixing the personal with the historical but this one succeeds — mostly.

Arellano’s parents immigrated illegally and separately from the same area in Mexico to join a large community of immigrants from the same village, now settled in or close to Anaheim (his parents have now legalized their  immigration status.) He has aunts and uncles who live on the same street as his parents. They and other Mexican immigrants started in the US with very tough jobs, mostly as agricultural workers or in constructions, continue many of the traditions from the village such as regular dances or quinceaneras, and still speak poor English after decades in the country. Reading about their tough lives reminded me of the effort that go into the food we eat (see the last post.) But their children, whether or not they were born in the US, are well on their way to assimilation. They forget their Spanish (Arellano gets into trouble with her mom when he forgets the Spanish phrase for being embarassed, and tells her that his sister is “embarazada”, i.e. pregnant!); they mix easily with other groups and it’s clear that their children won’t have much more than their last name to remember they are from somewhere else. Arellano’s outspoken and refreshing take on anti-Mexican resentment and racism in California feels just right.

The story of Orange County is less interesting, perhaps simply because there’s not much to tell! My favorite part was the small vignettes he has about each city in Orange County, complete with blunt assessments of their populations and restaurants.

A great book to understand a little better the California mosaic. See here for another look at racism in California.

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Heirloom by Tim Stark

Heirloom is the memoir of a somewhat accidental organic farmer who specializes in heirloom tomatoes. From an improbable beginning gardening on the roof of his New York appartment, the author transforms his life as a freelance writer into that of a farmer, making many mistakes along the way and learning to market as he farms: with no chartered path, plenty of recognition from picky foodies, and moderate and highly variable financial rewards.

I liked the beginning of the book best. It tells the story of how the rooftop cultivation morphed into using his parents’ property in Pennsylvania (owned in common with another tenant, a legality that causes oodles of problems until today.) It talks about the travails of urbanites who move to the countryside, including how challenging it can be to select or even drive a used tractor. It describes the difficulties of finding, training, and keeping farm laborers. And it describes the epic schedules at harvest times to get the produce on the truck and into New York City without getting multiple parking tickets. The remaining chapters read more like newspaper columns (which is what they are) about various topics and they are interesting, but they are not as coherent.

A wonderful, not too preachy book about where food comes from and what it takes to deliver high-quality produce. Much better than Animal, Mineral, Vegetable, for instance.

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