Monthly Archives: January 2009

Family Planning by Karan Mahajan

The hero of Family Planning is a teenage boy with 12 siblings (or perhaps 13?) because his father’s very complicated relationship with the person who turns out to be his stepmother, not his mother, requires that she be pregnant at all times. In an understandable attempt to escape his chaotic home life the father is busy creating more havoc by overseeing the construction of absurd new freeways and bridges in New Delhi while cultivating the prime minister, a woman, whom he thinks he can maneuver but not quite.

Family Planning is a madcap book that veers off into nonsense occasionally and neglects important characters like the stepmother but it’s good fun and the ending is not as abrupt as one could fear. Another refreshingly different view of an Indian family, like The White Tiger.

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The Big Necessity by Rose George

My dad, who is a physician, always says that the increase in life expectancy around the world owes a lot more to hygiene than medicine, and I was delighted and comforted to read an official confirmation of his belief within the first pages of The Big Necessity, a wonderfully entertaining book about… toilets, or at least the difficult and age-old problems of handling human waste. The author introduces us to sewer workers, toilet manufacturers, civil engineers, aid workers, and many whose first problem is to get others comfortable discussing shit (their preferred terminology, it seems) in public. Along the way she makes a wonderful case for why toilet paper is barbaric compared to the Japanese Toto toilets (once you know what buttons to push) and why Japanese and Western toilets may be exactly the wrong answer when it comes to the environment.

A wonderful book. Don’t be put off by the subject!

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Having read this delighful book about real hedgehogs I was reminded about another book with a (symbolic) hedgehog in the title, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I coincidentally heard had just been translated into English. I read it a couple years ago, and in French, so I’m hoping both my memory and the translation will be faithful enough for a useful review.

The book’s narrator is a middle-aged concierge of a snooty Paris apartment building. The tenants don’t appear to notice her; she is so far below their sphere, or so they think, and indeed she cultivates a dull appearance but is in fact very smart, well-read, with cosmopolitan tastes and an endlessly curious mind. Enter two more characters who live in the building: a precocious 12-year old girl with snobbish parents and an especially irritating mother and a newcomer, a Japanese businessman who, perhaps because he is an outsider, treats the concierge and the 12-year old with respect and kindness. The developing friendships delight and occasionally scare the three and are narrated with an endless stream of witty comments on everyone else. A delicious read.

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The Hedgehog’s Dilemma by Hugh Warwick

This choice of yet another animal-centered book was not the result of a hurried choice (see here) but I loved it too! Maybe I’m getting soft towards animals in my old age? The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a delightful series of essays and ruminations about hedgehogs, written by an English scientist who has been studying them for years and can speak fondly of their wet faces, bad smell, and inconvenient (for the researcher) nocturnal habits.

Who knew a rodent could be so engaging? And I’m not even mentioning the crazed (British) hedgehog rescuers or the really crazed (American) Hedgehog Olympics participants. Even the less entertaining chapters such as his quest for hedgehogs in China always note unexpected details and reflections on life and human nature. Highly recommended

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Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein

Thankfully, Fred Astaire is not written like a standard, linear biography but rather uses each chapter to present various aspects of his career and to discuss controversies such as how he should be ranked compared to Gene Kelly. Despite the arrangement the author manages to tell Astaire’s story clearly enough for someone who doesn’t know much about him. He gushes about his admiration for the man but the tone is witty and airy rather than fawning, making for a fast-moving and fun book.

So now that I know that Fred Astaire was short, bald, not a particularly gifted dancer, and a worry wart to boot, will I continue to enjoy his legendary movies?

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More than you Know by Beth Gutcheon

More Than You Know is the account of two doomed love stories taking place in the same Maine village a hundred years apart, the more recent story featuring a ghost from the first one, a ghost that is visible only to the lovers in the second story, no one else. Why they are not promptly shut up in a psychiatric hospital is not clear to me. The older love story is not so bad, with a headstrong daughter defying her parents to marry a man they (rightly) see as unsuitable, but it’s never clear how their great love peters out and flips over to hatred. And the point-counterpoint arrangement of one chapter for the old story and one for the new is way too neatly arranged.

I would recommend finding another story to read, sans ghosts.

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Hippocrates’ Shadow by David Newman

Hippocrates’ Shadow claims to tell us what “doctors don’t know and don’t tell us” but it does a lot more. Using both individual patients’ vignettes (that thankfully feel fresh and real) and more general analyses it makes a good case that we should cough rather than drink cough syrup, avoid antibiotics for sore throats, reconsider routine (as opposed to diagnostic) mammograms, and perhaps change the way new drugs get approved when they are not obviously beneficial compared to what already exists.

David Newman is able to explain the concepts simply and I wish that all doctors could be equally plain-spoken. Certainly many patients would resist, since it’s difficult to accept that our ills cannot be cured with the appropriate pill, but it would be a welcome change as a patient to be given a few simple numbers about why the doctor recommends a particular course of action.

I particularly enjoyed his description of why placebos work and whether placebos should ever be prescribed.  You will like this book if you enjoyed Better, and vice-versa.

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Catch me if you can by Frank Abagnale

Catch Me If You Can was made into a movie, which I have not seen, and indeed it reads like a movie, grandiose and frequently hard to believe… but, it seems, all true.

In the late sixties, Frank Abagnale, who is now a respectable-looking man with a family and a security (!) business, made millions as a crook, most notably by impersonating airline pilots but also as a (fake) physician, attorney, and professor. You would think that the tale would be revolting, but I found it fascinating. This very young man was able to con so many because he took the time to carefully study systems, whether the check-clearing system of banks or the way pilots were scheduled to fly on other airlines, and people, and to use that knowledge to exploit both to his advantage. 

My favorite scam of his is one where he recruited a number of young women from a college in Arizona, pretending to be a Pan Am pilot, and toured all over Europe with them dressed as flight attendants with them believing that they were bona fide Pan Am employees on a promotional tour. The whole thing was financed by large amounts of bogus checks, all cashed by unsuspecting hotel and airport clerks. In an era of credit cards and ATMs the specific swindles he was able to get away with would not be possible but his manner and techniques in getting all kinds of people to trust him would be just as effective. Just imagine what he would do with computer passwords!

A nostalgic aspect of the book is that he chooses to impersonate an airline pilot, someone with an aura of respectability and prestige at the time. Not so much today, even with the recent exploits of the Hudson River landing…

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This Land is their Land by Barbara Eherenheich

Sometimes, we get lucky. So when I select a book in a hurry I can get Dewey. And sometimes not — I get This Land Is Their Land, in which Barbara Eherenheich spreads her usual venom and dislocated logic (see Nickel and Dimed) to deplore our polarized society of ultra-rich and very poor. I agree with many of her points, starting with the unseemly worship of greed, and I must say that she gives many apt, funny/sad examples. The one that sticks in my mind is that of the hospital employee whose wages are garnished by her employer because she could pay her sky-high hospital bills… incurred in the same hospital. Sigh.

What’s missing is any hint of solutions or suggestions to the problem. Certainly it’s a difficult problem but it seems that the author cannot go beyond her rantings and towards a fix other than the obviously circular concept that the rich should not be rich. What’s also missing is internal logic. In one essay she bemoans the fact that poor people don’t have access to a proper banking system (perhaps an oxymoron, these days, “proper banking system”…); in the next she denounces the issuing of mortgages to the same poor. Surely those mortgage-holders own a checking account. Still a shame to push unaffordable mortgages but it’s a different shame.

There must be many other constructive things you can do than read this book.

[end of (my) rant]

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Dewey by Vicki Myron

Why would I, who don’t care a wit for cats,  pick up a book named after a cat and whose cover displays a picture of a (good-looking) cat? Simple: the library was about to close not only for the day but for an additional 24 hours as befits the observance of Martin Luther King day, and no better prospect was in view. So I picked up Dewey, the story of a perfectly-named library cat, and I fell in love, at least until almost the end.

Dewey is the story of a cat, of course, but his story, told by his besotted library director and owner, is interspersed by numerous other accounts of libraries, Iowa, small town life, the intricacies of corn growing, real estate crashes (not the one we are in), and, less satisfyingly, the librarian’s personal life.

I did not care to hear about the medical and personal travails of the librarian — beyond her initial escape from an alcoholic husband as a young woman with a baby and no education, which was heart-warming and inspiring — but I found the other themes quite fascinating. The description of the farm land bubble in the 80s was eerily reminiscent of the current real estate bubble. And even if you do not aspire to running a library in a small town you may appreciate, as I did, what it takes to run an effective library that can bring people together even if they use it to look for a job rather than to read books.

Lovely book. Consider skipping the last third?

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