Monthly Archives: February 2009

Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair

How can a smart, outspoken woman succeed in a position that requires the behavior of a potted plan, and a placid potted plan at that? Not very well, it seems, especially if said woman fails to notice the requirements of the job and persists in living an independent life and speaking out about topics she feels strongly about — including living that independent life. Cherie Blair’s story, Speaking for Myself, is engaging: born in a working class family, abandoned by her father at a young age, she managed to get into a good university and to embark on a successful law career at a time when few women made it (and she has some interesting stories on how women struggled to get the good internships required for a law career.) She even ran for the British parliament, which I did not know, at the same time her famous husband did.

Their long years at 10 Downing Street must have been quite painful for her, with a vicious English press ready to pounce on any deviation from the perfect potted plant behavior mentioned above. She never shies from telling all the stories, even the embarrassing ones that are not central to the main plot such as her overabundance of boyfriends (way before the 10 Downing Street years); bad sartorial choices; pregnancies planned, unplanned, and lost. It’s a true woman’s book: the baby stories mix with the career adventures and meeting with the queen, no compartmentalizing at all.

The husbands and wives of future and new world leaders would find much to learn in the book — and I enjoyed the narrative despite its clumsiness (and the very boring descriptions of political campaigns.)

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Planthropology by Ken Druse

And now for something completely different: Planthropologyis a mix of a science and gardening, with a whiff of memoir thrown in as well as the most gorgeous photographs of plants, right in the text and not banished to a special section that requires back and forth page turning.

The author talks about Fibonacci numbers and sunflower seeds,  bumblebees vibrating flowers into pollinating, why so many plants are called Banksia, and his mother’s love of lilac. It’s a complete delight and my only regret is that his garden is on the East Coast and cannot and should not be replicated in dry and mild-wintered California. A perfect book for a dreary winter day.

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The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Three sad family stories in a row (see here and here?) Yes, but The Little Giant of Aberdeen Countyis actually full of hope. It’s the story of a luckless girl who not only has some kind of (undiagnosed) pituitary gland disorder that makes her the giant of the title but who also loses her mother at birth and her father shortly afterwards and is sent to a falling-down farm, unlike her attractive sister who is brought up by a comfortable family in town.

She is shunned by the teacher, the one boy who likes her is mained in Vietnam, and she is seemingly exploited by her doctor and brother-in-law employer. But she’s smart and will outsmart him and help save his nephew from his father’s dictatorial ways.

The story includes a dose of magic and badly interpreted herbal remedies, which should rile me up, but it’s so engrossing and the characters so compellingly complex that I overlooked it all. Next time, can we skip all that and just concentrate on a great story?

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Things I’ve been Silent About by Azar Nafisi

Things I’ve Been Silent About is the memoir of the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book I found very boring despite its critical acclaim and intriguing subject matter: a group of women who study banned Western novels in Tehran. This book recalls the author’s entire life starting with her parents’ marriage within the comfortable lifestyle of the Iranian elite.

It’s not an idyllic childhood. Her mother, who herself lost her mom at a young age and was reared none too kindly by her stepmother, clearly prefers her son to her daughter and is drawn to complicated behaviors and demands with everyone, and especially her daughter. Her beloved father is imprisoned under trumped political charges and increasingly maintains a second life with other women, avoiding his wife but never coming clean with her. The author is sent to England and later Switzerland to study and is left alone at a young age in an unfamiliar country with a different language.

I liked two aspects of this book. One is the intertwining of personal and public history: how her dad’s rise in the Shah’s government changed the family, how his imprisonment broke it up, how the Iran revolution divided her extended family in unexpected and tragic ways. The other is the painful, detailed accounting of her mother’s convoluted, needy, miserable self. Was she doomed from the start or could she have been transformed with just a little TLC as a child?

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Disquiet by Julia Leigh

Prepare to be depressed. The 120 pages of Disquiet describe a family where nothing works: the grandmother lives in splendid isolation and self-centeredness in her French chateau. The daughter has left her abusive husband and seems only marginally able to tend to her young son and daughter. The son’s wife has just had a stillborn daughter. (I feel bound to note that France has an extremely low rate of stillbirths contrary to one might think from the books I’ve been reading.) The son’s wife walks around with her dead baby and refuses to bury it. The son holds secretive cellphone conversations with his mistress. The children come close to drowning.

Happy yet?

The very beginning of the book is breathtaking (for me): the daughter, returning to the chateau after a long absence, finds that the main gate is locked electronically and goes hunting for a small side door she remembers. You can feel the ivy in her hand.

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Elsewhere, USA by Dalton Conley

We can work anywhere (at least those of us whose work consists of moving information around.) It’s easier to whip our credit card around than pay cash so we get into debt. Crime is switching from stealing things to stealing identities.

Elsewhere, U.S.A makes these less than novel observations in a number of disjointed chapters that flow well towards … nothing! It would be nice to see some kind of theme or recommendations to tie it all together. Maybe that’s the whole point: we’re too busy to think?

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Emily Post by Laura Claridge

Emily Post is not an etiquette book: it’s the biography of the etiquette book author, from her birth in an upper class East Coast family through her unsuccessful marriage to a womanizing husband, against a backdrop of eerily familiar stock market crashes, and her final transformation into etiquette maven. The story is long and includes such irrelevant details as the unveiling of the statue of liberty (the base of which was designed by Emily’s uncle, to be sure, but who cares?) but when we get to Emily’s adult life we can see an intelligent, enterprising woman who must behave within the constraints of her time and class. Before she wrote the famous etiquette book she wrote novels (pretty bad chick lit, it seems, but reasonably successful) and advice columns in women’s magazines. What a different life she would have had today as a business entrepreneur!

Her industrious streak made me think of Lillian Gilbreth (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame, but I much prefer Making Time for a more personal view) who seems to have displayed the same anachronistic business acumen — and indeed she makes an appearance late in this book. The two met but never became friends. They were probably too much alike.

Despite the sometimes unwieldy prose (surely we could live without the word “perfervid” that’s used not once, but twice!) and the aforementioned slow start, an interesting look at how quickly the lives of women changed in America in the early 20th century.

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