Levittown touches on the story of the famous suburbs, but only to tell the tale of the integration of the falsely perfect community, which not only rejected African-American buyers but also prohibited renting to African Americans. When the Myers family purchases a home from its departing white owners, ugly violence ensues, even though the Myers have three small children including a baby! This is 1957. Fortunately many other residents support the black family through letters, practical help, and by keeping vigil when the police proves unequal to the task, but the minority of haters manages to create a dangerous and more than hostile climate until (slow) justice is done.
Monthly Archives: March 2009
Loneliness as a Way of Life is a sad, eligiac rumination about loneliness, quite different from the other Loneliness title reviewed here earlier, which cast a clinical look at the lonely. This one will appeal more to the literature minded, as the author uses King Lear, The Old Man and the Sea, and many other references to analyze the feelings and action of lonely people. It’s not my cup of tea. My favorite parts of the book were the ones where he got more personal, speaking of growing up as a orphan and the early death of his wife. Alas, the personal bits are just that, bits.
Securing the City describes the creation and operation of the New York Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit. If you thought that fighting terrorism was the province of the CIA or the FBI, you will be surprised to know that the NYPD maintains operatives in foreign countries and maintains tight links with multiple foreign anti-terrorism groups.
Some of the stories are very inspiring. For instance, the NYPD was able to quickly recruit, hire, and train many Arabic speakers by simply reaching out to its own, non-native but assimilated population (of US citizens, to boot) while the extreme bureaucratic requirements of the CIA or the FBI seriously hampered their efforts. It was able to dispatch police officers to the scenes of the Madrid and London public transportation bombings to bring back lessons on how to spot would-be terrorists and implement immediate new protection measures — whereas the other agencies took months to issue a wonderful, but very late report. It regularly stages “swarms” of police officers in sensitive spots to reassure the public that it is safe; dissuade would-be terrorists from targeting such unexpectedly-protected landmarks; and also train the police to think about terrorists along with their other regular duties.
Other stories are chilling. I’m not sure I would like to be watched from the sky, 24×7 (naturally I was, unknowingly, when I visited New York last year.) It seems that the vast resources assigned to the terrorist task force could perhaps be spent in other ways. And it’s also clear that the intercine wars between the federal organizations and the NYPD terorist unit are incredibly wasteful: it would surely be better to merge the efforts and share the techniques more transparently rather than duplicate the expenses. Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether such a frenzy around terrorism may not feed on itself: we must spend more because we know more about plots — even if, as the book makes clear, most terrorists are quite inept and pause little danger except to themselves.
Perhaps I should pick less dark novels? The Vagrants tells the story of a Chinese town after the Cultural Revolution where a supposed “counter-revolutionary” is savagely executed (and her kidneys given to a high-ranking officials) and the ensuing popular protest is squashed just as savagely. To enliven the story add the distressed parents of the counter-revolutionary; a dirt-poor family with too many girls to raise who treats the oldest as a semi-slave; a sadist who pretends to volunteer to bury the executed woman; and a good-for nothing young man who turns out to be surprisingly sweet, the one ray of hope in the story.
Yet another proof that authoritarian regimes mangle people. Well-written, a little slow to my taste, and mostly gloomy.
Panic is the simplest of books: a compilation of newspaper and magazine articles about recent economic “crises” (from 1987 on.) The technique is very effective: it’s surprisingly refreshing — and oddly comforting at the same time — to read dark predictions about the stock market made in the wake of the 1987 “Black Friday” that read just like the ones written today. About a third into the book I must admit I got a bit bored. The pundits who pretend to predict the future are clearly not as clairvoyant as they’d like us to know, and with hindsight it shows.
And it’s most sobering to read again about the tech bubble, including many of my customers…
Overall, a good antidote to getting sucked in by today’s analyses, made in the same chaos as earlier crises.
I’m afraid Ritournelle de la Faim is available only in French at this point. It’s a depressing Word War II novel about a teenage girl whose great uncle dreams of the Ile Maurice he left as a young man – and adores her (that part is very sweet and not at all depressing!) Her irresponsible family is surrounded by a motley crew of Mauritian emigres; she befriends an arrogant and scheming Russian emigre and falls in love with a French Jew. She ends up taking care of her parents during the war and is eventually reunited with her lover. A sad book with fine emotional nuances, but a tad slow-moving and dark for my taste
By the always funny and understated David Lodge, Deaf Sentence starts out as a simple, perhaps superficial story about middle-aged deafness with hilarious observations about the indignities of miscommunications but veers into the heartbreak of helping aging parents, balanced by the joys and beauty of simple things. Very meditative and zen by the end, after you enjoy the pure fun and silliness of the first 100 pages.
A Jury of Her Peers is a dense and long (600 pages) book that chronicles women writers in America. It’s obviously difficult to catalog so many authors without falling into a rigid, often boring format of one paragraph to one chapter per author but the author does her best. The best features of the book are the frequent book summaries and quotes that bring the writing to life — and may inspire all of us to read forgotten authors.
What struck me while reading this book was the ongoing struggle for women to find time to write (too many babies, too many controlling husbands, too many chores) and, even when they did, recognition for what they did — not just in book sales, but from the critics, who don’t seem to find much value in writing about women’s themes. If one writes best about one’s own experience, wouldn’t it make sense that the same women who have been bound to their families and homes in such tight bounds would write about families, babies, and chores, not exclusively of course, but at least some of the time?
Animals Make Us Human is the latest book by Temple Grandin, the autistic author and animal specialist of Animals in Translation‘s fame. While I must say I enjoyed Animals in Translation better than this one, which focuses more on pets, and is naturally less fresh than the first one, I continue to admire the author’s perceptiveness of what makes animals react the way they do — and how to improve their treatment regardless of whether they are treated as beloved pets or destined for food factories. She excels as explaining how more humane treatment does not need to be expensive and may even bring financial rewards by preserving the quality of the meat.
Don’t look for lovely prose: even with the help of a ghost writer the text is quite wooden — but interesting.
So eery that I decided to read this particular book last week…
Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond is a sobering and practical guide to how to prepare for our final months and weeks on earth and make things easier and better for us and our families and friends. The book includes a hodge-podge of basic practical tips (the cost of coffins, a sample health care proxy), heartfelt stories about “successful” and not-so-successful transitions, and ideas for navigating the complex medical and psychological needs of people who are close to death.
Not a great way to cheer up on a winter night but probably a good investment regardless of our age. (And fill out that donor card, will you?)