Monthly Archives: April 2009

Life without Lawyers by Philip Howard

Philip Howard is a lawyer so I was wondering how harsh he would be to his own tribe — he is pretty harsh! He tells or retells ridiculous stories of legal silliness, from a kindergartner arrested for misbehaving because the teachers thought they could not touch her to decades-old street trees cut because they prevent one allergic child  to use a (newly-built) swimming pool. Life Without Lawyers tells excellent stories and even suggests interesting solutions but the author never makes it clear how the solutions are to be implemented. Frustrating.

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Filed under Non fiction

How not to Die by Jan Garavaglia

I picked up How Not to Die thinking it would be an entertaining, CSI-like view at what medical examiners see. Instead I got a laundry list of “don’ts” including such un-illuminating gems as: don’t drink and drive (really? I had no idea!); don’t be extremely obese (duh!); don’t trip on the bathroom rug (I might have made that one up); don’t forget to brush your teeth; don’t ignore AIDS diagnoses (really, she does say that.)

If I wanted to get scared about all the mishaps that could potentially be my downfall I would read the scary medical story of the month in Woman’s Day or any other women’s magazine. And the autopsy details are really gross even for a self-styled tough kid.

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One Nation Under Dog by Michael Schaffer

I’m continuing my accidental exploration of pets and their owners (I really cannot say “parents”, sorry), that has so far included Animals make us Human (balanced, factual),  Tell Me Where It Hurts (slightly over the top, but readable) and Rescuing Sprite (way over the top, unreadable for non pet-lovers at least.)

One Nation Under Dog gives us more stories of blueberry facials for pets (makes their hair fluffy, supposedly); Prozac for dogs that really should be exercised hours every day but can instead be drugged and sleep at home contentedly; and dog walkers  who make 100,000 a year exercising the dog, which sounds so much better than the Prozac to me!

The author keeps a good sense of humor, pointing out that he and his wife adopted a puppy promising not to go over the board (but fell for the Prozac all the same) and sympathizing with all the people who choose a dog over loneliness. I still find it hard to understand why dogs who are considered part of the family spent most of their lives alone. Perhaps the idea of pet loaners, descrived in the book, would be a better fit for everyone involved?

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Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

Vintage Maeve Binchy, Heart and Soul is a thick, satisfyingly complex tale set in modern Ireland (that is, complete with ubiquitous cell phones, eager Polish immigrants, a very slimmed down Catholic church, posh houses and faraway vacations.) The setting this time is an outpatient heart clinic, which allows for a generous mixture of medical staff and a large cast of quirky patients, not to forget the aforementioned hard-working Polish immigrant, hence romances, conflicts, and a marriage at the end (with at least two others in the making.) As usual the stories bring out the essential goodness of most characters, the moderate evils of a few, and assorted disasters and mishaps that make for a good story without straining the imagination too much. There are also several allusions to past books, including the reappearance of the Quentin’s restaurant, memories from Greece, and twins that finish each other’s sentences.

All said, good enough to stay up until 1am reading it…

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Filed under New fiction

The Believers by Zoe Heller

The Believers is the story of an aging left-wing activist couple whose husband suffers a stroke in the first chapter of the book and never recovers. Meanwhile, his wife and soon-to-be widow deploys her mean streak as she discovers her husband’s mistress and illegitimate child (that would be a shock) and their own children’s failures to adhere to her narrow view of what their lives should be (what’s so wrong with religion after all? what’s wrong with being too nice?) — while managing to ignore her contribution to their adopted son’s drug addiction and general misbehavior.

I found that the most lovable character of the story was the older daughter who both fails to live up to her mother’s expectations of independence and manages an ill-advised and unsuccessful romance with a co-worker while going through a difficult adoption application with her husband… At least she seems to have some human warmth and to recognize her weaknesses.

Read something else.

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Epilogue by Anne Roiphe

While reading Epilogue I found it hard not to think of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion since are memoirs of grief-stricken New York intellectual widows. Didion’s book focuses on grief (to me the most vivid description was of how she could not bear to give away her husband’s shoes) while this one focuses on finding a new life, one in which no one can unlock the apartment door for her (why doesn’t she get a locksmith to simply replace the balky lock?), fill out the tax forms, or simply help her structure her time. Perhaps because she feels she’s quite alone facing everyday tasks she seeks out dates that seem a little strange to me, not because they are often blind dates from online matching services but because they seem to move a little too fast even for middle-aged me. Who says she can’t just have a quiet dinner (or tea, even) with a man without having to subject to being kissed and groped for the privilege? Weird.

I liked the book despite its sad subject because of its unvarnished rendition of loneliness.

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Filed under True story

Joker One by Donovan Campbell

This Princeton graduate won’t win a literary award (after all my complaints about ghost writers I can’t really fault him for not using one, can I?) but his story, Joker One, is well worth reading. Campbell spent seven months in un-beautiful Ramadi, Iraq as a Marines officer leading a few dozens very young men with, for the most part, little education and sometimes few English skills, and fighting well-armed terrorists and unfriendly residents, an actor in an ill-advised war.

He tells about their  inability to obtain seemingly basic resources such as functioning radios or an Arabic translator while the military contractors can simply go out and buy proper radios. He describes remarkable feats of heroism and even more remarkable teamwork within his platoon, which give lots of hope for the US if we could to find a way to redirect all the good energy towards a constructive goal.

There is a glossary at the end of the book to demystify the many Marines jargon word, but it would be useful for the uninitiated and slow learners (me) to  provide a quick visual of the hierarchy of ranks. I’m still unsure of how sergeants and PFC’s and whatever else compare…

If you enjoy this topic I’d like to once again plug Final Salute, an astonishing memoir of a man whose job was to tell Marines’ families of their sons’, husbands’, brothers’ deaths.

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Filed under True story