To liven things up I decided to designate a book of the month well, each month, and to choose a book of the quarter each quarter, starting right now. As I surveyed the books reviewed this month I found an immediate problem: there’s more than one book I really, really loved this month. So I will take liberties in this first writeup and talk about several books. If the problem occurs again next month I’ll move to books of the month rather than just one. With that, here we go for May.
My top recommendations are:
And I must mention three more books I enjoyed very much:
- Closing Time, a memoir that could be a great novel of growing up poor (and Catholic) with an alcoholic father in Philadelphia
- Flannery, a biography of Flannery O’Connor that (there’s a theme here) reads like a memoir… of a very Catholic writer.
- Q&A, the immensely funny novel from which Slumdog Millionaire, so a novel in the form of a memoir!
In August 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre museum in Paris. Vanished Smile recalls the theft, police investigation, and eventual recovery of the painting from the Italian thief who thought he would become a national hero by returning the painting to Da Vinci’s homeland. (He miscalculated!)
The story recalls The Gardner Heist for its description of museum thefts. The Louvre at the beginning of the 20th century was almost unbelievably unprotected, even given the technological gap between now and then: the paintings were simply hung on the walls and anyone with an opportunity could simply walk up to them and carry them off, and the tracking processes were so lax that the painting went missing for many hours without anyone questioning the blank wall! And like at the Gardner a human breakdown allowed the robber to simply walk out of the museum.
There are also shades of The Forger’s Spell in this book since the authentication of the work was partly based on the craquelure of the paint and a crack in the wood it was painted on (and since there’s a background story about art fakes.)
Warning: rant coming. One would think that a book centered on Paris and Italy would benefit from reviewers that speak either language and who are familiar with the local cultures. One would be right. An appropriate reviewer would spot that the Prefecture de Paris is a not police force (the police of the Prefecture is a police force, but not the Prefecture itself), or that an Italian saying about Napoleon is a funny double-entendre. [end of rant]
The 19th Wife tells two stories: one is a historical novel about Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife (probably more like the 50th++ wife) of the Mormon leader Brigham Young, who decided to leave him and speak against polygamy; the other is about a young gay ex-fundamentalist Mormon trying to get his mother, also a 19th wife (give or take a few) exonerated of his father’s murder. The second, contemporary story is fun. It reads like a mystery, with an entertaining and believable hero (and his sidekick and boyfriend, a non-fundamentalist Mormon also banished from the church but because of his homosexuality rather than to combat the surplus of young men in polygamist sects), shadowy twists and turns, and the exotic background of the fundamentalist church.
In contrast I found the historical novel boring, longish, trying to be too clever (for instance including fake “historical” documents in the text when a strong narrative would be just fine) — and perhaps overly concerned with painting a dreadful picture of the Mormon church. The author properly highlights how polygamy stems from and is nurtured by the (men!) leaders’ hunger for power and control. He carefully describes the destructive consequences of polygamy for the women, of course, but also the children and the men themselves, since some would rather not have many wives and the surplus ones are kicked out without consideration for their future. But he doesn’t seem to be able to stay with a simple narrative and uses some of the characters to hector the readers about the evils of polygamy. We’re already convinced, thank you very much.
Perhaps a good read if you stick with the mystery…
The Piano Teacher is a double story based in Hong Kong of a piano teacher’s affair that uncovers the complicated goings-on of the Hong-Kong elite during the Japanese occupation in World War II, ten years before. The many characters, some English expatriates and some local Hong Kong residents, can be caricatures: there’s a couple of lesbian school principals that is modeled almost exactly on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, minus the Picassos in the living room that is; the Brits have a stiff upper lip; the Asians are mysterious; the Japanese are cruel in person as well as their policies. And the love affair is not exactly fascinating: young woman, married to a perfectly nice man she doesn’t love (why did she marry him then?) falls in love with older man whoeeps her at arms length and continues the relationship to her doom despite his lack of interest. Why?
But within the limitations of the story I found the story of the Japanese occupation very interesting. The Japanese army corralled all civilian foreigners into a large prison where they were kept in very tough conditions (think 500-calories a day and non-working toilets) for years, with the occasional beheading and constant bribing to keep the fear level high. The author is able to recreate how prisoners organize themselves and survive within the terrible limitations, complete with the jealousies of each nationality by the others, the petty conflicts over what little they have, and the joy when the cooks manage to invent new recipes based on banana peels.
Closing Time is a memoir that reads like a novel of a tough childhood, growing up with an alcoholic father who beat his children (often and hard), who could not hold on to a job, and who made a number of questionable decisions, some told hilariously like the time he decided to “drive” his delivery truck after hurting his hands so that his young son had to steer for him, a rare opportunity for father-son bonding, as it turns out.
The book could be bleak but, as the author says, his father did not wreck his life, he merely wrecked his childhood. So he is able to appreciate rich people’s houses, because they are beautiful even if he has no hope to live in them. He can deride the inaneness of the food bank’s offerings of artichoke hearts to his family without ranting about the reasons why they needed the help. He tells funny stories about the year he spent in a seminary at age 14, when he thought priesthood would be his future and while the Catholic church was going through the difficult transition of Vatican II. And most notably he talks about the various people, mostly men, who helped him along the way with jobs, protection against his father, and glimpses of the life he could have if he used his considerable intelligence to get an education, which he did.
A very inspiring book without self-pity.
Like many other books before it (e.g. Nudge, Predictably Irrational, Sway), How We Decide tackles why and how we make decisions. It has the best opening story of the lot, about landing an airplane with an engine on fire and quotes many airplane and non-airplane stories later in the book, some familiar from other books and some fresh ones. The most interesting angle for me is how the emotional brain crosses the rational brain, sometimes to questionable outcomes. The author does not hesitate to point out that rats (who are, it seems, less emotional than humans) do better on certain tasks because they can stick to rational thought; how a certain family member who would want to walk around with bags of coins, as in the Middle Ages, may be on to something when it comes to keeping spending under control (credit card spending is too abstract to really comprehend the expense); how house buyers wrongly analyze that they want more bedrooms rather than a shorter commute to work; and how using MRIs can make physicians more stupid because they have too much information, and too much confirming information at that (no one really knows what the MRI of a non-back sufferer really looks like.)
The main conclusion is that to make better decisions it’s essential to analyze the bad ones. I have plenty to do on this count 🙂
Happens Every Day is the memoir of a doomed marriage, as told by the wife who, after giving up her job as an actress to follow her academic husband to Oberlin College where he got a tenure-track job and becoming a stay-home mom for their two young sons, finds the marriage ending abruptly when the husband decides he wants out, denying not so convincingly that he is having an affair with a colleague, also married but whose husband stayed behind.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for someone in this predicament, and the description of the small college town peopled by intellectuals who yearn for the more refined things in life is excellent, but I found it difficult to abstract the author’s spoiled references to her parents’ apartment (who, she says, don’t have much money but own an apartment that gives onto Central Park in New York!) and her own house in Oberlin, down to the fashionable paint color and upholstery fabric. Surely the state of mind of her four-year old matters more than the upholstery — and her ex-husband and she could have explained to a four-year old that mommy and daddy would not live together any more before flying him to grandma’s palatial apartment? So interesting but a little unsettling.