Monthly Archives: June 2009

Books of the Month – June 2009

It’s official: there’s no way I can limit myself to just one great book per month so from now on it will be BookS of the month. For June, I recommend

And two more for

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Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg

Home Safe is the story of a sixty-year old writer who loses her husband and her writing inspiration and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life miserable. She starts with innocuous annoyances, like buying her clothes she can’t wear, but graduates to prying into her boyfriends and her life, all under the cover of being a caring mom. She even gets her out of bed one night because, gasp, she went to bed still wearing her clothes (the daughter is a successful career woman, who, I’m sure, can decide wheat to wear to bed.)

There are many formulaic passages, starting with the opening when the budding writer starts her career at age nine (!) reflecting on her life at that age. There’s the description of the improbable house her husband built for her (thousands of miles away and without telling her) that reads like a bad real estate ad. There’s inane dialog with her long-suffering friends that include some gems as ” That house sounds literally incredible. I now it was important for you to go alone.” What friend would ever say that? There’s the inevitable tragic death in the Twin Towers on September 11th.

If all that doesn’t make you want to avoid the book, I’m not sure what will.

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Doghead by Morten Ramsland

Doghead is the story of a Norwegian-Danish boy with a wacky family that includes an alcoholic father, a grandfather with an uncertain past, and several young men who took to the seas since they definitely did not fit in. Children are brought up in decidedly hands-off, sometimes cruel ways but manage to find their ways for the most part, at least the narrator does, despite his family’s failings. There are moments when the systematic wackiness of the family feels forced, or perhaps feels like a remake of some Garcia-Marquez novel bizarrely set in the frozen North, and while the coming of age of young Asger kept my attention throughout I would not recommend the book beyond its obvious readability.

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My Life at First Try by Mark Budman

My Life at First Try is the funnily told life of a Russian Jew who emigrates to the United States in search of freedom and a more comfortable life.The book is written in very short chapters that each give a snapshot of the hero, Alex, at a different point in time. Alex is an engineer and his tone is well-pitched: always factual, without much emotion, but always managing to tell the story behind the story. I particularly liked his description of being laid off, of feeling utterly useless and discarded as his wife, a physician, is busier than ever. A bittersweet story of a very ordinary life in which almost nothing happens (if emigrating can count as nothing.)

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Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

A team of archaeologists in present-day Iraq, but at the time a very decayed and corrupt Ottoman Empire, are struggling to make important discoveries as they are threatened by the construction of a railroad line, the start of WWI, and the costly love yearnings of their local helper. At the same time, they unknowingly harbor a treacherous American (this is an English book) who is double-dealing for British and German interests. This could be the start of a very meaty mystery novel, but unfortunately it falls very flat, with long pieces that seem cribbed directly from some history book or geology textbook; pasted-on suffragettes; and caricatured local customs.

Sigh.

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Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes

Pedaling Revolution describes how cycling enthusiasts are changing the transportation culture throughout the United States, focusing on the usual suspects: Portland, Davis, San Francisco, with the mandatory look at Amsterdam thrown in. The style is occasionally plodding, awkward even, but the book is interesting in gauging the progress that has been made by advocates of alternatives to cars. What emerges is that the issue is not so much cars versus bicycles but rather how cities and especially suburbs are planned. The reason why Amsterdam or Davis can be so successful is that they cover relatively small areas. Having biked in Amsterdam (which I would highly recommend as a thrilling tourist activity) I’m convinced that the Dutch are not fitness fanatics or eco-warriors: bikes are simply faster than cars there, and finding a parking space for a car would be near impossible. In contrast, denizens of the typical suburb would be hard-pressed to use a bike to go to work or run errands — although, as the author stresses, bikes would be eminently practical for the many short trips we take, including for children to go to school sicne most live within a mile or two of their schools.

The best comment in the book is that bike riding must become hip if we want the phenomenon to go beyond the committed fanatics. I’ll keep riding my old bike around town and boasting of how much faster I can travel since I never have to look for a parking space, but I’m afraid I’m not cool enough to make bike-riding fashionable.

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Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Whatever It Takes tells the story of Geoffrey Canada and his quest to transform the way the children of poor, poorly educated parents are raised in Harlem. Canada’s vision is for a “conveyor belt” that would start with educating expectant parents on such topic as exercising during pregnancy, reading to their children, and using appropriate discipline techniques, welcome children in nursery schools, and offer an alternative to the often dangerous and under-achieving public schools in the area. The book focuses on the Baby College, the educational program for expectant parents and parents of infants, and especially the Promise Academy, a K-12 charter school.

It’s clear that the school founder passionately believes that all children can be successful, and his idea is straightforward: middle-class parents automatically and without thinking use techniques that are proven to be successful (such as talking to their children – a lot) and if we could teach the same techniques to poor parents, who often grew up in barely-functioning families, they too would be able to raise successful children. He himself was raised by a poor (but educated, smart, and dedicated) mother and he feels that his success can be shared by the majority of Harlem children. And he may be right, based on his success so far with a portion of the children in the school, the ones who started in kindergarten.

What I liked about the book, beside the description of a completely dedicated educator, is its honesty: the Promise Academy experiment was not very successful with the initial batch of sixth graders, and the failure is described openly together with the somewhat messy staff changes that accompanied it. The other interesting point is a reminder of how abysmal educational evaluation techniques are. One of the critical metric to evaluate school progress in New York, like in California, is the administration of standardized tests (mostly for math and English) that students have to take once a year. New York, in its infinite wisdom, administers the tests in January. Why would anyone decide that the middle of the school year is a good time to measure achievement is not clear.

And, like in California, it takes months to find out the results of the tests, so that by the time they become available it’s too late to take meaningful corrective action. Perhaps the most urgent educational reform would be to develop a meaningful set of tests that (1) don’t take an entire week to administer and (2) whose results can be known the next day. I just read a comment from a Chinese high school student spending a year in France who noted that in China she had to take a monthly comprehensive exam on all subjects, graded on a fine scale so she could instantly know how well she was doing compared to others. It was interesting to me that anyone would find the French system not competitive enough — but perhaps what matters most is the quick feedback…

An inspiring look at bona fide experiements in education and social justice.

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Not Becoming my Mother by Ruth Reichl

Not Becoming My Mother is a sweet and sad paean to the author’s mother, who was a smart, career-minded woman forced by the era she lived in as well as her parents to content herself to be a wife and mother, both roles she had very little talent for. The descriptions of the snacks she whipped up for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop are revolting, although the kids liked them!

Fortunately, she was able to see beyond her own life, and what appears to have been serious depressive episodes, to encourage her daughter to reach for her dreams and a real career, however bad of a mother she was in other ways. The book was written much after the mother’s death, after her daughter found a trove of letters and journals that allowed her to finally understand her mother’s life. Ruth Reichl is a former NY Times food critic who wrote the very funny Garlic and Sapphires, which describes her adventures as a food critic.

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A woman who is not who she claims to be travels to a small town in Wisconsin to marry, sight unseen, a rich man who was widowed years ago.  The man sees right through her but marries her anyway (as if there were no other women available in the world?) and they live a marriage based on lies and deception, both apparently quite content with it. It does not make any sense but goes on for almost 300 pages. I kept reading because I thought there had to be some unexpected surprise for the reader but no, only more lies, more deceptions, and more unexplained changes of heart.

Stay away from A Reliable Wife.

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Origins of the Specious by Patricia O’Conner

How to Sell will appeal to the language nerds amongst us — of which a surprising portion are non-native speakers, always on the lookout for some interesting convergence between two languages they know. Others may choose to read it in small doses!

The book can be seen as a series of essays on different aspects of English. It starts with a withering critique of Latin lovers who forget that English is not a romance language and blindly (and dumbly) dictate that infinitives shall not be split. I feel relieved now. It then romps into grammar, etymology, changes in word meanings, and even pronunciation. So I learned that we Americans often speak an older kind of English than our friends in Britain (sounds to me like we speak French like French Canadians!) ; that “like” as an interjection, as used by younger members of my household, rankles purists as much as me even if it can be seen as a completely reasonable construction; that using “bitch” as an insult for women may derive from using “son of a bitch” as an insult for men — I really liked that one — ; and that invented French derivations are as fantasist as I think they are. And how can I forget: using “they” for a gender-neutral singular pronoun is actually the revival of an old English usage. So perhaps we solved the “he or she” dilemma.

Language nerds: read this book!

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