Monthly Archives: August 2009

August 2009 Books of the Month

Time for the roundup of the books I loved this month:

I feel better. There’s at least one movel in the lot!

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Throw out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke

Some people read mysteries as a guilty pleasure: I read organization books. So when I picked up Throw Out Fifty Things I was expecting some interesting strategies about purging one’s possessions, and indeed the author includes recommendations on how to separate the useful from the superfluous, room by room. Nothing very creative there, but I like her counting method, scoring one point by category rather than by item. And then she moves to more ambitious territory, getting rid of memories that weigh us down — and the book turns rather silly as she ponderously attempts to recreate old dialogs with parents and such. Pity!

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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is a series of essays about various kinds of work and how the work shapes the workers, and vice-versa. It starts with a wonderful description of a logistics center in the UK that orchestrates shipments of all kinds of goods throughout the country, much of which done at night from vast warehouses that look like bleak boxes from outside, but are minutely organized and streamlined inside. How interesting to read about the invisible and usually neglected world of  operations folks. It travels to the Maldives for tuna fishing (gruesome!) It’s back in the UK for the Pylon Appreciation Society, yes, you read it correctly, people who travel along power lines to appreciate the various types and sizes of the pylons that support them! It ventures into cubicles and attends  management training seminars and employee motivation speeches.

While I found some of the rifts annoying (what’s so wrong, really, about living one’s life as product manager for a line of cookies? Does the anonymous peasant in the field truly have a more meaningful life than the cookie manager?) and some factual errors surprising (there are more than 26 departements in France, surely, since Paris is in #75!)I very much enjoyed the books including the stark photographs that accompany the essays. Highly recommended!

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Netherland by Joseh O’Neill

Netherland is the story of a Dutch stock analyst, married to a British lawyer and temporarily, and apparently happily working in New York. After 9/11 his wife decides that New York is too dangerous of a place for their son to live and moves back to London (where, as we know, no terrorist threats exists!) and leaves him behind, rather abruptly. And he drifts, not really sure of where he stands without his family. He is drawn to cricket, a sport he did not know was played in the US, and to cricket players, who in the US hail from all parts of the former British Empire (and there are precious few stock analysts amongst them.) He hangs out with the other residents of the shifty hotel where he lives. He shuttles back to the UK to see his son.

But the events don’t matter. It’s about the feelings — like when he reflects about his mother’s death, which seems strangely diminished by the remoteness of her to him since he left the Netherlands. It’s about the outsider’s descriptions of the US (I particularly liked the description of the DMV, with its fortified counters and its hostile clerks) It’s about the random facts, such as his friend Chuck’s long exposes on various trivia including all the Guineas in the world.

I can’t quite remember when I so liked a book with a male hero and a male author. A wonderful read.

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The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

The Unlikely Disciple tells the story of a college student who decides to attend Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) for a semester’s break from Brown and as a reporting opportunity, a la Racing Odysseus but from a 20-something’s eyes. The disingenuous aspect of the stunt (since, unlike the author of Racing Odysseus, the author does not need to explain his presence in the university, and does not) made me squirm a bit, and to be fair it also makes the author squirm, although never enough to fully explain himself to his colleagues. But the story is interesting. Strictly segregated by gender and having to follow a strict code of conduct, Liberty students take classes that emphasize beliefs over facts or science. Infractions are punished by a predetermined schedule of reprimands and fines (hugging your sweetheart for more than 3 seconds is worth more than swearing, for instance) that eerily reminded me of confession penances. Heterosexuality and marriage are heartily pushed and promoted, with the goals of marrying off the students before they leave.

There are positive aspects of the learning experience (no more hangovers on Sunday mornings, an excellent knowledge of the bible) and others that are a bit frightening. How can “young earth” extremists undertake honest studies in biology? (Liberty has an Engineering college, which I assume believes in gravity; but how can biologists function without evolution?) How will the students function post-graduation, when the reprimands are no longer meted out when they swear, or worse? And how will they hold their own in a world that expects debate rather than blind obeisance to an established rule? Surely universities should be a place of debates, of forming one’s own ideas, or appreciating the value of a solid argument.

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My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

My Sister, My Love tells the story of a little girl who is mysteriously murdered in the house of her wealthy parents. And she’s a budding ice skater, always clad in exaggerated girlish outfits complete with makeup and “done” hair, which made me very suspicious that I was entering a tabloid world, which it’s a Joyce Carol Oates world: finely detailed, rich in multiple points of view, and never completely explicated.

So the story is really about philandering fathers, mothers that try too hard to fit in with the richer set, children who are both overcontrolled and curiously abandoned to their feelings of despair and loneliness, and the assorted helpers that rich people collect: nannies, coaches, psychologists, some who provide the very warmth that is lacking in the families and others that just feed on the money.

A very well told story of rich suburbs, not exactly uplifting but not too depressing either.

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The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa

In the last post I complained about books that are only good for a while — but, sadly, there are books that are bad all the way through. The Scar of David tells a meticulously arranged story of a Palestinian family that loses its home near Haifa when Israel is first established and seems to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time in the subsequent wars. While no historical event is missed no cliche is spared either. Here are two samples from page 23, about a mother-in-lay welcoming her Bedouin daughter in law: “She instructed her in the secretes to regain the body’s firmness and tricks to keep the interest of her husband after childbirth” and “Se was giddy, excited to have a female heir to her empire of enchanted herbs.” Yikes.

I’m not sure why I read to the very end. Save yourself the trouble: all the bad stuff you think may happen does, indeed.

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In the Heart of the Canyon by Elizabeth Hyde

In the Heart of the Canyon tells the story of a group of tourists rafting down the Grand Canyon so is reminiscent of Death of a River Guide, which takes place in Tasmania and centers on the life of the guide. This book focuses on the entire group and how its members interact with each other, as well as with the guides. There’s a good assortment of peculiar types, from the retired doctor with Alzheimer to the struggling family to the snobbish professor, and the plot thickens when they find an abandoned dog who creates all kinds of complications. Good, satisfying story, until the last chapter when the obese teenager embarks into an adventure that strains the mind — and destroys the illusion of reality required to enjoy a novel.

What is it with books that only last so long? Most of this one is fun. I want to go whitewater rafting now!

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How Sex Works by Sharon Moalem

Are we too old for sex education? Perhaps, but How Sex Works starts off with fun facts: men who choose wives with a pleasing waist to hip ratio are right (their children are smarter, it seems – hooray for big hips!); male bees suffer a gruesome (but entertaining, to us humans) death as they procreate; we humans tend to choose mates whose smell we like, and that seems to automatically select for a complementary immune system, hence healthier offsprings; and women appear to actually have prostates.

Unfortunately the last chapters revert to boring, boring standards such as using condoms to prevent STDs. Just stop reading when you get there.

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It’s our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong

It’s Our Turn to Eat tells a sad but rather inspiring story of government corruption in Kenya and of a whistle-blower who lived to tell the tale, thanks in part to a longish time in exile and semi-hiding in London. The scale of the corruption is fantastic, which is the depressing part. In a very poor country a small number of government officials are lining their pockets and those of their families and friends in shocking ways — to me at least; the locals seem to consider it quite normal, if evil. The inspiring story is how the man who exposed this particular affair was able, after all, to return to Kenya unmolested. Clearly there’s much to be done still by both Kenyans and internal parties, especially governmental organizations like the World Bank, to fight and eliminate corruption. The good news is that it seems perfectly doable. An inspiring story

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