Monthly Archives: September 2009

Books of the Month – September 2009

I loved three books this month, all very different from each other:

  • A Happy Marriage, a description of a fraught and very loving long-term marriage, supposedly a work of fiction but I have my doubts about that
  • Border Songs, the very sweet story of an unlikely border patrol agent
  • The Woman behind the New Deal, the life story of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary who brought us Medicaid and Social Security, and came very close to bringing us universal health insurance!
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Just Take my Heart by Mary Higgins Clark

A young widow and assistant prosecutor with an ambitious boss takes on a suspiciously-acting man who appears to have killed his soon-to-be ex-wife — and wins the trial, although she has her doubts on his culpability. Meanwhile, a serial murderer is planning her demise. There’s a gratuitous transplant story to boot, but it does not interfere with the nicely twisted plot. There are the usual cliches (is anyone a “sought after bachelor” anymore?) and the usual perfect details, such as the stream of consciousness ruminations of the witness’s wife who takes it all in, the young assistant prosecutor with a tragic past and her mean boss.

Just Take My Heart is a satisfying one-night read. Lock your windows and doors ahead of time, though!

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Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Continuing my foray into scientific book I picked up Life Ascending, which promised to discuss “The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”. Cool, huh? Well, I supposed it would be if only I could understand what the author is talking about.

It all started very auspiciously because I learned something on the first page of the book, namely that in the early day of our planet  a day was only five or six hours long. I suppose I should have figured this out for myself but I was so happy to have learned something so swiftly. Then, I sank. The author’s first nomination for the ten inventions is something miraculous called the Krebs cycle — and I still don’t understand what it is, which is quite pitiful since, apparently,  it’s how life started. How about a little diagram perhaps? But I valiantly soldiered on to chapter 2, DNA. Clearly that has to be a great invention. But soon I encountered mysterious chemistry babble such as ” the base pairs really want to bind to each other”. OK, if you say so. Can inanimate objects want anything? And photosynthesis similarly confused me with the Z scheme (despite a diagram, but not an illuminating diagram). Fortunately the chapters became easier and easier to understand, starting with a very lovely diagram of eukaryotic cells.

I guess all my problems lie with chemistry, which is a little less than half of the book…

And two nits: it’s a good idea to get the editor to review (1) the dedication so it actually makes sense and (2) the author’s picture, which I’m sure could be swapped with a better one!

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One Hundred Things you didn’t Know you didn’t Know by John Barrow

This is a very unique  and strange book! One Hundred Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know claims to talk about how math explains our world — and of course math explains most things in the world, from the perspective of many mathematicians, including defrocked ones, hence I just had to read it. Instead, I found  a bizarre collection of random thoughts about just about everything, from everyday odds (lots of stories about that), soccer tournament rankings, criminals, spaghetti, square wheels for bicycles, best ways to push a car, and, well, you get the idea, peppered with formulas sure to repel most of us as surely as the thought of having to take a calculus class… Strange? The author suggests that candidates to the American presidency should be able to prove the Pythagorean theorem (but not British politicians, interestingly enough, although the author is British).

To be fair, a few of the 100 stories are interesting and fun, if rather impractical. For instance, having grown up without a 25-cent coin and loving the idea of the quarter coin, I loved the discussion on the best way to set up a system of coins for a particular currency. It turns out that there are two methods, one using 1, 5, 18 and 29-cent coins and the other 1, 5, 18 and my beloved 25. Making change would be really fun with either one, huh?

A special note about pylons. I managed to get through almost 45 years of reading without reading about them but here’s the second book that mentions them in less than a month (see The Pleasures and Sorrow of Work). Clearly pylons are in vogue, at least for British authors. Remember: you read it here first.

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A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

A Short History of Women tells the stories of five generations of women who share just a couple of first names, to the great confusion of the hapless reader (me). Note to self: do not name your daughter after your mother or worse, after yourself!

In any case some of the stories are quite captivating, and in particular the story of the first woman in the book, who starves herself to death in an effort to get the right to vote for women (in nineteenth century England), leaving her  children orphaned. Others seem plain silly, like the one of the contemporary mother who gets drunk on a play date with her young daughter (no worries, her drinking companion is the mother of the daughter’s friend; the children stay quite sober). It’s hard to care about the travails of that rich, stay-home, with nanny, neurotic New Yorker mom…

Disappointing.

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Cold by Bill Streever

I thought Cold, which promises “Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places”, would be a great book to read in early Fall, while it’s still comfortably warm here. And it was, indeed, refreshing in a way, but also loaded with corpses of adventurers, school children, soldiers, divers (bring me to Maui instead!)  and animals of various kinds who all perished in blizzards, avalanches,  and other temperature-related accidents. How macabre. The ones that are not dead are victims of frostbite, described in excruciating and gory details. Yikes!

There are some funny moments, like the author’s caterpillars, which he freezes (but does not kill, thankfully) while he’s off travelling. And a non-political story from Wasilla, AK (of a young man who almost, but did not die of exposure.

OVerall, brrr.

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Border Songs by Jim Lynch

Great book! With echoes of The Little Giant from Aberdeen County, Border Songs tells the story of a tall, dislexic, Asperger’s suffering border agent who lives with his parents, pines for the girl over the border in Canada, works as a border patrol agent, and lives to birdwatch, which brings him to out of the way locations where he finds a steady stream of immigrants and drug smugglers. Brandon is sweet, misunderstood by most, except his mom who is drowning into Alzheimer’s, and cares so little for his career successes that he readily quits when his dad falls ill and he needs to take over the dairy farm.

The story includes unlikely adventures and crazy characters entwined in  a small-town community where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business — but who knew what the scoool pricinpal was up to? A wonderfully gentle book that reminded me of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, probably because of the same theme of parents’ love for their children.

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