Monthly Archives: October 2009

Books of the Month – October 2009

I found these two books to be close to perfect:

A Gate at the Stairs – a wonderfully well-told, intricate story of a college student with personal, job, and family traumas but grace throughout

Brown Round – the biography of a food critic with weight issues, a great family, and a sweet perspective on life

And two more, in case you have extra reading time (an extra hour this weekend!)

Strength in what remains: a harrowing but inspiring story of a Burundian refugee of genocide. Uneven but inspiring

Admission: a great story of an admission officer in a private college that sadly stoops into the incredible near the end (but I loved the beginning!)

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The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith

The Lost Art of Gratitude is the last installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series, reviewed here in the past. There’s a significant dearth of any significant mystery in this one, but the usual complement of charming toddler, perfect husband-to-be, and nefarious plotter. I found Isabel to philosophize a tad too systematically so I hope the next installment will combine more mystery and less philosophy.

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Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

What came first? Humans or fire? Catching Fire argues that fire was required to cook food so we could absorb enough calories to expand energy on our big brains rather than our guts — and become liberated from the requirements to spend eight hours a day chewing. The author needs to use reasoned arguments because the fossil record simply does nor do a good job at demonstrating when cooking and fire were introduced, and probably never will. He is very convincing, and along the way shows how perhaps it’s soft food that makes us fat rather than the sheer quantity of it, and that the requirement for cooked food may have fostered women’s subservient role in society. Very interesting.

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Bed and Breakfast by Lois Battle

The owner of the Bed & Breakfast of the story is the mother of three grown daughters who gathers all three for what she hopes to be a peaceful, perhaps joyful Christmas celebration. Alas, all three daughters misbehave in predictable and unpredictable patterns and the hoped-for celebration is a disaster, but over the course of the following years some rifts are repaired (while others widen) and all four women go through various emotional wigging outs, some more understandable than others.

This proved to be a good book to read on a cross-country flight: entertaining enough, not too profound, and certainly better than the pabulum of TV shows that was the alternative. But not much depth there, and the obligatory Southern charm and racial and gender-orientation diversity are laid on thick.

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Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner

Crazy Love is the disturbing story of a woman who marries an abusive husband (spoiler and good news: she does escape him in the end) and who tells her story frankly and straightforwardly. Yes, he choked her the day before they moved in together — but she still moved in with him, not daring to ask her dad for a loan to rent another place, although a year later she dares to ask him for one, to buy a car. Whatever her dad’s weaknesses may be (and there are many) surely he would have sent a check to get her out of her predicament. And she goes on, marrying the guy after additional choking episodes, not to mention a forced move out of her beloved New York City which also meant the loss of her job. She only leaves him after much more violence and a Chicago police officer’s blunt statement that her husband won’t stop until he kills her. I wanted to hug that man.

It still very hard for me to fathom how a smart, resourceful, childless woman could require so much time to see the light, but it’s useful to get into the mind of someone who desperately believes that her partner will change.

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A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs is the story of a college student who finds a nanny job that turns into a family therapy position, as I suppose is often the case with nannies, while her younger brother is struggling with high school and with life and her boyfriend turns out to be, perhaps, a terrorist. Everything crashes down in the end but not at all  in the tabloid, overdone manner one may fear given the circumstances. The heroine, Tassie, is confused but smart, inexperienced but a quick learner, lonely but very centered.

A great novel to inhabit the mind of a twenty-year old. I could do without the bad poetry but even that did not detract from the pleasure of a good story.

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The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

The Wish Maker tells the story of three generations of a Pakistani family, culminating in the grandson going off to Harvard (like the narrator) and focusing on his mother and his mother’s much younger female cousin on the background of Pakistan’s complicated politics of the 1990s. This could be a triumph, like A Golden Age, which uses a similar premise to tell the story of Bangladesh. Alas this book seems forced and rarely rises above a soap-opera plot like the ones the grandmother likes to watch on the newly installed dish. There’s the obligatory purdah-abused wife, the servants who know too much, the lure of consumer goods, and of course the doomed love stories. I would like to believe that all the exotic Pakistani details are authentic, but the one American detail I could check, the date of university admission email, was a month too late…

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You Were Always Mom’s Favorite by Deborah Tannen

Having enjoyed You’re Wearing That?, about mother-daughter conversations, and You Just Don’t Understand, about women-men conversations, I was looking forward to reading You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!, Deborah Tannen’s latest project about sister-talk. And I was thoroughly disappointed , because of silly pronouncements such as this one on page 10 “A sister is the one person you can brag to — or the one you’ll never tell about your triumphs because she’d be jealous”.

The book goes on like that, presenting examples of sisters who love each other and sisters who hate each other. Sisters who fulfill the stereotyped roles for older and younger siblings and sisters who do not. Sisters whose relationships are sabotaged by unthinking or cruel parents and sisters who surmount obstacles thanks to more enlightened parents. In brief: sisters relate to each other in myriads of ways that have a lot to do with their temperaments. What a revelation! I suppose the only interesting highlight from the book is that parents should step back and let relationships unfold rather than apply pressure. Nothing really new here either.

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Generosity by Richard Powers

Generosity is a strange novel. It starts brilliantly, with a routine creative fiction class taught by a harassed lecturer trying to escape his boring day job as an editor and attended by a hodgepodge of students including the gifted and strangely blissful Algerian immigrant, Thassa, who seems to enchant everyone she meets. In time, Thassa becomes the unwitting subject of a genetic researcher who believes that happiness lies in our genes, and her life unravels.

Unfortunately the novel unravels with it, losing its direction and focus (including an excellent ten-year old, the son of the lecturer’s girlfriend) and moves into tabloid territory, never explaining the changes to Thassa’s personality. Too bad, I really enjoyed the first half, which is an inspiration as to what could happen if we could thoroughly enjoy our lives, regardless of what they bring.

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Born Round by Frank Bruni

Can the autobiography of a bulimic restaurant critic be worth reading? Yes! I really liked Born Round, the life story of Frank Bruni, New York Times restaurant critic who has struggled with his weight his whole life (very successfully, as of now). He tells his story, and that of his immense and immensely food-obsessed Italian family with great gentleness and yet does not shy away from painful episodes, whether his bulimic years, experiments with diet pills, short-lived boyfriends, or weight-related lies.

I found his story to be very inspiring, changing from someone whose appetite ruined his life to someone who has to watch himself at every moment, to be sure, but who has found a good balance between exercise and what’s now his job: eating. And the whole book is worth reading just for the epic description of Thanksgiving at this mom’s house. And I thought my family was over the top when it came to family reunions…

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