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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…