Monthly Archives: October 2009

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Straight Man is the story of a rather absent-minded university professor whose life becomes complicated after he unexpectedly appears on TV to protest budget cuts. While his future as temporary chair of the English department is debated, he struggles to understand his wife, his daughter, his mom, his students, and even his friends — nothing out of the ordinary for him, it seems. Bits and pieces are very funny, including his brief sojourn above the false ceiling of the room in which his future is being debated, but overall the descriptions of the goings on at a small, isolated university seem rather forced. If you’re looking for university stories I would suggest the books by David Lodge including Deaf Sentence and Thinks . . .

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun is the scary and unfortunately true story of a New Orleans family during the Katrina hurricane — and the scary parts are not the wind, the flooding, or even the dead bodies floating on the water. Actually, when the father of the family, a painting contractor, having decided to stay in New Orleans while his wife and four children flee to stay with her family in Baton Rouge, does very well throughout the hurricane itself and even the flood. He’s very resourceful: he patches up his roof and windows, relocated all the furniture he can to the second floor, and uses his kayak to move around, check on his customers’ houses and his rental apartments, and saves a few people and dogs while he’s at it.

So what’s so scary? Well, half-way through the book he is arrested at gun point, along with a friend and two of his tenants, right in his tenant’s apartment and taken into custody where they are all treated in an unusually brutal manner and without the normal process of, for instance, being able to make a phone call, leaving his wife deathly worried for his safety during the many days of his incarceration (many of those days taking place outside of New Orleans, in a completely dry place that would, presumably, host many telephones). Moreover, unfortunately for him, he happens to be Syrian-born and his captors quickly conclude that he must be Al Qaeda, since everyone knows that Al Qaeda would pick a local US disaster to act. He eventually is freed and reunited with his family, but never receives any kind of apology, let alone compensation for his misadventures.

Well worth reading for a “grassroot” (water level?) view of Katrina as well as the real disasters created by the obsessional war on terror.

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The Healing of America by T.R. Reid

The Healing of America reminded me of Physics for Future Presidents: it discusses weighty matters (health care systems for one; energy and technical issues for the other); it keeps to a calm, reasoned, and easy to read treatment of the topic; and it should definitely be read by presidents current and future, as well as all of us! The author takes his bum shoulder around the world in search of a cure (finding none, but finding relief here and there) and in so doing describes the four types of possible health care systems (only four: it’s really not that complicated of a problem!) and what makes them desirable , or not, along with local adaptations around the world.

Alas, the debate about health care reform is aggressive and silly but it’s clear that it could, instead, be articulated around rational arguments. For instance, the models adopted by developed countries are all based on mandatory participation, which is being tarred by conservatives as a socialistic horror but is required for the rest of the model to work, starting with mandating insurance companies to insure everyone who applies. Physicians tend to be paid much less under So why try to dodge that essential fact?

I have two quibbles about the book. One is the occasionally awkward mixing of moral and policy arguments with the facts. It would be better to stick to the (eloquent) facts and leave decisions to the body politic. The other is the strange naming of two of the models by (who the author thinks is) their inventors. Try as I may I could not remember which one was the “Bismarck” system even though it’s the one I have benefitted from all my life, in widely different variations. Why not use more mnemonic names?  In the midst of such a contentious debate the last thing we need are complicated names. Especially when the first universal law of health care is, “No matter how good the health care in a particular country, people will complain about it”. How’s that for inspiration?

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The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol, the long-awaited breathless mystery following The Da Vinci Code, should be a boon to Washington, D.C, tourism, although I expect that the guides at the Capitol building are already weary of fielding questions about the masonic symbols strewn about the building, and indeed the town. Alas, although I was gripped by the mystery for a good (middle) third of the book and thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot, the ancillary story about noetic science (do souls weigh anything? can we move matters with our minds?) was too silly to be believable and rather marred the enjoyment of the book as a whole.

If you can set it aside, you will get the usual brutal murders, high-powered conspiracies, and the always resilient Robert Langdon, hard at work with more symbols and mysterious cyphers.

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The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Another “sad book” review but I’ll switch to more upbeat topics!

I should start by saying I do not like science fiction, but I do enjoy Margaret Atwood, even her science fiction books like Oryx and Crake and especially The Handmaid’s Tale.

On to The Year of the Flood. It’s the story of the dismal adventures of two young women in a post-modern world controlled by powerful corporations that would put George Orwell to shame and where pollution, climate change, and pervasive genetic engineering have created a hostile natural environment in which exists a small band of so-called Gardeners who reject all that and are led by a charismatic guru called Adam One. (Yes, the women that are part of the power structure are called Eves. How original.) A mysterious plague fostered by all the counter-nature activities of the evil corporations sweeps the world and the two women and a few others are the only survivors. Will they make it?

If you strip away the political structure, the genetically-engineered animals,  and some newfangled weaponry the story is quite trite: there are the good (the Gardeners) and the evil (everyone else). The powerful enjoy the usual luxuries while the poor starve. The men have the power and the women do not, expect as wise crones or young sex objects. The smart kids get to study Quadruple-entry Creative Asset Planning (ok, that’s funny!) and the others are shoved to Holistic Healing. The girls fall in love with the boys, and vice-versa, not always wisely. And the Gardeners enjoy lots of inspiring sermons such as “It’s better to hope than to mope!” while their leaders enjoy the very privileges they deny the followers.

This is not to say that they are no creative bits here and there: making living sculptures with bones and pancake syrup (for ants to swarm on); creating a new calendar full of new saints like St Jacques Cousteau and St Karen Silkwood; relocating snails and rats rather than killing them; and the spectacular GM animals such as the mo’hairs, sheep hybrids who grow real human hair replacements.

But overall, the exotic accouterments cannot save the banal story. As I said, I don’t like science fiction…

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Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Installment #3 in the Sad Book Series: Strength in What Remains tells the story of a Burundi man (Burundian?) who flees his country after brutal ethnic violence erupts and arrives in New York City with $200, no English, but plenty of smarts, persistence, half of a medical degree, and the wonderful first name of DeoGratias (god be thanked) or Deo for short. So it’s not a completely sad story, especially because the author wisely chooses to describe Deo’s struggle to make a life in the US before plunging back into the description of the civil war, which is as gruesome as they come.

The heartwarming part of the story is the long list of people who help him along the way, from the baggage handler at JFK who spots him on arrival and takes him “home” to his squatter’s quarters, to the ex-nun who finagles introductions for the reluctant Deo to potential helpers, to the couple who shepherds him through university applications and immigration lawyers, as well as Deo’s amazing determination to survive and ultimately return to Burundi to build a hospital in his home town.

OK, so maybe this book is not so sad after all — minus the horrific genocide stories.

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Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn

The sad book series continues: Half the Sky describes the many ways women, half the sky per our friend Mao Tse-Tung, are abused, exploited, and who die needlessly just because they are women. The book starts with a quote by Mark Twain that I loved (can Mark Twain have written all the bons mots he’s credited with?): What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce.” Made me laugh! and then proceeds to cover slavery, honor killings, the brutal consequences of giving birth without health care, and other assorted ills including no schooling and no work opportunities.

There are a few happy stories here and there: of microcredit organizations that allow women to start businesses, of government schemes that pay families that send daughters to school, of Catholic priests who discreetly ignore orders from above and provide contraception, and the last chapter provides a rather long list of organizations that specifically help women and girls, many of them are portrayed in the book. It’s clear that there’s much to be done and that Western women like me who were fed and educated as much as our brothers, can own property, decide when to have children, and live our lives pretty much as we decide are incredibly lucky.

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Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

I wish Joyce Carol Oates would choose happier topics for her books (here and here). I love her writing but why are all the books so very dark? Little Bird of Heavenis the story of a girl whose father is suspected of murdering his mistress, a crime he did not commit, but the town’s suspicion (as well as his wife’s understandingly negative reaction at this unannounced breach of their marriage contract) pushes him away and into a life of poverty and alcoholism. Yet, his daughter loves him, misses him, and snatches moments with him when she can. He is a good dad, if not a good husband.

In addition to the sad abandonment story there are uncomfortable descriptions of the blunt racism against the local Native Americans and the widespread meth problems. All that blended with spot-on observations, from the thirteen-year old girl stared at by a man, who will not look back (smart kid), to the “crewcut of metal shavings” of a prison guard, to the hasty toilette of the drunk heroine who will not use the perfectly clean white towels of the hotel room.

Great book but really sad.

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Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner

Val and Addie were friends once, in elementary school, but Val left Addie behind in high school as she moved into the popular people clique and Addie ate herself into an enormous body. Fifteen years later, Addie has a nice house, a good job, and a thin body, while Val may well have killed someone. So in a befuddling non-sequitur Addie flees with Val to escape the police (makes no sense to me either!) The police is a smart and lonely police chief who effortlessly figures out the entire sequence of events — and to whom good, predictable things will happen in the end. The descriptions of the house read like a bad women’s magazine, or perhaps real estate ads, the secondary characters are even more two-dimensional than the main ones. And the book is fun, breathless, and won’t load up your brain too much.

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Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Wonder Boys is the story of a very bad Thanksgiving week for an English professor who, surprisingly to him, finds that his wife is leaving him because he’s having an affair, that his lover is pregnant, and that a student of his committed a robbery and shot a dog while he, the professor, was in a haze of drugs and alcohol. So he embarks on a crazed bender, trying to shield the student and only making things worse for both of them. There’s a slew of unconventional characters, some interesting and some just trite, enough action to keep me turning the pages, but in the end not much of a novel beyond the (excellent) depiction of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s zany family.

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