Monthly Archives: October 2009

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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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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Filed under Non fiction

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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Filed under Mystery