Of course, I have to start with
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a rich, horrible, nicely exotic (Swedish), convoluted mystery, followed by
Naming Nature, a fascinating history of how we organize plants and animals (trust me: it reads like a novel)
Dead Aid, a demonstration of how international government aid fails to help the people who need it most
Hands of my Father, a sweet portrait of a happy family — with two deaf parents
What a pleasure to end the month of November with a great mystery! The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a long, brutal, complex story about at least two mysteries: an old murder in a very dysfunctional family and a serial killer. The girl with the dragon tattoo is a helper with a mysterious past and the detective is a journalist in disgrace who has good taste in mystery novels (Sue Grafton, one of my favorites), both of them moving in and out of a small island where the troubled family’s patriarch lives so we get a delightful mix of the thoroughly modern Swedish city life and the much more primitive (and cold!) countryside.
Worth staying up until 1 in the morning to read in one satisfying, and occasionally horrified, fell swoop.
By the author of The Glass Castle, Half Broke Horses is the story of her maternal grandmother, told as a novel for lack of detailed historical documents. It’s a wild story of a girl born in a dugout on the Texan prairie to poor and well-intentioned but not very effective parents, a girl who is intelligent and determined but passed over for educational opportunities in favor of her brother who has no particular aptitude for academics except for that precious Y chromosome, and who embarks on a self-directed quest for a career and a better life that starts with riding for a month, alone, to teach in a one-classroom school. Follows a bigamist husband, years of fighting small-town prejudices, floods and droughts, and the great depression.
This grandmother is formidable and, if you read The Glass Castle, you can see how she bequeathed her inner strength and resourcefulness to the author. An inspiring portrait that blessedly avoids hagiography as we watch the grandmother (occasionally) beat her children, traffic alcohol, and curse a blue streak. It’s all part of the character.
Parallel Play is the memoir of a successful journalist who was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 45 after a lifetime of struggles. He starts with his early childhood, highlighting his attentive parents, and helpful and less helpful teachers and school administrators — before Asperger’s syndrome was defined and when his behavior was interpreted as quirky, if he was lucky, or defiant if not. He’s quick to point out how his nature created great opportunities for him to excel at many tasks and how many of the bumps along the road were self-imposed and had little to do with Asperger’s.
I found it very heartwarming to read about how his parents helped him and supported him in his quirks and strangeness. Very sweetly told.
I picked up What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 because my older daughter’s turning 20 next week and I thought I should get appropriately educated. What a disappointment: the author starts by recommending to take a wide view… but proceeds to focus pretty much exclusively on careers and making money (giving some very good ideas along the way and many examples, mostly of successful and rich people). Sigh! I would start differently:
Tip #1: Don’t confuse your life and your career.
Tip #2: Get very clear on what you are really, really good at and what your weaknesses are. Then work on the weaknesses but focus on your strengths.
Perhaps I should continue? I have a whole week ahead of me.
Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of personal stories about the author’s children, parents, and personal experiences. Most are tone-perfect, especially the ones about his children. I liked the one where he bemoans the advent of complicated Lego kits that require parental assistance (although in our house the young builder never did) and pines for the old days when the kids had to create their own designs. There’s also a very sweet one about his ex-father in law and how divorce deprived him of what sounded like a very satisfying relationship to an old-school man.
And I wonder: how is it that writers can expose intimate secrets about their love life or drug use where anyone, including their own children they are clearly concerned about protecting? It seems so much safer to write a novel in which the character has the same (or enhanced) adventures under a pseudonym…
When Everything Changed tells the story of women in the US from 1960 to the present (including Hillary Clinton’s and Sarah Palin’s presidential campaigns. It’s a rather messy book that combines historical narratives and individual women’s stories, some puzzlingly mundane, but it reads very well, like the story of our moms, older sisters, and daughters. It talks about girdles as easily as the doomed Equal Rights amendment, about Barbie’s choice of boyfriends and the rigidly sexist ways of communes. And while it highlights many famous women, from Betty Friedan to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who could not clerk for Felix Frankfurter because she wore pants — good heavens!), it also presents women I did not know about, women who fought to become switchmen (I guess switchperson or switch specialist was still in the distance!) or simply sought to live with their boyfriends rather than in their college dorms.
we’ve come a long way from girdles and 60% college dropout rates for women because they got married before getting their degrees. What’s astonishing to see is the extraordinary resistance placed on the changes, every step of the way, while from today’s perspective it seems completely obvious that women should be able to wear pants, become switch specialists, and sign up for their own loans. May the rest of the journey be smoother.
The author of Shop Class as Soulcraft makes some points that I completely agree with: that pushing all teenagers to college is counter-productive, that what we pompously call knowledge work is often plain silly, that the feeling we have after fixing a tangible object such as a motorbike is uncomparably fullfilling.
The author owns a motorcycle shop and also happens to have a Ph.D. in philosophy so unfortunately he lapses into unpenetrable sentences such as “The market ideal of Choice by an autonomous Self seems to act as a kind of narcotic that makes the displacing of embodied agency go smoothly, or precludes the development of such agency by providing easier satisfactions.” Huh?
Fortunately, the bits about his shop, his growing up in the East Bay of the San Francisco area, and his troubleshooting experiences are funny and sweet. Too bad I cannot recommend the entire package to a teenager who’s looking for a hands-on career.
The author of Dead Aid, a Zambian-born woman with several advanced degrees in economics,starkly stakes that traditional, government-to-government aid, simply serves to line the pockets of corrupt leaders and chokes the economies of the receiving countries. She makes a very strong argument that fostering economic growth in very poor countries and there’s a good to-to list for governments, starting with eliminating quotas and import taxes, as well as plenty of action items for all of us: aid seems to work quite well both for emergencies and when delivered outside government channels. So there is plenty of work to do both for governments, staring with removing quotas and export duties, as well as for all of us since aid seems to work well for emergencies and when delivered outside the formal government channels (Kiva, here we come!)
The Lacuna tells the life story of a teenager to young man who makes his own way in the world between Mexico and the United States, thanks to a Mexican mother whose main purpose is to find a husband and a distracted, remote, and often inept American father. Along the way he works for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which will create big problems for him when McCarthyism gripes the US (and he has become a well-known novelist).
It’s a big, engrossing story, but I found the historical coincidences to be so overwrought that they interfered with the enjoyment of the story. What are the chances that a talented novelist would be working as a cook for Frida Kahlo, let alone Trotsky? The book is at its best when it describes more ordinary historical events: the draft, the baby boom, the creation of the suburbs. And even better when it captures the Mexican cook who takes the boy under his wing, the racist boarding house owner who will not rent to Jews, the loyal secretary with humble roots and a strong sense of justice, not to forget the conventional, narrow-minded members of the small-town book club. I would have preferred the story to be lower-key.