Monthly Archives: December 2009

Books of the Month – December 2009

It’s quite a hodgepodge this month, with very different genres of books:

Enjoy!

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You Better not Cry by Augusten Burroughs

Beware of little books designed to be easy Christmas gifts (no, I did not learn, and I was not scared away by the risque cover, either). You Better Not Cry is a set of un-Christmas stories that range from boring (boring! from the author of Running with Scissors!) to revolting, even considering the usual range of the author. Only the last story redeems itself with a sweetly ironic house flood and assorted cast of characters that attack the problem with their sometimes inept and always idiocentric ways. Delightful! But that’s only one story out of seven.

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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn is the story of a young woman who is stuck in a circumscribed life in a small Irish town, living with her mother and older sister and unable to find proper work despite her accounting skills. By chance she gets to immigrate to the US where she finds employment, career opportunities, a house that’s heated through the night (she particularly enjoys that!), and a sweetheart. She then returns to Ireland for a vacation that may well be a permanent return.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of the book that describes her journey to America: how difficult it is for her to set on a solitary long-distance journey, her surprise at the different lifestyle in the US, the double reality of her new life and the unchanging Irish town. Then the story got less interesting. Her Italian boyfriend is almost too good to be true and it’s not clear what exactly she sees in him. And then she goes to Ireland on a visit and gets sucked into another romance? That doesn’t make much sense either. Too bad, this immigrant story started well.

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Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel

Scroogenomics has a simple message: Christmas presents cost more than they are appreciated by the recipient, hence should be eschewed in favor of more “efficient” transfers of wealth like money. What a heart-warming thought. Now, it seems that we are “allowed” to give presents to our children and significant others because we know them well enough to know what, exactly, will please them. That’s a relief!

It seems that the general public doesn’t agree with economists since it treats Christmas expenditures like necessities rather than luxuries (page 97 in the book). I guess that the smart economist packages his Grinch message into small books perfectly suited to be stocking stuffers. A bit cynical, no?

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How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

How I Became a Famous Novelist starts brilliantly,  with a naked attempt to gain fame (to impress an ex-girlfriend) by writing a successful novel. So the her, whose day job is to write college admission essays for barely articulate foreigners (a very entertaining part of the story), decides to create a book by the numbers, as it were, becoming more of a marketeer than a writer. It’s very funny at first, including the fake best-sellers lists and the skewering of “a year of being weird” books I’ve wondered about myself (No Impact Man, The Year of Living Biblically).

But the satire runs less and less funny and more drawn out and by the time the marketeer-author shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding we know and hope that he will embarrass himself. (He does not disappoint.)

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How Beautiful it is and how easily it can be Broken by Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn is a media critic and How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken is a collection of reviews he has written over the years about books, plays, and movies, putting me in the strange situation of reviewing the reviewer. Now Mendelsohn’s approach is vastly more erudite and sweeping than mine: his reviews go on for pages , minutely analyze the nuances of the piece, and contrast it with others and past performances when applicable, so much so that reading the reviews pretty much requires that the reader be familiar with the piece to begin with. Indeed, I found that the reviews of plays I did not know were almost impossible to understand.

And for the ones I did know, I found the critic to be o so picky: nothing is ever perfect enough for him and it seems that his goal is to find the flaws, which he does, always! Where is the pleasure of reading (or watching a play)? Can’t he ever get moved by a glorious story and let the inconsistencies and imperfections just lie there, perhaps noticed but who cares if they don’t get in the way of the work?

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Highest Duty by Sully Sullenberger

It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and the pickings at the library are slim: now is the time to grab a book just to have one more to read, and let’s not worry too much about what it is. So that day I picked Highest Duty, the memoir by the pilot of USair 1549 that landed into the Hudson River in January 2009. Cheesiness risk: very high.

And… I loved the book! Sure, it’s not the literary masterpiece of the century, even of the month, but the ghost writer (Jeffrey Zaslow, identified right on the cover) did a wonderful job of spinning the story of the fateful five minutes of that flight into 300 enjoyable pages that are intertwined with the life story of a regular guy who takes great pains to explain that he just did his job that day. What a contrast with Bill O’Reilly, the memoir of each I reviewed yesterday! Mr. Sullenberger is always gracious, thankful for his mentors from the very first chapter, and remarkably transparent about his strengths and weaknesses as a pilot, a husband, and a father. He speaks candidly but never bitterly about the radical changes in the airline industry that result in silly practices like not feeding the pilots during flights (whoever thought that up?) or paying them only once they have pushed from the date (I now understand why waiting on the tarmac is so common!)

It would be good to think that every pilot is as dedicated as the author to safety. He was lucky that day, but also supremely well-prepared. If you like the story, I recommend listening to the conversation with the air traffic controller: it’s a great performance both of the pilot and the controller.

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