No overwhelmingly perfect book this month but I liked these four stories:
- Forest Gate, a tough story of Somalian immigrants in a grim London suburb
- Labor Day, a sweet long weekend if you can forget the unlikeliness of it all
- Frozen Sun, a mystery set in Alaska with a tortured love story weaved in
- Atlas of Unknowns, a story of two Indian sisters, lies, and do-gooders Americans
Eating Animals is about not eating animals because it’s bad for the planet and, unsurprisingly, bad for the animals (who knew?). The book starts in a light-hearted and personal mood with the author’s grandmother stuffing him with food as she remembers the deprivation of WWII, but then settles in a strident, if not always one-sided, expose of factory farming techniques. It’s a little hard to face chicken after reading the descriptions of their often unsanitary killing methods, not to mention their limited lives, but I feel quite fine eating a Thanksgiving turkey that’s been (the author’s word!) unloved.
Clearly there’s much that could be done to guard against the follies of agribusiness (surely those chickens could be slaughtered more cleanly). But it seems to me that a more productive alternative to the moral diktat against meat, since we are natural omnivores, would be to focus on the quantity and quality of the meat we eat. And I would vote to concentrate on making sure human beings are treated fairly before agitating about unloved turkeys.
The Quants features arrogant math and computer science wizs, indecent displays of wealth, and obsessively controlling financial company executives. What’s there to like? Not much, as the book tediously lumbers through the story of how the inmates of the asylum blindly ignored the inconvenient fact that the “reasonable” assumptions built into their clever trading programs could be overrun — and the guards, the regulators, either were too limited to see that or did not dare stop the mad building of play money.
The author of Fly by Wire has a simple view of why US Airways Flight 1549 landed safely in the Hudson River on a cold day of January, 2009: it was the plane. It’s true that most plane crashes are caused by pilot errors, and he regales us with several tales of foolishness to illustrate that fact, and it’s true that the Airbus was designed from the start to counteract bad pilot decisions — but his adamant refusal, at least until the last chapters, to recognize the pilot’s and crew’s contribution comes across as shrill and perhaps jealous (the captain seems to have gotten a much better book deal than he did!) He also over-reaches his conclusions: how can he know what really happened with the Air France flight from Brazil to Paris that disappeared over the Atlantic and firmly asserts that it was not a plane problem? Add to that some curiously insensitive one-liners (the French are “less weak than they may seem”, a gratuitous comment after a plane crash that killed three people; a Hispanic woman on the US Airways flight as a “Latin” version of events because her memory differs from others) and you have a book that is not endearing, to say the least.
Read what the pilot wrote instead.
The Tyranny of E-mail starts with a short history of communication through the ages, from clay tablets to mail to the telegraph, and segues into a long moan about how email is gobbling up our time, destroying social bonds, and turning us into, gasp, non-readers. I’ll let you judge how email could translate to non-reading, as I have yet to master the feat of reading email without, well, reading. (The author means the death of reading actual books, books in which paragraphs are indicated by indented lines rather than skipped lines (I’m not kidding on this point, even as I use blasphemous embedded parentheses.) But that doesn’t mean people are not reading!)
While I completely agree that Blackberry junkies should be avoided (Blackberries under the pillow at night? please!), it’s really all about the way we allow our lives to be invaded, or not, by technology. I, for one, bless email for allowing easy communication with people in far-flung locations.
In brief, the only thing I really liked in this book is a diagram of Arpanet, circa March, 1977, clearly showing beloved, ancient PDP-10s and 11s scattered around the country in such lovely spots as NSA, Belvoir, Mofett, and the Lawrence Livermore Lab. Wonder what the purpose was for all that technology…
In a contrived format supposed to highlight the writing of her memoir by the long-retired headmistress of a Catholic boarding school for girls, Unfinished Desires tells the story of mothers and daughters who attended the school, at convenient twenty-year intervals, creating long-lasting hatreds and intense, if short-lived friendships.
The stifling atmosphere of the school, all the more so because of the overbearing personality of the headmistress, is nicely rendered but the rest of the story seems overdone, tedious, and worse of all, not believable. It’s hard to believe that fifteen-year old girls in a 50s’ Catholic boarding school would be quite so well-informed about adults’ romantic goings-on. And those little rivalries and petty bullying episodes are so dull. The most fluent part of the book are the descriptions of modern-days house remodeling, hair stylist, and other episodes of affluent suburbs — not that they are any more interesting than the teenage gossip.
How about a non-fiction book that reads like a mystery? Flawless is the story of a gigantic heist of diamonds and many other goodies from the heart of the diamond district in Antwerp. Although most of the thieves were caught and sentenced, almost none of the looted pieces were ever found — and clearly if you’re going to steal something a diamond is a great choice because it’s essentially impossible to trace.
But what I found most interesting in this book is not the diamonds but the way the elaborate security measures were defeated by a careful study of the habits of the security guards, and in that I was reminded of other books about art thefts, recent or not. It seems that whatever the thickness of the steel door protecting the treasures, it’s very, very useful not to store the key in a closet nearby!
The author, having done background research on Italy (the country of the thieves) and diamonds, unhelpfully includes rather irrelevant bits of his research here and there. I’m pretty sure that the Punic wars are fascinating to some, but they have little bearing on this particular story. And he repeatedly expresses surprise that the Belgian justice system works differently from the US system – why not? But you can skip the boring bits.
What did Jared Diamond do before he started writing about guns, germs, steel, and societal collapses ? Well, he wrote about how men can breastfeed (apparently the only real problem is societal acceptance, not the plumbing bit), why old people function as encyclopedia in traditional societies (so the main threat to a glorious old age may be Wikipedia), and why Porsches have more in common with peacock feathers than Toyotas. All that and many more fun facts can be found in Why Is Sex Fun? in an enjoyable package.
In Family Album, an apparently normal, if eccentric British family slowly reveals a more bizarre story of unusual marriage arrangements that slowly became known to all family members but were never discussed until the death of the patriarchal and caricatural father. (True, my own father rarely recalled our ages but he did not seem to dissociate himself so completely from the rest of us.) Actually that’s the problem with the novel. Each member of the large family is a caricature: the absent-minded dad, the mother-hen mom, the earthy au-pair who never left, the alcoholic, over-loved oldest son, and so on down the line.
Perhaps a good choice if you enjoy dissecting how the same event can be interpreted in very different way by its actors.
Forest Gate is the devastatingly brutal story of two young adults with horrific personal history, one in Somalia and the other is the bleak London suburb where they now live. The opening scene is of a double suicide but the savageness goes up from there rather than down: civil war, drug violence on a scale I foolishly thought was confined to this side of the Atlantic ocean, relatives pimping children. Not an easy novel, but one that shows hope among the deaths.