Monthly Archives: April 2010

Books of the Month – April 2010

I loved two funny British books this month:

And another mystery, this one based in Alaska, White Sky, Black Ice.

And finally a more serious book, Devotion, a ruminating memoir that can please a non-ruminator like me!

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The Hole We’re In by Gabrielle Zevin

I guess that The Hole We’re In is the obligatory contemporary novel about the folly of American families living beyond their means. The start is awkward, with the family’s ten-year old daughter’s aging to a mysterious 16 in just four years. Maybe that’s the kind of math that leads her mother to overload all the family’s credit card and start applying for more in her (adult) children’s names. The characters are mostly caricatures. There’s the smart, self-reliant older son and the spoiled, demanding, otherworldly selfish older daughter. The religious nut father and his domineering, vampy professor. The daughter’s black boyfriend who is a football superstar and cannot swim (please!)

The only glimmer of interest lies in the second part of the book, when the younger daughter returns from Iraq (where she went to qualify for college tuition, which her always loving father denied her because she left the church) and tries to resume her married life with great difficulty. The drama feels real, even if for only 50 pages.

For the rest… How many clueless abortions can one family take?

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The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook is a misleading title, since the book’s topic, as accurately portrayed by the subtitle, is really the genesis of New York’s toxicology lab and its founder, Charles Norris, who was the city’s first trained medical examiner starting in 1918.

The history is somewhat annoyingly organized around various poisons, how they were used by various criminals, and how they were detected — or not —  by the lab. So we follow cases of  family violence,  industrial poisoning (with a great story about radium),  insurance frauds, and alcohol adulteration as promoted by prohibition. Each story is a mix of politics, chemistry, and pure crime reporting. So the book should be a gripping tale, right? Sadly, it did not have that effect on me. Perhaps it would have been better to stick with either a historical format or a mystery.

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Devotion by Dani Shapiro

I’m not one to go much for ruminating but I liked this ruminating memoir very much. Devotion talks about the author’s struggle with faith, her difficult relationship with her parents, and her yearning to belong to a community with which she can truly identify.

What made the ruminating so appealing to me was its setting, straight into real life, with her dead mother’s overstuffed closets, with the ridiculous names of yoga retreat programs (“Coyote Healing: The Power of Native-American Spirituality”!),  and especially her young son’s funny and inadvertently deep comments (“what if all that was just a dream?” – reminded me of my own son, in younger days).

So while shopping for an acceptable synagogue is probably not an activity I would engage in, the author’s need to  belong to a community larger than her nuclear family (too small) or her extended family (too Orthodox) resonated with me — along with her belief that life is very fragile, although I would take that as an opportunity to find joy in little things rather than the anxiety that grips her.

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful story of a stodgy retired officer who falls in love with the local Pakistani shop owner and eventually sheds his obsession with his father’s inheritance and some of his friends to live a new life with her. There’s also a yuppie son without much ethics, a ruined country gentleman who’d like to hang on to his lifestyle but cannot afford to, and a funny American businessman with money and a desire for British hauteur. O, and a hilariously disastrous country club party.

It just goes to show that a book about racism, unlike the one reviewed in the last post, needs not be boring or predictable.

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The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

Another novel with a great premise that does not quite succeed. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky obligingly does so, spectacularly, in the first chapter, and the boy who sees her falling never forgets her. She is falling from the sky because her white Danish mother is overwhelmed by raising biracial children in an unfriendly America, and after her fall she goes to live with her African-American grandmother where she constantly reflects on race and her “in-between” position, always keeping her musings perfectly PC and surroundered with often caricatural characters, starting with the church-going grandmother who holds on to her Southern ways despite decades in Portland, OR.

The first chapter is perfect, and many of the observations from the children’s perspectives are spot on, but otherwise the story feels too carefully arranged.

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The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett

The Poker Bride tells the story of early Chinese immigrants to the United States, organized around the story of a woman, the bride who was, perhaps, won in a poker game, who came to San Francisco and onward to Idaho as an enslaved prostitute and who eventually married the saloon keeper and outlived him, still living in a wood cabin by a river, with no modern conveniences. I found the book compelling because the focus on Polly Bemis gives it an immediate human dimension, and also because much of the story focuses on the early and stupendous growth of San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

If you’re interested in Asian immigration to the US I would recommend another book, Strangers from a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki, which is more comprehensive and far-reaching — but without the focused human interest of the poker bride.

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The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade

In The Faith Instinct, the author attempts to demonstrate that human beings are genetically programmed for religion and that we, as a species, evolved over time to become more religious. The problem is that he does not quite do that. He manages to make a good argument that ethical behavior helps us survive — at least if you can believe that group selection occurs alongside individual selection. He also shows that evolution has made us ready to love night-club dancing along with belonging to the Rotary club. Religion? maybe not so much.

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Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

Last Night in Twisted River is the cleverly constructed saga of a family of men (father, son, grandson) surrounded my men-friends, men-coworkers, and men-enemies — and the many women they sleep with, many of them freaks of one kind or another as befits a John Irving novel. As the story moves from the woods of New Hampshire to Boston’s North End, on to Iowa and finally to Toronto, and as the protagonists age, their lives are also retraced and recombined in the son’s novels for a pleasingly complex effect.

The story made me want to keep turning the pages, close to 600 of them, and I found the descriptions of the father’s concern and love for his son, from childhood all the way to late adulthood, affecting and well-rendered. At the same time, the story could have done without so many freaks, freak accidents, and gory encounters — and minus some belabored descriptions of music or other trends at each of the many steps in the half-century saga. We know the author has money to pay many research assistants. Don’t make it so transparent.

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The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

The Ask starts with an interesting premise: a bad fundraiser for a mediocre university is rescued from a layoff by the promise of a college friend to make a large bequest, only to become the donor’s instrument in shady dealings. Meanwhile his wife is getting ready to leave him and his son’s preschool opens only sporadically for business, creating childcare dilemmas. I found two great characters in the book, sadly minor ones: the little boy, whose sweet but not innocent comments perfectly illustrate how young children’s worlds don’t quite coincide with ours; and the temp, smarter and much more hard-working than the hero, who manipulates and forces his way to a real job. The backdrop of rich donors and university politics is amusing, to a point, but the ongoing complaints of the hero — accompanied by very little action to rectify the problems he moans about —  become tedious mid-way through the book.

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