Monthly Archives: May 2010

Books of the Month – May 2010

For the first time since I started the “books of the month” posts I can only find 3 books I really liked this month — but they are great:

Making Toast – a poignant and pitch-perfect memoir of a grandfather

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain – an optimistic view at how smart we middle-aged people are (yeah!)

The Double Comfort Safari Club – another installment from Botswana, a good one this time!

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One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I was prepared for some serious schlock. The blurb on the cover of One Amazing Thing promised the adventures of a group of carefully diverse people trapped in an Indian consulate after an earthquake (in an unnamed city, but one that feels much like San Francisco). How much more boringly politically correct can we get? And yet, as the group starts to tell personal stories while waiting, in vain, for rescue, I was drawn into the stories of civil wars, bad marriages, and new beginnings. Despite the unsatisfying ending I enjoyed the book.

Note to some doubting family members: crowbars are most useful after earthquakes, as noted by the one character who knows something about survival techniques on page 48 and who wishes he had one handy! (I got a crowbar as a specifically requested Christmas present a couple of years ago and I hope never to have an occasion to use it. It has been the source of much amused dinner conversation.)

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Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

How I loved Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually) and Operating Instructions. Alas, Imperfect Birds simply bored me. Perhaps it’s because it’s a novel, and the same themes that work so well as a journal — life in granola Marin County, struggling with how best to raise children, navigating right and wrong —  simply do not adapt well to characters who are not as complex and charmingly vulnerable as the author.

In any case, there’s a teenager whose friends come back from rehab to partake in more wild parties, her mother who does not want to accept the pretty obvious fact of the daughter’s drug abuse and just keeps providing money, rides, and whatever else is needed to continue in the same vein while she worries about whether her precious daughter will be able to get into a good college (perhaps there are more pressing issues to worry about?), and a most likable (step)dad who, left to his own devices, would comfortably impose some limits and well-deserved consequences — but is never left to his own devices. So we get utterly boring descriptions of being on drugs (why does anyone seek the effect of not being oneself? clearly I don’t see the point); brooding on how terribly expensive cocaine is (good thing, methinks); and, I feel a rant coming on, incorrect French quotes (please! I will gladly proofread any French phrases in any upcoming book).

Read the memoirs instead. They are wonderful.

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The Private Patient by PD James

The Private Patient is a journalist looking for a new look at a fancy cosmetic surgery clinic located in a historic castle — and she is promptly murdered. The famous Adam Dalgliesh is dispatched to investigate and finds that many of those who work at the clinic have pasts they are trying to hide and axes to grind, sometimes with each other.

Suspense, elegant writing, and intellectual notes and musings carries the reader through the thick book, replete with more murders and an apparently gratuitous assault of a minor character. It’s quite pleasant but somehow lacks  convincing center.

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Solar by Ian McEwan

I loved Atonement but I hated On Chesil Beach and I thought Saturday was only fair, so when I picked up Solar I was hopeful but my expectations were moderate — and were met and perhaps slightly exceeded. The story is the improbable tale of a washed up Nobel prize winner in physics whose latest marriage (number 5!) is unravelling because of the shocking development that his wife has taken a lover. Usually he has been the one and the only one to behave that way. So he moves out and steals a colleague’s research to start a new company that makes solar systems, eventually finding doom but not before multiple adventures, with women of course but also with his own self as he funnily struggles with forgetfulness and increasing gluttony while trying to maintain what we Americans believe is British decorum.

The best part of the book is the internal dialogue. The horror when he realizes he mistakenly ate a stranger’s chips — and stole his water bottle, to boot. His scheming to seduce his first wife by quoting from her beloved Milton. His staging a fake dialog with a presumed lover to fool his roving wife that he, too, is having fun.  The story itself has many twists but they none seems very fresh and the physics mumbo-jumbo must be read quickly not to see the holes.

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The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Another book with a wonderful premise that fails to deliver. The Irresistible Henry House is a “practice baby”, an orphan who is raised in the home economics department of a women’s college with the goal of preparing young ladies to become mothers. So every week, a new student comes to live in the practice house and feeds, cleans, and plays with the baby until she passes it on to the next student — or until the baby turns two, at which age he is promptly adopted into a “real” family. It’s amazing that no one figured that perhaps this was not such a great setup for the baby, one, and two, that women could perhaps be trained in other fields than home economics.

But the book tells the life story of Henry House, not just his first two years. And the author is determined to show that such a succession of “mothers” will necessarily turn the boy into a cad who is unable to form lasting attachments with women. Never mind that his adoptive mother is somewhat awkward and thwarted in her affections by the boy’s real and powerful grandfather. Never mind that his real mother finds him again and abandons him again, twice! Never mind that much of his adventures could be viewed as benign philandering rather than — must we always go there? — his mothers’ fault, plural this time. So we plod onward for another 250 pages as Henry grows up and dutifully shows off the author’s considerable research into life in New York City in the 50’s, the Disney studios in the 60’s, and London in the late 60’s. This reader was bored.

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Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

Making Toast is a lovely memoir of a grandfather, complete with adorable anecdotes of young children’s adventures and their grandfather’s inventions. Amongst my favorites, his reading pretend stories from a book his grandson chose (from the grandfather’s library!), The Letters of James Joyce, about going to the beach, or going to the playground, and a few closer to reality bu pitched to a two-year old (“I’m leaving Ireland.”) But the real story is that the kids’ mother, the author’s daughter, has died young and suddenly and they are helping their son-in-law raise three small children rather than enjoy semi-retirement in what we glimpse to be a very comfortable New England house, abandoned for their grandchildren’s suburban home.

There’s occasional sadness, grief, despair, but the tone is not sentimental or dramatic. To balance their essential bad luck, those children are so very lucky to have the grandparents they have.

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In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik

In Pursuit of Silence is written by someone who loves and needs quiet to function. Not surprisingly, he argues that, as our world becomes noisier, we are becoming less able to function, but his aim is not to demonstrate that noise makes us crazy and eventually deaf. Rather, he tells stories about noise. About our founding fathers who asked that the cobblestones of the street they were working on be covered with dirt so they could labor in peace. About police officers who turn off the TV to magically resolve family arguments. About MRI studies that show neurons firing off during silent pauses, not the notes of music. About the people who outfit their cars with speakers so large that the sound they produces melts the roofs of the car (a hilarious chapter!) About the Japanese tea ceremony that’s really about silence, to the point that participants breathe together to minimize the sound of the breath.

And he has a very long and to me quite irrelevant and boring chapter about deaf culture.  So not all the stories work equally well…

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Mount Pleasant by Steve Poizner

Mount Pleasant tells of Steve Poizner’s semester of teaching American Government in a San Jose high school. Poizner is now a candidate for governor of California after a successful career as a high-tech entrepreneur and this book has been controversial with the very high school where he taught — critics feel that he painted the school with very dark colors and exaggerated the problems of the school together with his contributions.

I think that the controversy may come in part from the simple fact that the life he led as a rich executive, insulated from regular folks by his job, his hometown, the private school his daughter attended, has so very little in common with the everyday life of the students in the San Jose high school (and, to be sure, with the life of the very citizens he wants to govern!) The sad thing is that he doesn’t seem to fully realize the gap. For instance, at some point he is astounded that his students do not know what a venture capitalist does. Why should they? And I can’t help thinking that they must know a lot of practical  facts he is not aware of!

For instance, that teaching is not easy. His general demeanor at the beginning of the book (a little tempered by the end, thank goodness!)  is that he’s so smart that the hierarchy of the school should simply open up its arms (do hierarchies have arms?) and give him a job as a teacher. But why? Why would he be anointed as a teacher without specific training or experience?

It’s scary to read that a would-be governor could be so out of touch. And in any case he’s already decided that charter schools are the answer to bad-quality public schools. I’m not one to pretend that public schools function ideally. But perhaps trying to fix the very real dysfunctions of public schools would be more powerful than setting up a parallel system.

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The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Having loved Native Speaker and Aloft, I was very much looking forward to The Surrendered. I was disappointed.

The scope of this novel is huge and that may be part of the problem. It aims for a saga that takes us from the Korean War to modern times, the life of June Han who starts out as a starving orphan and achieves a successful life as a New York antiques dealer, but not without losing her son. The novel is told in a mix of flashbacks and straight narratives with multiple scenes of extreme violence, perhaps necessary to convey the horrors of the wars but rather overwhelming. The characters seem other-worldly, and not in a good way. June herself is so single-minded she borders on psychopathy. And the twists of the story are so improbable. How could the newly acquired lover of the boy’s father be so neatly killed (accidently) by the mother’s supposed travel companion so that the long-estranged parents then have to travel to Europe together? And that trip reads like the author spent too much time in Italy researching the book, sleeping in nice hotel and enjoying the food.

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