Monthly Archives: June 2010

Books of the Month – June 2010

This month was a great month: I read lots of books I liked. Here are four I truly loved:

Ru — the tragic but tender story of a Vietnamese immigrant to Canada

Short — an uplifting (!) book about being short and happy

The Slippery Year — a mom’s funny but deep account of worrying about her son

The Lonely Polygamist — the funny but deep travails of a man with too many wives and children

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Twighlight by Stephanie Meyer

I was challenged by my older daughter to read Twilight, a book that she has denounced for years for promoting a reprehensible view of women as totally dependent on their boyfriends and husbands. Therefore, I bravely borrowed the 500-page tome from the library and set out to read it over the weekend. My very low expectations were shattered. This is a terrible book, and not because of the dependent woman problem, which is indeed in evidence but is abundantly overshadowed by more basic issues, as in the story is (very!) boring, it’s completely unbelievable, and it’s badly written.

Let’s start with boring. The first 200 pages describe the first few weeks of high school of a not-so-bright senior, class by class and friend by frenemy. 200 pages of tedium, during which nothing happens, until the heroine suddenly and for no reason whatsoever falls in love with Edward the vampire (I’ll come back to that). Yawn.

Then, we have the little vampire problem. Somehow we are to believe that Edward and his ilk (apparently it’s not ilk, it’s coven) have lived in a tiny little town for years without anyone suspecting that perhaps there’s something a little different with these folks – like they suck animals’ blood (not humans’, probably as not to scare the readers). We are to believe that the same silly little senior will fall in love with someone who want to suck her blood (but will resist since he l-o-v-e-s her — what other silly things will she believe?) That Edward is 400-years old, which would make the series into a pedophile’s paradise. That vampires have all kinds of telepathic abilities but somehow need their cell phones to call each other.  And it’s not just the vampire bits that are unbelievable. The girl’s father, who is the police chief of the small town and is smart enough to disconnect her battery on dance nights, somehow allows her to drive to school alone on the first day and does not question her returning with Edward from a trip she took with her girlfriends. What kind of small-town police chief is that?

And finally, let’s appreciate  the quality of the writing. Here’s a sample dialog:

“- Charlie’s gonna be late.
– Oh. Well, I guess I’ll see you later, then, Bella.
– Sure.
– Take care.”

Exciting, huh? And the terribly flat prose is ornamented by random, fussy, SAT-grade adjectives (alabaster, yes, used exclusively as an adjective, verbose, convulsive) that recall a desperately empty college essay.

I cannot fathom how the series has become so successful. There’s nothing there.

I’m happy, though. I won my bet.


Filed under New fiction

Short by John Schwarz

A few days ago, I had the bittersweet pleasure of attending a junior high school graduation, where I saw 350 14-year olds march across the stage to receive their diplomas. Tall girls. Big girls, much more ample than I am. Skinny, tiny little things on three-inch heels. Girls in unaccustomed dresses, complete with soccer tans (oops, that one was mine, along with her teammates!) And the boys, some tall enough and grown enough to need shaving, others, well, I hope they will grow in high school.

When I read Short, I thought of the short boys again. Written by a man who is 5’3″, it neatly debunks the myths that short people can’t get hired, make less money than others, and can’t find a girl. It deconstructs the stereotypes and shows that what really matters is what we make of our height. Embrace it and we’ll be happy and successful (and get the girl!) Fun to read, and I would think a great gift for those boys who have not yet hit their growth spurt.

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The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

The Lonely Polygamist is the story of a polygamist family: the lonely and overwhelmed husband of the title, his four wives, his twenty-eight children, or at least a few who can be singled out from the crowd, and his almost-mistress, whom he meets while supervising the building of, what else, a brothel! It all sounds like a sensationalist trainwreck but I found the story funny, tender, and peopled by characters that are much deeper than the cartoons the situation might suggest.

There’s the husband, who so wishes to find more time for each of his children, not to mention his wives, and who runs himself ragged trying to provide for the tribe. There are the wives, who are neither the drab portraits of rectitude one could expect nor the merely abused victims of the system, but have a past, several of them, which comes back when an unexpected woman’s magazine pops up in the hair stylist pile, and who cope more or less successfully with the stunning workload of raising many children with little money and the heartbreak of losing some of the children. (There’s a flawless  stillborn scene, especially remarkable for a male author.) And there is perhaps the best character of the lot, a  lost preteen boy who so desperately needs a mom (sorry, she’s depressed) or a dad (overwhelmed) and instead finds explosives and a loner friend, to predictable results.

While the story goes overboard as it progresses (it seems that the family has enough problems not to be haunted by long-ago nuclear tests), I enjoyed the book, all 600+ pages of it.


Filed under New fiction

The Lonely Soldier by Helen Benedict

The Lonely Soldier tells the stories of five women who fought in Iraq, a topic that could be very interesting. But right from the start the author hammers out statistics that are had to believe, such as 90% of female veterans were sexually harassed during their service, half the women recruited in the army have been sexually abused as children, or an eye-popping 70% of potential male recruits are too fat, too gay, or too delinquent to qualify to join. The book goes on to rant against the Iraq war, the silly bureaucracy within the armed forces, the unfair privileges of military contractors (repeatedly!), so much so as to obscure the (horrific) life stories of the five women along with any sense of a balanced coverage of facts. And with the bath water goes the baby. If women are so vulnerable to heavy weapon loads, harsh living conditions, and the uncontrollable urges of their fellow soldiers, are we not building a rationale for why they should not be able to choose to be soldiers?

There are many other good books about the soldiers in Iraq (for instance Joker One and Final Salute). Too bad we can’t get a good one about the women soldiers.

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You Don’t Really Know Me by Terri Apter

Feeling rather inadequate with a grand total of one significant fight with my two daughters (the younger one is 14, so I suppose there’s still hope), I decided to see how the other side lives and to read You Don’t Really Know Me, a book about mother-daughter fights. I came away unimpressed. The author’s point of view is that teenagers want to differentiate themselves from their mothers and create a new relationship with them, but the examples she gave seem to suggest it’s the moms who are struggling — like the one who could not understand why her teenage daughter simply needs to be alone from time to time, or the one whose greatest goal is to be best friends with her daughter.

Come on ladies, let’s give the girls some room and let’s not hesitate to lay down the law when needed. One good fight at the right time will save hundreds down the line.

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The Possessed by Elif Batman

The Possessed is the rambling story of a graduate student in Russian literature and her travels to learned conferences as well as a particularly unsuccessful linguistic study trip to Uzbekistan. No adventure ever unfolds plainly since there is always some connection to a famous or obscure Russian novel, which is quoted and noted in detail, sometimes successfully for the ignoramus (me) who has not read or cannot recall said novel, sometimes to disastrously boring results. There were enough funny, absurd moments int he first half of the book to keep my interest. I then grew increasingly tired of Dostoyevsky’s difficulties in paying his debts and the inane bathroom problems plaguing the International Tolstoy Scholars’ conference

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Filed under True story

Bonk by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor and a willingness to tackle oddball topics. I had loved her first book, Stiff, in which she discussed corpses, decay, and bizarre organ transplant tales. In Bonk, she tackles the science of sex with the same mix of the absurd (don’t miss the chapter on sow insemination), the essential weirdness of scientific experimentation (measuring apparatus sometimes, shall we say, gets in the way), and the extreme weirdness of humanity (as in men who request testicle implants, which are currently made for dogs only — don’t ask — so who must first purchase the implants on the internet before delivering them to their surgeons). Be sure to read the footnotes.It’s where the strange Roman gods and bizarre animal experiments are noted.

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My Job, My Self by Al Gini

My Job, My Self explores jobs and careers and how we often define ourselves through the (paid) work we do. The author easily shifts from quoting Latin to Studs Terkel and focuses on how many people are simply not happy at work. It seems that only 15% of Americans did in 1995; it’s a little sad for me to think I’m part of such a slim minority. And when he quotes Alan Dershowitz to say, “I would never do many of the things in my personal life that I have to do as a lawyer”, it’s clear that the alienation is not the sole domain of people with repetitive, brainless McJobs.

The book does best when it focuses on work. When it meanders to, of all things, shopping (with the tenuous link that work makes shopping possible, although his stories suggest that the spending is often of funny money, aka credit cards), it’s less successful. And like the last book I reviewed this one also says that most people’s ideal lifestyle is a small town. I wonder if people who wish to live in a small town have really thought through the limitations of small towns together with their charms?

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The Next Hundred Million by Joel Kotkin

What will be US look like in 2050? A great question, the answer to which I’m most curious about. Unfortunately, The Next Hundred Million meanders, proceeds by anecdotes and bandwagon-hopping, and sometimes seems to live in another world from most people — for instance stating that since married couple cannot all afford to live in wealthy Los Gatos they are therefore tempted to leave California. Surely there are more affordable locales than Los Gatos, even in the Bay Area?

I’m not sure that the best model for development are Los Angeles or Phoenix, but apparently that’s where we are going. Or perhaps we are, instead, all moving to livable small towns and working remotely. The author never reconciles the contradiction. Or perhaps we are not moving at all. That’s another trend he describes, without relating it to others. Frustrating.

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Filed under Non fiction