Monthly Archives: June 2010

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

Having loved The Housekeeper and the Professor for its delicate touch on an unlikely friendship I was ready to savor Hotel Iris. Instead, I was horrified.

I don’t get horrified easily. But the “friendship” this time is between an aging writer (so far so good) and a teenager (why not) that quickly turns into a vicious sadomasochistic relationship (yikes!), with the female teenager as the brutally abused partner. No amount of atmospheric descriptions of the lovely Japanese seaside resort or sugary love letters the writer sends her could overcome my puzzlement as why she would ever seek out that man, or my disgust at the abuse she is made to endure.

And there’s a dumb mother in the book, too, who seems completely blind to the relationship while oppressing the daughter into quasi slave labor. Another reason for me to hate the book.

Avoid!

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See What’s I’m Saying by Lawrence Rosenblum

What a nice treat: a science writer who can bring experiments to life. Whether he’s describing how movie soundtracks are created, how the sound of chips tells us about their taste, or how he managed to sniff out a peppermint-flavored rope while blindfolded (very funny, that one!), the author of See What I’m Saying, brings the reader into the experience of each of our senses, and shows us how our senses combine to create a seamless experience. Very inspiring.

Two nits. One is the overuse of compensating heroes (the blind painter, the blind mountain biker). And the other is the suggestion to add noise to hybrid cars so they don’t take pedestrians unaware. Surely we should all bless silence — and train drivers to pay attention instead.


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The Essential Engineer by Henry Petroski

I thought that The Essential Engineer, by the author of one of my favorite books of all times, The Evolution of Useful Things,  would be a welcome vindication of engineers, who rarely get as much respect as scientists despite their contributions to our well-being. I was disappointed. I found the book to be an aggressive lamentation (really, whining at times and pugnacious otherwise — not a good combination) of the lowly status of engineers followed by rather disconnected stories of the miracles of engineering. the writing gets better as one keeps reading but the overall feeling is messy and disorganized, probably not what engineers would want.

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Stuff by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee

Stuff tells some horrific stories of hoarders, complete with cockroaches-infested apartments and hoarders killed by avalanches of their own junk.  This is the  therapist’s version of Homer and Langley, the fictionalized account of two famous hoarders, who are also referenced in this book.

If hoarding is a mental illness, I may be suffering from its opposite, obsessive de-cluttering (this is per my children, who  may be exaggerating, but I think I would agree with them!)  So reading about people who must, simply must maintain a stash of 34 shampoo bottles at all times, people who cannot throw away an old piece of paper with a phone number but no name, people who must buy three identical magazines at a time so the middle one remains absolutely pristine , people who care for 600 cats (it turns out that it’s not actually possible to care for 600 cats, what a surprise), well such reading is an adventure for me.

The authors are therapists so they try to help sufferers and unfortunately the cure is to very slowly, over a course of many months, help the hoarders decide whether it would perhaps be possible to part with some of their possessions. (My method, which would consists of renting a gigantic dumpster for a day, seems to be absolutely ineffective since hoarders can fill an empty house in a few short weeks.) They also have some pretty simplistic explanations of fear of abandonment morphing into hoarding. If all bad childhoods ended in hoarding we would know about it, wouldn’t we? I wonder if it’s not simply a phenomenon similar to obesity. In our history as a species, saving stuff for a rainy day must have become a successful adaptive behavior. Hoarding is simply saving run amok.

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Priceless by William Poundstone

The subtitle of Priceless is The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), so I was looking forward to some interesting discussions on pricing, and indeed the pricing segments are excellent. They are not as numerous as one might think, however, and the rest of the (exhaustive, bordering exhausting) material is a rehash of many other psychological experiments already recounted in the many other books, some of which he cites,  that probe how we make decisions. Some of the experiments are so contrived that it seems difficult to question the judgment of the poor psychology 101 students who seem to leave so much money on the table. Perhaps they have a heart after all, is that so bad? And perhaps they are right to balk at any risk of loss, since in real life it’s often hard to distinguish small losses and catastrophic ones. (I will admit that they surely, definitely need a math refresher, specifically about probabilities!)

Still, the writing is lively and there’s plenty to learn, both on a personal and business level. I’ll stick to my clockwise method at the supermarket since it seems to be a way to save money! And I will continue to create super-premium offers even if they don’t sell, just so that customers feel they have permission to buy the premium offers.

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Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

After several years of regular yoga classes I thought it was about time to find out a little more about the philosophy behind yoga, and sadly I picked Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, which I found to be boring and surprisingly un-informative. Written by a psychotherapist who went to a short yoga retreat and stayed for ten years, the book talks about the history of the Kripalu center (complete with the sex scandals that seem to be de-rigueur in spiritual organizations with tight hierarchies); his personal vicissitudes (he sobs a lot, as do many others around him); extreme yogis who forget to eat and wander around naked (what an appealing goal); and miraculously simplistic yoga cures (such as the woman abandoned as a child who now likes child pose — please!)

To be fair, there are a few myths about the yoga tradition, unfortunately pretty basic and reminiscent of the more entertaining Greek myths but without all the fun Greek details, but it’s not until  the appendix that we discover  metaphysical information about the yoga tradition, but so compressed and dry as to discourage the most avid reader.

To dispel any ambiguity:  I did not like this book very much. At all.

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The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean

The French are terribly sophisticated and know just how to dress, shop, eat, drink, even wear jewelry to achieve that ultimate chic. Boring drivel? Actually, no. The Essence of Style makes for a fun , if sometimes overly ditzy historical ride through the life of the stylish and obsessively self-centered Sun King, Louis XIV, who made fashion the raison d’etre of the French state, ennobling his cobbler and directing his ministers to a dirigiste approach to industry and commerce that persists in France to this day. I found the political aspects of the book more interesting than the fashion side, but it’s certainly an engaging look at history.

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The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon

The Slippery Year is the memoir of a mom transplanted from the East Coast to the Oakland Hills and still amusingly baffled by the quaint customs of Californians who live in houses without basements, eat flowers, and give medals for all children’s achievements, no matter how insignificant.

She also must be the first one in line to pick up her son at school (to make up for all the other times in her lives when she cannot be first — I get that) and is not afraid to relate her adventures with a New Age therapist who burned bundles of sage around her while speaking about her animal totems…  for years! She feels old, she frets (tremendously) for her son, who seems totally fine and capable to me, and who has fallen in love with a phrase I remember from mine around that age, “no offense, but…”, and she wonders how  her husband’s midlife crisis can bring a camper-van rather than a sports car.

Sweet and funny.

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Ru by Kim Thuy

Ru is the haunting, impressionistic, tragic but always restrained memoir (presented as a novel) of a Vietnamese woman who eventually migrated to French Canada as a boat person. She tells the horrors of the refugee camps, the hunger, the exile in Canada with well-meaning neighbors who feed her and her siblings rice they don’t know how to eat with a fork — all with an understated touch and a deep love for her family.

Perfect.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones is the latest installment in the 44 Scotland Street series and it’s as delightful as the pastries in the title (which, actually, do not make more than one appearance in the story, and a fleeting one at that). The previous books contained remarkably little action but this one features a marriage, a near-drowning,  the discovery of an unknown valuable painting, and the discovery of (another!) illegitimate birth — and that’s on top of  the breakup of an engagement, a subsequent self-rediscovery, and the moving away of Bertie’s psychiatrist (and likely father of his brother).

One of the joys of the series is to feel “as if we were there”, which indeed could be a vast swindle since I’ve never traveled to Edinburgh. But this time there’s also a trip to Perth, Australia (for the honeymoon that follows, as honeymoons do, the wedding) and yes, that wide beach and its lifeguards all sound very, very true to life.

I can’t wait for the next one. Perhaps Bertie will finally turn 7!

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