Monthly Archives: September 2010

Books of the Month – September 2010

There was one book I truly loved this month:

Packing for Mars, about the weird, mundane, and once-upon-a-time my dream world of being an astronaut

And several I liked a lot:

Girl in Translation, a story about being a poor and exploited immigrant (but an unfortunately perfect ending)

Empire of the Summer Moon, the true story of the subjugation of the Plains Indians

The Big Short, a wonderful clear, if depressing, story of the 2008 financial crash

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The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short explains the 2008 stock market crash in refreshingly simple terms, including the best (limpid!) description I’ve read of the dreaded CDOs that doomed even sophisticated investors. The story is scary, highlighting the startling lack of understanding of complicated financial instruments by people who should have known better (including some CEOs of very large financial companies), the humongous profits created by the bubble and feeding the bubble,  the overly cozy relationship between the rating agencies and trading institutions, and the general apathy of regulators (did they not understand the shenanigans that were being perpetrated, like the CEOs?). And what about the press? It’s all very good to be exposing the problems now, after the facts, but it’s not like we were inundated by doom-and-gloom stories during the bubble… I recommend this book, chilling as it is.

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Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman

Beware of books that begin or end with a wedding!  Red Hook Road one begins and ends with a wedding and confirms my no-wedding rule. It is the plodding  story of a rich girl marrying a poor boy and unfortunately dying immediately afterwards, which leaves her pushy mother to repeatedly highlight the difference of status between her family and the groom’s and interfere in many misguided, if perhaps well-intentioned ways. What lack of class! There’s also a younger sister who inexorably but without any apparent chemistry  reason falls in love with the younger brother, probably to achieve the “Greek myth” thrust of the novel. Too bad that the story is so stilted, as the writing is excellent (once it leaves behind the startling mix of Modern Bride and House Beautiful of the first chapters) and there are some fine observations of families and personalities.

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Blind Descent by James Tabor

Blind Descent talks about the very weird world of caving, or cave exploring, and weird applies both to the forbidding environment of deep caves as well as the characters who do the exploration. I had always thought of caving as crawling underground in impossibly tight spaces, and I got confirmation that there are plenty of claustrophobic moments in caves that, coupled with the unrelenting darkness, cause hallucinations and anxiety attacks. Lovely. What I had not thought about before reading this book was scuba-diving in caves. As a rank diving amateur I am even more horrified by the idea of diving in cold water with very low visibility, all in pursuit of the same tight spaces pursued by the crawlers…

The author uses an annoying breathless tone with a mandatory cliffhanger (often a literal one) at the end of each chapter. His fascination with one of the two cavers profiled in the book is also wearisome, but the topic is certainly different and interesting despite the cold, the filth, the dangers, and the trail of cadavers!

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Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

I don’t much care for history books, and I certainly turned pages a little fast at times during the more tedious chapters, but I enjoyed Empire of the Summer Moon, which tells the story of an unlikely Comanche chief whose white mother was kidnapped as a child by this father’s tribe, and who oversaw the end of the tribe’s warlike culture into a dreary reservation.

Along the way, the author explains how the tribes that adopted horses when they were introduced in the Americas became dominant,  how very violent the cultures of both the Plains Indians and the Texas Rangers were, how improvements in weaponry created the downfall of the last remaining tribes, and how the appalling treatment of Indians by the US government is only matched by the uninformed and  incapable bureaucracy responsible to run the reservations. It’s too bad that so little is known about Quanah Parker, whose intelligence and curiosity illuminate the story.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I was disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, not because it’s a bad book, but because it has been acclaimed as a masterpiece and it did not perform to its applause for me. Let’s start with the good stuff. The setting, a Dutch trading post in traditionalist, scripted, closed Japan at the start of the 19th century, is appealing exotic. The characters, from the goody-two-shoes hero to the wise physician and especially the Japanese interpreters, are finely observed, down to their fingertips who can feel the notches in the cards to help them cheat. The forgotten limitations of the era, from the rarity of books to the slowness of communications from the motherland, weigh heavily.

Unfortunately, I could not really believe the main story. A foreigner falling in love at first sight with a Japanese woman is plausible. A foreigner falling in love at first sight with a Japanese woman whose face is badly burned is not. An escapee of an ignoble cult voluntarily going back to the cult because she feels bad for the women that are still inside? Not likely. And the same ignoble cult taking her back and not “disappearing” her on the spot? I don’t think so. Too bad. The writing, details, and atmosphere are superb.

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The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold

The Tenth Parallel tells horrific stories of poverty and especially violence from African and Asian countries along the north of the equator and promotes the idea that most of the violence is created by religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims. Certainly the author did not invent the violence or the conflicts, but even through this book transpires the simple fact that many of the same countries being profiled used to enjoy much better, even harmonious relationships between the two religious communities when economic times were better — and the relentless insistence that the religious conflicts are inevitable bothered me. Indeed, the saddest parts of the book, beside the killings and maiming, are the portraits of various religious figures who fan or incite the violence. Perhaps the problem is them more than any essential conflict between their creeds.

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