Monthly Archives: November 2010

** The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick

The Facebook Effect tells the story of the company and its founder and leader, Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to start a company with now 500 million users and a stratospheric valuation. But, we are told, it’s really about changing the world, not making money. Interesting, in this context, that a 19-year old student would carefully assign a 5% ownership to one of his consigliere when Facebook was still  called Thefacebook and served as a Harvard-only directory…

The book does a good job of highlighting  Facebook’s technical innovations and how Zuckerberg’s vision led more than once to conflicts with the users since his view is that everyone wants to share all their data with everyone else, without much of a concept of private data or even different circles of acquaintances — not to mention advertisers! It may work well for the average college student but perhaps not so well for others who may not want to treat grandma, their friends, and their work colleagues to exactly the same collection of photos. The track record of the company when it comes to privacy is not unblemished, and perhaps it’s not that surprising to learn that it all started with, shall we say unauthorized used of directory data at Harvard that almost resulted in disciplinary action.

The art of writing a company biography must be difficult (see Planet Google, for instance). This book does a decent job of relating the various steps in the funding and structuring of the company, but that part of the story is tedious, perhaps by necessity. It also tries mightily to present the weaker side of Facebook and its founder but it can be overly fawning. Sure, Zuckerberg had a great idea but he is not infallible.

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** Poseidon’s Steed by Helen Scales

Poseidon’s Steed is all about seahorses: their lives, the art they have inspired, the misadventures of the Lydian gold treasure (yes, there was a seahorse brooch in there — echoes of Loot), their use in  Chinese medicine use and their place in Pokemon figures. A very wide field.

The author, a marine biologist and scuba diver, is at her best when describing the strange lives of these fishes (yes, fishes — and I thought they were crustaceans!) and she includes delightful drawings of seahorses from old books. I found the non-biological stories much less interesting and often meandering far from the critters that inspired them.

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* Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon

Chalcot Crescent is a bizarre rant by the author’s stillborn sister (a little more than strange, if you ask me) about her colorful life and its grim ending in a collapsed UK. Why can’t futuristic novels be a little more upbeat (see the equally depressing Super Sad True Love Story)?

Beside the grating grimness, the story is simply boring. So she seduced her own sister’s boyfriend. Who cares? She had many husbands, several unfaithful , and heaps of lovers. Who cares? She bought her house for 9000 pounds and the value of it went up then way down. Who cares? And why is it that all dark futures have to be in communist-like totalitarian settings? Isn’t it the job of  fiction writers to be inventive? Can’t they think of something else than the good old USSR? And a word to the wise: if you must depict a dreadful future, make it the distant future. Reading in 2010 about imagined 2010 disasters makes it hard to believe anything else in the book!

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** The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith

I have a weakness for Alexander McCall Smith and his usually delightful books about little nothings but I was not charmed by The Charming Quirks of Others, which is the latest installment in his Isabel Dalhousie series. The focus of the book, if I can even talk about focus for books that are more impressionistic than descriptive, is that Isabel is asked to investigate the background of candidates for a headmaster position and the whole task just seems underhanded and wrong. Shouldn’t candidates be chosen on the basis of their own merit, not interviews with their fathers — and certainly not interviews the outcome of which is buying a painting that would normally go to auction.

And perhaps the larger than usual dose of philosophizing about everything helped cement my distaste.

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* The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass

I can’t explain why I would pick up a book whose author I did not enjoy in the past (as in I see you Everywhere). Or rather I can, sheepishly: a dark late afternoon in the library with only the shiny jacket covers of Picoult and company as competition…

In any case, I took The Widower’s Tale home and grumbled on every page. The good news is that the hero of the tale is a compelling and likable character,  neither a sweet old man nor a curmudgeon redeemed by new love. But the other characters are so flat, from the rebellious daughter who forgot to grow up and her sister who is so annoyingly grown up to the clueless grandson (Harvard student, of course, aren’t they all) and the struggling but immensely clever illegal gardener. Even the houses are caricatures, starting with the widower’s ancient and neglected stone house.

I was grateful for the final bonfire and family disaster (all redeemed, of course, in the final chapter — nothing is perfect).

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** Book of Days by Emily Fox Gordon

Having loved the author’s quirky memoir of her psychotherapy-infused youth, Mockingbird Years, I set out to read her latest book, Book of Days, a collection of “personal essays”, as described in the subtitle, with anticipation. I was disappointed.

Not that the book is bad: the essays are insightful and effortlessly move from a simple observation, perhaps the complicated world of high school girls or (hilariously and repeatedly) the disappearing world of “faculty wives) towards a pithy analysis of what brings us humans to behave in such silly ways. So what’s the problem? The problem is that a big chunk of the book is a simple rehash of the earlier memoir, down to the smallest details such as how Lyndon Johnson greeted her when her dad joined the Kennedy administration. Why repeat so much, without, in my mind, much of a different or deeper interpretation? And occasionally it gets boring, as when she quotes lengthy passages from her doctoral thesis about Kafka. A small dose of tortured academic prose is hilarious. A larger dose — no thank you.

 

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* The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais

The Hundred-Foot Journey‘s premise is delightful: the son of a once-successful, now  impoverished  and widowed Indian restaurant owner, transplanted to a most unsuccessful life in London, blossoms when given a chance to cook with a classical, slightly dotty French chef and rises to great fame. Unfortunately, the best part of the book is the beginning, with the description of the family’s life in India and the UK, and that takes fewer than 50 pages.

Afterwards, caricatures take over, starting with the genius-chef and his difficult old maid-mentor. The story line is stretched with tales of epic provisioning. And the French details are often wrong (truffles growing with the chanterelles?) I hope the author had a good time researching the subject matter with plenty of extravagant meals. The book is not worth the food.

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