Monthly Archives: December 2010

** The Man who Sold America by Jeffrey Cruikshank

Parts of The Man Who Sold America are fascinating, as when it describes how Albert Lasker pioneered all kinds of now standard techniques for advertizing including tracking responses to ads, making ads describe specifics, even if they are not absolutely unique, and including the ads in other media such as the famous soaps. When the book and Lasker venture into politics or the funding of cancer research (touching again on topics from The Emperor of All Maladies), my eyes glazed over.

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* The Body Shop by Paul Solotaroff

In The Body Shop, the author starts out as a scrawny college freshman and in short order discovers weight lifting and blindly injects himself with a full complement of steroids, becoming a hulk who can then get hired out for stripping parties. More drugs and lots of sex follow. I guess that’s an accurate description of the crazy seventies, but it’s pretty boring and predictable.

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*** Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

Honeybee Democracy is written by a scientist who studies honeybees and has studied how they make decisions on when to swarm and where to create a new colony. Through painstaking observations, including painting tiny dots of color on the wings of bees and measuring how the scouts explore and describe the possible locations, he shows how bees make decisions collectively using remarkably complex heuristics. The bee stories are delightful. He is less successful when he attempts to draw close parallels to human decision making, since we rarely have the single-minded goal to survive together in a new environment, but you can just skip the last chapters.

A small rant. I read this book on a Kindle and I was appalled to find not only bizarrely-hyphenated words (par for the course, I suppose, when converting to an electronic format) but words missing mighty important letters altogether. Those bees often few rather than flew, for instance. Surely there could be some mechanism to prevent the problem?

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** A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

A Secret Gift tells the story of how the author’s grandfather made dozens of small gifts to needy families for Christmas 1933 — and never told a soul about it.The book tells the stories of many of the families he helped, full of unemployed fathers, underfed children, sick mothers, and evictions, along with the secret past of his grandfather, who created an identity for himself as an American rather than the Jewish immigrant from Romania that he was.

The individual stories are often tragic (although many have happy endings), but they blur into each other after a while. What remains is the description of very hard times and how families who up to then had lived well, some very well, suddenly found themselves absolutely destitute. Another example of history in action, like The Hare with Amber Eyes.

 

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** Serious Men by Manu Joseph

In Serious Men we meet prejudiced Brahmins, male astrophysicists who can’t quite work with the new female astrophysicists without flirting with her, a scheming Dalit who sets up his son to win contests so he is acclaimed as a genius while his wife worries that the boy is not “normal”, and a stern nun, the school principal, who tries to convert him.

So it should be fun, right? Except that the story strands don’t quite come together and despite the funny local details I could never really get into the book.

 

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** The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies is a vast tome that covers the history of cancers and its many attempted cures from gruesome descriptions of anesthesia-free surgery to modern-day miracles of molecular drug design. Along the way we meet the often eccentric scientists and physicians who contributed to cures or other advances, some of whom seem to be quite unconcerned by the side effects of their attempts, and others who fake their results. We also see how the vagaries of public funding can reinforce misguided directions for research, and how crucial protocol and statistics can be when measuring progress. After all, since many cancers are treatable but not curable, success often means more people with cancer (since they live longer) rather than fewer. It all ends, of course, with kinases, the beauties of which I have heard through my daughter the chemist.

So lots of interesting stuff, lots of details, lots of names and dates — a little too many for my taste.

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*** The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes is is a netsuke, a small Japanese ivory carving, that comes in the author’s possession at the death of one of his uncles, and the book traces the story of how the netsuke came to his hands, at least from the time it was bought, five generations back, by an aesthete great-great uncle in Paris in the 19th century, along with 263 other netsukes. The book traces the history of his family, starting with  an immensely rich Jewish banking dynasty spread out between Vienna and Paris – where Charles of netsuke fame was able to be a patron of the arts and live off the family fortune and his cousin Viktor, who is given the netsuke as a wedding present, lives in a grandiose mansion on the main public square. But even in these glorious times antisemitism is rife and the family finds its means much reduced over time, ending in the catastrophe of

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*** Country Driving by Peter Hessler

If you are curious about life in China’s rural areas, I highly recommend Country Driving,a three-part book that describes crazy road trips along the Great Wall, life in a small village close to Beijing, and life in factories. I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book, in which the author, armed with a Chinese driver’s license and a rental car, boldly proceeds to travel on small highways far from urban centers and encounters well-dressed hitchhikers, broken-down trucks and their drivers who deposit their broken oil pumps in the backseat, and occasionally, inflexible police officers since he is, after all, travelling without a permit in a police state.

After the monumental road trip I found it hard to become captivated in the story of the village where he rents a country house. But soon enough a proper road gets built and the village becomes accessible to the Beijing middle-class in search of day trips and “traditional” meals (based on completely non-authentic trout!) — and the lives of the villagers are upended as some grab new opportunities and the social structure is upended.

As for the third part about factory life, I did not think it was as good as another book about the same topic that I had loved, Factory Girls, and I found out in the acknowledgement section that  it was written by the author’s wife! Small world.

Still, I enjoyed the book very much for the portrait of a society in fast and often uneasy transition to the modern world, with the attendant conflicts between traditional and new ways and the pressure on families and society as a whole.

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* By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall tells the story of a New York art dealer who after a long marriage inexplicably falls in love (lust?) with his wife’s much younger brother, a drug addict whose parents are funding a life without responsibilities.  It’s unclear he would suddenly be attracted by a man, why he would pick that particular one, and why he would go through with it. So despite the beutaiful prose and the often interesting stories about the world of art collector, I found the story very flat.

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** Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles

What did I love about Insectopedia? The perfect beginning (“In the beginning…”) The stories about Fabre, the 19th century French scientist who was a hero of my grandfather’s, who himself loved insects, and whose provencal house, pictured in the book, looks just like my brother’s. The stories about malaria that reminded me of The Fever. The stories about training crickets to fight in China and insect collecting mania in Japan, featuring Murasaki of anime fame.

But other entries seemed bizarre, irrelevant, even boring. A very long entry about Nazis comparing Jews and cockroaches.  An entry about pornographic movies featuring women squishing bugs under their shoes (really!) About dead whales. Perhaps I would have been better off to just skip them.

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