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.
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.
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.
You Lost Me There, a famous Alzheimer researcher (he constantly reminds us of that — awkward!) conducts a strange and eminently boring dialog with his dead wife via some note cards she wrote to describe key moments in their marriage as part of a not very successful marriage therapy attempt (ended by her death). Perhaps the story could work if the wife were still alive, but the one-way relationship is sterile, the stories about the lab forced (it’s hard to believe that those researchers regularly start conversations by comparing themselves to neurons, please!), and the supporting characters unbelievable (and they also write very bad poetry, quoted in extenso).
Just a few days ago I had no idea that face blindness even existed, and by pure accident I just read two books about it, or prosopagnosia, to use its musically entertaining Greek name. This book, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, is the true story of a sufferer who had so many other issues to deal with, including a paranoid schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic cross-dressing father, that she simply never realized that perhaps there was something wrong with how she could never recognize her friends, or her mother — and her parents were too mired in their own problems to notice hers, let alone seek help for it.
So the story unfolds of her doomed marriage to a wonderfully kind but irresponsible man who gently helps her define a more rational relationship with her parents while she searches for a diagnostics and a cure, finding a cure for her claustrophobia in just one session with a hilarious therapist (so she can manage the MRI required for the diagnostic) and eventually peace of mind, if not a cure, for her prosopagnosia.
I had not loved Oliver Sacks’s last book so I picked up this one rather gingerly, and I’m glad I did. The Mind’s Eye tells stories of patients who may be able to see or hear like the rest of us (although some cannot) but who cannot make sense of the information in the seamless, beautiful way that we arrogantly take for granted. So there is a woman who grabs the doctor’s bag on her way out because it looks like one she owns (she must have been disappointed not to find her phone and sunglasses in it, tucked away as normal). There is a man who cannot read if he doesn’t write the words he reads while reading them. And there are several people, including the author, who can see perfectly well but who cannot recognize faces and who blissfully walk by loved ones and acquaintances alike without recognizing or greeting them. Unsurprisingly, this can create serious problems! And the book is quite inspiring and full of hope, as each tale of woe also highlights the great ingenuity that sufferers deploy to work around the problems, often successfully.
The last and rather long case study is dedicated to the author’s scary battle with eye cancer, starting with greatly altered vision in a movie theater of all places, and unfortunately, like most stories of personal woe, it’s a little boring — if finely detailed and analyzed, and with touching acknowledgments of the despair and frustration we all feel in front of disease, whether or not our name ends in MD.
The God of the Hive contains the on-again breathless adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell, who manage to survive plane crashes, shootings, winter storms, and a crooked secret police agent to boot with lots of luck and astonishingly well-disposed strangers who either flee their homes or open them up for them. It’s best not to scratch too much below the surface but the suspense carried me — just — to the expected triumph over evil.