There were two books I especially loved this month:
And two more I liked:
I dislike Disney princesses, Barbie (not to mention Bratz!) dolls, and kids’ pageants as much as the next mom with daughters. And I do wonder about the American Girl empire as much as the next mom. But do we need the 200 pages of rants in Cinderella Ate My Daughter to discover that, o miracle, we can simply say “no” to pink silliness?
I can’t remember why I picked this book. Certainly I’m not likely to go through a real job interview anytime soon (although, I suppose, every client engagements starts with something that looks much like an interview!), and I don’t think I will receive a performance review this year (although perhaps, a little ventriloquism would be fun?) — but I did bring 10 Make-or-Break Career Moments back from the library and I thought it was very well done, if you can get past the usual silly acronyms and the rather scary author’s picture at the back (it’s easy to avoid it, just don’t flip the back cover).
A great book for all those newly-minted college graduates in our lives who will undergo job interviews and performance reviews soon, and inspiration for all of us on how to do small talk with executives, how to navigate ethical dilemmas, and even, god forbid, how to gracefully handle being fired.
Having Loved Country Driving and River Town by the same author, I tried the middle book in the series, Oracle Bones, and I was disappointed. Not that some of the stories are not just as interesting as in the other books. I particularly liked reading about the lives of his former English students, now teaching English themselves in a variety of rural and boomtown settings, as well as his Uighur friend who emigrates (under false pretenses) to the United States. He seems to be able to talk to everyone and connect with people everywhere.
But the book overall reads like a series of disconnected stories, with little more to link them than his own apprenticeship on how to become a freelance writer, and perhaps that’s the whole point. nevertheless, I would have wanted more personal stories and fewer reports on the Chinese alphabet, or even the mysterious bones of the title.
How to Be Sick is an unclassifiable and difficult book. It is, mostly, the story of a middle-aged professor who suddenly became very ill — and never got better. And since the illness cannot be properly diagnosed, there remains an undercurrent of suspicion by outsiders, although clearly the author would much prefer to be well, and went to great lengths to continue teaching despite her limitations when she could simply have enjoyed the (dubious) comforts of disability leave. The idea of the book is to apply her Buddhist practice to her new situation, and she valiantly shares her tips. I did not enjoy the book very much because it seems that the specifics of someone’s illness are never very interesting to outsiders, unfortunately but it’s a stark reminder of how we should enjoy our wonderful bodies, legs, digestive systems, and assorted parts, while they are working well!
How did I manage to find a book whose hero proudly declares to have the name of Cleopatra‘s father (and her brother’s, and her son’s, I now know!) and invokes the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to places such as California, neatly pulling together themes from two books I read recently? And, to boot, this is a very intriguing book. It’s the story of Ptolemy Grey, who for the first third of the book is unfortunately and not altogether convincingly in the fog of senile dementia but finds a mysterious doctor who pumps him full of illegal drugs so he can regain a clear mind and set his affairs in order, despite a complicated and messy family situation. So the situation is absurdly contrived, the first part of the book is confusing and disappointing, but I liked the book overall, especially the themes of how (badly) we treat the old, how children can survive tough childhoods, to a point, and how kindness can change people and situations. Keep going beyond the first 100 pages!
Having read Peter Hessler’s more recent stories about China, I thought it would be interesting to read about his first stay in China, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 and 1997. River Town has the same authentic, even raw feel of the recent stories. The author doesn’t hesitate to show himself struggling with learning Chinese, being heckled by rude locals, pursued by the local massage parlor girls, or even, a rare event, acting as a malcontent bully. It’s a wonder that the man is still allowed to live in China!
But the focus is on the locals, who sometimes criticize the regime in surprising harsh terms but generally toe the heavily policed line, and whose lives mirror the regime decisions thousands of miles away. Because he was teaching English in a college many of the stories are about his students, who are for the most part children of farmers (or “peasants”, as they say) and whose lives are doubly regimented by cultural norms and politics, but who still manage to select poetic English names, including Mo Money (!) and Rebecca for a boy, and who can turn almost any literary discussion into telling commentary on current affairs.
Sunset Park starts with the intriguing story of a dropout who has a job clearing out foreclosed homes in Florida and romances an underage high-school senior. But when he moves back to a New York squat the book adds the perspectives of his housemates and eventually his father, and they are not exactly fascinating. The author also finds multiple opportunities to show off his knowledge of baseball trivia (yawn, for me), enjoys multi-page lists way too much (double yawn), and lets small details go awry ($3000 withdrawn from an ATM?) Too bad, the beginning was enticing…
I guess I’m on an antique history streak… but The Pericles Commission presents itself as a mystery rather than non-fiction. In it, a politician is slain and young Nicolaos, styled as Socrates’ older brother (Socrates being a child) is tapped to investigate the murder. He will be helped by the illegitimate daughter of the dead man, who is (obviously) gorgeous, smart, and determined to work around the strictures of very sexist Ancient Greece. The investigation unfolds slowly because Nicolaos isn’t too bright, it seems (most of the deducing is done by either Socrates or his girlfriend, that is, the daughter), and also because the author unwisely insists on frequent and lengthy pedagogic asides on how ancient Athenians were governed, what they ate, what rituals they followed, and so on. If only the book could show rather than tell, it would be vastly more enjoyable.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a novel and not a mathematical treatise, as the title suggests, but it does not make for an easy read. The two protagonists are scarred by childhood mishaps, one a serious accident, but apparently quite surmountable, and the other a darker family secret. Still, they feel apart from their peers, perhaps because they have such dismal relationships with their parents in the first place, and although they long for each other they can’t quite find peace.
Well-written, at least well-translated, but too bleak for me!