Monthly Archives: March 2011

Books of the Month – March 2011

My March reading was dull – but these three books were wonderful:

  • Juliet, Naked – the pitch-perfect story of a slightly-deranged music fan and his girlfriend who finally sees the light
  • The Last Brother – a sad and touching story about a little boy whose life circunstances won’t make sense until he’s much older
  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – a touching true story about Africa, the magic of engineering, and why all kids need a chance to be educated

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** The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran

I feel a bit sheepish admitting that I did not much like The Tell-Tale Brain, despite the subject matter(our brains) and the accolades from assorted luminaries on the book cover, so I feel I have to come up with specific concerns rather than a general lament. Here we go:

1. The book alternates between technical descriptions of brain functions and grandiose theories. For the former, we get intricate descriptions of how V4 and AG work with IT (real acronyms, for parts of the brain that probably never interact with each other, but you get the idea), which I just could not follow, did not want to follow, and eventually gave up on.

2. Moving on to the grandiose theories, I’m inclined to trust the author when he talks about V4 and AG, even if I don’t remember what they are, but his theory of art? Isn’t he a little presumptuous about the scope of his oeuvre (his word, alas, from page xii of the preface)?

3. And then there are the patients. There are many of them, all affected by mysterious and often dreadful handicaps, which lead to interesting discoveries of what V4 and AG are up to. Fair enough, but I would have liked to discern a little more human concern for these poor people. Oliver Sacks, who is one of the luminaries praising this book, is much more adept in this department.

I could go on, and note the nerdy and borderline inappropriately sexist humor, but I may be overly sensitive to that. On a positive note, I did enjoy a wonderful quote the author notes, from Francis Crick, “God is a hacker, not an engineer.” What little I understood of the technical descriptions in the book certainly bolsters this belief.

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*** The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the true story of a teenager growing up in rural Malawi, unable to go to school because his family cannot pay the required fees, starving because of drought and a bad harvest, who borrows old books from the local library and scavenges part to build a windmill that brings electricity and some prosperity (and, happiness, a chance for him to resume his education). Each chapter starts with a hand-drawn sketch by the author of the windmill in progress.

A great description of how engineers can change the world — and how local engineers can think of ideas that are much better adapted to the local needs than the ones thought up in the rich world.

 

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** It Ain’t All About the Cookin’ by Paula Deen

As a non-TV watcher (how do you think I find the time to read all those books?) I had never heard of Paula Deen until I stumbled on a radio interview of hers one day and was horrified to hear that one could create a burger with a Krispy Kreme donut… But you probably knew that already — and I must also confess that I’ve never had a Krispy Kreme donut, with or without a beef patty inside! Such a sheltered life I lead.

In any case, this book came to be via my younger daughter,who thought I could learn something by reading it. (And one thing I learned is that she read a book with lots of coarse language. Not that she doesn’t know those words but still.) And I actually rather enjoyed  It Ain’t All About the Cookin’ because I like to read about real people and how they overcame adversity to succeed. In her case, it’s a bad marriage, no education, and crippling agoraphobia (agoraphobia! for a public personality!) My interest waned the minute she got successful, and I could have done without her recommendations for fledgling entrepreneurs and cooks, but here’s an interesting person who is not afraid to be herself. There are recipes at the end of each chapter, heavily laden with butter, her trademark, and mostly a friend of mine, as well as, not so happily, lots of canned goods, especially soups…

 

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*** The 10 Commandments of Money by Liz Weston

There are many books about money management, and I must admit a secret weakness for them, just like books about organization and time management, even if I don’t usually list them on this web site…  The 10 Commandments of Money gets a review because I thought it was very well done. The hook is that the recession has exploded (we can only hope!) some ridiculous newfangled myths about money (such as, borrow as much as you can to buy a house) and we need to create new guidelines that are more careful but still less conservative than the older ones. The recommendations are sensible and the author is not afraid to recommend specific rules of thumb for saving and spending, rules I think should be taught in school — or shared with your favorite graduating senior!

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* The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

No star deflation here: I hated this book. The Weird Sisters could be a delightfully offbeat story about delightfully offbeat characters but instead it’s a stodgy tale of how screwed-up, ridiculously caricatured women (a martyr oldest sister who can’t allow herself to enjoy anything, a boozing thief and nymphomaniac, and a oops-I’m-pregnant drifter) can all come together, reform, and live happily ever after once they settle down, get married, and concentrate on keeping house.

What century are we living in? No amount of Shakespeare quotes (a propos everything, the man wrote a lot!) and no amount of this weird first person plural narrative can save a story as worn out as this one.

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** The Confession by John Grisham

I feel I’m getting very stingy with stars in my old age and perhaps this book deserves another half-star since it’s certainly a suspenseful and exciting story but having been perhaps regrettably stingy with Swamplandia I won’t budget on this one.

In any case, The Confession is the tale of a rapist and murderer who belatedly wants to confess and save a wrongfully accused man from execution for a crime he did not commit (but to which he confessed). So in typical Grisham mode we get a breathless  road trip, stalwart legal heroes (one a lawyer, the other a minister), and enough suspense to disguise the absence of a logical argument. This is supposed to be a passionate plea against the death penalty, but it seems to be totally acceptable that the real bad guy be put to death, as long as innocents are spared. So don’t think too much, and don’t worry about the cast of lamentably ineffective female characters, read fast and you will have a decent time, certainly much better than with other recent Grisham novels!

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* Being Polite to Hitler by Robb Forman Dew

Being Polite to Hitler is such a great title, inspired by one of the protagonists’ assessment of the stilted and always proper post-war life in a small Ohio town, where real issues are never raised and personal and world problems systematically glossed over! Alas, I found the novel dreadfully boring, with its exhaustive lists of toys being purchased for the children and dishes served at parties, and its paragraphs about home decorating apparently lifted from that period’s Better Homes and Gardens.  Great stories may come to life through their details, but this one seems to be drowning in trivia. I could not bring myself to care even a little for the confused middle-aged heroine, with her overbearing children who object to her remarriage at the tender and uninformed age of 50 plus — why would they care so much and more importantly why would she let them intrude so much?

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** The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom

The Pain Chronicles interlaces the author’s personal quest for relief for her chronic neck pain with a wealth of anecdotes, stories, and quotes on how pain features in religion, literature, and medicine. Along the way we visit pain clinics and physical therapists, we hear from patients who have tried dozens of regimens (and many others who were told to follow regimens they resisted or only followed for a short time), and we meet some doctors who don’t seem to believe in pain and many others who care tremendously about their patients but still don’t seem to be able create the emotional connection required so that their patients can believe that there is hope and stick with the treatment.

The book is full of interesting developments on how pain works and how to combat it (although, to be sure, there is much that modern medicine does not understand about pain!), gory stories of drug-free surgeries (yikes!), and  affecting tales of doctors and patients. I would have preferred it without the author’s personal notes, including her stunningly poor choice of boyfriends.

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** Swamplandia by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! starts beautifully, in a family-run alligator park in the Florida Everglades complete with a baroque family, the youngest child of which, Ava, a barely teenaged daughter, is the spunky and resourceful narrator.  The story alternates between her ill-fated quest for her older sister who is in love with a ghost and her brother’s quest for education and another life — which takes him only as far as the next amusement park, but to unexpected fame as well.

I loved the beginning, with its strange fauna, the chaotic family, and the oppressive swamp. Once Ava embarks on her journey I found it a little harder to keep the faith through sometimes overworked descriptions of the darker Floridian history (complete with houses on stilts!) and, much more problematic, very bad decisions made by a young but otherwise extremely sane girl. In other words, I could see the bad outcome coming from a hundred pages before, and she should have seen it too! Still, a great story, and I would have given it three full stars if it had been just a little shorter. The character of the nerdy older brother is wonderful, in addition to the heroine.

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