Monthly Archives: April 2011

Books of the Month – April 2011

It’s always interesting for me to look back and revisit the books I read over a month’s time. Some I barely remember — and not always the worst of the lot either!

This month, there’s one book I highly, highly recommend: You Know When the Men are Gone, a wonderful series of interconnected stories about an army base during Iraq deployments.

And here are three more I liked:

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Filed under New fiction

** Consumption by Kevin Patterson

Consumptionis the very depressing story of an Inuit village in the Canadian North, concentrating on a family who suffers repeated deaths and disasters over the course of this long novel. Along the way, the narrator, who is the town’s episodic doctor (like the author),inserts his medical ruminations on how the shift from hunter-gatherer life to a life in a settlement, mostly supported by the government, is destroying the traditional culture and the health of the Inuits. So everyone is dying: the members of the family, the diabetics, and the entire Inuit people.

But is that really a fair assessment? Sure the romantic view of the Inuits driving their sleds into the freezing wilderness or paddling their sealskin kayaks to go kill whales with harpoons is appealing — but could it be that their settled descendents are better off in the villages where they grow too fat and occasionally alcoholic, but where they are not mauled by their dogs or lost in blizzards? Could it be that it’s through a rational assessment that they are choosing a flimsy government-provided house over the fabled igloo? I got caught in the story, at least at times, but I’m not sure this Rousseauist view of the far North is not a figment of the white man’s imagination.

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** Townie by Andre Dubus III

Townie is the memoir of the talented author of the excellent  House of Sand and Fog and it’s certainly an eye opener, with the author growing up in a succession of tough neighborhoods with his impoverished mother, while his college professor father leads a poor (but not as poor) and kids-free life on the nearby bucolic campus of a small liberal arts college. At first, I felt for the poor kid who, along with his three siblings, is left adrift, allowed to skip school as much as he wants and barely fed or care for in any way. Then, I grew tired of the fights, the drugs, the general violence and decay. It’s really a miracle that neither he nor his siblings is left dead, drug-addicted, or imprisoned (although they do have brushes with such problems along the way). I guess good parenting is important, after all.

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Filed under True story

* The Warren Buffets Next Door by Matthew Schifrin

I really don’t like the popular money-oriented magazines that breathlessly profile the successful funds and stocks of the instant and install their managers or the CEO of the companies whose stock is being discussed on pedestal. It’s so easy to win for a month, or a year or two.

The Warren Buffetts Next Door is a book-length compilation of such profiles — yikes — that somehow wants us to believe that a handful of individual investors have the magic formula to make money by the fistful — double yikes. There are a few problems with this approach. One, the strategies are incredibly risky. Sure, the individuals profiled have all made (lots of) money for years, but they have also suffered massive losses in at least some of their investments. Most people would blanch at that (and without the winning stocks to counterbalance the losses would find themselves in the poor house!). Two, they spend massive amounts of time managing their investments. I’m sure I, too, would do better than the S&P500 if I worked full-time at it! (I would also work for an investment firm and make my money on other people’s back — much safer!) Three, the author is amazed that many of these investors have no college degrees. Who said you needed a college degree to be smart? It certainly does not mean that investing is very easy. It just means that college degrees are not required for investing success.

Bottom line: there are no miracles, people. The only folks who make lots of money on investing, consistently and without losses, are the ones who peddle get-rich-quick stories!

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Filed under Non fiction

*** I’ll Walk Alone by Mary Higgins Clark

I’ll Walk Alone starts in a Manhattan church where a woman is seeking confession, with a killer close behind. There’s also a kidnapped child, a stolen identity, a vicious business competitor, a variety of small lies that obscure the real facts, and a surprising twist in the end — so plenty to keep me turning the pages late into the night as befits a Mary Higgins Clark mystery.

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** Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz

Life, on the Line is the life story of the chef behind the uber-famous Alinea restaurant in Chicago, including his bout with very untimely and peculiarly cruel, for a chef, tongue cancer. If you are thinking that tongue cancer and chef odyssey are a strange pairing for a book, you are right. And unfortunately the author and his co-author, his business partner for the restaurant, try to transform the last third of the book into sage guidance for opening and running a restaurant, which I don’t particularly care to learn about…

But I really liked the beginning, in which the young chef is born in a restaurant-owning family, but in a totally different genre of restaurant, the cheap, family style kind, and slowly moves to professional culinary training and eventually to The French Laundry in Napa where he discovers obsessively careful cooking, although it’s way too conservative for his lofty ambitions. I found it very interesting to follow his trajectory towards his own place, and along the way his descriptions of what really happens in kitchens while the diners enjoy soft music and romantic lighting. Maybe you can step the lame discussions of how restaurants are funded and managed (it turns out, just like any other business – who knew?)

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** Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby

What makes a good rant? One that’s funny, yet biting. One that illuminates a subject that we may not think about every day. One that precipitates action, if warranted.

Never Say Die is essentially a 300-page rant about how Americans mistakenly believe they will never die and certainly will never age, looking forever like those 40-year old in Viagra commercials. It is often funny and often biting. It talks about an interesting topic. It’s often right about how deluded people can be. But 300 pages worth of ranting? And without offering practical suggestions, apart from the bland, innocuous, and minuscule  (1) accept the reality that most very old people are ill or demented and we will one day belong to that tribe, (2) eat your vegetables and exercise, but don’t think that will protect you 100% and (3) have a living will. Is she serious? Are there no other recommendations that could be slipped into a full-length book. Well, she does have one more, but one that makes no sense, namely to have the government take care of the financial needs of old people. Hello! There is no financial miracle, no more than there are aging miracles. Since we will all get old one day we can’t look to the government to finance our old age. We have to do it ourselves. Maybe as a group, and maybe through government intervention, but government can’t invent the resources to get it done.

Please excuse me as I go check on my retirement plan.

And I should mention that the author does a great job of weaving in her family stories, about her parents, her grandmother, and her own experience, into the book. The anecdotes are always in context and helpful to see the emotional side of the problem.

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Filed under Non fiction