Many enjoyable books this month, but none that make me jump up and down either. The ones I liked best all explore different worlds:
India Calling, a view of contemporary India by an Indian-American
Started Early, Took my Dog, the unlikely story of an unlikely child snatcher
Moonwalking with Einstein,a peek into the bizarre (and I thought rather pointless, but interesting) world of memory champs
Annoying, a delightful book about, well, annoying things
Where do I start? Left Neglected is the story of a driven executive with three children who, after a car crash suffers from a neurological problem that leaves her unable to see anything on the left or even control the left side of her body. As a result she requires extensive rehab during which she reconnects with her children and, among other things, cures her son’s ADHD and moves to the slow lane in Vermont to work happily for a disability-rights organization. How perfect! Let’s all get a head injury so we can slow down and spend time with the people who really need us, our children.
I should stop ranting here but why stop. Why, when the successful mom (and equally successful husband), pre-crash, arrange their child care duties by flipping coins. Seriously! And the supposedly hard-driving executive manages to travel internationally on a regular basis under that crazy arrangement? And while she has had a horrible relationship with her mother, ever since her brother died as a child and her mother became too depressed to care for her, the same mother miraculously springs into action and manages the kids and her ailing daughter before reconciling with her. Please, stop the insanity.
Stolen World talks about reptile smugglers and offers a vast array of dodgy characters, including the reptile dealers themselves but also apparently upstanding citizens, such as the reptile curators of the San Diego and Bronx zoos who seem to be comfortable importing animals with dodgy origins when the exhibits will benefit (and are not below selling their own animals through the same channels to raise money or curry favors. From the heydays of the 60’s, when there were no laws restricting the trade, through today when many species are absolutely restricted (but there are few herpetologists, let alone custom officers, who can distinguish them from similar legal, species), the author takes us on tours around the world, complete with civil wars, a real-life Swamplandia, defrauding of partners, employees, and governments, and bizarre public feuds.
After reading the book, I feel it’s a miracle that there are any snakes still left in the wild!
I have to admit that I stayed up very late (but, reasonably, on a weekend night) to finish Instruments of Darkness, so I can’t stick a one-star rating on it, but it’s a close call. The story is the infinitely contrived tale of a murderous powerful man in 18th century England who is finally unmasked (and concurrently rescued, in a weird twist) by a fearless woman and a mysterious scientist. Nothing feels quite right about it. Not the overly modern heroine, who seems about as genuine as veterinarian Barbie. Not the unlikely service in the “American Rebellion” of the earl’s son, where he conveniently makes all the acquaintances needed for the blackmailing that follows — and which seems custom-designed to attract American readers. And not the minutely timed London riots that burn down the prison where a key fiend was detained and allow him to escape and continue his dark deeds. There are a few cute kids here and there, sometimes a little too close to the impressive number of corpses, and suspense does build in the end, but that was not enough to save the story from its overly scripted and slow unfolding.
The author of You Are What You Speak takes on what he calls the “language sticklers”, those who defend the integrity of language, and he casts a very wide net, from innocuous champions of punctuation (Lynne Truss, of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame), to the over-hyped writing gurus (like Strunk and White with The Elements of Style — annoying, perhaps, inconsistent, certainly, but evil, I rather doubt it), to the much ridiculed (including by the French) Academie Francaise and its belief that language can be regimented by fiat, to Latinist zealots (who gave us the splitting infinitive malaise), all the way to crazed nationalists who pretend to see differences in identical languages to serve their political aims (such as Bosnians and Croatians).
In so doing, he greatly weakens his argument, for surely there is a place for Truss, Skunk, White, and even a few French Immortels to help writers express themselves more clearly without incurring the wrath of the counter grammar police, pretending that there are no rules worth defining.
In the same genre, I much preferred Through the Language Glass.
Not another book about getting into college! Do try Crazy U. It’s the lighthearted true story of a dad and his reluctant son moving through the crazed world of college applications, including colleges who actively manipulate their rankings (all of them), colleges that fill a large minority of their openings with politely named “legacy” students (some of them), the high-priced admission counselors who convince prosperous parents that they must write them large checks to get their offsprings into a college they can boast about at cocktail parties, and shady online essay-writing mills for the less prosperous. There are many funny parts, including the father trying his hand at the SAT (interesting that we expect our children to do well on something we can’t do) and his wry commentary (such as his characterization of his son’s essay “a verbal version of his bedroom”, lol). A good read even if you are not suffering through that process.
Do all books about Tasmania have to include search and rescue teams in a spectacular physical setting (see Death of a River Guide)? The crisis of The World Beneath takes place on the Cradle Mountain trail rather than the Franklin River (but the parents of the heroine met during environmental protests on, you guessed it, the Franklin River). 15-year old Sophie is hiking with her heretofore estranged father who proceeds to get them lost, hence the search and rescue ending. The hippie mother, meanwhile, is trying to reinvent herself and worries, as she should, about her daughter and her irresponsible ex-husband. I found the relationship between the daughter and both parents very nicely told — until late in the story, when that 15-year old behaves with a strength and purpose that seems hard to believe in someone so young. The scenery is awesome and, at least for the portions of the trail that I know, felt absolutely faithful to the real thing, down to the boardwalk that is the first part of the trail.
So what didn’t work so well for me? That uber worldly 15-year old, for one thing, and way too much foreshadowing.