Monthly Archives: May 2011

*** Annnoying by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman

Annoying is fun! It starts with the classic annoyance of loud cell-phone conversations (annoying because we only hear half of the conversations, and our human minds desperately need to fill in the blanks) and proceeds to analyze annoying sounds, smells, tastes, and of course people. It offers practical advice, such as a recipe of cleaning a skunk-sprayed pet, and explains why we get so annoyed by apparently small stuff. Now, please turn off that cell phone!

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Filed under Non fiction

** Bossypants by Tina Fey

Out of fairness I will not inflict the one-star rating of shame on this book, since the last one I reviewed was not much better and got two stars, but I found Bossypants, with only a couple of exceptions, unfunny and even boring. I suppose that my expectations were high, since I find Tina Fey very funny on stage, especially when she channels a certain Alaskan governor, but they were dashed. The chapters I liked were the more personal ones, in particular the one about her dad, which is a very sweet tribute. I also liked her prayer for her daughter, which should resonate with many moms who want “the best” for their daughters but not so much that it would invite jealousy or exploitation.

That’s two (short) chapters from the book, and the others I did not like very much. It turns out that scripts for improv comedy are not funny without the visuals, and that what goes on behind the stage is not that different from a regular office, and that’s not so funny. (And why does funny so often needs to include so-called bathroom humor?)

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Filed under True story

** The Man who Lied to his Laptop by Clifford Nass

Easy to read and entertaining, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop tells of a string of studies conducted by the author, all centered on the interaction of people and computers. For instance, by pairing happy and sad students with “happy” or “sad” computers, the author and his team found that the “happy” computer cheered them up — even if the sad students preferred the sad computer. So why didn’t I like the book very much? Because of the underlying assumption that we can learn everything we want about human-to-human interactions by using computers. Certainly it’s a lot easir to use computers for research, since computers can impeccably repeat the same interaction time after time. But I remain unconvinced that we can automatically tranfer all we learn that way to human interactions.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** India Calling by Anand Giridharadas

India Calling reminded me of River Town and Factory Girls, two books about China but with a very similar feel of being able to penetrate into the daily lives of locals. Now this book is about India rather than China, but many stories are eerily similar: stories of great differences between cities and villages, stories of dislocated families when young people move to the cities and into a very different lifestyle, and stories of wrenching changes happening within one generation and leaving everyone uncertain as to what the new rules of behavior might be.

And this book, too, is written by an outsider since the author, although ethnically Indian, was born and raised in the United States and moved to India (only temporarily, as it turns out) as an adult. As he describes the subtle cultural shifts he had to make as a child when visiting his grandparents and cousins, it’s clear that he defines himself as an American and that no Indian acquaintance is fooled by his name or his appearance.

The book ends abruptly without much of a conclusion but I found it fascinating and kind rather than critical, even when the author clearly disapproves of some of the local customs.

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** The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale

Primates are hip subjects for books these days (see Ape House and Bonobo Handshake), and The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore takes the drama one step further by making the primate, here a chimp called Bruno, the narrator of an unlikely but acutely told story. I loved the chimp’s big personality and his perspective on the  lab where he meets his love, a researcher called Lydia, and on the wider human world. It reminded me of how difficult it is to write credibly as an “other” character  (shades of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). On the other hand, I spent half of my time reading this (big, fat) book raging against an author who wants us to believe that (1) rape can be a successful start to a sexual relationship and (2) a relationship with an ape, even a speaking and highly intelligent ape, can be satisfying and desirable for the obviously intelligent and socially adept Lydia. Is it still acceptable to think of women as idiots?

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Filed under New fiction

** The Free World by David Bezmozgis

There is ample potential in The Free World: the vast historical landscape of 20th century Europe, a large family of Jewish emigrants from Latvia (still part of the soviet Union), marooned in Rome while waiting for their final destination, which they hope will not be Israel, and the individual choices that led them to emigrate. But I found the novel quite boring, perhaps because rehashed Soviet history is not really my cup of tea, and indeed I much prefered the snatches of more personal drama, in particular the story of Polina, one of the daughters in law, who left an abusive husband and expectations to take care of her parents, and who blossoms in a society that prizes  her ability to connect with others. And I’d love to know what happens to her after the novel ends.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

In Started Early, Took My Dog, the author of One Good Turn is at it again, but with a simpler set of plots that quickly come together into the unlikely story of a retired police detective who suddenly decides to raise a child and embarks on a series of harrowing encounters with shadowy figures, protected from afar and not always perfectly by her ex-colleagues, who are themselves covering up old misdeeds. Fun, nicely twisted, and full of well thought-out asides on raising children.

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Filed under Mystery