Monthly Archives: July 2011

** State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I was prepared to enjoy State of Wonder just as much as I had Bel Canto — but I was disappointed. Not that the setting, the Amazonian jungle, is not mysteriously and alluringly rendered. Not that the premise, which involves an obscure and wonderful Amazonian medicinal compound, a passionate researcher gone native in more than one way, a missing scientist, and the colleague who is sent to investigate, is not uniquely intriguing. Not that the characters are not pictured with multiple layers of feelings and thoughts. All that is wonderful, and I did find myself at times completely engulfed in the story and the jungle atmosphere.

But without giving away the plot entirely, I just could not accept the mechanics of it. How would a prosperous pharmaceutical company accept that a wayward researcher not give any status update for years? How would the company send not one, but two scientists to find her, armed with little more than a credit card and a vague idea of where she might live? And could the president of said company, alarmed when the second scientist fails to return, pay a personal visit at that point without any entourage, only to leave her, the second scientist, behind when he leaves after just a couple of days, despite the obviously fraught environment and the little detail that she also happens to be his girlfriend? The details just do not compute and greatly hindered my ability to lose myself in the otherwise perfect setting of the story and the complicated relationships between the characters.

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** Swimming in the Steno Pool by Lynn Peril

I quite enjoyed Swimming in the Steno Pool, which is a history of secretaries, rather than the weird “Retro Guide to Making It in the Office” of its subtitle. And secretaries are an endangered species. I see very few of them at client sites, usually only for the big honchos, and even my early memories of the work world lack the pools of typists that filled businesses in the pre-computer era. The book recreates the days of the typing pool and stenographers, and a time when women were routinely advised to train for secretarial work and then promptly forbidden to rise up the ranks. This rank sexism just seems unimaginable today, thankfully.

No scholarly treatise, the book includes romance novels that feature secretaries, and lots of often entertaining, if eventually repetitive excerpts of training manuals for secretaries that advise their readers to be charming, very, very proper, and never show how smart you really are. Too bad that the book does not make room to salute the wonderful productivity boost that a professional secretary can provide, even in a connected era.

 

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**1/2 The Steal by Rachel Shteier

I very much enjoyed The Steal, which bills itself to be a cultural history of shoplifting, and which brings us behind the scenes of malls and our own uncontrolled acquisitive impulses. Moving from the best clothes to wear for shoplifting, to how the rise of department stores made shoplifting easier, to those unsightly tags that are meant to foil the dishonest, to kleptomaniacs, famous and not, the author kept me entertained and curious to know more about who shoplifts and why. The book peters out in the last chapter when the author bizarrely argues that kleptomania should simply be treated as a mental illness — and surprisingly it’s not considered as a bona fide ailment (isn’t everything?), perhaps for good reasons.

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* How Italian Food Conquered the World by John Mariani

I was quite disappointed by How Italian Food Conquered the World, which I hoped would provide a more ambitious history of the growing popularity of Italian food, but is little more than a compilation of Italian restaurants, mostly in the US, after a cursory and rather trite description of how immigrants brought the cuisine with them (duh!) and transformed it to the taste of their new land (amazing, huh?) This is not to say that there are not interesting anecdotes here and there, from the old roots of the San Francisco cioppino to the very new ones of the tiramisu, but as the French would say, je suis restee sur ma faim — I was left wanting more.

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** The Dog who Came in from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest installment from the Corduroy Mansion Series, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, focuses on Freddie de la Hay, the dog from the borrowed title, who most unlikely becomes an MI6 agent. I had hoped after reading the first book that it would start a new series so I should be happy, but perhaps content is a better word, as the stories here are, as usual,  entertaining, alluringly meandering, but not always likely, starting with the spying mystery itself. There is a novel and lively story of a drugstore start-up and enough loose ends that we can look forward to a third installment.

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** The Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene

I read The Number Sense in French so I have to hope that the English version is close to it… The book recaps a large number of studies on how our brains work with numbers in a lively and easily readable style (in other words, it’s written by a psychologist, not a mathematician, and is easily accessible to non-mathematicians and even math phobics).

What I found most interesting is the contrast between the innate mathematical talents of babies, who can easily tell  differences between small numbers and who are pretty good at number matching on the one hand, and the fundamental lack of inborn mental structure to support abstract math. This means that we are all astonishingly good at estimating, matching, and pattern recognition, but only a few weird people can be very good at  exact calculations while many of us struggle with relatively basic tasks such as subtractions with carries. We simply don’t have brains meant to deal with them. So let’s all agree that calculators (machines, that is) are our friends and we should just use them and focus our energies and school hours to learning something else.

The chapter about math savants and those poor brain-damaged people who get dragged into any discussion about the functioning of the brain can be safely skipped. And enjoy the wonderful quotes at the beginning of each chapter!

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*** Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I did not particular want to read Little Bee, with its battered paperback cover and its gruesome cover blurb — but as I mentioned before summer pickings can be slim at the library, so I took it home, and I was very impressed. The Little Bee of the title is a teenage Nigerian girl who finds herself as an illegal immigrant to Britain and reconnects with a British couple she met, by chance, back in Nigeria, with disastrous results. The story is told in alternating chapters in Little Bee’s and the British woman’s voice and I found the Little Bee chapters just breathtaking.

There’s a lot of violence in the story, which is one of the reasons why I hesitated to read it, but it’s worth it. And you get a great portrait of a four-year old to boot.

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*** The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend

I enjoyed The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which talks about a season working at elBulli, the famous Spanish (or should I say Catalan) restaurant that is (was!) the center of so-called molecular cuisine (explored in Life, On the Line, reviewed earlier in this blog). (I will go on a parentheses diet now.)

The author tells the story of the restaurant though the eyes of the stagiaires, the unpaid, overworked, exploited, in my book, apprentices who make it possible. They are a very international bunch, with some barely speaking Spanish, which turns out to be a big problem, not surprisingly, and their lives are told in what could quickly degenerate in the syrupy athlete portraits we get for the Olympic Games, but somehow the book avoids this tiresome cliche — perhaps because the author is not afraid to show character flaws and planning mishaps or complete absences of planning along with their more glorious adventures. She shows how the fifty chosen few (out of 3000 applicants, to heck with the parentheses diet) are drawn into the obsessive, oppressive machine of the restaurant, expected to function as little more than deft fingers and to not think independently for fear of messing up the system. And get this, they never get to taste the food! Still, it’s an inspiring story of driven and creative cooks, and I’m talking about the stagiaires here. A good summer read.

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** In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Two history books in the same week! It must be a record for me. I quite enjoyed this one, In the Garden of Beasts, whose title is a play on the Berlin’s Tiergarten area, where the new US ambassador to Germany moves in 1933 as the Nazi regime is asserting itself through purges and tighter and tighter control of the population.

The most interesting part of the book for me is the figure of ambassador Dodd, a former history professor, idealistic and completely outside the tight-knit club of the foreign service, whose overall accurate observations of the regime and its excesses can never be accepted or acted upon by superiors who just don’t perceive him as one of them. He dares to walk to appointments in his morning coat (a terrible scandal, don’t you know?). He thinks that the US government should let up on debt repayment and concentrate instead on what we would today call human rights abuses. He speaks freely about his beliefs. He is doomed.

His misguided daughter, Martha, is another interesting character. First, she loves Germany, Nazis and all, overlooking all hints and even evidence of abuses. Then she loves the USSR, without ever suspecting that her lover could be (and is!) with the secret police.  When she meets Hitler, her most pressing concern is how to dress. What a twit.

There were aspects of the book I did like so much: the annoyingly breathless style (let’s face it, we already know what happened to the SAs), the overdone foreshadowing (Martha and others may be idiots when they fail to see the darkness of the Nazis’ intentions, but it’s so easy for us to figure it out after the fact), and the occasional overflow of details (we know the author was diligent in his research, but we really do not need the not-so-funny quote from the ambassador’s gastroenterologist). And I wish the book would end quickly once the ambassador leaves Germany.

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* Why We Do It by Niles Eldredge

Don’t read Why We Do It for its titillating title. It’s a dry and often meandering attack on the selfish gene theory proposed by evolutionary psychologists and I must admit that I did not quite get the point. I think what the author wants to say is that what he calls our economic life (such a confusing term when what he means is simply “live”) is just as important as the urge to reproduce, and that a strict application of the selfish gene theory leads to difficulties in explaining many human behaviors.

I am willing to be convinced, but the terminology would need to be more limpid, the arguments much clearer (and the graphics less ugly).

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