This month, I loved
– The Family Fang, with its oddball set of characters and twisting plot
and I also liked
– Maphead, an entertaining look at geography and those who love it maybe a little too much
– Turn of Mind, a chilling tale of murder together with a stunning portrait of an Alzheimer’s victim
– Willpower, a fun but learned discussion of self-discipline and why it’s so hard to resist chocolate (or your favorite treat) when tired or upset
Reinventing Fire is an intriguing book that sets out to demonstrate that we can retool our cars, buildings, and manufacturing processes to work without oil, coal, or even nuclear energy, live in comfort, and do all that without breaking the bank.
I enjoyed the first chapter the most. In it, the author discusses transportation and shows many examples of how car manufacturers are already experimenting with 250 mpg cars (which put our measly 50 mpg Prius to shame!) by simply tweaking existing designs and how many more energy savings can be obtained with new, ultralight but very strong design. One of the strengths of the book is that it doesn’t just dream about new technology, it also explores what’s required to implement them and have people embrace them. For cars, the future is bright indeed since over time we will all need to buy new cars and if the new models are energy-efficient (and so cool looking!) we will surely buy them.
The rest of the book is much less exciting, unfortunately, because although technological advances are just as abundant for buildings or manufacturing as they are for cars, implementation is very problematic, in my mind, despite the author’s ebullient mood. For instance, most commercial buildings are rented, so that owners have little incentive to invest in energy-related improvements since they don’t pay for the utilities — and why would renters invest in buildings they do not own? For manufacturing, the problem is even worse, in that one would think that businesses have ample incentives to save on manufacturing costs since they do control both investments and payback, but they rarely bother to invest in energy savings since the percentage of costs linked to energy is (for the time being) too small. So it’s good to see that the savings are possible, but hard to believe they are likely to happen in the short term.
A Man of Parts is the biography of H. G. Wells, of The War of the Worlds fame and it’s served here in a conversational style that is easy to read and should be appealing to the reader, but I did not like it at all, for two reasons. First, the author uses a recurring pretend interview setup with staged questions that simply falls flat and utterly fake. Second, it turns out that H.G. was a raging Casanova so the book is a dreary litany of the multiple women he married, had long-term relationships with, or short interludes. There is no hint that perhaps the behavior may be just a tad extreme or might have hurt some of the women involved — and the author seems to imply that we should feel sorry for the great man as he struggles to support his surfeit of mistresses. No sympathy from me, not at all! What a bore.
Slow Gardening is a messy or should I say organic book that recommends a laid-back approach to gardens and gardening. The author’s mantra is to have fun and stop reaching for perfection, a philosophy I wholeheartedly embrace, but it makes for better browsing than learning. If you are after practical advice, seek the good old Sunset series instead, at least if you live in California.
I was also surprised to see that knowing how many bags of compost can fit in one’s trunk (6, large) may qualify as “compulsive”. Doesn’t everyone know those basic (and useful!) facts? Still, I was delighted to see that my picky preferences for rain were already encapsulated in a delightful Gardener’s Prayer from 1929, written by a Czech writer and proving that gardening is truly international, “O Lord, grant that it in some way may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning… but you see it must be gentle and warm so it can soak in”. We Californians would be satisfied with once a week. We ask for so little.
The Grief of Others is the story of a family during the year after they lose a child shortly after birth — but draws on much older events that bring distrust and sadness. They are exquisite descriptions of parents who lose it, understandably and stunningly, of children who come to an apparently rational conclusion that succumbing to a dreadful disease would be a desirable fate, of kind school librarians, of postal workers who makes naif art. Alas, there are also long, meandering descriptions of family vacations where very little happens, and nothing that moves the plot forward one iota. And day after day of ordinary family life that doesn’t seem to accomplish much either. I suppose I should be reverently sad about the loss of the baby and touched by the arrival of the long-lost pregnant (!) older daughter — but it all seemed just too fake.
Ken Jennings of Jeopardy‘s fame serves up a fun, lighthearted look at maps and those who love them in Maphead. As we could expect from a trivia buff it’s full of fun facts, from the incredible pond-hoping goby to why “orient” means both the East and to align oneself in space, it’s all there ready to be discovered,sometimes in a footnote. And the gallery of weirdos is vast. The author starts with the geography bee kids, who study six or seven hours a day, every day, for months — but it turns out that they are really quite normal compared to the man whose life goal is to visit all 8500 Starbucks locations in the US, or the devotees of extremely elaborate map-based (no driving!) road rallies with obscure clues that take them from San Francisco to New York and back. A joy to read.
If you’re ready for a downer, grab Age of Greed, which presents a vast assortment of out-of-control money-grabbing men (all men, interestingly) and makes it clear that great desire and talent to make money doesn’t come with many social graces or even basic respect of the law. Actually most of the men portrayed went to prison, and the ones who did not are the pushover politicians (most presidents since Nixon!) and ideologically biased economists, including Alan Greenspan who is tarred and feathered. The only knight in shining armor is Eliot Spitzer, so the bar is very low indeed…
All this makes for a very depressing book, and the tiny epilogue does not bring much hope or even suggestions for improvements. Beware of rich guys stepping on the little people. Maybe the Occupy Wall Street folks are on to something.
With its awkward structure and bifurcated focus, Shade it Black is far from perfect — but I found it very interesting nevertheless. It is a memoir by a woman, newly graduated from high school, who enlists as her Marine and finds herself gathering and processing the remains of the dead in Iraq. It’s a rough task, as we can only imagine, and the author’s plain telling of the story makes it starker yet. Sure made me think that if we had drafted our daughters and sons to go to Iraq the war may not have lasted so long…
Perhaps not surprisingly, re-entry into civilian life is tough after an experience like that, and although it’s hard to believe that a tough Marine would allow herself to become a battered wife, that’s exactly what happens to her, at least for a while. The psychhological follow-up for veterans seems rather sketchy.
The author also tries to fit in descriptions of how hard it is to be a female Marine, and that doesn’t work so well, even if the stories are rather chilling. Should have stuck to the main theme, I think.
The Forgotten Waltz is the apparently simple story of a married woman who had an affair with a married man and eventually moved in with him, and is now reminiscing about her marriage before the affair, the affair itself, how her wonderful lover has turned into a rather ordinary companion, how difficult it is to live with his daughter, and how her choices isolated her from her disapproving family. The best parts of the book, and they are many, come in small, perfect observations of how she interacts with others in normal, everyday life, whether at work or at home.
Having loved Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the author’s memoir of growing up white in what was then called Rhodesia, I was looking forward to Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which focuses on her mother. This book takes a while to get started. It seems to be terribly polite and stiff upper-lipped for the entire first half, disappointing the reader (but perhaps providing the best description of her mother’s cold upbringing, during which much of what she loves is taken away.) The story gets more interesting starting with her marriage and the start of her husband’s and her wanderings in search of a farm, with no money, independence wars all around, and awful personal losses. It’s very inspiring to see them at the end in their Zambian farm, having reinvented themselves one more time as fish and banana farmers, and, it seems, content.