Monthly Archives: January 2012

Books of the Month – January 2012

I just loved Just My Type, a thoroughly enjoyable romp through fonts and typefaces.

I also liked two family stories:

  • The Boy in the Moon, the true and heartbreaking story of a severely handicapped boy and his dad’s quest to take care of him.
  • We The Animals, a tight, harsh novel about three boys growing up with flawed parents, but parents who love them very much

and finally I recommend Poor Economics, a clinical look at how poor people behave with their finances — just like not-so-poor people, it turns out, minus the cushion of cash in the bank, which means any mistake can be fatal.

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Filed under New fiction

** The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is the  first part of the author’s memoir (the second, The Arrogant Years I read last month). It focuses for the most part on earlier memories and especially on her father, who did look dashing in, yes, a white sharkskin suit, in the Cairo of his youth, while The Arrogant Years focused more on her mother and more on their lives in New York. The author managed to create two memoirs on pretty much the same events that hardly repeat one another, so both are worth reading.

This book is a love paean to her father, who consistently adored his youngest child even as he often treated her mother shabbily, at least from a modern perspective, and even when his prosperous Egyptian ways are reduced to penury in Paris and eventually the US as Jews were chased out of Egypt in the 1950’s. Throughout, she is able to recreate settings and situations so vividly that it’s easy to forget that she left Cairo as a little girl, and certainly was not around when her parents are courting. A great portrait of a larger than life man and  a family with many hardships.

 

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* Seven Years by Peter Stamm

I have this theory that translated novels must be decent, otherwise why bother translating them in the first place. And this theory has, I’m sorry to say, many exceptions including Seven Years, a depressing novel of a man who married for reasons that never quite become clear either in his head or the novel  and also has a mistress who is not that bright, not that beautiful, and terribly repressed to boot. What does he see in her? Mute devotion is the only possibility, and one wonders how that could be satisfying…  So Mr. self-centered swans about his failing architecture firm (run with his wife, perhaps that explains the need to escape?), his supposedly beloved daughter (how can he put her in the middle of the mess?) and his doormat mistress — only to be utterly surprised when the whole setup blows up in his face.

It would be nice to become attached to one character, any character, but the hero is just too much of a cad, the mistress almost non-existent, the wife all-business, and the daughter too little. Maybe I should revise my theory about translated novels.

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Filed under New fiction

** Masters of Management by Adrian Wooldridge

Masters of Management: How the Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed the World – for Better and for Worse is an exhaustively researched book not so much about the business gurus of its subtitle but about management theories in general. If you’ve ever snickered at the back of the room while company executives blabber on about re-engineering and synergies and war for talent, this may be the book for you. I must say I found it strangely cold and unengaging in its encyclopedic approach — and I got annoyed by the comments about the childcare needs of women, as if children did not have fathers, too (and mothers did not spend years of their lives without young children to care for).  Still, the book is full of interesting summaries and insights, for instance that most entrepreneurs do not offer world-changing products, but rather a new twist on existing products, often based on process improvements.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

Toxicology by Jessica Hagedorn

Another adventure in drugged-out New Yorkers and another failure… Toxicology honestly advertises the topic right in the title, and it’s an equal opportunity parade of drugs of all types, for all ages and marital statuses. Inane dialogs and detailed descriptions of minute actions don’t help.

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* Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr. Fox is a devilishly clever book that wraps a novel into another, or rather multiple novels into the story of its author and his muse, and it left me absolutely cold. Admiring the craft, perhaps, but at best indifferent to all the protagonists, at worst actively annoyed of the complicated packaging that ultimately reveals trite and unbelievable tales.

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*** Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

If you are interested in the causes (and remedies!) for poverty, you will want to read Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, in which the authors suggest that we need to put the assumptions about the poverty trap to the test by running experiments. Do mosquito nets get ignored if given away for free? Let’s compare outcomes between regions that did give them out for free and others that did not. Do  poor people bypass childhood vaccinations because they are uninformed, or do they simply procrastinate, like the rest of us? Are crises always worse for the very poor, or for the middle class? Is fertilizer better purchased right at harvest time or when it is needed?

Through simple experiments the authors find that “the poor” are just like everyone else: they procrastinate, they spend rather than save, they practice diversification in their meager assets — but they don’t have a cushion, so when things go bad, they go really badly. The book is careful about prescriptions but still makes it clear that most anti-poverty programs are shooting blindly, using untested (and arrogant) assumptions when it would be pretty simple to ask, test, and measure. An inspiring and very approachable book. Since I said mean things about Ecole Normale intellectuals earlier I should mention that Duflo was educated there, and shines.

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Filed under Non fiction