A completely improbable lost manuscript, an even more improbable possibility that a scholar would store a precious manuscript in his house, let alone give it to a colleague for safekeeping, weirdly botched maneuvers with disposable cell phones, and several other strange details do not prevent The Lost Years from being an enjoyable thriller — as long as one does not think too hard about the manuscript, or anything else.
Monthly Archives: April 2012
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is the raw and tender story of two families, living in a slum right beside the glittering Mumbai airport, a slum where only six of the 3,000 residents hold a permanent job. But that doesn’t mean that the others are idle, on the contrary. The main family portrayed in the book is engaged in what is at fist a thriving garbage recycling business, headed by the older son who sacrificed his schooling to help his ailing father and his business-minded mother raise the other five siblings. But ethnic conflicts and mere bad luck cause the son, his father, and a sister to be arrested on suspicion of burning their neighbor to death, amidst lavish bribing of the police by all parties. This is non-fiction so we get the workings of the garbage-recycling business, neatly structured by tiers, the intricacies of bribes and the people whom I could call bribe consultants, who tell others how much is needed for each circumstances, and how badly both governmental and NGO help fails to address the real problems. This journalist writes like a novelist.
This Mushroom is the scientist’s counterpart to the lightweight, if amusing, Mycophilia I read a few months ago and I would recommend this one over it, should you want to explore the wonderful world of mushrooms. The author is a self-professed geek and geeky humor abounds (including his flogging at the hand of a demanding teacher — the charms of English public schools!), together with geeky fear-mongering (in his case, that Malthus is right) and geeky knowledge, such as the very complicated and very dreary details of mushroom reproduction. But overall the book is quite easy to read and full of fun facts, from mushrooms in symbiosis with termites to crazy French physicians who willingly ingest deadly mushrooms to prove that they have found a cure for them.
The Inquisition invented it all: ubiquitous surveillance, censorship, secret archives, data mining, even waterboarding. In God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World the author tells the story of the Inquisition, starting with I had always thought to be the (unfairly) obscure annihilation of the Cathars in Southern France in the 13th century, which my grandmother was fond to discuss, but which turns out to be the impetus behind the creation of the formal institution of the Inquisition. We learn about the minutiae of interrogations, the rules about how to use torture, the immigration of persecuted Jews from Spain to New Mexico, now proven through DNA analysis. Of course, the whole purpose of the book is to show that the Inquisition foreshadows the modern surveillance apparatus and especially the War on Terror, but the evidence is uncanny. A great history lesson.
The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life is written by a physician who specializes in palliative care and wants us all to know that there is a better way of dying than hooked up to machines and under aggressive and futile care. Fair enough, and he tells many stories of people in heartbreaking circumstances who benefit from a focus of comfort once cure has become elusive. He also makes a great case that palliative care is a lot less expensive than the high-tech, drug-heavy alternative. What’s less clear is when one may decide to go one route or another, since prognoses, like any other human endeavors that concern the future, are not always reliable. So it seems that we are always at the mercy of the physician who won’t quit or the relative who can’t give up — unless it’s ourselves who won’t give up.
In any case, where are those physicians who endeavor to know their patients personally and who visit patients at home? I never met one who did (maybe because I’ve been unnaturally healthy so far, knock on wood).
Can one write a very funny book about the Guantanamo Bay prison that still manages to expose the seedy and shameful underbelly of the war on terror? From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is that novel, written as a sham confession of a Filipino would-be fashion designer who finds himself accused by proxy because a terrorist has financed part of his fashion design operation. So he is interrogated repeatedly and not always legally and asked to confess, but what can he confess apart from fondness for women, fabrics, and style? There are moments when the fashion design blog sounds a bit over-rehearsed, and a couple of factual errors (speedometer needle on a Prius?) but it’s a hilarious story with a very sober message.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time is a wonderful mix of a personal trek (two, really) up to Machu Picchu, accompanied by a wonderfully unique Australian guide, and the story of Hiram Bingham, who “discovered” the site — and helped himself to a number of souvenirs. the book is full of funny stories, some about the author’s travails, since he had never camped once before each, rather athletic, trip (or even thought of breaking in his hiking boots before walking up the trail), and others about Mr. Bingham, who planned obsessively for each of his trip, down to what to do if some in the party do not enjoy regular visits to the bathroom. And since much time is spent in the company of the Australian guides and the Quechua porters, there are also many personal stories, observed with much kindness.
And then there are the mountains, and the sites. There are a few pictures in the middle of the book but the author is very adept at describing the steep slopes, the solar alignments, the perfectly fitted stones. A wonderful book to dream about visiting, one day.
That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion explores all the disgusting things of life, from the understandable (rotting food that might make us ill) to mostly-in-our-head (eating a piece of chocolate shaped like dog poop), from what our nervous system does to make us disgusted to why disgust keeps us healthy, why teenagers like horror movies, and even why charity appeals should not show people living in disgusting conditions, even if those are the very people who need help.
Scholarly but well-written and easy to read.
With a different topic The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table reminded me of the Barbara Ehrenreich books (for instance, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America) but without the bitterness that seems to ooze out of Ehrenreich’s later books. Here, the author hires on as a farm worker in California, a Walmart shelf stocker, and an Applebee’s expediter, looking at the food industry in the US. She describes how the mostly illegally-immigrated farm workers are routinely exploited by their employers (while the California bureaucracy looks the other way), how Walmart “refreshing” of produce requires savvy shopping, and how Applebee’s has designed dozens of dishes that require no skills from the cooks, just stirring ingredients together.
Happily, she tells many stories about her co-workers, who for the most part are kind, hard-working, and really care about food and the part they play in bringing it to our tables. She also does a great job of describing the California farm landscape, which I know, and I imagine the Detroit snowstorms as well, although I have never lived there.
So while the book exposes some sad truths about the food industry it’s also hopeful that we can make individual choices that can influence both the quality of the food we eat and the lives of those who bring it to us.
On US Tax Filing Day, how about a book about taxes? And a great book it is, The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take. It reminded me of Physics for Future Presidents, a great primer about physics for non-physicists, while this one is a primer about how taxes work (or should work) for people who never thought much about the way tax systems can be designed, with the goal that they can work better for governments and for us, the taxpayers. In short chapters, with non-technical explanations, the author manages to not only survey the US tax system but to also compare it to the systems of various other countries, and to soberly weigh the benefits of tax reform against the realities of politics. I warmly recommend the book — and my only regret is that it seems to be hardly possible that we can move towards more rational approaches anytime soon.