Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone tackles the intriguing rise in the number of single-person households in the US, which I hoped would be a thoughtful reflection on the causes of the phenomenon and implications for society as a whole, and indeed there are a few such pages in the book, but overall I was disappointed. One reason is the lack of structure in the book. People live alone for all kinds of reasons and the discussion may have benefitted from more rigor in organizing the discussion around, I think, young singles, poor working men, and widowers or older divorced people, all groups that may be growing in different ways and for different reasons. It would also be interesting to dig a little more into the differences between the US and other European countries that have even higher rates of solo dwellers. Is the rise consistent everywhere? Are the causes of the rise different? None of that, alas. Finally, the book strenuously defends people who live alone as normal, well-balanced, and contributing to society — which was rather a surprise for me. Why on Earth would anyone think otherwise?
There’s much to like in Once Upon a River, starting with its quirky heroine, Margo Crane, a spunky teenager pushed into the harsh world of the back woods of Michigan after her father dies — armed with her gun, her beloved grandfather’s boat, and as much sense as can be expected of a sixteen year old, I suppose, although one could wish for much more, at least when long-term planning is involved. Predictable disasters await, many brought upon her by the combination of her age, looks, and the large oversupply of lecherous men along the river where she thinks she can live. When she finally finds a stable home, of sorts, with a lovable man dying on his own terms of cancer, it’s an abrupt switch towards a rosy future that’s equally as unlikely as the dark adventures of the first two-thirds of the novel… so the story did not work for me.
However, the river, Margo’s cruel relatives, the wildlife of the woods, even her clueless, egotistic mother are described so skillfully that I wanted to keep reading, I wanted to believe, and perhaps another reader would?
I like food, very much, and I am intrigued by evolutionary psychology, but I could not find much savor in The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food. I was surprised to find that the author is a neuroscientist as much of the book is written as in a stream of light anecdotes, some of which are funny and well-observed, but don’t seem to be grounded in theory or experiments. Stick with the excellent Taste if you want your summer reading to make you salivate.
The virtue of If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is its premise: while his nanny naps, a toddler drowning next to an older boy who, although blameless, will carry the guilt for the rest of his life. For the rest, the story seems contrived, the principal characters (the older boy and his parents) sound fake, and the last part, narrated by the now-grown boy as a would-be conversation with the dead one outright silly. Avoid.
Written by the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces (what a title!), If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home tells a series of stories sometimes loosely connected to homes, from how bedrooms became private, to dentistry, to sewer systems. I felt that many of the stories were already quite well-known, such as how the great halls of medieval palaces were used for all activities of the house, and I also regretted that most of the book focuses on rich households, as I would have liked to have at least a glimpse of life in less cushy environments.
However, there is an interesting section about servants and the incredible work that was required to furnish water, heat, and food in those large houses, however. And the author uses her hands-on experience to describe how to seal the door of a bread oven with a strip of dough along with her historical knowledge to explain how wardrobes followed the invention of the lowly but so useful coat hanger. I would have wished for a tighter narrative.
For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families is a quirky book, half-memoir and half self-help manual, written by the wife of the founder of Stonyfield Farm (and other startups), about the challenges and hardships of being an entrepreneur’s wife. I enjoyed the memoir: the author makes no bones about living in an unheated barn, having employees barge through the living quarters at all hours, and the frustration of being left at home to cope with small children while her husband travels for work. (Much of the memoir could apply equally well to the spouse of any busy executive). I found the self-help portion rather mystifying. Couldn’t a sane person connect the dots from the memoir to reality? It read a bit like the inane book club questions stuck at the end of some novels…
Still, a warm and affecting story.
Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong starts with lengthy descriptions of how justice can go wrong when police coerce confessions, press victims to identify suspects, and shoddy testing and even shoddier explanations of test results to juries. The descriptions are depressing and repetitive, and it’s not until the last fifth of the book that the author finally suggests solutions, which turn out to be quite simple — and have been implemented in many areas. For instance, instructing victims to take their time when identifying suspects in a lineup (unsurprisingly) makes for much more reliable results.
Great topic, but could have been covered more efficiently.