Are you anxious or do you know someone who is? Meet the master in Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, a man who can sweat so profusely that he needs sanitary pads to staunch the flow, a man who can turn choosing condiments into an ordeal, a man who can go from any situation to a (very unlikely) imagined catastrophe in less than five steps. Along the way, we get amusing portraits of bad therapists (and one good one, thank goodness!), an occasionally disturbing family and personal history, and lots of very funny moments of humiliation and, eventually, something that looks like a cure or at least a reasonable accommodation to everyday life despite its treachery (what if he ends up selecting the wrong condiment for his sandwich?)
Monthly Archives: August 2012
Great topic, so-so book. Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption describes the current treatment of convicted murderers in California, who after decades in prison can be deemed worthy of release by a professional review board only to be ordered to stay, indefinitely, by a governor who has full power to do so. It seems so wasteful, if not unethical, and redolent of a medievally absolute power, to allow one person to undo the careful evaluation of an entire team, doesn’t it?
In any case, the author brings us five men who committed murders long ago, when they were young and, for some, through peculiar circumstances that seem to be almost by accident, and who are now models of virtue, restrain, and maturity — but don’t seem to be able to get out of prison. Most people would agree that they pose no real danger to society and that they should not be subjected to the unrestrained whim of the governor. Unfortunately because those five are so “perfect” it begs the question of whether they are mere exceptions and few facts are provided to explore the larger picture (although it seems that the few prisoners that are released are remarkably trouble-free, but this may just bolster the claims of those who want the governor to say no almost all the time.) And why subject the poor reader to reams of boring court proceedings? Summaries would suffice.
Right from the image on the cover (and the back cover!) you can tell that Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History will approach the topic in a light-hearted way. And it holds true for the first part of the book, which features a clutch of breast researchers who would be fun dinner-party guests if they would chat about what they do every day, whether it is tracking their subjects’ eye movements when watching pictures of various sizes, if you see what I mean, or painstakingly calculating volumes and radii with intricate equations. Things get a little less amusing when we get to implants, at least the failed ones and even the overly ambitious ones… Alas the last third of the book revels into the various chemicals that accumulate in breasts and breast milk and the weird efforts some make to rid themselves of said chemicals, without necessarily a proof that the “chemicals” are really noxious. Shouldn’t that be the first step?
Forget the misleading subtitle. The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life is far from a self-help book on selling techniques, but rather a reflection on what it takes to be a great salesperson, written by a sympathetic admirer of great salespeople who does not shy away from exposing shady techniques here and there. I especially liked the portraits of well-known and obscure salespeople he includes, from the Dalai Lama to Memo the handyman (Memo would be the obscure one!) I also thought it very interesting that he finds that the best salespeople deploy and feel a great deal of affection for their customers, much like the customer support tribe with whom I spend my working life.
Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood has its delightful (pardon the pun) moments, when the author describes the behind-the-scenes action in her parents’ then mother’s restaurant, and in particular how the waiters and cooks dote on her, the elegant, polite child sipping her Shirley Temple at table A1. But the rest I found much less charming. The story of her hard-working, perfectionist mother could be remarkable, even heroic, but comes across as more than a bit of a snob. And the author’s detailed description of her outfits may be cute when she’s talking about her little-girl dresses, but gets tiresome as she grows up. Too bad, the title was appealing.
tells a sobering story of life in India, with a heavy focus on what’s not working, especially environmental pollution and the widening gap between rich and poor. I welcomed the idea that the author lives in India, although he was not born there, and I also liked his sharing of many anecdotes with friends and associates, but I thought the doom-and-gloom was rather overdone, and the author had trouble rising above the individual stories. In the same vein, I much preferred Behind the Beautiful Forevers and even Beautiful Thing — both quite dark, despite their cheery titles, but with more hope than this book.
The Cost of Hope: A Memoir tries to do two things: tell the story of the author’s courtship and marriage to her first husband and tally the enormous costs of caring for his kidney cancer (although the diagnosis remains uncertain, years after his death). It’s a bit of a strange mix, and it did not work for me, although I very much enjoyed the personal story, of a delightfully eccentric man, a challenging marriage, and family routines that get reinvented over and over. Perhaps the accounting exercise could have been partitioned more artfully , if not jettisoned?
A Small Fortune follows a family of Pakistani immigrant in England whose father finds himself very modestly rich after a divorce and proceeds to make a mess of his family connections both in England and in Pakistan, promising money to some but giving it to others in what seems to be a very bad business deal. Mix in a wayward daughter and a nephew who gets involved with Muslim extremists and you’ve got a story, but not necessarily a very good one, especially the plodding extremist plot or the sordid business extortion — although the more intimate subplots fare better, including the father’s funny, awkward courtship with a divorced professor.
The Chemistry of Tears is the cleverly constructed story of a bereaved museum restorer whose (married) lover has died and who finds comfort in restoring a complicated automaton — and skirting more than a few rules of her profession and workplace in the process. Her story is entwined with that of the automaton’s original owner, who underwent a tortuous trip to Germany to get the automaton constructed, and who kept a journal of the trip, rather miraculously designed to read as a novel. Too clever for me!The half of the novel that describes the quasi-widow’s travails seemed finely observed and believable; the other felt like a dreary book assigned for AP Literature, complete with foretelling and overwrought themes that must be analyzed, day after day.
With a stunning first chapter, in which the hero divests himself of his wife, his family’s menswear store, and his comfortable life in an American suburb to go back to the Malawi of his Peace Corps youth, The Lower River held much promise, Alas, when he arrives to the village for which he holds fond memories it’s not paradise lost that greets him but a harsh, thuggish dictatorship and corrupt shakedowns, deviously encouraged by help organizations that seem to care more about metrics than actually helping people, and for me the book became not the nightmarish account of a deluded adventure but instead a surprisingly racist depiction of locals utterly unable to govern themselves.