Grab your breathing mask — or leave your paranoia aside — Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic takes us around bats, ducks, pigs, mosquitoes, mice, monkeys, and primates to explore zoonotic diseases (or animal infections) including famous ones like Ebola or swine flu or rabies, and obscure ones that are named after a small town where they originated and seem to have stayed (or not — that’s the whole point of the book).
The topic could feel very threatening but the style is lively and the tone sober for a very readable book. It’s another one of those books that could be on everyone’s bookshelf to improve our understanding of how diseases spread and how they can be contained and fought — which often requires counter-intuitive strategies.
The only negative of the book for me was a long, made-up story of how AIDS may have spread along the Congo river, which I thought brought little to the overall narrative and seemed to go counter the scientific rigor the author is pushing. But overall a great book of adventure, science, and quirky personalities.
In The World Without You, an extended family gathers to mourn a son, brother, and uncle, who was killed in Iraq while working as a journalist. As could be expected, perhaps, old tensions resurface and many behave badly. The militant Orthodox Jew refuses to eat her mother’s food (not kosher enough), the graspy one tries to get more money from the matriarch, and the parents choose the occasion to announce they are separating. It just seems so contrived and a little bit boring, I must say. And the geography of the San Francisco area is quite muddled, unlike in this other book.
As the unworthy reader who dared not to like The Last Lecture, I was hesitant to read The End of Your Life Book Club, which tells of the author’s mother’s death from cancer and the two-person book club they formed during that time, so as to thwart the possibility that I may speak ill of the dying again. But I enjoyed this book. First, although the author and his mother do read a lot, the memoir focuses on their relationship and on family history, in a delicate, loving, and often funny way. Also, his mother is a remarkable person, who to the very end raises funds for libraries in Afghanistan, feels guilty about turning down experimental treatment because it would be a service to future patients, but at the same time can be too much of a taskmaster, all of which is fodder for the story.
About the books: I was a little concerned that the memoir would be unreadable without an acquaintance with the many, many books they read. (The author works in the publishing industry and breezily mentions again and again that he has edited many of them!) While I found it very helpful to have read some of the books mentioned in the story, and while I felt a little left out when they discussed some I had not read, I think the memoir makes sense as a family story even if you are not a voracious reader.
Having loved Capital, I went in search of other books by John Lanchester, and was soundly disappointed by The Debt to Pleasure, whose main appeal is to hide, very cleverly, a Gothic tale within what pretends to be a cookbook but quickly dissolves into a travelogue of gastronomy and tourism through France. It’s hard to become attached to a diabolical hero, but the problem for me was not so much repulsion as boredom, as the erudite and arrogant hero blazes through picturesque roads and descriptions of churches in Brittany or markets in Provence (while making sure to note every offending characteristic he sees in the French!)
The author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t, Nate Silver, gained recognition during this month’s presidential election in the United States, before which he had managed to predict the results amazingly accurately. In this book, he explained how he went from being a tax analyst at KPMG (devoting copious amounts of his in-office time to creating a complicated model for predicting baseball players’ performance) to making a living as a poker player and eventually an election prognosticator, with copious asides in weather and earthquake forecasting and explaining the financial crisis of 2008.
The best part of the book is his coverage of that most boring of science, statistics, including the formidable Bayes’s theorem. It reminded me of the excellent Physics for Future Presidents, in another domain. Why not put both on the curriculum of all graduating college students (or, let’s be bold, all high school students)?
Warning: Gone Girl may cause you to stay up until 2am to figure out what really happened in what starts as a seemingly mundane, open-and-close domestic murder. Be sure to endure past the first 100 pages, which seem rather ordinary and overly arranged; there’s a good reason for that. I don’t want to give away the end so I won’t say much more than that, but I can say that the book will keep you wondering until the very end (although the very, very end seems overdone). Creepy people!
The Quiet Twin is the story of a police investigation of a series of murders in prewar Vienna where nothing is quite what it seems and each character is hiding a personal secret that creates an opportunity for mayhem. A very dark, gripping, and mysterious story that never moved out of the pure scary realm into a more personal mode, at least for me.
This Is How You Lose Her is the hilarious story of Yunior, a Dominican-American man who seems to have a unique talent for treating the women he says he loves so thoughtlessly that, well, they leave (except for mothers, I suppose, but they suffer too). The book is organized in a series of separate stories but they fit together just as well as the chapters of a standard novel would, and the writing is terrific, including tricky second person singular bits. Behind the humor there is the sadness of the macho man who really does not know how to keep a lover. Wonderful!
NW brings together a large cast of characters, united only by where they live, in the Nortthwest of London. There’s a carefully arranged mix of races, religions, social standings, and family history, all intersecting in what feels like an extended, vapid, girl-blog, moody and obsessed about small things. I did not enjoy the first part of the book, in case you cannot tell. It preferred the second half, where the story of the two school friends who have gone their separate ways develops into a sturdier story line, even if the end makes little sense. Throughout the book are perfectly captured vignettes of overbearing moms and street mishaps, along with great snatches of dialog and accomplished story telling devices — but that did not push the book into a must-read for me.