Shine Shine Shine has many fun and promising ideas but I did not feel that I could become attached to the characters who are too odd to be believable, or to the story, which stayed as wispy as a fantasy. Yes, the idea of building a robot colony to the moon is intriguing; yes, raising an autistic kid is difficult. But too many details don’t work: early childhood best friends don’t marry in this open world; functioning second-time mothers do not wander to the neighbor’s house when it’s time to give birth; and autistic kids are not charmingly and freakishly smart. (And if you are going to live through equations and C code, write correct ones.)
Monthly Archives: December 2012
Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America is a book-length tirade against the way the drug wars are playing out in troubled neighborhoods of America. The tirade is unaccountably whiny, irksome, and may well cause you to close the book in frustration. I cannot understand how the author and his editor chose to use such an approach.
On the other hand, the author describes a series of what is appropriate to call turnarounds, if not miracles, where innovative police departments, spurred by his ideas, turned high-crime neighborhoods into quite peaceful places, at least places where homicide statistics plummeted. How? The police brought together residents, gang members, and police officers to make it clear that outrageous crimes such as shootings and open-air drug dealing will not be tolerated, provided employment and other services for criminals who wanted to get out, and allowed the community to manage itself rather than using the standard heavy-handed police behaviors that are likely to create much bad feeling while not bringing peace to the neighborhood. Many of his observations are astute. It turns out that even gang members are more afraid of their mothers than of the police. And have you ever heard of a school-wide shooting in an inner city neighborhood? Dangerous neighborhoods can get better. I just wish that the author could make his point without the heavy “no one understands me” pathos.
Hallucinations is full of stories, which can be arranged in two categories: descriptions of personal experiences with hallucinations, a la Alice in Wonderland and an inventory of various types of hallucinations, so long that I almost regret not to have experienced any of them so far (the good news is that it seems that older people are more prone to hallucinations, so there’s hope). I had enjoyed an interview of the author, who is a good storyteller, but the book version was as tedious as I find Alice in Wonderland.
In Sweet Tooth, a surprisingly naive (I could say stupid, but I’m trying to be nice) young woman has a most unadvisable affair with a married professor and then signs up with the British intelligence agency while somehow thinking that she can avoid any negative side effects of having affairs or working as a spy. The structure of the novel is astonishingly clever, with short stories in a novel in another novel but I could not wrap my mind around the limitations of the heroine, which felt resolutely sexist and unappealing.
The Racketeer is a highly inappropriate story for a Christmas day review but it would make a great gift (too late!!) as an enjoyable thriller. In this book, the hero is a lawyer (of course) who is wrongly accused and condemned of a white-collar crime and who exacts revenge from the government in an innovative and wildly profitable way. The author occasionally adds an unnecessary rant against the legal and penal system that seems obvious from the story and detracts from the action – but there is a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, as should be, and the twists and turns are appropriately curvy.
If I think about it, I know there’s something wrong with someone exacting personal revenge against the government by extracting a vast fortune for himself, even if the fortune is stolen in the first place, but I must admit I did not think about it (too much) while I was enjoying the book.
I would say I’m quite interested in both women and gardens, but I found Women and Their Gardens: A History from the Elizabethan Era to Today to be a bust. The book is well researched and certainly ambitious, covering everything from botanists to garden designers to floral designers to artists, but it reads more like a catalog of variously famous and not-so-famous women contributors to the vast field of gardening, with little to organize or structure the biographies. And sadly, although the book contains many illustrations, there are many points that would gain to be illustrated but are not, as when the author mentions one of the few species of flora named after a woman but fails to show it to us. The main success of the book is to show how gardening evolved with the role of women in larger society, from being one of the rare occupations deemed appropriate to well-bred ladies (who, typically, functioned more as overseers than hands-on gardeners, of which they had many, dozens in some of the examples shared in the book!) to becoming a bona fide job for women, even on the hallowed ground of the Kew conservatory of flowers.
Overall, I was disappointed, although someone more patient than I may enjoy the many details provided. That should cover 90% of the population…
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat is a well-written series of vignettes on various aspects of food preparation and consumption, from why bubbling water cooks foods differently than simmering water, even though they are at the same temperature, to why fish knifes were invented (to avoid the unappetizing taste of lemon juice on steel, a problem before stainless steel was invented), and even how changes in cooking techniques created a change in our jaws. Other chapters tackle child labor in the kitchen, our love-hate relationship with microwave ovens, and can openers that bite. There’s even a short summary of the labors of Clarence Birdseye. A fun and learned book.
It’s Fine By Me reads like an autobiographical novel but I may be over-interpreting. In any case, in a classic coming-of-age story we meet a sad boy with an alcoholic, violent dad (now departed), a depressed mom, a dead brother, and not much of a future at school. He does have a friend, a sense of humor, if a most cynical one, and one luminous memory of a farming couple who took him in for a very short time when he was young and restored his hope, so the mood is not quite as dark as other Petterson novels. Still, not a book to choose when you are feeling blue.
The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words is a hard-to-classify book that meanders from its stated topic (and subtitle) to transform itself into a checklist of practical and emotional steps to take when very ill — so stay flexible! Much of the advice is excellent, if rather obvious (don’t disappear when your friends are ill, don’t invite yourself for long visits, don’t give them a list of treatments they must follow). On the other hand, some of the scripts she suggests seem a little awkward, and the many stories she tells become tedious in their number and their transparent pseudonyms.
Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land presents a series of portraits of diverse individuals, from monks to elementary school children to painters of “local” Coloradan art, and more than a few dissidents, none of an international renown and all the better to understand the limits of the totalitarian regime and the sophisticated understanding of the limits by the people. The portrait are uneven, some very lively such as the description of schools, others emotionally remote and occasionally puzzling. For instance, in one of the chapters about Tibet the author asserts that Tibetans are better off under Chinese rule because health care is better, which I’m happy to believe it is, but surely the weight of foreign occupation cannot be completely erased by a better health system.
(And one could wish that the University of California Press could employ a better proofreader. I doubt that the author of the first portrait is grumbling epitaths on his way up Mount Heng!)