Monthly Archives: December 2012

*** It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson

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.

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Filed under New fiction

** The Etiquette of Illness by Susan Halpern

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.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Chinese Characters by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom


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.

I much preferred other books about China I reviewed earlier in this blog (Factory Girls, China Airborne, Country Driving for instance) but this one is interesting by its more ambitious scope.

(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!)

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Dead do not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang

Hipster San Francisco is on display in The Dead Do Not Improve, where even police officers are cool surfer dudes and most of the other characters work for Internet startups or are MFA graduates (or both). The twists and turns are duly unexpected, but perhaps a little forced, and the overall effect is surprisingly boring at times, perhaps to signify the essential ennui of said hipsters. Along a very funny scene at the silly, “only in San Francisco” Cafe Gratitude, perhaps the whole point of the book is to make San Francisco residents a little more smug about their city, and to bring nostalgia to past visitors?

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Filed under Mystery

*** The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane

Do not be deterred by the lowbrow self-help title (and the even worse subtitle). The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism is a wonderful compendium of psychological research studies, stories, and, practical advice on how to relate better with others, without the superficial feeling of a standard self-help book that offers tips and tricks, with no substance.

Much of the advice proffered here is common sense, and much of it centers on being completely present with listeners and on carefully considering how to present topics so as to meet the listeners’ concerns. What I particularly enjoyed were the many small practices to get to be present, powerful, and warm (the winning trio of charisma). It’s a treasure trove of a book.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Perfect Gentleman by Imran Ahmad

The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West is the charming and funny memoir of a Pakistani boy who immigrated to the UK with his family in the early sixties and who recounts everyday life, his chance at a great education with a side of racism, both unthinking and sadly focused, and his struggles to fit in and to reconcile his parents’ expectations with his own desires.

The story seems to lost its energy once the narrator gets to university, but I enjoyed it very much.

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Filed under True story

* 1/2 The End of Men by Hanna Rosin

Look past the title: The End of Men: And the Rise of Women is about the new role of women, not the absurd notion that men will soon be a species of the past. The author is a witness to the changing gender roles and shows us a world in which women have jobs, sometimes highly responsible jobs, where women flirt aggressively, where men are on childcare duty, rather reluctantly, while occasionally regretting their lost power. She makes a good argument that, as jobs in America move towards a knowledge and service economy, men are finding it more difficult to adapt than women. But she never seriously explores why so many women have made so much progress while the power at the very top is still exactly where it has been, in the hands of men, with little change in sight.

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Filed under Non fiction