Monthly Archives: January 2013

* Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life follows the author’s The Happiness Project, not nearly as successfully, in my mind.

This time around, she undertakes to upgrade her home life, which I would think would focus on her family, but, alas, chapter one reads like a Martha Stewart Living closet reorganizing bender. (No offense to Martha Stewart Living, which never pretends it’s about more than what it is, and I will admit to a certain love of reorganizing closets, but that would not be my go-to activity for happiness building….)

On to chapter two. Alas, it presents as an over-the-top Can This Marriage be Saved column, with all the improvement efforts squarely placed on wifey, who will tirelessly pick up dirty socks, cook all meals, and be “cheerfully accommodating” (a direct quote), whatever her husband demands. What century do we live in? And more to the point, if marital happiness is at stake, wouldn’t it make sense to ask her husband for what would make him happy? (Mine would have me checked for a brain tumor if I suddenly started to say “yes dear” to everything.)

It does get better. Honest! The topics become deeper and the reflective comments resonate more. Yes, I do get it when she finds it easier to give up on dessert than eat a little bit. When she recommends email abstinence on the weekends, even if only for sending. Or when she finds the perfect volunteering project right on her doorstep rather than in an impoverished country. But the overall mood seemed weirdly self-centered and manic.

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* Debt by David Graeber

I found Debt: The First 5,000 Years to be at the same time wonderfully researched and informative — and tooth-grindingly irritating.

Let’s start with the wonderful bits. The author demystifies the idea of people as pure economical agents, which we know is a figment of economists’ imagination, but it’s good to be reminded that there are many other factors that come into our decisions, even the ones that are supposedly made rationally rather than emotionally. He also tells a long and well-documented history of how the idea of money arises in society, how it’s not quite the same as that of tangible currency or paper currency, and how money can be used very differently for different purposes.

Now for the irritating parts. From the start, the author asserts that money is, by definition, associated to violence or threats thereof, and that debt is, also by definition, slavery under another name and therefore evil and a negation of everything that is right and makes us human. While I would see the wisdom of a figurative description of debt as slavery, I’m afraid that the author makes it literal, which sounds simply absurd to me. However arduous it is to carry large debts, I am very sure it’s better than being a slave in ancient Rome or Athens — or in 19th Century US or an exploited illegal immigrant today. The theme recurs periodically in the book and, to me, spoils the learned narrative entirely.

 

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* Winter by Adam Gopnik

Winter: Five Windows on the Season is organized into five lectures, all on the theme of winter, starting with some seriously intellectual discussions about art, literature, and history, which I found remote and inaccessible to someone who had not read or seen, or did not remember in detail the works described. I did enjoy two aspects of the books, the author’s allusions to his children’s education in a Paris elementary school and a rather unexpected history of hockey in the midst of all the high falutin’ references. Neither was enough to make me recommend the book.

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* The Cost Disease by William J. Baumol

The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t makes the case that health care is costly because it’s hard to automate, unlike product manufacturing (just like education, as described in Why Does College Costs so Much?) but alas fails to reassure that we will continue to be able to afford expensive services since the author seems unable to lay out how  productivity increases can come about in health care, a field where there’s little outright competition and payments are typically made by third parties anyway. And since the US spends massively more than other countries on health care without reaping benefits for longevity or  other measures of health, the idea that the cost of services will necessarily increase faster than that of goods, while sensible, seems to open the door to unbounded increases…

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*** Serengeti Story by Anthony Sinclair

Continuing a solid series books I liked (how lucky!), here’s a magical one: Serengeti: A scientist in paradise in which the author, a British biologist who has worked in the Serengeti area since the early 60’s, tells of his studies of wildebeest and other animals and his many adventures trying to escape hyenas and lions, and especially the follies of the local dictators. There are three countries that share the ownership of the Serengeti area and their political upheavals have killed more rare animals than drought or climate change.

Between the magic of the place and the self-deprecating sense of humor of the author, this book is a joy to read — and be warned, you will start checking out travel opportunities in the area soon after reading it.

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*** The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S.L. Wisenberg


The Adventures of Cancer Bitch is the memoir of a breast cancer survivor, frank, spirited, and funny, without any of the concerns for propriety and uplifting sentiments that one may expect of such an oeuvre. (The author rants at length against a very pink cancer-fighting organization, with great humor and verve!)

Her body may be (temporarily) broken but her wit and sense of ridicule are intact and she is able to share an unflinching look at disease, doctors, and hospitals. Yes, there are some pointless rants and some boring lists, but you can always skip them. Do not skip the excellent Jewish jokes sprinkled throughout.

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*** The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher

In an age when keyboard has replaced the pen and the writing callus I used to sport on my right index finger in high school is mostly gone, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting explores what writing by hand means and whether we can do without it. There is a chapter on how handwriting is taught to French schoolchildren versus English ones and Americans (well researched and funny) and one on typefaces (I would still recommend Just My Type to font nerds over this book). There is a funny chapter about the silly would-be-science of graphology and one about the fake Hitler’s diaries. Will we miss handwriting when it’s mostly gone? I would bet that we will, but our children may not.

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*** Strands by Jean Sprackland

If you love the sea you will love Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach. (If you don’t love the sea, you’re missing out!)

The author starts in a disarmingly low-key manner, walking her local beach in England and writing about her discoveries and musings. From shipwrecks to rubber ducks (see here for an entire book about rubber ducks, reviewed a while back), from footprints of ancient ancestors to tobacco bales left over from long-ago factories, the author weaves history and her musings on life. Delightful.

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* The Immigrant Exodus by Vivek Wadhwa

I happen to believe that the United States has become puzzlingly inhospitable to well-educated immigrants in recent years, and yet I found the argument presented in The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent rather disappointing. First, because the author seems to obsess about just one metric: the number of startup companies created by immigrants. Surely there are many other ways that educated immigrants can contribute. Second, because it seems a bit arrogant to ignore the fact that perhaps people would rather stay home, or return home, if conditions there have improved so as to match or approximate those offered by the United States. In other words, perhaps it’s not (only) a failure of the United States to welcome highly educated immigrants; it may be that other countries are catching up economically, which should be considered a success. Finally, the author seems to assume that immigration policy is easy to change, and we all know how recessions seem to focus the mind against an influx of foreigners, however adorned with Ph.Ds they might be.

Too bad: offering an automatic resident permit to advanced-degree recipients, followed by a quick path to citizenship to those qualified and interested seems to be a good recipe to build a community of innovators (and taxpayers!)

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*** The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists is an exquisitely layered story of a woman and her gardener-lover after World War II in what is now Malaysia. The garden of the title is a character in its own right and the mystery of its creation unfolds to re-tell the horrors of the war and the uncertainties of the roles played by living and dead characters. I thought that this lyrical and evocative story was wonderful — and that was a surprise, since lyrical and evocative are not usually my preferred style.

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