Monthly Archives: March 2013

*** How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a novel and not a self-help book, as its self-consciously styled title may suggest, and it really is no more than a classic rags to riches to semi-rags story — but what a clever and cleverly told story it is. Beyond the inventive self-help format, there’s the feat of the second-person voice narrative, rarely achieved with any level of success (success here, failure here and here). And the story, which I imagine is set in Lahore, where the author lives, although it never says so, is full of  fresh details about local mores (such as buying a resident’s bond to guarantee a period of rent-free living) and also universal experiences, as when the hero loves his son for being his “echo”. Highly recommended!

If you like this book and have not read Behind the Beautiful Forevers yet, read it too!

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* How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed is a strange book, in which the author attempts to explain the mysteries of the mind through a comparison with computer science simulations (and while letting the readers know, abundantly and repeatedly, how smart he is). There is clearly a bit of a problem in approaching the mind from a non-biologist perspective, but the author dismisses such little problems and assures us that his extensive AI expertise has shown him that computer scientists rule. Perhaps. It’s too bad that the hubris overshadows the theory, which I found most interesting: that the mind is a not-so-gigantic pattern-matching device and that many of its feats (along with its frailties) can be traced back to that principle. I would have liked a little less arrogance with the theory, thank you very much.

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*** A Little History of Science by William Bynum

A Little History of Science is just that, a short but nicely done romp through science, with short chapters focused on medicine, physics, chemistry, engineering, and math. I would have liked the content to be a bit more sophisticated and the tone a little less simplistic (it reminded me of junior-high books), and I would have loved to see a timeline showing the relative advances of science over time, but the short chapters are easy to digest, the personal anecdotes funny (did you know that Newton was a pain in the butt? that Darwin was a terrible college student?)  and the illustrations evocative, yet simple.

If you want in-depth information, this is not the book for you, I can recommend this book about the history of the periodic table, for instance.

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* 1/2 On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliott House

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future undertakes to lead the reader through a country and its people, and holds great promise since the author, a journalist, has spent decades reporting the kingdom. Alas, while I can understand that there are many aspects of the country that are not attractive and indeed are deplorable, I was taken aback by the almost constant criticism of its inhabitants and the apparent inability of the author to accept that world views different from our own may be valid. For instance, she repeatedly excoriates the Saudis for conforming to the rules and limitations of their families, never acknowledging that perhaps there is also comfort and kindness in families, and perhaps the American uber-individualistic approach is neither the only way to lead one’s life, nor  the perfect way. And the same judgmental view prevails in other areas. If Saudis make inconsistent statements to her — must be because they are Saudis rather than this particular individual made an inconsistent statement. The overall tone of criticism rubbed me the wrong way.

That being said, the author does a great job of showing how royal family members use religion to subdue the people when it suits them,  how fragile the regime is, and how the surge of the number of youth, often unemployed and ill-educated, may well push the kingdom over the edge.

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** Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity is a vast treatise looking at various categories of seemingly mismatched parents and children , with the interesting insight that it’s challenging to raise (I refuse to say parent) a child who is different from oneself. So we read about deaf children of hearing parents, dwarf children of normal-height parents, and Down Syndrome children of non-Down parents, and it all makes sense. But then we move to prodigies, who are certainly different but don’t seem to suffer from any specific disabilities. I’m sure it’s challenging to raise a genius, but it seems an uncomfortably large stretch to compare it with the other experiences in the book. And children of rape seem not to be different at all to me, although the mother’s experience certainly is. It seems that the author could not help pushing his thesis just a little too far.

My other uneasiness was that many of the parents interviewed for the book seem to be outsized activists. It’s understandable that activists would be more likely to agree for interviews, but it makes it sound like all parents of different children need to become completely engrossed in the cause.

That being said, the book gives  great insight on the lives of parents raising children that are so different from them, and how they and the children can find help and community by reaching outside of the families.

(By the way, the author wrote an excellent book about depression, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.)

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*** Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century by Jeanne Arnold et al.

Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open their Doors is a wonderful, with many more pictures than words, that aims to explore how American families live — or at least the 32 families of the book, all from suburban Southern California.

This is no airbrushed Martha Stewart alternate world. No, we see the laundry piles (several feet high, in a shower stall, which is apparently unavailable for other pursuits); incredibly messy garages (no surprise if I judge by the glimpses I get while walking around my neighborhood) but also barely usable home offices, overtaken by clutter; and heart-warming views of kitchen tables, used, apparently, all the time and for everything and anything.

If you need a respite from shelter magazines, this is it, as well as proof of the excesses of consumerism.

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* 1/2 The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black

In The Drowning House, a bereaved mother returns to her childhood home on Galveston Island and uncovers family secrets along with historical intrigue. I thought that the book read more like a travelogue about the island than a character-centric story and the heroine’s grief was drowned under the minutia of the setting.

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