David Shields is the master of the unclassifiable book, but sadly with How Literature Saved My Life he is nowhere as successful as with The Thing about Life is That One Day You Will be Dead, which I thought was a delightful mix of personal anecdotes, literary quotes, and reflections. This time, we get the personal anecdotes, and we get the (often wistful) reflections on life and time running out, but unfortunately served with a gigantic helping of literary references that alternates between tedious (as in, an annotated list of 55 books he loves — 17 pages long!) and annoyingly exclusive for those of us who have not read the works. Too bad!
Monthly Archives: April 2013
The Boyfriend is the villain of the book, a killer for hire who murders escorts on the side, and the hunt for him is fast paced and masterfully twisted — but the escorts are so stupid in their eagerness to fall in love with the “boyfriend” that it’s hard to believe that they would be so dumb (they do run their businesses quite shrewdly otherwise, after all). Indeed, dumbness seems to infect all the women in the book, so they all need rescuing by the great detective.
Before you dismiss To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others as a boring business book, pause and think about all the situations in which we attempt to “move” people, as the subtitle indicates, or convince them to change their behavior. All of us are in the convincing business, and some professions that seem quite removed from selling (teachers, physicians and others in the health care field) are all about behavior change. With that, the author launches into a series of fast-paced observations, some trite but many enlightening, about how to sell better, including often neglected topics such as how to write a good email subject, and always with the view that respect is tantamount. No hard sell here!
Hildy Good, she with The Good House, is a realtor who drinks too much but must hide it from her daughters who disapprove (and sent her to rehab) and, as much as possible, from her clients. In her small New England town where everyone knwos everyone, except for the rich newcomers, it is a challenge. She speaks her mind, she invokes the spirit of her witch ancestor, she gets along well with her gay ex-husband, she is jealous of her grandson’s other grandmother, whose sober status means she has more access to him. A solid, fun story without pretensions to greatness.
If, like me, you are a little afraid of the aisles in the center of supermarkets, where the boxed foods are, you will find your apprehension validated in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In a blistering, extensive examination of the food industry in the US, the author shows how it exploits our natural tastes for salt, sugar, and fat to concoct products that are entirely unhealthy, and sell well. This is no conspiracy theory. After all, the food giants are not exactly forcing us to buy Pepperoni & Three Cheese Calzone Hot Pockets (I certainly would never consider it), but they find it convenient to pile on the sugar in kids’ cereals while removing the word sugar from their names, to hire the best chemical engineers to mix pyrophosphates and orthophosphates (don’t wince: it’s Jello!), and to deftly customize salt flakes to match the food they will adorn (thank you, Cargill). All that while the executives of said companies follow healthy diets and exercise regimens.
Perhaps the euphemistically called health classes forced upon high school students could review the effects of high-fructose corn syrup or the differences between food and treats?
Meanwhile, stay away from the center aisles!
It is not my habit to post about books I have not read all the way through. True, I sometimes find myself turning pages a little fast when the book doesn’t grab me, but I feel a duty of reading to the end, more as a courtesy to the author (what if there is an amazingly good ending to a so-so story?) than as a badge of honor for myself.
I did not finish Umbrella. I could not. I gave up on page 119, enough to tell you that it’s a supremely clever story, written in a stream of consciousness style that smoothly moves from the psychiatrist hero to one of his patient, exploring the horrors of mental illness and especially its ill-defined treatments, alongside two extended families. A braver soul than I can try wading through the challenging presentation. I wonder if the swooning critics actually read the book. A page or ten is dazzling. Beyond that, it feels like eating a bowl of sugar.
Until I read The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, I thought that Rosa Parks was the tired seamstress of her legend. In fact, she was an inspired activist who was hobbled by her gender as well as her race (and should have won a Nobel Prize with Martin Luther King, not to mention should have had a chance at a real education). The book, written by a historian, gets into minute and rather tedious details of her life in the second half, after the Montgomery bus boycott, but the first part is enlightening.
I’m not exactly in the target audience for The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, but it’s written in a firm tongue-in-cheek style that makes it suitable for all. The short book is constructed as a longish essay on the virtues of procrastination, unevenly amusing but with some most accurate observations, including that we can be extremely productive doing something else than what we must be working on.
A perfect diversion from the tasks we should be doing instead of reading, right?
The End of the Point is the story of a multi-generational family, told from their summer compound on an unnamed Massachusetts island from WWII to today. It’s written from the perspectives of a Scottish nanny at first, then from that of a troubled grandchild who comes to the island to find himself. I found the story to be predictable and leaning towards boring, both from the historical perspective (the son killed in the war, the psychoanalysis of the 60s, the drug culture of the 70’s, the environmental wars of the 90s) and the family itself (the depressed daughter, the rebellious grandson, the demanding matriarch). And I did not care for the stuffy, entitled setting and characters, who expect to “summer” on the island, get a nice trust fund when they reach adulthood, and inherit the land from grandma without exerting themselves too much in the process.
The best part of the book for me, by far, was the story of the Scottish nanny, and especially her fierce love of her charges, so much so that she neglects her own happiness. Not coincidentally, she is also outside the entitlement circle.
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape is the personal story of the author, the niece of the church leader, and what a story it is! Separated from her parents (who were themselves, at a time, high-ranking members), forced to live in very meager circumstances with what can only be described as slave labor for children, brought up to navigate the queer un-reality of the church, she finally leaves it, with her husband, but not before creating quite a stir. The story reminded me most of insane totalitarian regimes (as told, for instance, In the Shadow of the Banyan, about the Khmer Rouges of Cambodia), and not so much of My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru or Arcadia, memoirs of other children brought up in sects.
The book itself, despite its professional writer coauthor, is full of repeats and Valley Girl-toned “he said-she said” stories that are quite tedious, but I still found the facts very compelling.