Monthly Archives: April 2013

*** A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

A Week in Winter is the last novel of Maeve Binchy, in a setting that’s a tad artificial in its gathering of strangers at a newly-opened bed and breakfast, but with many endearing characters, starting with the owner, who has an entirely fictional life, complete with a fictional husband, behind her — and no one is the wiser. The chapters are told from the points of view of the various actors and are most successful in the beginning of the book but if you enjoy the fiction that hard work always win out in the end, especially if it involves sheltering or feeding people, that most every human enterprise can end well, including teenagers getting pregnant (with twins!), and above all that (mostly) good things happen to good people, you are looking at a few hours of happiness.

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Filed under New fiction

* Work Like a Spy by J.C. Carleson


I thought that Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer could be either (1) a run-of-the-mill management book, a la Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (quite funny if one does not take it seriously) or (2) a thrilling description of undercover work — and I was wrong on both counts, and not happily either.

The book manages to offer both obvious gems such as “be careful with your laptop when you travel” (duh) and ” cultivate a deep network (double-duh), along with a very chilling description of continuous deception, lying, and cheating — all to the good of the country, I suppose, but rather unsettling, especially if adopted as routine behaviors…

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Filed under Non fiction

** Sugarhouse by Matthew Batt


Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home sounds like a remodeling story, but it’s not, or rather, the remodeling story is only a small part of a larger memoir of a difficult family, and in particular the author’s mercurial grandfather and his gold-digger girlfriends. The house stories are told hilariously, from the dealings with the amateurish realtor, to the free lessons from the unimpressed Home Depot employees, to the awkward dance with the carpet installer tasked with removing the revolting carpets. But the personal story is what shines through.

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Filed under True story

** The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is a massive book that gently reminds us of how we can look at non-Western societies to help us handle the many areas of life where technology cannot make a difference and where our needs may not be so different from those in traditional societies.

There are some gems in this book. I thought the ideas around creating connections, rendering justice, and healing rifts were particularly interesting. We almost instinctively try to find common ground with strangers, and it is indeed a way to create a connection, just as effective in traditional societies where everyone knows everyone else as in today’s anonymous metropolises. And we would probably do well to use mediation and restorative justice rather than the rather ineffective forms of legal action.

Other ideas are less successful. Life in many traditional societies is short and brutal. Many, for instance, allow or order older people to walk away or let themselves die when they become dependent; while we could treat older people better today, these traditional practices seem simply horrifying. And if raising children in a traditional way requires mothers to live within arm length of a child for several years, I can think of a few modern women who may object to that wisdom, however successful traditional mothers may be… Finally, the overall organization of the book seems rather sloppy, with a blow-by-blow account of the Deni wars in Papua New Guinea (yawn!) and numerous repeats throughout the book. Could have used a ruthless editor!

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley


I’m catching up on my Flavia de Luce with Speaking from Among the Bones, a very dark  tale of bodies stashed in poor Saint Tancred’s grave, with a specially gruesome discovery mechanism by Flavia — dramatic, yes, but a little hard to believe for an eleven-year old. The relationships with the adults around her and how they honor or not her deductive capabilities are well captured — and there’s a monumental cliffhanger at the very end. When will volume 6 be released?

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** She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg

She Matters: A Life in Friendships is a memoir artfully architected around the author’s friendships with women, from her teenage years as the daughter of a narcissistic, utterly un-mothering mother and a divorced, also remote father. Her thirst for nurturing relationships is understandable, but a bit scary as well, and there is a histrionic, hot-and-cold quality to the friendships that I found a little disturbing — in addition to my usual squeamishness about reading what I feel are over-shared details that may benefit from a little more privacy, not only for the author’s sake but her friends’ and family’s as well.

I thought that the stories were most successful when it described the travails of raising young children and the uneasy balancing of them, life, and work, and when it betrayed, at several points, the gilded world in which the author was born, in which venturing out to Brooklyn is an utter adventure.

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Filed under True story

* The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner


I love words, I like dictionaries, and I still remember receiving a child’s dictionary for my fifth birthday as a delightful event, so I thought that I might enjoy The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, which describes the event surrounding the creation and launch of the third edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which (in)famoulsly included the word ain’t without automatically branding it as colloquial.

I’m sorry to report that the politics of lexicography are as dull as you think they are. Even the hysterical journalistic reaction to the new dictionary seemed dull. The only part of the book I found of interest was the very brief account of how very arduous the physical work of collating the words, definitions, and citations was. They could have used a good computer, for sure!

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Filed under Non fiction

*** I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley


In the Flavia De Luce seriesI Am Half-Sick of Shadows is a bit of a lightweight, as a Christmas story with a highly improbable plot that brings the entire village to the heroine’s mansion for Christmas eve — and that does not include the movie crew using the mansion as a backdrop for a new movie — but then of course there are lots of improbable events in the life of an eleven-year old amateur detective.

In this installment she deploys her usual knowledge of chemistry and sleuthing, interleaved with very realistic hatred of her older, more conventional sisters, and the story is fast-paced and full of well-observed details about what a very young and sheltered girl of the 50s may think about adults, as when she is shocked to find cigarettes in an actress’s purse, while she does not hesitate to search said purse, or break into the murder room, for that matter! Although the other books in the series seem less contrived, this one carries the contrivance quite well.

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* Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

If, like me, you read and enjoyed The Black Swan by the same author, you may be tempted to read Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. The message from The Black Swan was that human beings in general and financiers in particular, the publication date being right after the financial crisis, tend not to think outside the realm of what they have already experienced, and hence can easily lull themselves into narrowing randomness into neat spreadsheets. In this book, the author describes how individuals and systems can be made “antifragile” as he calls it, not just robust but actually benefitting from unforeseen events.

Some insights are eye-opening. For instance, intervening to prop up a failing system can make it more fragile, not less. Or a book that has been in print for forty years is more likely to remain in print for another forty years (quite unlike the way it works for human life expectancy). Others are just silly, as when he argues that only “natural” weights make sense, as in feet or inches, because they correspond to physical reality. As someone brought up under the metric system, I feel I have a very grounded understanding of centimeters, while I cannot conceive of a foot except as, well, 30 centimeters. He also professes a great hatred of corporations but considering the amount of air travel he describes undertaking I wonder how he thinks that commercial aviation could work with the “artisans” he so eagerly thinks we should all become.

But let’s jump to the heart of my quarrel with the book. It’s the hatred. The author hates everyone who is not antifragile, especially if they have the audacity to disagree with his theory. He hates politicians, financiers, bureaucrats, corporations, even anonymous employees  of said corporations. He hates them so much he has to repeat it over and over again. And he hates so strongly that he simply must curse them and what they do, repeatedly and, to me at least, offensively. When he confides in us,  on page 134, that he used to be strident but is now absolutely patient and “priestly” (what a peculiar choice of words!) with his critics, I wonder how bad it was, before… I found the book barely readable for all the foaming at the mouth.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking because I just loved the subtitle and I found it to be well-written, well-informed, and yet not that exciting overall. Perhaps that is the whole point? The basic idea of the book is that the Stoics (yes, the Roman kind) perhaps had it right. eschewing the pursuit of happiness, or specifically the relentless pursuit of optimism, is the only way to be content. Detachment and modest expectations, whether through Stoicism or Buddhism, is the way to go.

Worth reading for the funny personal anecdotes (always lovingly self-deprecating) by the author as well as many fresh insights. The one that stuck with me was that the very traits that make highly successful entrepreneurs also manifest in utter failures (at life that is, not business) — but that failures are rarely studied hence risk taking and charisma are oversold.

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Filed under Non fiction