Monthly Archives: June 2013

*** The 100-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared had a long and storied life, and escapes his impending birthday party for more outrageous adventures featuring gangs, murders, an elephant, and millions to spend on flying to exotic locales. The tone is reminiscent of both The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and lighter-fare Carl Hiaasen and the outrageous adventures are a thorough romp through 20th-century history, a tad over-thorough by the end of the book but if you are looking for a fun book for the summer, this is it.

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** Blush by Harvey Helms

blush: the unbelievably absurd diary of a gay beauty junkie is an often hilarious and occasionally tiresome memoir of a gay man with an overbearing mother who gets a job as a beauty consultant in a department store and despite hostile and dysfunctional  bosses manages to achieve his dream to become the Global Director of Beauty. The best parts are the funny ones, in particular the ones that describe the loopier customers he had to work with over the years, and the poignant ones that give a glimpse of the travails of gay men in the South of a couple of decades ago. I found the astounding politics and jeremiads about the politics of cosmetic companies much less amusing, but the self-deprecating tone and witty patter are fun to read.

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*** The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I was enthralled by The Woman in White, a 19th century novel that reads like a mystery novel and features a forced wedding, a dastardly aristocrat, an illegitimate birth, a kidnapping and internment in a psychiatric asylum, the torching of a church, and  twists and turns until the very end. I just loved it, all 700+ pages of it, for its non-stop action, its clever use multiple narrators, and its  very modern picture of a strong woman character (alongside a conventional, overwhelmed, powerless woman, whom she rescues).

Pick it up for your summer reading. It’s a gem that deserves recognition (and there’s a free version for Kindle users!) I am planning to read Collins’s other books and I am puzzled by why he is not better known.

 

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** A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford

A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story is just that: the memoir of a nanny, one trained at the prestigious Norland Institute and one who went on to take care of over a hundred children over her long career — since she chose to spend many years taking care of newborns, staying just a few weeks or months to help after their births. The personal story is quite interesting: since she graduated from the school during WWII, she started her career in nursery schools set up to take care of the children of evacuees from the London Blitz and women who worked in factories and she gives an unusual account of the behind-the-scenes of the war, a war during which she worked heroically long hours and was singlehandedly responsible for an entire school at the age of 22.

The writer unwisely chose to excerpt a few child-rearing principles at the end of each chapter, which read as either blindingly obvious or repeats of the story itself. I would have preferred a straight-up memoir — but you can always skip them.

 

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* Judging a Book by its Lover by Lauren Leto


Apart from its clever title, there’s not much I liked about Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere, a collection of would-be-humorous essays about reading and readers. There are many more misses than hits, with vacuous discussions of how to judge people by what they read, how to pretend to have read books one has not read, and other ways arrogance can be used by readers. Still, here and there are some funny observations, whether about how hard it is to move when one owns lots of books , how book club members feel compelled to remind everyone that they do belong to a book club, or how Kindles wonderfully allow one hand to stay nice and warm under the cover…

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** Top Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman


I did not have many kind words about Bronson’s earlier book, about raising children, so I’m particularly happy to report that  Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing is an enjoyable and well-researched book with many practical applications, including raising children, or at least educating them. Among the insights: some of us do better under competitive pressure, but an equal number does worse (and it looks like it’s the introverts among us who do better, interestingly). Playing on home turf is such an advantage that we should invite our boss to our office to ask for a raise (is this why peons are given cubicles and bosses offices?)  Stress is actually helpful if we can recognize it and use it to sharpen our performance. All good fodder for parents, managers, and everyone curious about improving one’s performance.

 

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** The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal


The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates sets out to show that moral behavior is built-in, not just in humans, but also in animals. It succeeds in the sense that the author uses its encyclopedic knowledge and experience of working with primates and other animals to weave anecdotes and reflections that demonstrate compassion by animals, towards both humans and other animals. At the same time, I found the book to be sometimes painfully meandering and even off-topic, as with the drawn-out comments on the Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting I love but does not seem particularly relevant to the overall theme. De Waal’s other books are much better, I think.

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** Shouting Won’t Help by Katherine Bouton


Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You hails from the popular but fraught genre of a cross between the personal memoir and the journalistic investigation of a larger issue, here hearing impairment. No big discussions of Deaf vs. deaf here: the author’s goal is simply to explore how the millions of people who can no longer hear well can be helped to once again communicate so they can live their private and working lives with ease.

I found the detailed descriptions of personal adventures occasionally tiresome (as in the lack of proper toilets on Turkish archeological sites, which seems to have only a tenuous link to hearing loss) and the organization of the book messy in parts — but the overall case for better treatment and especially better acceptance of treatment by both sufferers and all of us is made strongly and convincingly. It was rather a surprise to find out that the author, an accomplished journalist, hid her hearing loss from her colleagues altogether and waited a full 20 years before getting hearing aids that had been prescribed for her…  How about making hearing aids fashion objects?

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** Contagious by Jonah Berger

Contagious: Why Things Catch On is an applied psychology book that focuses on how advertising can be designed for its object to go viral. It comes complete with its own surprisingly un-catchy mnemonic , STEPPS, and more than occasionally reads like a pastiche of the business books with lurid covers that still beckon from airport kiosks. Snarkiness aside, it’s nicely written and solidly researched, unlike said books with lurid covers, and if you are looking to advertize to consumers you will find many good techniques in there.

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* 1/2 The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir may be the ultimate culture-straddling story of a childhood spent partly in rural Washington state, with the author’s mother and partly in Qatar, with her father and his extended family. The nuanced descriptions of Qatari (or, more precisely in this case, Beduin) society, where women’s freedoms are severely circumscribed but arrangements can be made, and girls’ lives are remarkably free, were to me the best part of the book. In the second half, the author grows into a self-obsessed teenager and the tone and contents become both insipid and strident, unfortunately, but not before she manages a funny description of the cliques in the international high school in Doha.

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