Monthly Archives: August 2013

*** Brewster by Mark Slouka

Another dark novel about teenagers. Brewster is the painful story of three friends growing up in the eponymous town, each with serious parents’ problems, although for one the problems are way more severe than for the others, and will end up in disaster all around. Not exactly happy material, but told with just the right tone of quasi-desperation punctuated with the dreams of moving out, and the few adults who provide solace. Highly recommended!

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Filed under New fiction

** The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The hero of The Round House is a teenage Native American boy whose mother has been raped in mysterious, complicated circumstances from which his parents attempt to shield him. He is resourceful, however, and attempts his own investigation of the story and is spectacularly, if dangerously successful. The world of the teenager is spectacularly rendered, from his impetuousness to his need to shield his mother.

Unfortunately, the author injects various rants against the (assuredly senseless) legal system that governs reservations when she would have been better off to let her words and her story demonstrate the problem without the righteous explanations. Feel free to skip those pages and plunge into the world of the Ojibwe.

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*** The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder is the mind-boggling story of Charles Cullen, a nurse who killed dozens of patients, usually by injecting them with various drugs, and who was not found out for many years, although the hospitals where he worked developed serious suspicions about his work, and in several cases were quite certain that he had killed patients, but simply discharged him without reporting his actions or even providing outright bad references for him. Only half of the book is about the murders themselves; the second half describes the tortuous police investigation, with no bodies and very few tangible clues — and major obstructions on the part of the hospital, which seems more concerned with protecting itself from lawsuit than pursuing the matter.

Do not read this before going into the hospital: it is that creepy.

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Filed under True story

** Irrepressible Reformer by Wayne Wiegand

If, like me, you think of Mevil Dewey as the inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification  system, used in libraries around the world, you may be surprised to find out, in Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, that Dewey was an avid reformer not just of library systems (with the Decimal system but also the very size of catalog cards, remember those?) but also spelling (he was born a Melville but shortened his first name to Mevil and tried to go by Mevil Dui….) and measurement systems (he was a fan of the metric system, but alas was not successful in having it replace the imperial system in the US). He was also a sexual harasser, a land developer who would not let Jews purchase his properties, a great believer that librarians should not just index books but dictate what the populace should be reading (and lock up the rest), and a consummate politician with few hangups when it came to imposing his will and his private business interests. Not a very appealing character.

This biography delves into minute historical details, so if you are interested in what happened on August 15, 1894,  you will find out. The minutiae were too much for me…

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Filed under True story

* Orkney by Amy Sackville

Orkney is the dreamy story of a honeymoon with a bad ending, featuring a professor in his sixties and his young bride and recent student.  While I admire the carefully writing and the grandiose description of the sea, I found the professor a trite concupiscent and jealous man and his wife a most improbable slippery character. By the end I was rooting for a disaster to end the story; I won.

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Filed under New fiction

** The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min


The Cooked Seed is the stunning memoir of a Chinese-American novelist who endured the Cultural Revolution in a labor camp, and as such reminded me forcefully of Bend, not Break, another memoir of a undomitable young woman who will make every sacrifice to get out of China and make her way through a daunting American university system, not knowing the language (although she had to pretend to speak it to be admitted in the first place), working multiple jobs and enduring the routine exploitation of illegal workers as well as the special miseries of a bad marriage. It’s hard to conceive that someone who struggled so hard to learn English would have become, of all things, a writer of novels, and the memoir makes for an uplifting story of how one can achieve almost anything with enough grit and determination.

The writing is terse and the mood always strictly matter-of-fact, which matches the wretchedness of the early parts of the memoir. As we move closer to the present the writing and the emotions it describe seem improbably abrupt — perhaps showing that one can survive an ordeal, but only with a tough shell that must get in the way once in a more normal life.

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Filed under True story

** Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

I always find it sad when  I find myself agreeing with an author’s main ideas, but fighting each step of the way on the way the thesis and solutions are presented, and alas this is what happened when I read Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. The thesis of the book is that (1) we need to foster creativity in young people, (2) the current educational system does a poor job of it, and (3) attempts to impose quality by measuring students’ performance on multiple-choice tests won’t cut it. Eminently reasonable, right? And yet, the author proceeds to tell us the stories of eight exceptional innovators, almost all of whom have upper middle-class parents and all of whom have parents with an unusual dedication to their children’s education, not at all in a Tiger Mom way, of course, but an enlightened, let-the-kid drives approach coupled with vigorous selection of great schools, probably not an approach that can easily be replicated with run-of-the-mill parents, let alone overwhelmed parents. We also read about exciting programs in schools and universities, all of them staffed by people who are not tenured and often not recognized by the very educational institutions that employ them (proving #2, but in a rather scary way!) And we also learn that many graduates of the very programs recognized in the book have trouble finding jobs — with no explanations of how the very companies that supposedly thirst for innovators cannot bring themselves to hiring the few that are produced…

So the book left me frustrated and puzzled more than inspired, at least for the masses of children who don’t luck into having fantastic parents.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Why of Things by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

In The Why of Things, a family arrives at their summer home in a New England seaside resort to find that a man has apparently dived to his death in their backyard. Since the family is mourning the death of its oldest daughter, also to suicide, all kinds of emotions bubble up from the parents and both remaining daughters. The story is told from the points of views of the family members, who seem to be spending their time leading mostly parallel lives (and doing a great job of never talking about their feelings!), and told with exquisite details and with great care. But there are some unexplained circumstances, chief of which is how a middle-class family can spend weeks on vacation without any job pressures of any kind (maybe if one has to ask, one does not understand how the rich live, but they don’t seem that rich…)  And how could the oldest daughter have kept a boyfriend at the summer house?

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Filed under New fiction

The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau

The Wonder Bread Summer never reaches the lows of the worst book I ever reviewed on this blog, Twilight, and in particular it’s competently written — but the story simply does not make sense, nor does it achieve the levity that one would expect from a madcap comedy, which could be enjoyed without making perfect sense. So our college student heroine travels from Berkeley, CA, to Southern California and back with a large bag of cocaine, unscathed (problem #1), returning with her avenger father in tow when he previously would not even bother to keep her updated on his address (problem #2) to find her best friend having bonded with the cocaine kingpin’s enforcer (problem #3) and her father talking down said kingpin (problem #4). If you enjoy improbably stories with so-so period details (early 1980’s in Berkeley, California, to be contrasted with the perfect taste and feel in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue), this might be the book for you…

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** The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain

Want a good dose of depression to start your week? Pick up The Postman Always Rings Twice, a noir novel that claims to have started the genre. It’s a no-hope-whatsoever story with a crude premise (bump the husband so the wife and the lover can get together), a despicable “hero” (the lover), and a tragic ending (death all around). The story pulled me in but I could never get over the weak woman character, who is inexplicably attracted to her loser lover and seemingly unable to make her own way in life. (Perhaps I should keep in mind that the book dates back to 1934!)

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