Monthly Archives: August 2013

** Library by Matthew Battles

Library: An Unquiet History is organized in a series of chapters focused on various famous libraries, from Alexandria’s onward. It seems that most chapters end in destruction, which is just a tad depressing,  But the most interesting part of the book for me was the changing vision and role for libraries over time, from a place where a few educated readers came to consult books that they already knew, or at least knew about, to a much more open place where readers come to explore. With that, the librarian’s role evolves from a custodian of books to a facilitator for the patrons. As information becomes available more and more cheaply, what will the role of the librarian become?

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*** The Drop by Michael Connelly

The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel) starts as a run-of-the-mill mystery about a detective who takes on an old rape case and a new suicide case with strong political tones, but the story soon turns into a much more interesting tale of the detective himself, a single dad who knows how to work the system. The political case is thrillingly complicated. The rape case horrific details could have been summarized a bit to spare the reader, but still, it’s a solid story with plenty of depth.

 

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** On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal Lane tells the story of the children (and adults, but in the background) of a small street in Columbo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in the years before the Sri Lankan civil war. The families are carefully staged to represent the various ethnicities of Sri Lanka, and all the other details carefully arranged for maximum exposure to the riots to come. The children’s dialogs, feelings, and interactions are artfully captured and feel fresh and realistic. Alas, the political complications are told in a plodding and heavily didactic manner that clash with the personal stories. A waste of a tender story.

 

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* Shocked by Patricia Volk


Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me is a rather crooked weaving of a memoir of the author’s childhood and, without much rhyme or reason, the life of the designer Schiaparelli. The personal memoir is rather flat. The author’s mother was beautiful, quite self-absorbed hence not the best mother in the world, but nothing very unique or untoward happened, even though it must be hard to recover from a mother’s clearly unenthusiastic assessment of one’s appearance… And Schiaparelli, well, who cares?

 

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** The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

The Silver Star is a novel that reprises many of the themes of The Glass Castle, the author’s memoir of her childhood with less than responsible parents. Here, two sisters are left to fend for themselves by their distracted mother and take themselves across the country back to their mother’s hometown, to live with their estranged uncle and discover what their mother left behind — including a reputation for wild behavior. The best part of the book is the sweet relationship between the two sisters. The atmosphere of the 1970s can be a tad cliched, as is the closeness of the small town where the girls come to live, but the tone is brave and likable.

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** Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas


Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight is a creepy and often uncomfortable book that is billed as the a memoir of a real-life sociopath — but with its repeated assertions that psychopaths will do anything to manipulate other people, the reader may well wonder how much is truth and  how much is, shall we say, “enhanced” reality.

The author shares her memories of a childhood with violent and disturbed parents, making one wonder how they may have contributed to her state of mind, then details her successes exploiting, shaming, and generally taking advantage of all around her as an apparently successful law school professor. (The narrative will not enhance the general reputation of lawyers, that’s for sure). The beauty of the book is to show how sociopaths, although unpleasant members of society, can conform enough to avoid creating havoc. On the other hand, the author’s slithering makes the story hard to believe and herself hard to trust. For instance, she (denying she is a she but making plenty of allusions in this direction) pretends she wants no one to learn her first name but then drops that name anyway. Is that a careless mistake, which she says she doesn’t commit, or another red herring? As I said, creepy!

 

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* Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakarumi

Oleander Girl is a rather insipid and remarkably unlikely story of a young Indian woman, from a  conservative and protective family but with a mysterious past who comes to be engaged to the son of a rich family and then decides to go, alone, to the US to research her mother’s past. How either her family or her fiance’s would countenance such a move is not clear. To complement the far-fetched story, emotions run high:  the heroine never cries when she can weep or sob, and she likes to fling objects across the room (or herself on her bed, to, you guessed it, weep).

I must admit that the story has drawing power, but I was too busy shaking my head at the unlikely developments to be able to enjoy it.

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* The Ocean at the End of the Lane

If you like fantasy I bet you will like The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s gorgeously written, with finely observed details of how children view adults and vice-versa, and even I, who simply cannot go along with a witch-like nanny, an enchanted pond (who is the ocean from the title), or supra-living organisms, felt enough interest to read to the end so I could find out the fate of the characters. But seriously, a witch nanny?

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** Transatlantic by Colum Mccann


TransAtlantic is an ambitious family saga that melds Ireland and New York, the early beginnings of aviation and the abolition of slavery, but unfortunately the strands never manage to braid properly, at least for me. We are left with great individual stories (that of Senator Mitchell, who negotiated the Good Friday accords, as well as that of Lily Duggan, an illiterate Irish maid fleeing the potato famine), complex, interesting characters (especially the women characters, Lily and her descendants), and a multitude of well-observed details (for instance Frederick Douglass’s observations as a black man in Ireland) but they remain as frustrating islands for an end result that could have been so much more.

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** Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Corkin

The author of Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M. is the neurologist who studied the hapless Henry Molaison, whose ability to acquire long-term memories pretty much ceased to work following an experimental brain surgery aimed to relieve epileptic seizures, and I felt a definite ick factor throughout the narrative as the poor man was studied and scanned and measured over and over again, culminating in his autopsy, and I quote, “Seeing Henry’s precious brain in the safety of the metal bowl was one of the most memorable and satisfying moemnts of my life.” Think about that statement (which follow many others on how H.M>, as he was known before his death, enriched the author’s store of publications).

That being said, the availability of a patient who could not remember people he had met countless times, but could learn the layout of a new house did much to advance our knowledge of the ways memories form, in particular that our bodies learn to navigate a house, or to use a walker, in a completely different way from remembering facts. The book recounts dozens of clever experiments that explored how humans form memories and how they may acquire distorted memories of a given event. Great science, not so comfortable exploitation of a unique subject.

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