Monthly Archives: October 2013

*** The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane


In The Night Guest, a mysterious “government carer” arrives in the beach house of a widow whose grasp of reality is unraveling, but not so much that she does not realize that something is amiss. The two of them embark on a cautious relationship, as the carer insinuates herself into the widow’s life and home, until the unsurprising bad ending ensues. What I liked best about the book, besides the beautiful beachside setting, was the kindness of the author towards her elderly heroine. The last chapters, hurtling towards the obviously sad ending, were a little too long to my taste but the portrait of the dignified, yet increasingly demented widow will stay with me.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Someone by Alice McDermott

Someone is the seemingly simple story of a woman born, raised, and living in Brooklyn, whose main adventure seems to have been to work in a funeral home for many years (are funeral homes trendy all the sudden?).  The story is told through chapters that could each stand as independent short stories and are cleverly arranged, not always in chronological orders but bouncing from her dying days to youth. It took me several chapters to warm up to the story: it seemed too straightforward and, although told in her voice, almost totally focused on other actors, so much so that she threatened to disappear entirely, but  pretty soon I was captivated by her observations of her brother, a failed priest, the old ladies at the funeral home, even how people greet each other at airports. A subdued delight.

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Filed under New fiction

* Mossad by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Michal

If you like spy novels, why not read the real thing? Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service devotes a chapter to each of 20+ operations of the Israeli intelligence agency, some flawlessly executed and a few not so much. Bodies pile up, including collateral-damage bodies, as do violations of other states’ sovereignty, but that never seems to bother the authors. It bothered me — plus, I have not liked spy novels since I got weaned off the Bibliotheque Verte of my childhood.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Year Zero by Ian Buruma

I’m no history buff but I loved Year Zero: A History of 1945. In the vein of What Soldiers Do, reviewed here recently, but with a formidably more ambitious scope, the author, a Dutch citizen whose father spent the war doing forced labor for the Nazis, uses the end of the Second World War to explore how people celebrated the end of the war, rebuilt, settled scores, and set about to build a new world. Although the narrative is set strictly in 1945, it’s striking to see how the events of so long ago shape many international alliances and conflicts decades later — and how more recent wars will also have consequences way after the fighting stops. I also particularly appreciated the treatment of events in Asia, since many historians focus more on Europe.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Wonder Women by Debora Spar

Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection tackles the difficult question of why, after decades of feminism, we still don’t have more than a handful of women in key power positions, and, disappointedly to me, she ascribes the problems to women themselves, because we want perfection all around, so spend too much time on our hair and not enough on climbing the job ladder. Or, and we want to spend too much time with our children, too. This is all a bit depressing.

Not that I don’t agree that the fantasy of having it all is, indeed, a fantasy. But I seem to know a lot of women who don’t spend inordinate amounts of time working to look like models (and they don’t look like models, or care to). And although, like her, I deplore the silliness of over-the-top children’s birthday parties or, cringe, toddlers in tiara, the fact that these phenomenons are part of the culture doesn’t mean that one has to participate in them, and indeed most women do not. There are just too many anecdotes in the book that suggest that “everyone” is doing this or that when common sense shows it’s not true. Just to select one example, not all college students hook up, as I was astonished to read that every young woman in her sample did!

That being said, it is an engaging book, probably because it weaves the personal and the societal, and the rants are good fun. I just loved the one against What to Expect When You Are Expecting, the paranoiac perfectionist’s best friend. I just wish that the solutions would include more governmental and societal changes rather than yet another prescription for what women should do differently.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

** Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link

What happens when you are divorcing, are raising three boys, have no money, but want to hang on to your dream of living in a half-renovated farmhouse? Find out in Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm. You will find the author tackling aggressive roosters, a failed well pump, and bone-freezing cold. Her love for her boys is heartwarming and her adventures are always told with a sense of humor — even if we occasionally wonder how she puts herself in difficult situations. Why raise chickens for meat if you are afraid of killing them? And why hang on to the farmhouse that is the root of all financial issues she has to face?

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Filed under True story

** The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way takes us to Finland, South Korea, and Poland, following three American teenagers who go abroad to study for a year. All three countries score considerably higher on the international PISA test than the US, although they use very different approaches (and very different levels of funding, too). Although the author tries hard to show how the US could improve its K-12 system, she has a hard time lifting the book beyond the anecdotes of personal experiences. And when she attempts to discuss, say, the rigorous teacher training used in Finland, it’s hard to see how it could be imported to the US without transforming the way teachers are valued in society as a whole, so it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

If you are looking for a glimpse at cross-cultural education systems, this would be a good choice — not so much if you are looking for policy recommendations.

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Filed under Non fiction