Snapper is the unpretentious story of a man who finds a living as a bird researcher, traipsing through the wilds of the Midwest listening for songbirds. His attempts at a romantic life are difficult and funnily rendered. The novel is, at times, as awkward as its hero, but heart-warming.
Monthly Archives: November 2013
For the first two thirds of The Rest of Us, a no-longer-so-young woman pines after an older man, a college professor of hers with who she had a passionate affair while in college. For the last third, the two improbably resume a relationship, at first cautious but soon close, and the author manages to pack a soap opera’s worth of intrigue, including a baby and a death. Critics lauded the book as a second-chance story, which it certainly is, but I found it very challenging to care for the vapid worries of the beginning of the book, and equally challenging to accept the torrent of events in the end, despite the careful and accomplished writing.
The Amish is an often ponderously written description of the Amish communities in the US, with a focus on the wide variety of practices and customs, since each community can and does define its own rules. Beyond buggies and bonnets, the authors explain how the Amish define what parts of the modern world they want to embrace, what to reject, and what to accommodate.
In addition to the occasionally jargon-laden language mentioned above, the poor quality of the graphics and the love for detailed data tables that could be advantageously replaced by graphics (if only good graphics could indeed be created!) detract from the overall experience. So is a puzzling need to defend all things Amish. I’m willing to admit that women do have a strong voice in Amish communities, or that Amish schools are very successful, but why should the author try to evade the fact that Amish society is patriarchal, with no leadership roles for women, or that depriving all children from a high-school education may indeed deprive children of an important way to exercise their intellectual curiosity?
Still, a great book to delve into the lives of a group that has managed to grow manyfold, and successfully, in the past 50 years.
Night Film is a complicated narrative that follows an investigative journalist’s obsessive search for why a young woman jumped to her death, a woman whose father is a director of horror films and a long-ago subject of the journalist’s, a misadventure that brought him a lawsuit and disgrace. The search takes him on a wild ride through New York, and eventually to the director-father’s estate and film studio, full of mysteries and goons. Some of the story is barely believable (black magic, really?), other pieces hang by a thread (such as the important question of why the journalist’s two helpers volunteer for the search mission), the fake realistic artifacts sprinkled throughout, of web sites, police reports, emails, get tedious, but it’s certainly an enticing story with a convincing double meaning.
The subtitle of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better says it all. The author embraces technology with great optimism, showing that the delegation of now mundane (read: automated) tasks to the great power of the Internet can free our minds to focus on more meaningful tasks and make previously impossible undertakings a reality. From teaching to research to fundraising to political action, the author sunnily introduces examples of innovation that rely on technology, without pretending that the technology itself creates the innovation. He also makes a great case that new technology requires time to create appropriate rules and etiquette.
The dark, claustrophobic How To Be a Good Wife stars an apparently mentally unbalanced wife who slowly realizes that her much older husband may not be the attentive man he wants to portray to the world. Nothing is quite what it seems in a story that develops and ends in half-told truths. The story reminded me of Room, albeit with a much darker ending. Not the most uplifting tale, but very well rendered, I thought.
The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed is composed of a series of chapters, each focused on a particular aspect of the interplay between crime and the Internet such as what privacy means online, or how to police copyrights in a world where files can be exchanged quasi instantaneously. The author does a good job of showing how it took (and is taking!) time for law enforcement and the law to catch up with the new medium, which was designed without any thought of becoming a ubiquitous tool, much like any other invention created its own legal dilemmas.
Some of the stories, and particularly the details of the trials, get rather tedious to read, and the author occasionally lapses into doomsday predictions that Big Brother surveillance will necessarily derive from the Internet, but overall he makes a strong case that patience is helpful as the world gets used to the technology and learns to adapt the legal system to it.
Have Mother, Will Travel: A Mother and Daughter Discover Themselves, Each Other, and the World is written by a mother-daughter duo who undertake an ambitious trip around the world with a highly optimistic (read: highly unrealistic) view of what it will be like to spend months together. Predictable conflict ensues. The book is written in alternating chapters by the mother and the daughter, often comically telling the same story from two different perspectives and (the best part of the book for me) reminiscing on the difficult years before the trip, when the daughter was living through harrowing teenage years. Unfortunately, the rest of the book reads like a rehash of any guidebook, overlaid with mundane considerations of how human beings are the same all over the world.
I was confused by Half the Kingdom, and perhaps that just the effect that the author was seeking — but it went over my head. You see, it is a story of a strange epidemic of Alzheimer’s striking the seemingly healthy and relatively young patients of an emergency room, patients who then disassemble in various, occasionally tragic ways but often with a good sense of humor. Alas, I could only tolerate so many pages of deluded characters.
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them explains how morality can be both “automatic”, that is, emotions-based, and also “manual”, rational and deliberate, and how cultural differences can obscure the application of what some would like to be universal morality. The author does not shy from controversy, taking as one of his example the thorny issue of abortion and showing how both pro-choice and pro-life factions distort facts to make their case.
My favorite aspect of the book is the reminder to step away from automatic morality whenever there is an inner or public conflict about a particular issue and to engage in utilitarian reasoning, despite its dreadful name: what decision would make for a better outcome for most? It certainly would help if opposing factions were able to do that more often, right? Only near the end of the book does the author discloses his real aim, which is to have a public disagreement with the author of The Righteous Mind, but his arguments seemed picayune to me and worse, seem to obscure his clear argument. I also felt the book suffered from some unnecessary lengthy discussions, but still enjoyed the overall thesis.