Monthly Archives: December 2013

** A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton


In the age of Google Maps, A History of the World in 12 Maps shows how map-making has evolved from the ancient Greeks’ uneasy collision of their desire for perfection and the realization that the real world was full of uneven boundaries, through centuries of exploration, printing methods, and the requirements of politics and commerce that shaped how  maps have been created, organized, and distributed. There are plenty of personal stories of mapmakers, including the famous Mercator who was persecuted as a Lutheran and also created a comprehensive, graphical chronology (was he the Edward Tufte of his times?) and the travails of the French cartographer Cassini, painstakingly traveling from village to village to survey the land from church towers amongst suspicious villagers.

The book is probably best enjoyed by those who love geography. It was a little long for my taste, but certainly stuffed with interesting information.

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*** Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen


I very much enjoyed Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, a deceptively simple memoir of the author’s growing up in the USSR before moving to Philadelphia as a refugee — but laced with alternatively tragic and ironic references to food, whether of starvation under Lenin or forced consumption of caviar when she briefly attended a school for nomenklatura children. And she has plenty of other anecdotes, including her dad’s working at the institute that kept Lenin’s corpse presentable, the soviet’s marriage ritual that included a promise to raid children in he best traditions of Marxism and Leninism, or the dismal in Moscow during the Gorbatchev’s years. A wonderful blend of personal history and geopolitical history.

 

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*** The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe returns in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, another installment of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, with a baby for her assistant, or associate as she likes to call herself, a mysterious nephew, and a jealous competitor to the beauty salon of the title. With Ramotswe’s husband learning to be a modern husband, we have a story with lots of enjoyable asides on marriage and parenthood.

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** The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy


The Illusion of Separateness is a story of two WWII soldiers and their fate after the war, told in chapters from various points of view that require some effort from the reader to assemble into a coherent whole — fun effort. Beautifully written but somehow a little cold, over-arranged, perhaps.

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** Phantom by Jo Nesbo


Our friend Harry Hole is back in the Phantom, back on his home turf of Oslo to help his ex-wife’s son, a drug addict accused of killing a fellow junkie. The mystery wraps together a family drama, the very gritty Oslo drug underworld, vast quantities of alcohol for Harry, immense quantities of ammunition for all involved, and plot twists inside the plot twists. I must admit a bit of mind-wandering in the last parts of the story where the most bullets are spent (and the most alcohol consumed) but the characters are complex and interesting.

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** Breakfast by Heather Arndt Anderson


Breakfast: A History is a delightful, unpretentious compendium of stories about breakfast, breakfast foods, and breakfast references in the arts. The first two are full of fun facts. Who knew that breakfast, now hailed as the most important meal of the day, was once a sin (no thank you, Thomas Aquinas)? That what we call French toast today was once known as German toast, before WWI forced a renaming, echoing the recent Freedom fries? That the unfortunate ancient Greeks dipped their doughnuts in wine, since coffee had not yet been introduced to them? The third section of the book. about breakfast and the arts, is sadly lacking any reproduction of the pieces it discusses, frustrating the reader who may not be familiar with them. Just stop when you are no longer hungry.

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** The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The critics loved  The Goldfinch. I did not, although I liked many parts of it, starting with the beautiful portrait of the hero as a lost thirteen-year old whose mother has been killed in a violent attack  and who finds himself quite alone, bereft, and only stiffly embraced by his not-so-close friend’s rich and troubled family. I also found some of the secondary characters well sketched, in particular the aging art dealer who takes him in later on. But much of the rest of the story simply does not come together. How can a loving mother not have a will to provide for her son’s guardianship even as she has made complex arrangements to protect a not-large college saving account? And, to be picky, how can a boy have an iPod but no computer? The travelogue to Las Vegas and, eventually, to Amsterdam also seems forced and the tempo of the bizarre gangster-strewn ending is sluggish. It’s a lot of work to read 700 pages for the few that are touching.

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** Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan


Dad Is Fat is a series of short chapters reflecting on the author’s life with five young children, living in a two-bedroom New York apartments. Some of the chapters are very funny, others less so, but what I liked most about the book is the obvious love he has for this children, even when he is making fun of them or complaining about their deplorable hygiene habits (brought back some memories…) Don’t go looking for anything deeper, it’s not there!

 

 

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* How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr


Ironically, I read How to Save a Life almost at the same time as To the End of June, and in many ways this fictional story reminded me of the real ones. Except that this  story is entirely forgettable, featuring a manipulative pregnant teen, the understandably jealous and suspicious would-be stepsister of the baby, and her clueless, newly widowed mom who somehow believes that she can adopt the baby without any collateral damage to anyone. I should not fail to mention the stepsister’s boyfriend, who takes a shine to the pregnant teen — so we have all the ingredients for a soap opera, and the ending is very soapy indeed. Indignant teen rantings abound, for those of you who can tolerate this sort of thing.

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*** To the End of June by Cris Beam


To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is not a happy book, it’s rather awkwardly organized, with weird repeats and meanders, and it militantly remains descriptive when this reader, at least, would love to hear solutions to the problem of foster care, but I hope you will give it a try. Written by a woman who was herself in foster care and served as a foster mother, It gives a chilling account, not only of the circumstances in which children enter foster care (being removed from one’s parents’ care is surprisingly rare, so the circumstances under which this can occur are very dire) but also of the system instead, which seems designed to treat children like widgets, shuttling them between placements with arcane rules, with little chance for them to find a stable environment and to recover from their earlier trauma. The foster parents described in the book, even the better ones, seem rather overwhelmed by their charges and the burden of having to fight the system for every little thing. It seems that some thorough reforms would be needed, starting with perhaps two simple ideas. One would be the ability to track the children throughout their childhood so as not to force them to start over because of random assignments. And the other would be to design flexible foster programs through which children and parents could get the help they need without yanking children to and fro, similar to what a good grandparent can provide. There’s much to improve…

 

 

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