Peter, the hero of For Today I Am a Boy is a boy in a family of sisters with a harsh father who so wants a son — but Peter doesn’t want to be female. The story follows him from infancy to adulthood , at which point he finally connects with a community more accepting and helpful than his family, for one, and the small town in which he grew up. I liked the beginning of the book best, with its dry descriptions of a boy who is entirely in the wrong element and struggles to make sense of his life. The portrait of his aging mother, at the end of the book, who can be more loving of him now that she is no longer under her husband’s thumb but still cannot accept him fully is also complicatedly masterful.
Monthly Archives: February 2014
The subtitle of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World is somewhat misleading, since the book is more about the art of pricing and discounting than a self-help manual — although it does contain some, rather awkwardly placed, shopping tips. Starting with the idea of value-based pricing, the author shows how anchoring, versioning, and other techniques manipulate consumers into thinking they got a great deal (which certainly makes their neurons happy, in addition to the retailer!) I particularly enjoyed the chapter about couponing, as I had no idea that there was a very real cottage industry of coupon sellers, sometimes obtaining the very coupons they sell illegally!
We tend to think that bargain hunting is new but the author wisely points out that sales were invented by Aristide Boucicaut of Bon Marche fame (another great name, BTW) in the late 19th Century, way before Kmart’s blue-light specials, also described in the book. And bargain hunting occurs at all price levels, as the descriptions of luxury sales show. The second to last chapter, that focuses on retailers that never discount is also enlightening.
Don’t Ever Get Old reminded me a lot of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, both because of the age and cynical view of its hero and also because of the many murders that accompany the narrative. This book is a straight mystery, in which the hero and crime solver is a retired detective hunting for the guard who beat him up in a prisoners’ camp during WWII, and his sidekick is his impetuous grandson. The mortality rate is high, the action sustained. I particularly liked the notes that the hero keeps for himself as a device to stave off dementia and the sympathetic and never condescending portraits of the old hero and his wife. On the other hand, the plot is only barely believable, if lively. Fun if you don’t think about it too much!
The Wandering Falcon is a slim, spare, allusive story of a young man who lives in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a dying world of incredible harshness and complex clan life. Don’t look for much kindness (although there is some, surely, to take in and raise an orphaned boy, even if only for a few years) or hope, but I found the story mesmerizing and intricately constructed.
Skippy Dies in the first chapter of this book, as promised, and the rest of the book is devoted to what led to the death of the 14-year old Irish boarding school student, and the consequences of his death. We are in for a dark story of a world where the boys are mostly ignored by their parents, misunderstood or bullied (or worse!) by the teachers, and generally left to their own devices, which could work fine, I suppose, if all of them were like Skippy or his brainy roommate, but of course there are a few troublemakers who make life very difficult for the others.
There are some beautifully captured moments, including the fascination of the teenagers for a comely female substitute teacher and the besottedness of the history teacher for that same sub. The machinations of the ambitious principal and the politics of the school are also described in exquisite horror. But there are 661 pages in the book, and the action cannot fill anywhere near 661 pages so we suffer through painful teenage text messages and the like. Also, those texting adolescents with Internet access seem terrifyingly ignorant of the facts of life, even if we’d like to think that Irish boarding schools are somehow sheltered from them
Dublin—and his friends Ruprecht, a near genius who is passionately interested in string theory; Mario, a self-styled lothario; and Dennis, the resident cynic. We also meet the girl with whom Skippy is hopelessly in love, Lori, and his bête noire, Carl, a drug-dealing, psychopathic fellow student who is also in love with Lori. The faculty have their innings, too, especially the history teacher Howard (the Coward) Fallon, who has also fallen in love—he with the alluring substitute teacher Miss McIntyre. And then there is the truly dreadful assistant principal, Greg Costigan. In this darkly comic novel of adolescence (in some cases arrested), we also learn about the unexpected consequences of Skippy’s death, something of contemporary Irish life, and a great deal about the intersections of science and metaphysics and the ineluctable interconnectedness of the past and the present. At 672 pages, this is an extremely ambitious and complex novel, filled with parallels, with sometimes recondite references to Irish folklore, with quantum physics, and with much more. Hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking, it is inarguably among the most memorable novels of the year to date.
Longbourn is the cleverly written story of the servants of the family of Elizabeth Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice fame. There are many echoes of the historical history of servants reviewed here a few months ago and a myriad details of how the comfortable lifestyle of the family are sustained through hard work behind the baize doors. Of course, there is a romance, and many family secrets that will be revealed in due course — that is, slowly. If you want to relive the novel, this is for you. I lost full interest partway through, as the plot is just a little too convoluted for my taste, and the period details are often overwhelmed with anachronistic story elements and occasionally language, but the 19th Century atmosphere and story genre is well captured.
I thought it would be interesting to educate myself about getting older, so I picked up The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty, and I found a few interesting thoughts. One, perhaps obvious to everyone, is that there is a big transition from middle-age to older, and that transition requires time and adaptation, just like others we have gone through before. The other is that aging can and perhaps should be a time of mentorship to the young — something that seems most enjoyable to me.
But overall the book was disappointing, perhaps because it stems from the authors practice as a therapist, so he sees a lot of people who have trouble aging — and perhaps their experiences are not universal. I also wondered how he places physical decline front and center of that over-50 life, and (knock on wood) I could not quite comprehend this.
With an intriguing premise of a youthful lie that sets the hero on a catastrophic path and a madcap road trip with his young daughter, whose mother has custody, Schroder could be both fun and deep, but is not quite successful at either. Although the daughter is perfectly captured as alternatively brave and scared, reasonable and emotional, the trip runs out of gas (haha) way before its dramatic ending. And while the lie is entirely believable, its ramifications are not, hence the interplay with the ex-wife is wholly one-sided, and therefore stiff and forced. The light of the book is the relationship between the father and his daughter. That’s not quite enough to make it a good read.
Written from the perspective of the social worker helping a young teenager who survived a fire and may have killed her entire family, Witness the Night slowly unfolds into a complex reality where family secrets and sexual abuse play out amongst larger societal themes of rampant sexism, female infanticide, and corruption. I found the treatment of the societal ills to be overly heavy-handed, even tiresome, but the heroine is a nicely complex character and the social worker’s overbearing mother brings much levity to the proceedings.
Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America tells the author’s brief but very painful summer of homelessness, with three children, one still in diapers, in a small New England town. She works, hard, as a waitress but doesn’t seem to be able to accumulate enough for a deposit on a rental, so she knits together a life of sleeping in her car, getting her sympathetic coworkers to check on the kids in the evenings, and carefully considered purchases of groceries and showers.
It’s remarkable that her efforts to get public assistance promptly fail with not much effort from the social workers to provide real help. (And after all, her main requirement is that down payment, not a lifetime of handouts.) But the best part of the story are the kids’ stories — showing once again that children can be surprisingly resilient, at least for a summer, and at least with one fiercely loving, if occasionally misguided, parent.