Monthly Archives: March 2014

* The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld


Wouldn’t it be interesting to be a social scientist? To be able to pick and choose a pool of examples at will and derive some rules from the set? In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua of Tiger Mom fame and her husband argue that success within certain groups in the US, including, not surprisingly, Chinese Americans and Jews, display a set of characteristics that makes them successful. Namely, they have a superiority complex (the authors certainly do!), a sense of insecurity, and superior impulse control.  They run into many difficulties in explaining their theory, the first one being how to define success. Is it high salaries? Lots of CEO slots? An unusually high percentage of prestigious academic prizes? Well, yes, some of that, but the examples pick and choose which ones apply to various groups so I was not entirely convinced.

The second problem is that almost all the groups they depict are immigrant groups, and not your average immigrants either. Whether it’s Cuban-Americans, Iranian-Americans, or Chinese-Americans, they arrived in the country (as the authors note) with advantages of education and certainly determination to succeed, assets that are sure to assist their progeny in being successful even if the parents are employed in menial jobs upon arrival. But this little problem waved away.

The most interesting contortions occur when the authors discuss African-Americans, who by many measures are not very successful in the US, and since the authors assert that triple package implies success, then no success must mean failure on the triple package — but of course there is a strong pressure to avoid saying such an un-PC thing so much back-paddling is accomplished, not very successfully in my mind.

In the end, it seems that the real aim is not so much to expose the weaknesses of any particular group, but rather to argue that the US, once (supposedly) a triple-package country, has gotten soft on self-esteem classes and instant gratification. Buck up, America, they say. Alas, it seems that it’s more a matter of looking down upon the unsuccessful as not having tried enough rather than encouraging hard work. I will take my bucking up with a dash of compassion, please.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos


Quesadillas is the funny, alternatively absurd and harsh story of a poor Mexican family with seven children and too little food (and only one type of food: quesadillas!). The narrator, the second son called Orestes, Oreo for short, lives under the dictatorship of his father, struggles to get enough food, has awkward encounters with the son of their rich neighbors, becomes the helper of a cow inseminator, and eventually leaves to search for his missing younger brothers, Castor and Pollux (but of course: the names are chosen by their teacher-father) who may have been abducted by aliens. Here is a fantastic voice piercing through the (wonderful) translation. Highly recommended despite the lack of a proper ending.

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Filed under New fiction

** Focus by Daniel Goleman


Daniel Goleman is the author of the famous Emotional Intelligence book franchise, and in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he attempts to demonstrate how concentration and attention constitute the main ingredient of success. Alas, I found this book to be poorly organized, even meandering, and I dare say not very well focused, ironically. There are plenty of good stories about both the power of intense concentration and its nefarious side effects, such as the often experienced burst of insight that occurs precisely when we stop thinking about a problem, all the way to the “systems geniuses” who can’t seem to get along with other people. But there are too many anecdotes about his grandchildren and over-long ramblings that could have benefited from a strong editor.

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Filed under Non fiction

** In Meat We Trust by Maureen Ogle


In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America tells the history of the meat industry and demonstrates how it evolves to suit consumer demand and profit-seeking both. The author does a great job of showing how each change in the business model, whether it’s shipping carcasses to the city rather than live cattle or leasing chicks to farmers rather than buying them, comes with great benefits for the new players and pain for the ones that are displaced. She also shows how consumers’ demands for cheap food above and beyond taste led to some questionable changes — and alas the modern demands for more healthy meats may not improve taste either!

That said, the topic does not make for a page turner…

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Filed under Non fiction

* Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen


Bread and Butter follows three brothers who own two restaurants in a small town, competing and yet intertwined in not so healthy ways. The story weakly mixes little spats between the brothers (including inane dialog) with lots of food porn about making and eating trendy dishes, and employee drama, including or not the brothers.

I did not like. Might be better suited for a food nerd…

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Filed under New fiction

*** Chance by Kem Nunn

The eponymous hero of Chance is a psychiatrist in a heap of trouble: divorcing, with a  wayward teenage daughter, in hock to the IRS, selling furniture he pretends is genuine, and, more troubling, pursuing a relationship with a patient. From the mess emerges a battle with a crooked cop, an improbable alliance with an unlikely furniture restorer, scenic scenes all around the San Francisco Bay area, all in a haze of heavy drinking and little sleep (could it be that Bay Area heroes are fueled by alcohol and no sleep?)

I thoroughly enjoyed the dark story, dark characters, and dark non-ending. Try it!

 

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Filed under Mystery

** Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen


In Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a once-famous photographer exiles herself to the country to live off the rent of her New York apartment and encounters critters and weather that she had not foreseen. Like a damsel in distress she is saved by a rugged man who can take care of her. The damsel-in-distress part I did not enjoy — but the rest I did, a lot, from the back story of her doomed marriage to a philanderer to her struggles to care for her aging parents, and her late-in-life artistic success.

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Filed under New fiction