For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind is a straightforward account of the author’s experiences teaching in two schools for the blind in Tibet and India, sharing the stories and experiences of the students and her adventures with them, including navigating busy streets blindfolded under the guidance of her students, and discovering the many auditory, olfactory, and tactile cues that allow them to circulate, and which she usually misses as she relies on her sight.
The personal stories are kindly told and also a little scary when she exposes the discrimination faced by the blind in many countries. The one puzzle throughout the book is the author’s belief, which she says is abating, that blindness is a terrible curse, worse than death itself. It’s good that she finds many counter-examples to her fear.
Curious to know that Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, eats pasta but not white potatoes, or that broccoli is good for you? Then you may enjoy How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. I am harsh. Yes, the book includes two preachy and entirely forgettable chapters on nutrition and exercise and yes, the narrative is oddly pitched as grandfatherly advice on how to lead our lives, advice we may need but why from Scott Adams? But throughout the book — except for the aforementioned nutrition and exercise chapters — there are clever and occasionally poignant observations. It’s clever to note that people tend to act much more confidently after a successful status change. (The example in the book is after a promotion; I see this each year as high school seniors get college acceptances. Same student, but walking much taller with the first positive response.) And it is poignant to share the big letdown of being rich and famous, but adrift.
Still, the rewards of reading from cover to cover are meagre.
There is a gem in The Butler: A Witness to History: the story (and pictures!) of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served in the White House for three decades and, after serving coffee to the men who pushed forward the Civil Rights legislation in the 60’s, eventually attended President Obama’s inauguration as a special guest. It’s a touching and interesting story. So why the lone star? The story is completely overshadowed by that of the movie made about the life of Mr. Allen, and the period pictures are presented side-by-side with stills from the movie, which simply cannot compete for authenticity or significance.
I normally love slim books, but this one, at 100 pages, is twice as long as it should be!
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time takes the author, a journalist with two children, on a quest to understand how her to-do list (which serves as the book cover and merrily jumbles a shopping list and finding a geometry tutor with action items for work) remains forever undone and makes her crazy as a result. The part of the book I enjoyed most was the discussions with time research scholars, members of the very serious International Association for Time Use Research. Who knew that this was such an active field of research? While said scholars have not found any miracle cure to our terminal busy-ness, they have supplied apt labels for our troubles such as “contaminated time” (time when our to-do list runs through our heads while we should be enjoying a moment of leisure) and “leisure episodes” (moments of leisure that are too brief to really enjoy) — and even identified key life transitions when time trouble sets in (at the birth of the first child, for instance).
I did not enjoy as much the longish sections on companies and organizations that have managed to provide a better work-life balance to their employees (which sounded, to me, like those vapid Working Woman magazine awards), or how the Danes have managed to arrange reasonable work schedules (good for them; not so helpful so us who live in a society that values long hours at the office and provides very little practical support for parents). And I had to chuckle at the to-do list she provides in the appendix to switch to a more serene life: it runs a good eight pages, single-spaced. You can take the woman out of the busy-ness, but not the busy-ness out of the woman, apparently!
Don’t be fooled by the romantic-looking blossom on the cover. There is indeed an orchard in The Orchard of Lost Souls but the emphasis is on the people around the orchard, more specifically on three women thrown together in a random event and who eventually come together in a rather unlikely way, but with civil war swirling around them the unlikely ending seems entirely natural.
There is much violence and little hope in the recounting of the Somalian revolution but the characters are complex, shown with all their weaknesses and even evil, and I found that the remote, detached, almost journalistic way the war is described made me focus even more on the people and their complicated decisions. Very well done.
I had loved Dear American Airlines, a one-man lamentation about his life mistakes, but Want Notdid not hit the spot for me. It features three very, very vaguely interconnected stories with only middlingly interesting characters and a wholly unbelievable ending.
But in the wreckage there are beautifully observed moments. The young man whose unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend wants to continue their dumpster-diving lifestyle while he thinks it’s time to move to the mainstream, or the divorced professor who feels liberated by giving away his belongings are both touching. Alas, the glimpses come late in the stories and are overrun by repetitive descriptions of drinking sessions and suburban boredom — and the over-hyped Burning Man festival, still tediously hip.