Monthly Archives: July 2014

** Struck by Genius by Jason Padgett


Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel tells the unusual story of a man who suffered a traumatic mugging that transformed him into a mathematical genius (but, sadly, with other issues more typical of brain injuries).

The story is told rather haphazardly and occasionally lapses into awkward self-congratulatory territory, but is a great reminder that our brains are terra incognita, and able to do much more than we usually experience.

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Filed under True story

* Lying by Sam Harris


Lying is short and carries a simple message: lying is bad, always and in every circumstance. Instead, we should tell the truth and always confront others with it.

Now I wholeheartedly agree that telling lies deceives others and sometimes the teller of the lies, too, and I’m a great fan of directness. But insisting on telling the naked truth in all circumstances seems needlessly brutal, even cruel. A little social courtesy seems to me to be helpful, not destructive. It brings to mind a friend of mine, whose demented grandmother insists on telling her husband that he is fat at each encounter — not kind and not helpful, albeit perfectly honest. Instead, the author debates at length whether lying would be permissible in extreme situations where it would save a life. I have not had many homicidal maniacs show up on my door demanding a victim, so the deliberations are of little use to me. But we encounter many people who are fat, ugly, or mean, and I don’t think we should find it necessary to tell them the truth in every circumstance.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li


Yihun Li is a master of gloomy. Kinder Than Solitude is considerably less gloomy than The Vagrants, but still manages to drag three young people for 300 pages of assorted sadness, guilt, and suspicion after one of their relatives is mysteriously poisoned, probably, but we will never know for sure, by one of them. The interest of the novel lies in the characters rather than the plot, of which there is not much despite the transatlantic moves of two of the main characters. I especially enjoyed the depiction of the young teenager sent to Beijing to live with distant relatives and finding herself quite cut off from warmth or love, but the rest of the story I found rather tedious, and the language that critics called sumptuous I thought verged on awkward at times, as if it were a translated work.

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Filed under New fiction

* The Arsonist by Sue Miller


One of the reasons why I keep this blog is to have a record of  what I have read, and in this instance I should have checked my reviews of the author’s past books. Having failed to appreciate The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, and The Lake Shore Limited would have been clues that picking up  The Arsonist may not be a successful move. Indeed, this story set my teeth on edge, from the parochial, entitled group of rich people who “summer” in an unnamed New England village to the studied burned-out aid worker whose story seems to be taken straight from, well, books about aid workers in Africa, all cliches included. Add an aging patriarch with Alzheimer’s and a series of house fires and let the platitudes rip. I could not even muster the energy to wish the former aid-worker heroine good luck with her town romance.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Minding the Manor by Mollie Moran


Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid is the true story of the six years the author spent as a scullery maid rapidly rising to cook, “downstairs”. Written by a near-centenarian in a plain, sometimes awkward style, it’s a delightful and insightful account of what it’s like to be 14, away from home for the first time, and working 14+ hours a day, or 20 and responsible for feeding scores of adults and children for three very complex meals, everyday. There’s lots of kindness for past employers and workmates (less for others!) and vivid memories of a score of characters.

An excellent personal view of the descriptions in Servants.

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Filed under True story

** The Ice House by Minette Walters


There are great moments in The Ice House, starting with the startling discovery of a corpse in the eponymous ice house, as well as more plot twists than should be allowed to fit in 300 pages, but it did not work for me. One reason was that the tone never seemed to decide firmly between outrageously campy and factual. The other is that the queer-bashing atmosphere of the village sounded ridiculous and incredible, perhaps a victim of different times (the book dates back to 1992). So the glimmers of Agatha Christie or P.D. James deftness were soon extinguished.

Two stars because I cannot deny that I wanted to know what happened, but under duress.

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Filed under Mystery

** The Fruit Hunters by Adam Leith Gollner


The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession is full of exotic, unknown fruit, and I mean unknown, not mere dragon fruit, rambutan, or durian, but goji, kalmon, and mohobo-hobo.  Unfortunately, while the book displays pleasing botanical drawings of various fruit trees along each section head, there are no pictures of these rarities, even as the author bends over backward to describe their stunning taste.

And while the author knows how to meander around the world and a variety of topics, he can linger too long. Case in point: it may good to know about crazy frutarians, but after a while they just sound like any other obsessive types. I would also dispense with the standard lament of the food industry’s depriving consumers of good-tasting fruit. Surely if consumers demand something else than cardboard, the industry will deliver. I may live in paradise (I do live in California, which is surely close to paradise when it comes to fruit) but I see that my local fruit-and-vegetable shop is starting to promote apples and apricots grown by specific particular local growers (tomatoes, too, which are technically fruit as well) — and customers are responding. If we could educate everyone to look for taste and not just looks, we can change the way fruit is marketed.

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Filed under Non fiction