The author of Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, immigrated to the United States from the Philippines as a young child and uses the book to both tell the story of his family and upbringing and explore what he sees as the demeaning view of Asian men in American society, including, apparently, from Asian women — as well as the absurdity of the whole concept of “Asian” as a category. It’s not until the end of the book that the author introduces rays of hope in the form of a handful of strong role models, from politicians to sports figures to CEOs. I particularly liked the personal story (as always), and living in an area with a large Asian population I think there may be many more rays of hope, not yet visible at the national level, perhaps.
Monthly Archives: September 2014
Panic in a Suitcase starts with a beautifully messy, understated, funny story of a family of Ukrainian immigrants in New York. While the parents and grandparents strive to find jobs matching their prior occupations and to integrate into their new country, at least to some extent, the uncle stubbornly refuses to leave Odessa but has to pretend otherwise, while the young daughter observes and narrates. A great success.
Alas, part two follows the same characters a decade later, with the uncle still in Odessa but now a famous poet, and the story becomes hackneyed and predictable, albeit with the same musing asides and dry style as part 1. Consider stopping half way!
Reading backwards from Love Story, With Murders, Talking to the Dead debuts Fiona Griffiths as an independently-minded detective who is able to see links between seemingly disconnected activities, and is not afraid to act on her hunches, whether or not she has cleared them with her superiors (usually not). I enjoyed this story more than Love Story, With Murders: fewer faux-pas, lots of snarky side-comments, but still a hefty and unnecessary dose of fashion-conscious commentary. I doubt that Fiona cares much about what she wears!
The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue overflows with stories about food trends, from the cupcakes of the cover to the health crazes of acai and kale and the introduction of kiwis and black rice by motivated players in the food industry. And that’s about it: it turns out that food trends are just like trends in fashion or music, they come and go without much logic. Cupcakes will soon return to the elementary school birthday staple they once were.
The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government is more pamphlet than book and argues, vehemently and with appropriately ridiculous anecdotes, that the US is suffocating under a thick blanket of laws and regulations that virtually ensure that no sensible and timely decision can be made.
The author is very convincing: why, indeed, should legislators dictate the size of windows in nursing homes rather than allowing inspectors to use common sense to decide whether residents have enough fresh air — or any other of the many examples he uses? The great weakness of the book, in my mind, lies in the solutions that the author suggests, as he advocates no less than amendments to the constitution, all very sensible, starting with an automatic sunsetting of financial laws to force regular reviews — but it seems rather delusional to think that the very problems that have created the overdose of regulation would allow passing constitutional amendments. An A for surfacing the problem, but F for solutions.
Home Leave features a family whose workaholic father takes around the world, forcing his daughters and his wife to reinvent themselves across multiple continents. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including the grandmother’s house, a tour de force that flops, sadly. The author spins interesting tales but they never seems to rise higher than how confusing it is for children and spouses to tag along to locales they did not choose and how expat families retract on themselves.
For a better story about expats, try The Expats.
The hero of Your Face in Mine is a public radio reporter, who just suffered crushing personal and professional losses, and is hired to create the biography of a childhood friend who used to be white and Jewish, like the reporter, but has undergone a mysterious series of surgeries and treatments to live as an African American. The reporter is an interesting character, and the premise is intriguing — alas the end of the story dissolves into a standard greed and malfeasance thread that disappoints. Too bad as the inner dialog of the hero seemed just about perfect!
A very tepid two stars for Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, which I thought was vastly less entertaining than the older books in the Freakonomics series, I think because of the extreme blandness of the principles around which the anecdotes are organized and that serve as titles for the chapters (sample title: “Think like a child”: revolutionary! not).
With that, I must say I particularly liked the idea of self-weeding, which underlies both the fact that they are still Nigerian email scammers who pointedly say they are from Nigeria and the bizarre Middle Ages custom of ordeal (put your hand in boiling water and if you are not burned, it will mean that God says you are innocent). Now, I just caused you to want to read the book, right?
The narrator of Closed Doors is a young boy whose mother is assaulted but will not go to the police because she is afraid that her small island community would ostracize her and her family. The writing is very good, but somehow it sounded just a little too precious to me. I did like how the author was able to convey the almost suffocating atmosphere of the closed-in island community, where getting along is more important, it seems, than one’s own survival.
The hero of Mr. Loverman is a West Indies gay man who moves to London with his young wife to be close to his lover — and who pursues his double life for decades. He is a very lovable character, even as he deceives his wife and makes promises to his lover that he cannot keep. His relationship with his grandsons and with his daughters are delightfully nuanced and add greatly to the main themes of the story. An endearing character, flaws and all.