Monthly Archives: November 2014

*** Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow


Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an often tragic memoir of an African-American man growing up in Louisiana, with an overwhelmed mother stuck in a bad marriage and later struggling financially as a single mother with few work opportunities, despite her college degree, in a racist town. He talks about his abuse at the end of a relative, the crazy hazing at his fraternity, and finally his chance to work as a New York Times journalist. It’s an inspiring, if grim story.

 

 

 

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Filed under True story

* Plain Simple Useful by Terence Conran


Another weird book! Plain Simple Useful: The Essence of Conran Style awkwardly combines fervent sales pitches for Conran-designed products, embarrassing boasts of his possessions (reminiscent of Martha Stewart, “in my farm with the 1000-square foot kitchen…”), dumbed-down decorating advice (sample: for children’s rooms, focus on  safety, no trailing wires), and… very beautiful photographs of lovely spaces, with lovely objects, arranged in lovely ways.

My advice: pretend you cannot read!

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell


The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch is a very strange book, since its aim is to provide a compendium of what humanity would need to know if some cataclysm was to wipe off most of the work population, forcing us to rebuild civilization with a handful of people. Weird, right? And weirder yet, that it should be a particular kind of cataclysm, one that wipes out people but not things — after all, as the author points out, one supermarket could feed one of us for over 50 years (longer if we are willing to eat cat food). And in this new world, it seems to me that my first concern may not be weaving cloth. If I can live off the supermarket for 50 years, imagine what I can do with a Nordstrom (or Walmart) nearby!

In any case, in the new world I want to be close to a mechanical engineer, who would be able, presumably, to build the various machines (including a steel mill!) presented in the book. And I want a chemist to help me make soap without blowing up, and a biologist to re-invent penicillin. Sweet, my three kids are all accounted for.

(And of course, we will all have out this book in the bunker where we will be hiding, waiting for the end. And no word on how to rebuild the more important part of society like peacekeeping, education, and the like. Technology will be enough, presumably.)

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Filed under Non fiction

** A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel


A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention is the story of a young man who killed two scientists in Utah by driving while texting, at a time when it was not entirely known that texting could be so dangerous (and indeed it was not illegal to do so, at least in Utah where the accident took place). The story, told by a journalist, is a little too breathless for my taste, and the heavy  emphasis on the driver’s subsequent transformation into a no-texting advocate also lacks subtlety, but the mechanics of the investigation are interesting.

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Filed under New fiction

* The Secret Place by Tanya French


The Secret Place bored me. It’s the story of a cold case investigation, the murder of a high school boy on the ground of a girls’ boarding school. The detectives, a gifted woman undermined by sexism on the squad and a man who is trying for a promotion, are wonderfully portrayed in their uneasy partnership. But the story they are investigating is seeped in inane girl rivalries, ineptly contained by a caricatural principal and teachers, and I could not wait for the 500 or so pages to end, along with their descriptions of vapid visits to the mall, silly flirtations, and lies everywhere, for no good reason.

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Filed under Mystery

*** The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg


What happens in a society where women count for so little that daughters are seem as essentially worthless? Well, some of these daughters may be brought up as boys. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan follows several of these girls, whose “secret”, interestingly, is not much of it, as most of the adults and children around them know that they are girls even if they are dressed as boys and, most important, allowed to act as boys. The normal expectation is that, at puberty, they will revert to their birth gender, although it’s not always easy to return to second-class citizen after having tasted the first-class life.

The author relies on a precious few examples, so this is far from a magisterial narrative, and she occasionally lapses into infelicitous general explorations of gender or politics — but the stories of these girls, and the society they live in, are haunting.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Lunch by Megan Elias


I love the idea of posting about Lunch: A History the day after I wrote about cannibals! This book is a modest compendium of historical and cultural facts about the meal we eat at noon, today usually on the run, but the author reminds us that it was once the main meal of the day, back when preparing and cooking that meal was more complicated than grabbing something from the fridge. I found the historical chapters most interesting, along with the many references to the forms the meal takes in many different countries. The section about lunches in the arts was sometimes difficult to follow, since  not all the artwork referenced in the section was illustrated (and what is there is occasionally mis-attributed; Monet and Manet are different painters, with different first names). Then, the book peters out — but I enjoyed most of it.

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Filed under Non fiction