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.
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!
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.)
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.
Consumed stars two investigative reporters of the last order, who will stoop to anything to get a story. They are researching a couple of French artists who may or may not have staged the murder of the wife and cannibalistic consumption of her body by her husband. So this is not a story for the faint of stomach — but that is not why I am affixing a (very faint) star to it: it’s boring! Despite incessant travels from Europe to Canada to Japan and North Korea, despite the very varied sex lives of everyone involved, despite the bizarre medical afflictions the characters endure, I was bored by the wild coincidences that serve as a plot. Bored also by the lengthy and pointless descriptions of the photographic and computer equipment used by the heroes. If I want an iPhone commercial, I know where to find it. (And I’m not sure Apple would appreciate such edgy surroundings for a paean to their wares!)
O, and the French couple’s last name, Arosteguy. It’s Basque, not Greek. The iPhone research was good, the patronymic one, not so good.
The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload presents an unusual and occasionally baffling mix of science and how-to recommendations. For instance, we learn about the Val158Met version of the COMT gene that modulates task-switching, but we also get a checklist to organize a portable office. I did say baffling! The Organized Mind may be more The Organized Attic, but an attic with labels on the boxes.
The strongest part of the book, for me, was the idea that more “stuff” (things, activities, even clutter, apparently, at least for women!) means more cognitive demand, hence poorer performance. Hence the idea of “handlers” for rich people, who essentially screen out unwanted stimuli, hence the reality that traveling makes us lost things, hence the folly of trying to block out time for a huge project since small things on our to-do list will consume more cycles by worrying us than would getting them done in the first place.
Enjoyable, if messy…
Lucky Us is the story of two half-sisters trying to make a life with no help from their parents who are dead, gone, or pretty much uninvolved. The author manages to meld historical research and imagined letters between the sisters into a coherent narrative with many interesting characters, including the sisters of course, with their sometimes puzzling life choices, but also the remaining parent (who is portrayed not as a loser but as a flawed but congenial man), and assorted friends and hangers-on with their own backstories. For instance, their on-time employer could be portrayed solely as a nouveau riche with social anxieties for herself and her children, but she is also shown attending their father’s funeral, which does her social climbing no favors.
And while the sisters are not lucky at all, the story is not gloomy.