Devices and Desires takes Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard to a vacation spot that also happens to be visited by a serial killer, and a nuclear power plant that quickly proves to be a center of intrigue and the location of yet another murder. The dark story unfolds as the author suggests then withdraws suspects, and against the background of politics and the environmental movement. Lots of interesting characters and long-held secrets!
Monthly Archives: December 2014
When I was a child I loved visiting my grandparents for Christmas because, well, we got spoiled, and we also got to hang out all day with our cousins while our parents were distracted with each other — but mostly because, in the bedroom at the back, there was an entire wall of books from a children’s collection of international fairy tales. So I read fairy tales from Russia, from Japan, from Africa, shelves of them, all in a row. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale is a slim book (200 pages, in a small format) that tells about the history of fairy tales, mostly in Europe and the Middle East and how traditional folktales were altered over time to fit the standards of the day. The author occasionally lapses into academic gibberish (“Literature was a speech act performed by living voices present to their audiences”) but the book certainly brought me back to that beloved back bedroom…
While I was reading Proof: The Science of Booze, I kept thinking that a drinker would appreciate the topic even more. Still, this non-drinker enjoyed learning about Britain’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures, that preserves all the yeast strains used by British brewers, just in case — and the differences between flocculating (lager) and non-flocculating (ale) yeasts. The most interesting part of the book for me was the description of the various microbiomes that that create different flavors in wines. There seems to be a completely scientific explanation to “terroir”.
The last third of the book is all about hangovers and their elusive cures. As I said, better read by drinkers!
The Wallcreeper is the funnily told story of not very much: a confused young woman who follows her husband to Europe and simultaneously expects him to support her from his decidedly corporate job and expects herself to save the birds and the rest of the environment. When he decides to join the environmental fight, she balks. And they sleep around. Despite the score of unusual hangers-on, I had difficulty forming any kind of attachments to the main characters, so the story did not work well for me.
Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France tells the story of the village of Chambon-Sur-Lignon, in central France, during the Nazi occupation of France. I wrote about this before, when I reviewed the auto-biography of a grandson of one of the main character in the vast cast that sheltered Jews and other so-called undesirables against the Nazis while the French government was busy helping round up the same demographics. The history recounted here talks about terrible times but is quite inspiring as the author paints the portraits of many of the helpers, some well known and others anonymous, who, at great danger to themselves, took in many children and adults, provided food in times of rationing, created false papers, and helped spirit away many outside the French borders.
I was surprised and dismayed to find multiple factual (small) errors throughout the text. There is no “Rue Montee des Carmelites” in Lyon (no “s” in Lyon for the French): it’s “Montee” alone. There is no such town as Aix-en-France (Provence, probably!) And some names just seem mistranscribed. It casts a shadow on the overall story.
The Book of Unknown Americans stars several families from Central and South America, some legal and some illegal, living in Delaware. The book struck me as contrived, with its carefully chosen cast from various countries, facing different political, economic, and personal challenges, all pulling together in the bleak American North, all brave and hard-working. It felt to me that the book was written for well-meaning school administrators to assign to high school students so they can check out the diversity box on the reading list.
Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man is the memoir of the author, a transgender man who, in his days as a young girl, was abused by his father who was not actually a father. You would think that so much drama would make for an unreadably sensational or sentimental tome but the author manages a perfect pitch (and a short book) full of compassion for everyone involved, from his remorseful father/no-father, his complicated mother, and his supportive but understandably wary wife. It will also make you forget your small-scale worries, guaranteed.
I love books about language, and Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation did not disappoint. I especially enjoyed the quotes from outraged grammarians, especially those who manage to contradict their dictums (dicta?), as well as the long lists of hated words from the past, which include such now completely accepted nouns as lunch and photo.
What I did not like so much is the recurring insistence that whatever is in usage is fine and that we should not worry our little heads with grammar (even if, often, it would help clear up why often-used turns of phrase are, in fact, incorrect). For instance, I don’t see why we would not be expected, as English speakers, to know what a restrictive cause is, and therefore be able to use which and that properly…
Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self follows the author as she tries to understand who she is through psychological and physical tests (and an experiment with LSD, to boot!) to figure out where she comes from, and supplies many stories along the way. I found it all a little tiring, with little new material and too much focus on her own experiences.
The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic is a decidedly unhopeful story of a school in Connecticut that was founded to educate the “heathen” into proper Protestant thinking. The story follows some famous school alumni, and it seems that most meet a sad end. There’s the Hawaiian man with a fantastic case of wanderlust who dies upon his return home, the Cherokee students who fall in love with local women and encounter horrible racist opposition — and the ever-present obsession to convert all these people above and beyond educating them. Sad.