Monthly Archives: February 2015

** The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh


The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones is an often hilarious account of the author’s battle with pre-menopause, complete with a divorce, an ill stepmother, a dying father, and much more. Her no-holds barred stories sometimes share a little too much information (her divorce) but are often right on (her love/exasperation for her teenage daughters). Inexplicably, she also tries to provide information about menopause, when she should have stuck with what she does best: observing the ridiculous in our lives.

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*** How to Speak Money by John Lanchester


I knew that John Lanchester was a gifted novelist (at least with Capital, not so much with The Debt to Pleasure), but it turns out that he can also write a successful non-fiction book on a topic, finance, that could be terribly dry.  How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say–And What It Really Means starts with an essay about modern finance, perfectly readable for the lay person, and studded with informative and amusing footnotes (do read the footnotes!) From then on, the book is organized as a dictionary, which is also completely readable, with funny asides if no more footnotes.

The only less successful part of the book is the afterword, with a whine about the sad state of journalism — but you don’t have to read it.

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Filed under Non fiction

* Gray Mountain by John Grisham


Gray Mountain read, to me, as formulaic, cliched, and sexist. The best part of the story I thought was the beginning, when the heroine, an associate working at a large, prestigious New York law firm, is waiting for the expected layoffs and the atmosphere of secrets, greedy partners, and doom (it is 2008) is rendered in an excellent manner. After that, our heroine moves to a small Appalachian town to work in a legal aid office and we get hammered, page after page, by how evil coal-mining companies are (and how helpless our heroine is, alas). Not one of the author’s best.

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*** As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley


Flavia de Luce is back, this time attending a mysterious boarding school in Canada. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust features the requisite corpse but only one this time, and mot of the action swirls around the complicated real purpose of the school. Delicious, as always, even if the amount of chemistry experiments is way down from that in previous installments.

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* I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Zachary Lazar


I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a confusing story of a Jewish gangster and a dead Israeli poet, and the American journalist who investigates the murder and is drawn into the gangster’s life. Sadly neither strand drew my interest and the book-within-the-novel setup, the book written by the journalist, never gets anywhere, like the novel itself.

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Filed under New fiction

*** What If? by Randall Munroe


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions made me feel 20 years younger, when I had young children, and one in particular who could ask dozens of “Why”, “How”, and “What if” questions every day — expecting that parents would immediately provide detailed answers to how sewers work, what brains do when we sleep, and how life would be different if we had eight arms…

This book is written by a former NASA roboticist (come to think of it, that one child who asked lots of questions is now a roboticist, funny how life works!) who tackles a wide variety of scientific questions asked by the readers of his blog — using a lot of humor, silly stick-figure illustrations, and formidable math and physics equations. It’s great fun. Really! (Come on, don’t you want to know whether swimming in a nuclear fuel pool is a good idea?) Best read in small increments, I suppose, but I read it straight through.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Living the Secular Life by Phil Zuckerman


Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions focuses on the 30% of Americans who describe themselves as having no religion. As I was reading it, I kep thinking that sociology must be an easy field: the author tells many anecdotes of non-religious people, but does not get very far with facts, statistics, or identifying trends.

For instance, he makes a big point that secular people are peaceable, productive, and happy (and rarely pugnacious, as Christopher Hitchens’s books may lead us to believe) — but he does not try very hard to analyze whether these wonderful qualities may be a simple by-product of the kind of people who call themselves secular rather than any virtue of the affiliation itself.

If you are interested in this topic, I would recommend Alain de Botton’s excellent Religion for Atheists instead (which this book recommends too).

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Filed under Non fiction

* Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose


All fiction demands that the reader suspend disbelief, for a spell, but with Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 I found myself firmly hanging on to my disbelief, for over 400 very long pages. The novel appears to be carefully concocted by a marketing team for maximum readership. Take a supposedly romantic location, Paris — and make sure to put the Eiffel Tower right on the cover, in case the book browsers would miss it. Choose a fashionable time period these days, World War II (not the misleading 1932 of the title). Also focus on the equally fashionable topic of gays and lesbians. Check. Sprinkle some ridiculous names (Lilly Rossignol, for instance!) Send the author, I imagine, on a romantic fact-finding trip to the romantic city — in the romantic spring, of course, which means that the lovely horse-chestnut trees will mysteriously bloom for New Year in the novel (oops!) Delegate the details to research assistants, with painful transcribing of trials and other historical events poking through here and there. Organize the book in an overwrought combination of diary, letters, and even a book-within-the-book, told by characters of different nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and the sides they chose during the war. And don’t worry too much about editing. If a car that was given away is described as having been sold a hundred pages later, maybe no one will notice. If a driver’s license is spectacularly suspended but the owner drives all around France in the rest of the book, so be it.

I much, much preferred My New American Life, and its simple, unaffected story.

 

rtistically and intellectually adventurous, Prose presents a house-of-mirrors historical novel built around a famous photograph by Brassai of two women at a table in a Paris nightclub. The one wearing a tuxedo is athlete, race-car driver, and Nazi collaborator Violette Morris. So intriguing and disturbing is her story, Prose considered writing a biography, but instead she forged an electrifying union of fact and fiction by creating a circle of witnesses and chroniclers of varying degrees of reliability. Gabor, a Hungarian photographer enthralled by Paris after dark, photographs two weary lovers: Arlette, an opportunistic performer, and Lou Villars, a tux-clad athlete. The women are regulars at the Chameleon Club, a safe haven for lesbians, gays, cross-dressers, and others who must change their stripes to survive. We glean the many facets and repercussions of Lou’s “dramatic and terrible life” via Gabor’s surprisingly explicit letters to his parents, an unpublished biography, works by an American writer in Paris, and the memoirs of two rivals for Gabor’s love, a young teacher and a lonely baroness. In an intricately patterned, ever-morphing, lavishly well-informed plot spanning the French countryside and reaching to Berlin, Prose intensifies our depth perception of that time of epic aberration and mesmerizing evil as she portrays complex, besieged individuals struggling to become their true selves. A dark and glorious tour de force.

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Filed under New fiction

** Pro by Katha Pollitt


It’s not clear what Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights hopes to accomplish. Outwardly, it’s an argument for anti-abortion advocates to justify the social benefit of freedom of abortion. But clearly no anti-abortion advocate would care to read more than a couple of pages without throwing the book across the room, since the author adopts a rather strident tone that would surely turn off anyone on the other side.

She also seems to prefer polemics to facts. I would have liked to read more about the background of women who get abortions. The author says that 60% are mothers, 70% are poor, and half have had a prior abortion. But she never goes beyond those basic facts, alas. She does do a great job of showing how sexist politicians ignore facts and physicians’ opinions to create policies that keep women down…

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan


The Ploughmen is not the novel you want to pick on a day when you are feeling low: it’s pretty bleak. But the story of a lonely police officer, assigned to the night shift to get an insomniac serial killer to reveal where his victims are buried — and meanwhile losing his wife and his mind — is just about perfect. It’s told elegantly, sparely, and with all the nuances that respect that human beings are never all good or all bad.

Just make sure you have some uplifting experience to await you afterwards. Not much hope here!

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Filed under New fiction