Remakes are tricky. Emma: A Modern Retelling fell flat for me, with its archaic dinner parties and picnics, country squires and young ladies eager to be married. Yes, the Scottish governess is superb, all the way to her exit from the family, and the Australian young man who plays around Emma’s catty ways deftly drawn, but I think I shall go read the original again.
Still a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, but not this book.
With the painful premise of a child-molesting uncle, whose misdeeds cast a large shadow on his victims, two cousins and a friend, The Wisdom of Perversity cannot be an easy story to read. The author captures the stunned reactions of the victims skillfully (although, in my mind, some of the factual details don’t seem to match their presumed ages exactly) — but the long and detailed descriptions of the abuse seem designed to appeal only to voyeurs and the very characters that are preying on the children. And why should the female victim be such a helpless character?
For me, the best part of the novel was the portrait of the Monster mother, as called by her son, one of the victims. A calculating, cold, controlling woman who could have utterly changed the fate of the children, but did not.
(I highly recommend the author’s previous novel, A Happy Marriage.)
The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future tells the story of the development of electric cars, a story that brings together car manufacturers, of course, but, perhaps more prominently, the California Air Resource Board and the Japanese and Chinese governments, along with a series of cameo appearances by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Hummer, a forgotten Toyota export called Toyopet (really!), and a solar vehicle race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia.
The last vehicle appearance in the book is the Google self-driving car, which cruises my neighborhood daily. (When it becomes commercialized, I will be able to ride it very safely since it must know every cup de sac around here…)
If you thought that cars were designed by engineers, it’s time to read about the political pressures on the car designers.
The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America is written by an activist for domestic workers, and indeed the most successful part of the book are the portraits of senior care workers that show them as skilled and devoted individuals, capable of transforming the lives of their patients.
Alas, the rest of the (slim) book would have benefitted from a good editor. There are lengthy discussions of how difficult and costly it is to find elder care when one tightly-written chapter would suffice (and with so many repeats of slightly different numbers, the reader starts doubting them). There are, of course, repeated calls to pay elder care providers better — but the author seems to forget that her repeated assurances that home care is cheaper than nursing home care fall apart if home care workers were paid the more generous wages they undoubtedly deserve! So the author’s thesis is that “government”must step in and pay, which seems to forget that “government” is us, and the examples she gives of seniors unwilling to spend their savings on their own care underscore the madness of looking for miracle funding. Yes, we have a problem, and this book will not resolve it.
I was saving my stars this week for The Girl on the Train, which lives up to its media acclaims. The girl on the train is not a girl, but a grown woman who is a black-out alcoholic and who nurses an unhealthy obsession with her ex-husband and his new family. So when she fixates on another couple, neighbors of her husband’s, her motivation is suspect. And so she is snared into a police investigation and her unreliable memories put her in a vulnerable position. A twisty plot and a fine portrait of a psychopath reminded me strongly of Gone Girl, but with an entirely different direction — and with a British accent.
After Birth stars a new mother with postpartum depression, stumbling through life (and, annoyingly, constantly rehashing her emergency C-section, which she feels was unneeded, without proof that is was indeed the case), who regains her self-confidence and place in the world when she rescues another mom in the throes of the same post-birth haze and confusion. I thought this was the best portrait of the fog of early mothering I had ever read.
Ten Years in the Tub is a compendium of monthly columns Hornby wrote for The Believer, following More Baths, Less Talking. I would not recommend reading the whole thing linearly, as I did: the book is too long for that, and the format unavoidably repeats itself a bit. Still, his unpretentious approach to reading (in particular, here, the recommendations for young adult books, which he sees are under-appreciated) and his hilarious asides about soccer (he loves Arsenal and its manager, Arsene Wenger), his children, and even, to excuse his lack of reading on a particular month, his wedding make the book most enjoyable.
I was particularly amused by the strange custom of the magazine for which he writes not to name the books he dislikes, which leads to amusing circumlocutions. Alas, as the book goes on, the tender irony seems to take a darker turn. A book to read in small increments, with a note taking implement at the ready to jot down other books to read…
I picked up One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Crisis because its title hints at tackling the poor performance of American students in STEM fields. I was disappointed. The book is, mostly, a paean to the author’s project, the so-called “Project Lead the Way”, a science curriculum for K-12 students, with a dash of bashing of teacher unions that protect low-performing teachers. Sadly, the good ideas in the book, such as emphasizing STEM disciplines from an early age, or aligning grades better across science and liberal art courses, are lost in the shuffle.
Written by a Los Angeles Times journalist, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America follows the investigation of the murder of a young black man in South Central L.A., and along the way tells the story of this violent neighborhood where people live in dire poverty, and under the constant threat of gangs. The best part of the book was, for me, the very personal descriptions of the detectives who work there (one of whom is the father of the victim, but the book focuses on the detectives who investigate the crime) and the description of the police system as a whole, which seems to be in the way of the better detectives rather than helping them.
The writing is clunky at times but the subject matter and the way the writer approaches it make for a warm recommendation to read the book.
Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found is morbid, but also highly entertaining and informative, as the author explores shrunken heads made to order, the guillotine, relics of saints, skull collections, and crazy cryonicists (is there any other kind?)
A wonderful book — really!