Monthly Archives: September 2015

* I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam

I appreciated the funny title of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. (Have you read I Don’t Know How She Does It? Highly recommended for its chick-lit, unpretentious, and hilarious description of the life of a harried working mother). I did not, however, appreciate its content very much,

The author, a time-managment specialist, collected time logs from “successful” working mothers. Try not to cringe when she explains that the only criteria for success is to make $100,000 per year (but at least she is clear about her methodology), or that most of the diaries were obtained through highly selective method (so much for randomness!)  Her main conclusion from reading the diaries is, wait for it, that women have all the time in the world to be with their children, husbands, and friends, and even to be alone. How? Well, the author has unusual ideas about time management. For instance, she does not count commuting as work time, but as personal time since, clearly, it’s a wonderful moment to listen to an audiobook or whatnot, and in any case we may “cheat” by running an errand on the way back from work. And she feels that reading books in short bursts while cooking food in a microwave is a great way to fit reading into your life. Perhaps her book can be read that way, but certainly not serious books.

She does make good points, in particular that people who claim to work over 60 hours of work per week never do (I used to work with many of them, who constantly boasted of their exhausting schedules, shooting the breeze with colleagues in the kitchen) and that planning is best done on Friday afternoons (I am a fan). Still, the general hectoring tone was a big turn-off to me, along with the author’s habit of citing her own lifestyle as the epitome of success. I see nothing wrong with doing laundry every day or shopping for groceries yourself rather than ordering online, if that’s what you want to do. I don’t see why her way is the only way.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine White


Onward and Upward in the Garden is a delightful compilation of essays written by the fiction editor of the New Yorker starting in 1958, who also happened to be the wife of EB White, of Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style fame, who collected the works and writes an endearing introduction to the book.

If you are a gardener, prepare for a treat beyond the two stars to which I feel compelled to limit myself for a general audience. White starts by reviewing seed catalogs as if they were books, with highly entertaining results, although it is a relief when she switches over to garden books of all kinds since seed catalogs are quite repetitive. Since the author writes at length about her beloved garden in Maine, the book reads like fiction to this and other California readers, who have not seen a drop of water in months and very little of it during our supposed rainy winters — but no matter, we can all learn about how the lawnmower was invented (from machines used to shear carpets!) and smile about plant names influenced by technology trends (Satellite petunias and Radar calendulas, so fifties) And of course, as an editor, she comments about typefaces, spelling, and badly thought-out indices. There’s rather too much carping, in general in the essays, and not just about book mechanics, but some of the rants are idiosyncratically hilarious, as when she explains that ruffled snapdragons are just a mistake. I quite agree with her there.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Intimate Ape by Shawn Thompson


The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species is a strange book, quite disorganized and focusing as much on various individuals dedicated to saving orangutans as on the apes themselves. The chapters meander from one preserve to another, coming back to various characters on several occasions, and even feature, repeatedly, the author’s tween son, who came along on some trips, a bit dangerous for a child perhaps.

But among the messy presentation there appear many stories of individual orangutans who are described as having unique personalities and, in many cases, unique relationships with the humans who care, or cared, for them. It’s all very unscientific but at the same time evocative and provocative: should we really treat apes as mere “animals”?

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*** Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders


Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World is a just-for-fun book that should live on a coffee table, inviting amateurs to open it and nibble on a word or two. Reading it from cover to cover, as I did, makes it hard to appreciate the words that the author wishes would exist in English, but it shows two interesting themes: one is measurement, surprisingly. It may seem silly to speak of the time it takes to eat a banana (pizanzapra, in Malay) or the amount of water one can hold in one’s hand (gurfa, in Arabic), but I love the idea. If I could remember pizanzapra, I would definitely use it.

The other theme, not surprisingly, is behaviors and feelings. My favorites were tsundoku (leaving a book unread after buying it, piled up with other unread books, in Japanese) and nunchi (the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood, in Korean). I could see ways of using all the words in the book, except the puzzling mångata, which means the road-like reflection of the moon in the water in Swedish; do you feel you need a word for that?

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** The Melody Lingers On by Mary Higgins Clark


The Melody Lingers On is a sometimes awkward mashup of the Bernard Madoff scandal and a Grisham-esque flight to a fiscal paradise, with the requisite psychopaths (two! how lovely!), damsel in distress (sigh), gauche nouveau riche (hey! 3 French words in a row!), and good looking, hard-working officers of the law (who will rescue the damsel, of course). All that means that reflecting upon the story will not evoke deep truths, but the tale is entertaining and the book short. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.

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Filed under Mystery

** Other People’s Money by Charles Bagli


Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made tells the story of Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan housing complex built after WWII for moderate-income workers, and whose $5.4 billion sale in 2006 made it the largest real estate deal ever. The book tells the details of how the deal came about, in excruciating detail. (Who cares that one of the investors’ flight on a private job had an aborted landing?) But before the tedious story of the deal comes the story of the birth of Stuyvesant Town, which is much more interesting: how the city made large tax concessions to an insurance company, MetLife, to build affordable housing, even though it discriminated against African-Americans, and how the city’s rent-control ordinance allowed the original tenants to stay put, for decades and for smaller and smaller rents compared to the market, sometimes passing their apartments from parents to children, creating another set of unseemely social discrimination.

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**Do No Harm by Henry Marsh


The author of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery is a British neurosurgeon who, surprisingly candidly, recalls his professional life and never shies away from discussion mistakes, his and others’, mistakes that, considering his line of work, leave patients disabled and occasionally dead. I doubt that American lawyers would have given a green light to such a book, even if full of pseudonyms.

I was most interested in two aspects of the book. One is the poor management of the hospital where he worked. I would have thought that the time of neurosurgeons is precious so that hospital management would seek to maximize their utilization. Instead, it seems that patient beds are in short supply and shortages regularly delay surgeries. Odd, right? The other is the author’s anguish at giving patients and patients’ families bad news, usually completely unrelated to the errors mentioned above. It seems that giving physicians and all health care professionals better training and support to accomplish these grim tasks would help, at least as much as having enough beds.

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Filed under True story