Any reader who was a ballerina as a child and pines for those days: please skip this review, get the book, and enjoy it.
For everyone else, Girl Through Glass alternates between the life of a tween and young teenager in New York, a gifted ballerina, and her current life after a mysterious break from ballet, the reason of which is revealed through the story. All the clichés are there: the hyper-disciplined life of young dancers, anorexia, preying old men, the stage mothers. I did not feel that the story rose much above all that.
My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a series I was enticed to read by a very favorable review of the last book in the series, and it was certainly good enough for me to proceed to book #2, but I could not quite discern why a reviewer would swoon so based on this one… Certainly the story of the mysteriously self-possessed best friend of the narrator (herself rather awkward, if academically gifted), replete with interesting secondary characters and Southern Italian ambiance, is cleverly told in recursive flashbacks, but the plot did not go beyond a pretty standard coming-of-age tale. We shall see how she fares with her rich husband in the next installment…
Empire of Cotton: A Global History will make you wonder about the true cost of every T-shirt and pair of jeans you have ever worn. Cotton has profited from child labor, slavery, abominable work conditions, colonial wars, environmental disasters, as well as, more happily, enormous technological progress and the development of heroically global supply chains. I found it particularly interesting to learn how large-scale cotton manufacturing changed the lives of workers along with the clothes we wear.
Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism tells the story of five utopian movements of the late 18th century and 19th century, ending with the Civil War. Some the Shakers, Oneida) are better known than others
The author describes the movements without necessarily drawing parallels between them, but the resemblances are often stunning. The various movements described perfect futures, with an array of serious or amusing characteristics such as lemonade-tasting oceans (really!), equal rights (for the members, from whom could be excluded the undesirable), and no mosquitoes (excellent idea). The successful ones organized work in efficient collective manner that brought them property and some degree of staying power (those that were unable to organize work and finances failed promptly). They created intricate, infinitely detailed rules that governed every aspect of life, from how to cut meat to the kind of pets that could be kept. And of course marriage and sex were especially regulated, with some communities forbidding it entirely while others read like swinger clubs.
The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneidans all shared a charming optimism that they could indeed set up a lifestyle that would bring perfect happiness. How far they were from today’s taste for dystopia!
The heroine of The Other Woman is a temporary confused young adult working in a hospital cafeteria, where she meets a married doctor and embarks on an obviously dodgy affair. The book explores her curiously sophisticated analysis of the situation, and the ending is a breath of fresh air. Nicely done.
Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World paints an almost uniformly grim picture of prisons as shadowy reservoirs of abuse with very few rehabilitation efforts. The author, who leads a program that offers university-level courses to inmates, is rightfully horrified by the length of prison sentences for relatively minor crimes, the liberal use of isolation, and the dearth of efforts to prepare inmates for life after prison. Unfortunately, her bitter tone and sweeping statements often distort her message into meaningless territory. Yes, we should send many fewer people to prison, yes, they should get opportunities to be released as they mature, yes, they should be allowed more normal social lives — but asserting that their criminal lives spring from their tough upbringings is wrong unfair to their cohorts who grew up under similar circumstances and did not commit crimes.
In Ways To Disappear, her translator goes looking for a Brazilian author who suddenly disappeared — and discovers that she is hunted by loan sharks and very happy to spend quality time with the author’s son. The story is at once absurd and full of real-life detailed, and quite fun in its harebrained way.
Inventology: How we Dream Up Things That Change The World tells stories about the invention process, usefully arranged by themes of how ideas come to inventors, and also describes a few attempts at creating a structured technique for creativity (one involving, scarily and in the end not so successfully, LSD!). The stories are entertaining and well told. The reader is left with healthy doubts about whether creativity can be taught — but there is no doubt that some techniques are for sure helpful.
The Man Without a Shadow is an amnesiac, abundantly studied by the heroine, a neuroscientist whose professional fame comes from her exceptional subject. Many professional boundaries are crossed, and in any case the line between studying and exploiting is very porous.
I thought that the author captured in fine and interesting details the travails of the dedicated female scientist in a hostile time and place. The vagaries of memory are also explored in compelling and disturbing ways. The story moves slowly and the end is disappointing, but it lingers in the reader’s brain.
In Their Promised Land: My Grandparents In Love And War, the author tells the story of his grandparents through his own memories but mostly the letters that they wrote to each other, and they wrote many since they were unlucky enough to live through two world wars, during which they were separated. Both grandparents are second-generation German Jews living in Britain in a very comfortable manner but they still have to contend with antisemitic discrimination that makes it difficult for him to find a position as a physician, for instance. The story is a love story, between Win and Bernard for sure, but also for the family they built together against the background of the wars. (Much better than All The Light We Cannot See!)