Don’t Let Him Know is the melancholic story of an Indian-American family that started with a bad match between a gay man and his unsuspecting bride, who herself has a secret. So they shuffle along, making the best of their lives together without ever revealing the secrets. The story is told by their son and bounces between India, Illinois, and Northern California, with tender moments and funny ones, too. It’s not as depressing as the premise may indicate.
Monthly Archives: May 2016
In An Affair with My Mother: A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love, the author recalls her search for her biological mother, who was pressured to give her up for adoption in the Ireland of the 1970s, at a time and place where unwed motherhood was shameful, so much so that there mother’s father stopped speaking to her after she got pregnant.
She does find her mother, and her mother is delighted to meet her, but having had to hide her past for so long, she insists on clandestine meetings, which is very painful for her daughter. I found the story to be strongest and most interesting when it describes how adoptions were managed in Catholic Ireland at the time of the author’s birth, and how shame and secrecy were heaped both on the birth mothers and, more surprisingly, the adoptive parents. Indeed, the author was lucky that her parents told her early and matter-of-factly that she was adopted.
On the other hand, the story occasionally rambles and, although it’s understandable that the author is distressed by her mother’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship publicly, at least at first, it’s puzzling that she cannot see that opening up to her husband and children upend her carefully reconstructed life.
Written by the New York Times bureau chief in Paris, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs is a well-informed ode to the street where she lives, and beyond that to Paris, although not, refreshingly, the well-worn Paris of tourists. To my taste, there is a little too much swooning over obscure crafts and the loveliness of small shops when, as a journalist, the author could also recount the labyrinthine zoning and labor laws of France that protect the shops at the expense of consumers. But, as the book progresses, the stories get less superficially charming and more about the individuals who, like the author, love the street and make it an urban village, much more human than one would expect in a large city.
My Name Is Lucy Barton finds the eponymous heroine in a hospital bed, stuck there for weeks as mysterious infections prevent her discharge, sick enough to be in the hospital but not sick enough to think solely of her bodily worries. In walks her estranged mother, summoned by her overwhelmed husband who can barely cope with his job and two small children. She will stay for weeks. It’s an awkward dance between mother and daughter, with memories of a harsh childhood bubbling up, two very different lives, but still much love, or at least affection between them. It’s sad and lovely.
Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea is not a story of ghettoes per se, but rather an exploration of how social scientists studied and wrote about the American “ghetto”. I would have preferred a more direct approach but found enough direct glimpses of the history, starting with the segregation of Jews in Rome, thanks to Paul IV (before Venice gave its name to the word ghetto), all the way to Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem’s Children Zone.
Sadly, the scientists who studied (American) ghettos don’t seem to have contributed many solutions to the phenomenon, perhaps because they were guided more by ideology than observation, let along first-hand knowledge.
Wash your hands and avoid crowds. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond will make you squirm at the dangers of cholera, Ebola, flu, and other MRSA infections. The author, following on her earlier book, The Fever, which tackled malaria, shows how urbanization, environmental changes, war, and especially poverty and corruption all conspire to make epidemics more common and more explosive. There is not a lot of good news in the book, and perhaps the most important lesson is that, in a connected world, the rich countries cannot ignore the poor ones, for they, too, will suffer, albeit less, as well-known and new virus and bacteria spread faster and wider.
Innocents and Others follows two filmmaker who started out as best friends but find themselves on different tracks. I expect that movie buffs and would-be filmmakers will like the story, which is told, overly preciously to my taste, partly in the form of scripts and blog posts for a film class. There are some lovely observations here and there: the mother who automatically accepts any scheme that stars a favored friend of her daughter’s, the woman who hopes her husband won’t get into a writing program that would require a long separation — but overall I felt the story was plodding, even aimless, although well-written and carefully unfolded.
Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth reads alternatively as an anguished defense of criticism as bona fide art and a careful analysis of the role of critics and literature and the arts (the author being a film reviewer). Naturally, I preferred the latter and did not quite understand why such an aggressive defense of the genre was necessary. Of course critics will themselves have their critics. For instance, if the author likes the movie Ratatouille then he should say stand no one should find it objectionable as long as he does not think of himself as the arbiter of good taste. Maybe that’s the whole problem.
The Story of a New Name follows My Brilliant Friend and takes the two friends through high school and college, for the writer, and for her friend through a fraught marriage, motherhood, separation, and back to a tough working life. I found the plot to be less trite than the one in the first book, and with more unexpected twists, especially as the newlyweds fight, cheat, storm out, plot against each other, and generally despise everything the other does. Still, despite the period details, some of the petty fights and rivalries get tedious.
I don’t have a good track record of enjoying books about imminent death and I did not swoon with this one either, When Air Becomes Breath, which is the artfully written memoir of a promising neurosurgeon who is told, at age 36, that he has advanced lung cancer and only a few years to live. The shocking diagnosis takes him to the other side of the physician-patient divide, a most uncomfortable place even though his oncologist, a woman, seems just about perfect. The story of the author’s life, from his childhood in rural Arizona to his studies, first in English (so that’s where the artfully written comes from) and then in medicine, and eventually to his wife’s an his difficult decision to have a child immediately post diagnosis, is very interesting, as are the many references to what happens back stage of the operating room. On the other hand, I was turned off by his repeated assertions that neurosurgeons are superior to other physicians (even as his father, brother, and wife are also physicians but not of the #1 kind).