In The Darkroom recounts the author’s long quest to figure out who her father really is, a father who abandoned his family and who, after a long estrangement, informs her that he is now a woman. (She continues to refer to her as “my father” but uses feminine pronouns throughout, which makes for confusing sentences!) It turns out that her father, who moved back to his (her) native Hungary later in life, had a charmed upbringing in Budapest followed by a harrowing escape from the Nazis. It all comes out, very, very slowly, along with the sex-change operation in Thailand and the questionable bureaucratic games s/he played to get there.
I much preferred the parts of the story that were personal and centered on the father rather than the more general historical references. Such a complicated personality!
The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child is a scholarly review of chid-rearing practices in the United States that shows the evolution of the concept of children from hardworking additions to the household to today’s pampered and helicoptered weaklings. It’s hard to believe that the Society for he Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in the late 19th century before anyone thought of doing something equivalent for children!
The author uses many stories from the childhoods of well-known historical figures to illustrate her points and it’s also interesting to see how the economic context shaped the changes in the lives of children rather than any grand theory of child-rearing. That said, she has a long rant against modern books about child-rearing that accuses them (correctly) of not considering the historical perspective, a rant that seems irrelevant and needlessly petulant.
It’s a good thing that I knew as I read The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir that the author lived to write his memoir, because bullets fly, overdoses happen, and many young men, dealers and addicts both, die over the course of the story, many ending their days bleeding in the arms of the author. The level of violence in East Baltimore is famous, by now, but this story vividly illustrates why young men don’t think they will make it to 20, which may explain some of the risks they take. The author never tries to prescribe solutions for the children who grow up in an environment where drug dealers are the ones with money and power, even if they don’t last long — but the problems are terrifying.
Congrats to Hillary! Am I the only one to think it’s a little weird to call the female presidential candidate by her first name and the male candidate by his last name? A little disrespectful, perhaps? In any case, Ms. Clinton is not the first woman to run for president, and more interestingly she is not the first one to be on the ballot: she is the first one to be nominated by a major party. The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency tells the story of three women who ran before her, one who created her own party in the process (at a time when most women could not vote at all!) and two who campaigned all the way to their parties’ conventions. It’s so interesting to see a candidate in 1871 arguing that equality is not just a concept, but must be made concrete, or that the smear campaign against her focused on her supposed sexual escapades. Or that the second one, Margaret Chase Smith, was the only female senator upon her election in 1949. The most sobering lesson from this book is the historically gigantic financial gap between male and female candidates. It’s hard to be heard on a shoestring.
Happiness is a trendy topic and I must have read too many books on the topic (here, here, here!) so The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, nicely written and nicely researched, did not seem to contain much that was new or different from what I had already read. If this is your first happiness book you will enjoy it more.
Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family with a father and son with severe depression and for me the best part of the story was how the other family members manage to hide the problems from each other and to the outside world, and continue to believe that all will be well. That said, no touch happens in the story and more patient readers than I may enjoy it more than I did.
Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies is an erudite review of how weather figures in the work of British artists. (English artists? That’s what the title says but she makes reference to Wales; how can a non-Brit figure it out?)
So we start, with Roman-time orders for some nice woolens. Poor Romans, they must have felt cold, and damp, in Britain… We plow through Chaucer, and Ms. Harris insist we read it in the original language. Maybe a footnote would suffice? We peek at toes being warmed on a fire in medieval illustrations. I liked the art better than the literature, both because the illustrations are perfect and because much is lacking in my knowledge of British literature. A treat for literary Anglophiles, and an interesting read for everyone else.
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years is couched as a memoir but reads more as a series of essays about motherhood, written by a mother of now-tweenaged children. It took me a long time to get into the book, I thought because the immersive approach of the author to motherhood seemed to be simply too much. And then I understood that she is a world-class worrier. How difficult it must be to raise children while being pathologically worried about them! Amongst all the worries, there are many little gems, stories of lovely moments with her children when they make new leaps of logic and ask questions we did not think they could ask.
I doubt that many people will read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets cover to cover, but even a limited exploration is eye-opening. What the author has done is stitch together conversations and extended monologues with ordinary Russians about the demise of the USSR. Viewed from afar, it’s easy to see the fall of the communist regime and the breakup of the country as progress, but it’s not simple or easy to live through a revolution. And while many of the participants recall truly horrific episodes of torture and killing, it makes sense for them to also regret the old days, when daily life was indeed a little easier, if you were not yourself, at that moment, being tortured or killed. As one of the interviewees says, “What was the point of all that? All that’ll be left of us will be a couple of lines in a history textbook.” The book shows what happened between the lines.
If you were to find a loaded gun in the glove compartment of a rental car and your husband, who has had serious depressive episodes in the past and is currently going through tremendous financial difficulties, told you that the previous renter must have forgotten it and that he will be sure to tell the counter agents about it upon return, would you simply close the glove compartment? Of course not, but the nitwit wife in The Good Life does (with horrible results, needless to say). This is not the only irrational part of the story: said husband, a developer of shopping malls, appears not to have set up a legal structure that separates his business assets from his personal assets, hence his business difficulties force him to uproot his family as well as sell his car. He moans more about the latter than the former, even as his sister lays dying in a hospital. What a wonderful guy! Not that the nitwit is much better. She delays getting a job despite the dire financial circumstances, choosing instead to bemoan the fact that her children will no longer have access to Hungarian lessons in the (gasp!) public schools they will now be forced to attend. She feels demeaned by having to do the laundry in a shared laundry room, alongside (horror!) housekeepers. I suppose the attraction of the book is a voyeuristic look into the world of rich New Yorkers. But surely you will find better books to read this summer.