Monthly Archives: August 2016
Ever wondered what it’s really like to be a bird? A worm? The author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide did not attempt being a worm, although he ate worms and lived for weeks in a man-sized badger den (bringing his young son with him!), slept under rhododendrons on urban lawns to live like a fox (it turns out not to be a good explanation for curious police officers, who knew?), and tried valiantly to be a river otter (wetsuits are not as cosy as otter pelts). His adventures are, literally, fantastic, all the more since, in between eating worms and venturing outside only at night, as badgers do, he will suddenly wonder if badgers may, well, use adjectives. Never mind that it doesn’t exactly make sense to explore another species life in a human body, the exploration of alternative points of view will stay with you.
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer starts with a brutal matricide, which the author meticulously reconstructs from archives, followed by the dispatch of the murderer, aged 13, to an insane asylum, and eventually his immigration to Australia, proud service during WW1, and life as a peaceful and kind man. The detailed reconstruction of events can get a little tedious, but the book nicely recreates transatlantic voyages (with live cattle imported from the US), the uproar at how cheap crime novels may have fostered the crime (which sounds exactly like today’s apocalyptic descriptions of the internet), and the primitive state of psychiatry, pre-drugs of any kind. It also show how important it is to be able to recreate oneself. In those days, moving to Australia seemed to do it. Today, not so easy…
The hyperactive subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers announces it: this book may be focused on the Pacific Ocean, but adeptly serves stories as diverse as navigating without instruments, how Larry Ellison spends his money (apparently paying someone to retrieve basketballs shot from his yacht), the discovery of entirely new life forms at the dark bottom of the ocean, and how a mostly unknown American Colonel divided Korea into two countries. There are lighter moments, such the history of surfing, but each chapter cleverly moves from a specific anecdote to a larger topic. Entirely enjoyable, even for readers who do not live right by the Pacific.
As a descendant of the Stroh family, of beer-making fame, Frances Stroh could expect a privileged childhood followed by a comfortable adulthood financed by a hefty trust fund. Instead, as she tells in Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, she got a rich but difficult childhood growing up with an alcoholic and tyrannical father, followed by little money as the once-flourishing family business shrank drastically, victim of changing times and not-so-great business decisions. The first part of the story reminds us that children desperately need parents who are present rather than rich, and we feel very sorry for the author. The second part shows how entitled heirs can be, expecting “their” share of the money to somehow fall in their laps without having to do anything about it. No more pity, or perhaps only pity for how ill-prepared she was.
Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating talks about dating, from its early beginnings in the early 20th century to today. It is not a scholarly work, as it quotes abundantly and occasionally gratingly from the popular press and the author’s own experience. The author does make interesting points about how the rules of dating are linked to economic power, and how modern technology does not radically change the game.
It must be fashionable for grown men to write about their childhood bullies. Unlike Whipping Boy, however, Bullies: A Friendship focuses on the present. The author’s one-time bully is now the president of a motorcycle club in Oakland, CA, and the author, somewhat strangely, sets out to explore in great detail the activities of the club, depicting Oakland as a drug-infested den of violence and hopelessness which leaves locals, and even semi-locals like me shaking our heads. Yes, there are very dangerous places in Oakland but even the author acknowledges that he managed to live there for months in complete safety, apart from his repeated trips to the infamous triangle where his ex-bully, now supposedly “friend”, operates. It turns out that motorcycle “clubs” (I would say gangs) are very violent and 200 pages of that simultaneously turned my stomach and bore me immensely. Stay away from psychopaths.
Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship is a lovely story of how a young woman who just separated from her husband (and, apparently and rather drastically, her daughter) gets solace from scrumptious dinners with the elderly father of a friend who needs cheering up as he ages, without his beloved wife. The recitation of the menus seems overdone in a sea of similar book structures, but I loved the soft, yet lucid focus on how hard it is to age and slowly lose the ability to do simple tasks, not to mention equally aged friends.
The hero of The Second Girl should be a disgraced ex-police officer, but he was allowed to retire quietly instead, and he how uses his investigative skills as a PI with a solid drug habit that he carefully hides from others. After accidentally rescuing a teenager who had been kidnapped by a gang, he is hired by the parents of another — and chaos ensues. The non-hero carries the story, which unfolds seamlessly. The only false note is a would-be romance with his lawyer-partner, but it is only a tiny part of the story. A gripping tale.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully recounts the author’s obsession with finding the tormentor from this sixth-grade year in an exclusive Swiss boarding school. I found the memories from boarding school fascinating, with a mix of old-world propriety, eccentric headmaster, and wealthy students — but the adventures of the elusive bully bored me. Not that the level of criminal inventiveness is not remarkable, involving a fake Duke, phantom countries, and an entirely fraudulent trust that extracted millions of dollars from rather gullible seekers of capital. But the minutiae of the story overshadows the portrait of a textbook psychopath.