Can one write a book about war that doesn’t talk about weapons? Yes, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War proves it. Instead, the author talks about the labs in Natick, MA, that test fabric for uniforms (and gently makes fun of the specialists’ outstanding New England accent), how a wedding dress designer can get interested in mittens with one finger for snipers. Other topics are more challenging, showing how a different lab uses cadavers to test armored vehicles, how surgeons reconstruct penises lost to real bombs, and how doctors use maggots to clean wounds. A strong stomach is recommended! Still, there are plenty of humorous moments as when we learn that powered bug juice is a good tool to minimize toilet odors in submarines. Who knew?
Monthly Archives: September 2016
The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health brings together, rather awkwardly, a discussion of the human microbiome and one of microorganisms in soil. While the similarities are compelling at a high level, the authors try too hard to bring the two together, and the result is a book that feels forced. Still, interesting information can be gleaned from both sides.
Shroud for a Nightingale takes place in a nursing school where two students are murdered in mysterious circumstances. It features blackmail, jealousies, secrets, and many layers of tantalizing clues that are not connected to the truth. The investigation of the murders is not, by far, the most interesting part of the story. Instead, it’s the cast of characters, from the arrogant surgeon to the nursing director with a complicated past, and the complicated ways in which people who work and live together hide their thoughts and desires from each other.
The author of Ugly was born with a large amor on his face and deformed legs — and parents who were initially overwhelmed (understandably) but quickly rallied to navigate multiple surgeries and the delicate business of raising a child who looked obviously different. The story is told in the matter-of-fact tone we can imagine his parents used with him, and while it talks about bullying and violence, there are also funny and kind moments, including the author’s successful quest for a sport he could play. An inspiring, candid story.
The Bridge Ladies is the portrait of the set of friends of the author’s mother, who have known each other for decades and gotten together each Monday for lunch, bridge, and conversation. Lunch can now be held at a diner but used to be an elaborate affair at each woman’s home, in rotation. I found these women to be fascinating, as their stories unroll in flashbacks and often guarded conversations. Sadly, the author seems intent on applying her generation rules to them, and judges their choices rather harshly, when it would have been more effective to just tell the stories, I think. It is true that they pretty much gave up on careers, although they were well-educated and would have met with much success — but they don’t seem to resent it in the way younger women might. Why not just illustrate how a different view of the world makes for a completely different interpretation of the same facts?
In the spirit of the 100-Year Old Man Who Jumped Out of the Window, Britt-Marie Was Here is the apparently simple story of an apparently simple woman who transforms her life after walking away from her cheating husband and his controlling way. But unlike the 100-year old man, Britt-Marie encounters no gangs or elephants, just a bunch of kids in an economically depressed small town who love soccer and would love nothing more than a proper field. She will save the day, but slowly, never giving up her OCD ways, and never succumbing to an easy happy-ever-after ending. Lovely.
Is it possible that you do not already know that the beauty industry is big business? That women are socialized and often humiliated into obsessing about their looks? If not, Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives will enlighten you. And you will also hear about the author’s makeup at age 12 (makeup for a 12-year old? on a school day?), her rather disturbing letter to Ann Landers about her pretend-husband’s shaming her appearance (written at age 9, which makes her makeup at 12 so very tame), and her college scholarship essay about the biggest problem facing America today (women feeling insecure about their looks, of course!) You may want to find another book to read.
The author of Liar has lived a rough life. Two girlfriends were murdered. His wife suffers from an undiagnosed disease. And he is bipolar, addicted to an assortment of drugs, and has suffered from enough blackouts and concussions due to falls that it’s remakarble he is still alive. He seems to tell it all candidly, but since he is the first to note how he can rearrange the truth to suit him, the reader is never quite certain of what she is reading. It’s a rollicking story except when it’s tragic, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the trials of the author, except perhaps when he inflicts them on himself.
Rachel Starnes’s father worked on oil rigs and was gone for weeks at a time, on dangerous missions. She hated it. So what does she do? She marries a Navy pilot who deploys on long, dangerous missions. In The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), she talks about how she copes with the frequent moves, the deployments, raising children on her own, and, candidly, or her struggles with depression. It’s not a downer, not at all. There are some hilarious moments and the author never takes herself too seriously.
LaRose is a young boy whose father accidentally kills his best friend, and obeying Ojibwa tradition is “given” by his parents to his friend’s grieving parents. La Rose is also the name of his grandmother, and of many other ancestors in the matriarchy. The story alternates between prosaic, everyday scenes in which LaRose and his sisters go to school, fight bullies, and play volleyball and dreamy retellings of the elder LaRose’s often horrific stories, all that mixed in with the sufferings of the two mothers. There are some wonderfully nuanced characters, in particular LaRose’s parents and the Catholic priest and ex-Marine who tries to keep the community together, and they are the ones who give the story its character rather than the plot itself.