When Red Is Black is a rather mundane crime investigation into the murder of a dissident Chinese writer, who used to be a devoted Red Guard but switched to the other side. What sets the book apart is the setting, a communal building in modern Shanghai where the Iron Bowl government jobs can no longer compete with the riches of capitalism. The story is heavily laced with expositions of recent and not-so-recent Chinese history, which to me felt overly heavy and didactic. I enjoyed the nuanced characters of the detective and his superior, however.
Monthly Archives: October 2016
The Gloaming brings together an unlikely set of three Westerners fleeing various dreadful events of their past into a small town in Tanzania. The story slowly unfolds the characters’ back stories, even as various actors of their pasts track them down. It’s all very dark and cleverly layered, and full of complicated people that are never 100% good or 100% evil. Haunting.
Written by an accomplished fiction writer, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids is a fascinating documentary of American K-12 education, based on the author’s short-lived experience as a substitute teacher. He only taught for 28 days, so it would be easy to dismiss the experience as a gimmick, but his simple, factual narrative of each day shows, powerfully, the delights and horrors of school — and he very wisely refrains from offering a commentary, except for a very few instances. The 700+ pages draw a somewhat depressing picture. What is the wisdom of withholding recess time from misbehaving elementary school children? Why move along non-readers to middle schools? And why spend day after day filling out boring worksheets that focus on recalling scientific vocabulary rather than having the students reflect on processes? But there are also many portraits of good teachers, as proven by the habits and methods the substitute can glimpse, and Mr. Baker is a gifted teacher himself.
Be warned: the setup behind Dr Knox makes little sense, but it’s possible to mostly forget why the main protagonists, a physician who works on Skid Row in Los Angeles and his improbable ex-mercenary friend, not to mention the pro-bono lawyer for the clinic, dismiss the idea of calling the authorities and instead decide to save the day themselves. They use ample ammunition, mind games, and lots of luck to save a little boy and his mother from the clutches of a rich man who has an uncanny Trump-like manner. In the chaos of the rescue, glimpses of the characters’ past lives on several continents emerge, along with the complications of the lives of the rich. A fast-paced, unusual story.
We are staying in the restaurant business with Sweetbitter, a novel in which a young woman moves to New York and finds a job in a fancy restaurant. The first half of the book is a well-researched description of the workings of high-end restaurants, with a heavy display of wine erudition. It’s not exactly gripping but it moves along tolerably. The second half descends into a tiresome and obviously hopeless love triangle. What a bore.
The co-authors of How May We Hate You?: Notes from the Concierge Desk used to work for various hotels in New York City and recount their adventures with difficult customers with humor, yes, but a snarky, condescending, even hateful bite that makes one wonder whether to ever approach a concierge desk again. Sure, there are awful human beings out there and some frequent hotels and harass concierges, but surely the clueless tourist who does not realize they are already on 42nd street, or thinks that reservations to sold-out shows are obtainable by all-powerful concierges are simply confused and deserve a little pep talk rather than a nasty harangue. Pass on this one.
Like books? From the moment you grab this one, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, you will know it’s a winner, since its very cover embodies the topic: how books are printed, illustrated, and made. It’s a history of books that starts in ancient Egypt and China and even if you are curious about books and know quite a bit of the history I guarantee you will find new and delightful factoids, from the proper way to cut a papyrus stem to create a usable sheet to how Holy Roman Emperor Frederik II banned paper because he saw it as a horrible Muslim invention. We are introduced to typesetting technology and lithography, and how books are stitched and formed (have you noticed that hard-cover books are concave in the front? I had not!) And nary a whine about the upcoming death of books in favor f electronic media. A delight.
I just love Mary Karr’s memoirs (reviewed here, here, and here), so I was looking forward to this book, which, if I had read the description more carefully, I would have known was not a memoir, or at least not just a memoir, but a compendium of how to write a memoir, based on her experience as a professor. I confess that the best parts of this book for me were, no surprise, the memoir fragments: who can forget the image of her breaking her delete key by overusing it while writing her last memoir? Her suggestions to would-be memoirists are fine, I suppose (I’m not in the market to write a memoir so not a good judge) but they sometimes read as dry, common-sense lists. And her literary analysis of various memoirs written by others are often hard to follow without having actually read the pieces. If you are a fan of Mary Karr’s read this, of course. If not, read her memoirs!
Harmony is based on interesting themes, of how challenging it is to have a child on the autism spectrum (perhaps, the diagnostic is uncertain), and how desperation can bring parents to unproven gurus, and in this case to a strange summer camp to work as an unpaid slave. There is also a clever plot centered in the set of children at the camp, perfectly crafted to exploit the fears and decision making of tweens.
The chapters that carry the story are written in the voice of the mother or the younger, neurotypical daughter. The mother’s chapters are written in a rather irksome second person. The daughter’s chapters improve over time; they start with a slightly wrong, too-old voice in my view. And the story seems not to be able to soar above the promise of its themes, especially the trite ending.
You Will Know Me and its murder will get under your skin and keep you wondering about the next plot twist to the end, while offering a well-crafted immersion into the strange world of highly competitive sport (here, gymnastics) and its crazy parents. There is also a marvelously drawn little brother who keeps spouting tender and magically appropriate comments. That said, some of the clues are a little too obvious and mar the surprise of the whodunit.