If you remember the 80s and early 90s when healthy young men would suddenly turn into skeletons and die you will read How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS with sadness for all who died and interest for how small groups of dedicated activists pushed the government and the medical establishment to action and changed the way drug research is conducted while around them their friends and they themselves sickened and died. The story focuses on the New York groups ACT UP and TAG, and refers only briefly to other groups within the country, which is frustrating at times, but the story mixes the personal, intimate experiences of the author and the other actors with the larger narrative in a very effective manner. The later part of the book descends into the internal power struggles of the activist groups, which are just as boring as one would expect, but you can stop reading at any time.
Monthly Archives: January 2017
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression describes how Americans fed themselves, and were taught to feed themselves, between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, focusing on the Great Depression but starting with heroic descriptions (and menus!) of what it took to feed large farm families in early 20th century. Let’s just say that farm women worked hard and were not afraid of fat, gluten, or animal products! As the authors move to the Great Depression, there are harrowing descriptions of food lines and malnutrition diseases amongst children, and a fascinating account of how the government stepped in with food distribution programs inspired by home economics experts who also provided recipes and tips to stretch out limited supplies. Not surprisingly, the recipes came with heavy cultural and racist baggage.
The last chapter is an incongruous, rushed description of various food technologies that took flight during this period and I could not quite understand what its purpose was, but the rest of the book is wonderful.
Emma Donoghue wrote the stunning Room (and other novels I did not like so much) and with The Wonder, she returns with a claustrophobic story of a “starving girl” in 19th century Ireland, whose food-free existence brings her family fame. A nurse is brought in to investigate this miracle and she will eventually untangle the mystery and save the girl in violent fashion.
The author captures the circumscribed existence in the small Irish village, the all-powerful role of the church, and never tries to simplify characters to fit the story. Bravo!
One would think that the autobiography of an important civil rights lawyer would make for fascinating reading. It does not, as recitations of legal cases, and the lawyerly machinations behind them, don’t make for an exciting narrative, at least for non-lawyer types. The Butler’s Child also refers repeatedly to the butler of the author’s grandparents as an inspiration for the author’s career and I thought the references were disturbingly patronizing (although I believe entirely sincere). It’s too bad that the presentation spoiled the story.
Is it possible to rescue a book that starts (very) badly? Today Will Be Different may be exhibit one. Its first half presents the heroine as a shallow, bumbling, self-centered wife and mother who cannot manage her (simple) calendar and whose ten-year old son seems infinitely more grounded and in charge. I must say I slogged though all that, counting pages. And then, her back story emerges, in which she appears as entirely capable, although a bit of a drama queen, and with many interesting adventures to boot. I certainly wish we could have skipped that first half.
The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves covers a variety of studies on how our inner voices can help us, scare us, or hinder us, and how they can veer towards abnormal visions and hallucinations. The book felt a little disjointed to me, one chapter about the creative process, one about deaf people, one about schizophrenia. My favorite part was the description of how children talk to themselves more, and out loud, when facing difficulties. Funny!
The latest installment in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Precious and Grace stars a lost dog, a revengeful Canadian who was born in Botswana and is looking for her roots, and sober reflections on Mma Makutsi’s pushy maneuverings. As always, Mma Ramotswe will untangle everything through a mix of careful observations and random luck. A perfect reflection on the fallibility of memories.
I’ll Sell You A Dog is the absurdist story of a writer and retired taco seller, now living in a retirement home and busy fighting cockroaches, his nosy neighbor, and the coterie of the book club that meets in the lobby. The story unfolds in crafty flashbacks with inventive, incongruous details, but the wild originality did not quite go the distance for me.
The Wangs Vs. The World attempts to be a madcap road trip of a freshly bankrupted family from its no-longer home in Los Angeles to upstate New York, where the older daughter lives in a house that may be the only asset that escaped repossession. The five members of the family are appropriately different to generate all kinds of adventures, but I found it very difficult to find the tediously spoiled younger daughter, the romantically confused, hipster older daughter, the financially ambitious stepmother, the stereotypical entrepreneur-father, or even the sweet, sentimental son.