Monthly Archives: January 2017

*** How To Survive A Plague by David France

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.

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Filed under Non fiction

** A Square Meal by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

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.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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!

 

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Filed under New fiction

* The Butler’s Child by Lewis Steel

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.

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Filed under True story

** As Time Goes By by Mary Higgins Clark

The coincidences are just incredible, the characters entirely good or entirely evil, and the level of sentimentality extreme — and yet they come together for a very satisfying story, even if we know the outcome midway through. There is a trick to this mystery-writing craft!

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Filed under Mystery

** Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

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.

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Filed under New fiction

** The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough

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!

 

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Filed under Non fiction