70,000 years of history in 400 pages. That’s the challenge that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind tackles, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, successful at showing coherent themes with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. It’s fun to read, and the illustrations are well-chosen and not the same old ones we have seen dozens of times. Still, some will quibble that some important aspects of humanity are not covered at all (looking at you, art), and that interpretations of archeological data can be uncertain. Still, it’s very satisfying to get through so many years and so many concepts (empires, the market, religion, law, ecology) in a concise way.
Monthly Archives: May 2017
It’s interesting that the author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency chose to highlight only the gatekeeping functions of those who may actually be the most powerful people in the US, the presidential chiefs of staff. Readers who love politics will undoubtedly love this book, full of intrigues and details and funny stories. Those who do not, like me, may be nonplussed after reading it. O, the stories and lively and suck you in. But it reveals a White House that is immensely sexist (exhibit A: not a single chief of staff has been a woman), preoccupied by small issues and rivalries rather than important policy decisions, and, as a consequence, apparently incapable of focusing on a few strategic concerns. It’s a miracle that it works at all!
The heroine of The Red Car has an abusive husband and a job she could apparently do in her sleep when an old mentor dies, leaving her the famous red car. So she flies across the country and tries to find herself again, in what I thought were rather cliched northern California moves. Still, her self-talk is well-observed and the first half of the (short) story hangs together quite well.
The Temporary Bride made me feel acutely uncomfortable. It is a memoir of a daring Canadian woman who loves to cook and discover new food cultures and has travelled to unlikely locales, alone. (Think Sana’a, Yemen). In this book, she travels to Iran and learns cooking from a homemaker she finds through her son, and the stories of her relationship with this woman living in a world so different from hers are wonderful, as is her avid interest in restaurants, street vendors, and even a camel slaughterhouse.
And then she starts a relationship with the son, one that begins with ambiguous violence and then continues with, to me, unhealthy cultural undertones, as she seems to think of him as slightly inferior, untrained, uncouth. Although she proclaims her love of him, the revelation of so many personal details seemed exploitative and inappropriate.
Saratoga Payback is the entertaining story of a private investigator who, having had his license revoked, just cannot turn off his investigative instinct. And of course a corpse on his driveway is irresistible. He will be drawn into mysterious horse abductions and many more murders until the breath-taking finale. But the best part of the book is the self-talk and private life of our hero, with his aging knees, self-deprecating humor, and complicated relationship with the police chief.
The Crossing is the portrait of a strong woman who makes her own way, regardless of custom, betrayal, or tragedies. It will eventually put her on a small boat crossing the Atlantic — by herself. This is not a happy-ever-after story, or even a temporarily-happy story, but the heroine is dogged, strong, unforgettable.
It’s not clear what Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America is trying to accomplish. While the author rightly highlights the many privileges of white people in America, his strident tone will surely repel those who would most need to grasp the damage of their racist views, and discourage those who are working towards a more egalitarian society. The most effective part of the book, for me, were the personal stories of discrimination taken straight from the author’s family, full of law-abiding, educated, successful individuals that regularly encounter naked racism as well as more covert versions. He also clearly explains how black immigrants have a leg up on black Americans. But the vitriol…
It’s hard to read This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression and not feel deeply sad for the author, whose euphemistically tagged “treatment-resistant” depression has followed her since childhood, with multiple severe episodes following stressful life events. But she seems to attribute most of her problems to her upbringing, which was clearly cold, even neglectful but not out-of-bounds cruel — just clueless. It made me wonder whether holding on to the notion that she deserved a better childhood may not have made it even more difficult for her to live with her illness. It also made me wonder why she clung to a mother whom she describes as indifferent and callous well into adulthood. Wouldn’t she be better off to put some physical and mental space between her and her mother? In any case, the book is a reminder of the great travails of depression, and the gap still to be bridged by medicine when it comes to treating it.
Say you just found out that a psychopath made snuff films and the police officer to whom you reported your discovery (complete with abundant copies of said films) nonchalantly sent you away and told you not to worry your pretty little head. What would you do? (I know the premise is far-fetched but work with me.)
(A) Contact other and/or more powerful police authorities
(B) Get help from trusted friends and family
(C) Drive, unescorted, to the psychopath house, which is isolated out in the country, to see what you find
The heroines of Pretty Girls pick (C) and what follow is terrifying, but what terrified me the most was their stupidity. And also the amount of gratuitous details from the snuff films. And the ending that suggested that killing psychopaths yourself was better than using normal law and order avenues.
This time, still in Mumbai, Aravind Adiga tackles the great Indian passion that is cricket. Selection Day focuses on two talented brothers and their rival and friend who, unlike them, comes from a privileged background. The story also stars their obsessed father, who has trouble relinquishing his overbearing iron grip on his sons to their coach, a love interest, and multiple intermediaries in the cricket world, all expecting a little black money from the deals.
There are some wonderful observations of sibling rivalry, the seven kinds of Jain truths, and how decisions that are good for the family may not be so good for the individual — but too many pages describing the second day of cricket matches with 256 runs did me in.