Want a little melancholy with your summer? Try The Other Side of the World, in which an overwhelmed mother follows her husband from England to Perth, Australia — where she finds that she is just as overwhelmed and frustrated by not being able to find time for her art. Her husband, meanwhile, finds that racism (he is part Indian) may be fiercer than back home. The story perfectly the feeling of utter exhaustion of raising small children along with the isolation of emigration, and is full of well-observed details about little kids.
Inheritance From Mother opens with two middle-aged sisters rejoicing on the death of their mother — not because their mother was in great pain, and not because of the inheritance of the title, but because their mother was a difficult woman who treated them badly, especially the younger one, and they are finally free of her demands and manipulations. The story, first published in installments in a newspaper, unspools in a steady rhythm, focused on the younger sister who finds herself quitting her job and divorcing her philandering husband at the same time. It’s both an engrossing portrait of a woman who reflects on her life and a universal story of duty versus individual choice. A wonderful book, and not as melancholic as one would think from the subject matter.
Did you think Darwin was a great scientist? Well, one thing he got very wrong is his belief that women were inferior to men (in intellect; somehow, he thought them superior “in moral qualities”, reflecting the prejudices of his time) — and we now have over a century of so-called science “proving” him right. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story sets out to show that studies designed and conducted overwhelmingly by men can confirm traditional roles and stereotypes, and even exclude women entirely from some studies, with the assumption that the results would be same. It all reminded of the discussion of whether animals are intelligent (not that women are animals, right?!)
Between Them is a sweet remembrance of the author’s parents, who had him late in their marriage, after many years of driving all over the South, visiting his father’s clients. They were regular folks, so this is not a name-dropping memoir, and they loved each other and him, so no drama, although sometimes their bond seems so strong as to exclude all others, even their son.
The book is written in two parts, one about his father and the other about his mother, so there are repeats that may have been avoided but the book is short enough that it’s not a serious annoyance. It’s refreshing to read about normal people.
Did you like The Martian? (I loved it, and I am puzzled that I never bothered to write a proper review for it.) Then you will also like Spaceman of Bohemia, which contains no geeky science and no superhuman feats of survival, but the same kind of lonely astronaut fighting for survival. In Jakub’s case, there is a complicated family story in post-Velvet Revolution Czech Republic, as a failing marriage to worry about. The narrative gets snarled here and there but there is plenty of humor and humanity to make it a completely enjoyable story.
So this is the good book of the week: Priestdaddy, the unlikely memoir of the daughter of a Catholic priest (yes, it is possible to be a Catholic priest and be married and have children; read the book to discover the loophole). Be warned that it starts a little slowly, with the author and her husband reluctantly but gratefully moving back into the rectory where her parents live, after a ruinous health scare. And because it’s the rectory, there’s also an awkward seminarian living there, whom she likes to terrorize (it does not take much!) The story picks up speed — and old memories — and pretty soon we find ourselves swimming in stilted dinners with the bishop (helped along with some Mountain Vodka Dew), picketing abortion clinics as a young child, and perusing liturgical-supplies catalogs. It’s David Sedaris meets Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, sweet and hilarious and complicated like large families can be.
I loved Homo Sapiens. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, not so much. I suppose that the author gave himself an impossible task in predicting the future. Strike 1. Strike 2 is that the book is a muddle, fun to read (at times, when I was not enraged but the wild theories being put forward) but without a clean construction or purpose, meandering. If you approach it as a compilation of essays on various historical trends, and you are not bothered by the aforementioned wild theories, you might like it…
(And if you are worried about the string of one-star reviews this week, come back tomorrow. I have not finished the book I will review yet, but it’s a good one!)
Curious about ghost writers? I was, so I looked forward to Pretend I’m Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp, from which I learned a lot about the tricky business of, essentially, impersonating someone else, usually someone important and famous. I also enjoyed the author’s description of how she got into the field. That said, she chose to tell her story in a gossipy, star-struck manner that turned me off. She also describes how she shared secrets about one of her clients with a friend who later published them and her defense, that her friend should not have done that, seems stupefyingly self-serving: isn’t the definition of a secret something that we do not share?
If you are a biology nerd, you will enjoy The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet. If not, you will certainly appreciate knowing about ichnologists (people who study animal traces, as the author), and many other fun facts, from where to find the secret nuclear bunker for members of congress to the existence of a keratin-eating moth, to the strange molting habits of coconut crabs, and how gophers were the first to reestablish themselves on the site of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption. But I bet that, like me, you will mostly enjoy the first 100 pages of the book, exploring alligator burrows in the South East, rather than the recounting of the author’s Ph.D thesis, or traversing the stories of many extinct creatures with obscure names, linked only by their love of underground living.
The long and awkward subtitle of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies says it all: it’s a long and often awkward book that tries to tie together physics, biology, geography, and business — and I found is fascinating despite its gawky structure. The core of the book is simple: scale matters and the world does not usually work linearly so that a large animal (like an elephant) is much more efficient than a small one (say, a mouse). Same for cities and perhaps for companies, too. The author has gathered scores of examples to illustrate his points, from heartbeats to growth rates to income and patent filings to, more surprisingly, crime and stomach flu.
Now to the not-so-accomplished part: the author insist on explaining everything in “plain English” which makes for eye-watering complication and length. I salute his concerns for the less numerically literate but he would have been better off to include a simple (graphical) lesson about exponential functions and logarithms — and proceed with equations and graphs. And his belabored references to the Santa Fe Institute, which he directed for a while, could be streamlined into a single tribute. Still, this is a wonderful look at how the very large is very different from the very small.