The Summer Before The War is packaged as a vintage novel, with the local gentry in a small town controlling much of the institutions and everyone else barely getting by. But it is, in fact, a modern novel with a feminist twist, embodied in a brainy Latin teacher and her protector, an influential older woman who is working behind the scenes to open opportunities to women. Despite the sometimes awkward juxtaposition of the traditional style of the novel and the dogged feminist themes, it’s an engrossing story with some wonderful scenes, most starring the mayor and especially his ambitious and terminally conventional wife. Enjoy!
(Also read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by the same author.)
In Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, the author tells the story of her family, focusing on her parents and especially her mother and her siblings, who were born untouchables, very poor, but luckily educated by Canadian missionaries. They also came of age during the early days of an independent India and her older uncle was a member of the Communist Party and student activist.
I found the lengthy recounting of historical movement rather tedious but the family history fascinating, especially how the caste system condemned all its members to being exploited, homeless, and generally kept down. (And women had it even worse, educated or not!)
South Pole Station has everything a great novel may want: an exotic venue in a hostile environment, a cast of misfits, and plenty of political intrigue, both local and global. And yet it never came together for me. Not that I did not enjoy the absurdity of the selection and training process (chillingly conducted by a military contractor), the war between the old cook and the new cook in which cookbooks mysteriously disappear, or the solidarity between national bases once the US base runs afoul of its budget and politics — but the heroine’s back story, whether her family’s attachment to explorers’ stories or her brother’s suicide, seemed forced and irrelevant rather than providing a unifying theme.
There’s much to admire in the central idea of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, namely that to reproductive we need, at least sometimes, go into a mental cave and focus intensely. But why did the book grate on me so much? The random equations (e.g. high-quality work produced = time spent * intensity of focus) — so hokey, so unworthy of a computer scientist! The almost-exclusive focus on academic work, either ignoring or denigrating the “shallow” work of those in other professions. The arrogance of academics who refuses easy contact by the hoi polloi and instead rely on their assistants to open their (snail) mail. Really? And who has the luxury of an assistant these days? That said, most of my irritation came from the first part of the book. The second, where the author gives practical suggestions to organize for deep work, is surprisingly practical and accommodating of the majority of jobs that simply require a good measure of fast-paced interactions .
The Misfortune of Marion Palm stars the most elusive of heroines: the mother who abandons her children. She leaves them with their (helpless) father, so they are not altogether abandoned, but they keenly miss her and their very real sufferings provide ballast for an otherwise droll expose of New York private schools, the ins and out of small-scale embezzlement, and how a helpless father can transform himself into a stylish daddy-blogger. Funny, but occasionally deep and sad.
Concluding a week of messy books, let me introduce The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, whose main and only virtue is that it looks at the Emoji phenomenon in a serious way without pulling its hair about the barbarity of it all.
For the rest, the author seems to have slapped the book in a hurry. There are many repeats and more than one factual error (in French quotes; I know I’m being picky but isn’t this a book about language?). There are also large blocks of text that seem to have been lifted straight out of another book and have only a slight bearing on the topic at hand. It’s also very strange that some of the examples are segregated to a special section, making flipping back and forth annoying, while others are right in the text.
All that for not much: emojis add to the language rather than spell its doom, and nicely provide the humor and emotion that is so lacking in written communications. Duh.
Tiny House Basics: Living the Good Life in Small Spaces is badly organized, badly written, and at times reads like a commercial for the author-couple’s company. But it’s also a refreshingly down-to-earth description of what it’s like to build a trendy tiny house, and what it’s like to live in one, complete with such details as how to bring clothes back to the closet loft. If you are curious about life in tight quarters, this is the place to find out. And enjoy your probably more spacious house. Trendy does not mean practical. (And those two work from home! Oy vey!)
Refuge stars an Iranian family who is split up by exile to the US, leaving the daughter-narrator to alternatively miss and bemoan her father, whom she only sees very occasionally when he can get a visa to meet her and her brother in various cities around the world. The complicated relationship of the addict-father with the rest of the family is the best part of the book. Alas, it is surrounded by many meandering stories about the daughter’s geographical moves, her marital issues, and the refugees she is helping on the side, none of which seems to get anywhere.
Written by a former editor of The Times, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters is an uneasy mix of memoir and writing prescription, and my thoughts as I was reading it were: Why do books about writing have to be so prissy and boring? And, in this case, so cluttered? We get many pages listing cliches to avoid and bloated words with alternatives. All very useful but it does not add to the readability of the book.
The author seems to delight in showing us samples of bureaucratic and legal writing, which are indeed absolutely awful — but does he really believe that bureaucrats and lawyers want to be understood? I’m thinking it may not be pure incompetence, but perhaps a penchant for obfuscation.
I have enjoyed Knausgaard rough memoirs, and Autumn is very different: a series of essays and letters to his unborn daughter. The sweetness is surprising at first, but there are plenty of darker corners as the author tackles buttons, lice, tin cans, children frightened by thunder, and the embarrassment of trying to get rid of a large wad of gum at his editor’s house. Nothing escapes his critical gaze.
Best read in small doses, and while some of the essays are just brilliant, others are less so.