Monthly Archives: December 2017

** My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

I hesitate to recommend My Absolute Darling because I almost closed the book after the first few chapters, whose vivid evocation of child abuse I found overwhelming, even repugnant. Yes, the heroine is indeed a survivor, as critics note, but she does have to endure a lot at the hands of her father and it makes for man rough pages. Two things really shined for me: the description of the Mendocino coast, with its physics beauty and its strange characters, and the complicated reality of abused teens, who choose to retreat rather than trust outsiders. But a tough read, for sure!

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Filed under New fiction

*** Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu

 

The author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve is an American-born mom whose travels take her family to China, and whose two boys attend Chinese public elementary schools (the boy of the title is the older one; the story stops when the younger one enters kindergarten). She takes us mostly through his experience, and his parents’, although she adds other stories of independent reporting she did while living in China. The best parts of the book, by far, are the ones that tell of her personal experience, as she humorously tells of her surprise, even horror, at some of the coercive behavior modification techniques used with very young children — while she freely marvels at their academic successes. She also tells of bribing teachers with expensive American handbags, and the routine requirement for parents to practice at home with students who are not performing at the level expected by teachers. And there’s a good arc to the story, moving from astonishment to respect.

 

 

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives also tells a true story from Oakland, that of a very bad mistake from a teenager who lights on fire another’s dress, for a lark, really,  on the bus of the title. The two come from two different worlds, one white and privileged, one black and struggling financially. The story unfolds both in the past and the present, showing the physical recovery of one and the harsh legal treatment of the other, despite remarkably generous interventions by the wounded teen’s parents. It’s a good illustration of why we should probably not treat teens as adults in the legal system.

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Filed under True story

** The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life stars twin brothers who, threatened by gangs in their native El Salvador, flee to the US and settle in Oakland with their older brother, who is undocumented. Because they are minors, they are able to benefit from some protection from the law, and a helpful school community, but they face violence, family heartbreak, and the memories of their difficult voyage.

And they also waste money, fail to clean their room or go to school, and engage in other teenage behaviors (although they seem to work exceptionally hard at their jobs). The story shows how difficult it is to craft policies for refugees, and even more to put them into play. And it would be even better if it stuck to the actual story of the twins, without the political commentary.

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Filed under True story

** The State of Affairs by Esther Perel

Esther Perel claims that affairs can have positive consequences, but judging from the many dozens of stories of intense pain, destruction, and resentment contained in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (stories contrasted with only a handful of positive ones), it seems that infidelity continues to be a very bad idea. The strength of the book seems to be more in the willingness to take an honest look at the taboo, and explore the mindset of both affair participants and victims almost clinically, without judgment or preconceptions.

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Filed under Non fiction

** How To Be A Muslim by Haroon Moghul

Haroon Moghul’s autobiography, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, is at its best when it keeps to the personal story, how the author describes being thrust into the role of professional Muslim as an undergraduate (because of 9/11) — even as he struggled with his faith, his relationship with his family, and his American-ness, not to mention his mental illness.

The more sweeping historical and political descriptions I could have done without, but the personal struggle is engaging and a reminder that a carefully composed public identity can hide much suffering.

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*** The Party by Elizabeth Day

The Party is the story of a long, complicated, dark friendship that unravels brutally on the night of a lavish party. The author dribbles out the story as one of the friend is interviewed by the police while his wife recuperates at a rehab center. The plot is quite ordinary, stemming from the vast class differences between the friends; what makes the book is the slow deployment of it. Delicious!

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*** Scienceblind by Andrew Shtulman

If you don’t already suspect it before reading Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, we humans are often very, very ignorant and wrong about the way things work. The author takes us, chapter by chapter, through physics and biology and shows that, at every age, we fall prey to preconceptions and plain misunderstandings of what we supposedly learned. (He is very kind and gives us examples of confused graduate physics students so we don’t feel so bad!)

He also tries to lay out recommendations for how to bridge the gap and is less successful at that (for one thing, his specialty is psychology, not physics or biology). Still, it seems that STEM courses should spend a little more time contrasting the truth with common preconceptions rather than just solving equations. The problem seems to be the intersection of “common” sense and technical knowledge.

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers tells a not-so-original story, of a teenager getting unexpectedly pregnant, and indeed the best part of the book, story-wise, comes at the beginning, when she is trying to find her way after her mother’s suicide and her father’s complete shutdown. But what makes the story interesting is the counterpoint, Greek chorus style, of the mothers of the title, her church’s older women, who keep the church together and also know, or think they know, everything. The book is full of their comments and asides, some just seriously funny and others deep.

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** Making Sense by David Crystal

David Crystal is at it again, this time not with words but with grammar. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, and he starts, charmingly, with stories about his daughter’s building up her communication skills from single words to sentences. It works pretty well, for the first few chapters, and then peters out, of course. There are amusing tidbits such as why Latin grammarians invented the genitive case (misunderstanding the Greek origin, ha!), and why Irish speakers might say “I’m after giving him a lift”. And the overall feeling that trying to force language into neat categories and rules is by definition a doomed errand.

Perfect for grammar nerds.

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Filed under Non fiction