Little Fires Everywhere skillfully unrolls the story of a family in a conservative suburb that simultaneously befriends a single mother with a mysterious past and another family who adopted an also mysteriously abandoned baby — so the story is about motherhood, chosen or not, biological or not.
And it’s certainly filled with surprises and twists, both in the life stories of the characters and their personalities. But what a melodrama, and what a cliche-laden story, with unpleasant consequences for the logic of the events. Would a young college student recognize “baby hunger” in an older woman? I think not. Would the police fail to find an abandoned baby in one of the city’s fire stations a couple of weeks after the fact? Of course not.
There are some well-observed mannerisms and interactions in the book, but they could not overcome the overdone affect and underdone logic.
Cheerful topic, no? But that’s not the main problem of How to Get the Death You Want: A Practical and Moral Guide, which is that it is poorly organized, and little more than a platform for the The Final Exit Network, which advocates for patient-directed death. All well and good, I think, but it does not even begin to offer a solution for the types of death we may fear the most, perhaps, death after years of mental disability that would put us at the total mercy of the medical corps, which in turn needs to obey inflexible laws.
I suppose it’s a good thing to think and talk about how we want to die. But not by reading this book.
The Shadow District takes us to Iceland during WWII, under occupation by the Allies and at a time of great change in Icelandic society. A young woman is murdered, perhaps two, and the police errs in arresting the wrong person. Decades later, one of the police officers reopens the investigation and finds that long-held secrets are bubbling up, but many of the actors have died, or are dying in front of his eyes.
While the investigation is interesting in its own right, the historical perspective makes the book.
Show, don’t tell! This classic piece of writing advice shines in Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Trevor Noah does not sermonize about the evils of apartheid; he simply describes how his (black) mother had to smuggle him to see his own (white) father. He does not fulminate against domestic violence; he matter-of-factly recounts police officers’ shrugs when his mother reports abuse by his stepfather. He does not belly-ache about how poor people cannot rise out of their poverty; he chronicle how his friend’s gift of a CD burner put him on a path of financial independence.
He is funny, as we would expect, but deadly serious, and this book-length tribute to his indomitable mother is very touching.
Unlike the author of A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, I find “whom” to be a perfectly good and useful word, albeit often a misused one. But that is not my beef about the book. Under the veneer of hipness, the first half is a very standard, borderline boring usage manual, and the entire book is peppered with exchanges of texts between the author/BuzzFeed editor (she says slashes are ok!) and her coworkers, rather lame texts that do not add much to the contents.
Where she shines is her nuanced explanations of hipper words and punctuation marks in the context of text, tweets, and other modern modes of communication.
The author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us has a specific aim: to rehabilitate Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, that choosing a mate for pure beauty (rather than “fitness”), is an essential motor of evolution, alongside the better-known natural selection theory, now amply proven. The bitterness of the scientific debate sometimes shows through the narrative, and does not enhance it.
The author is an ornithologist and shares many examples of tropical birds that court females with their feathers, constructions, and dances — all of which he explains because females just like the fun stuff. While the arguments are interesting and plausible, they seem to resist proof and rely on hypotheses. And when he venture into human tastes (and testes), your capacity to believe may be further shaken. Still, it’s good to underscore that natural selection was just one of Darwin’s theory.
At its best, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is the very moving story of a family living through the last days of one of theirs, dying of a brain tumor. But it’s also a book about politics, since Joe Biden continued to serve as vice-president throughout the ordeal and was pressed to decide whether to run for the presidency to boot. And at times the narrative reminds us of how necessarily detached from regular folks’ lives privileged people can live — with private planes, round-the-clock security, and a certainty that access to care or specialists is always possible. I thought I would think solely of the private suffering, but I found myself uneasy with the privilege.
Written by a scientist who is also a buddhist, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment is an outsider-friendly discussion of Buddhism, with the author joyously (and encouragingly) sharing his own failures at meditating “properly”. The core idea of the book is that meditation is a powerful way to counter-balance our natural instincts, so whether we are annoyed at someone’s snoring or worried about our own pain, mindfully observing that feeling can give us the time and space to react in a different way than aggression and anxiety. It’s clear that the book cannot replace a good teacher or years of practice, but it is a wonderful glimpse.
I found Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing to be frustrating to read because it lacks a unifying purpose. Instead, each chapter focuses on a single idea (for instance, is there a connection between using a lot of adverbs and overall quality of writing) and shows how big data — counting words, phrases, or more sophisticated literacy devices — can inform the study of literature.
I have some quibbles with the way the author presents his information. He likes big charts where I would prefer to see charts, for example, but I was astounded to see how far one can get with this kind of approach.
I’m hesitant to recommend The Story of a Brief Marriage because it is so bleak. Not the marriage itself, however very brief and tragic it is, but the setting, in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, which is regularly bombed by the army and where everyday life is about dead bodies, amputations without anesthesia, and general despair. I almost closed the book after twenty pages of horror.
But if you persevere, you will encounter a wonderful scene of the husband taking an improvised bath next to the well, washing away months of grime, and delighting in the simple pleasure of being clean, with trimmed fingernails and hair, and clean clothes. It’s a magical moment. But it’s just a few pages long.