Monthly Archives: March 2018

*** The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window is a New York psychologist whose agoraphobia prevents her from leaving the house. Even retrieving a package from her doorstep is an ordeal. New neighbors move in, and with them a teenager who seems to be the only person who can penetrate her life — and then it all goes very wrong, in completely unexpected ways. It’s a delightful mystery with plenty of twists and a harrowing ending.

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** The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

I was disappointed by The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, which for the most part reads like any organizational manual: get rid of stuff you don’t need, keep only what you love, etc. Still, the perspective is interesting since the idea is not to force clutter on the next generation, and the voice of the writer (who says, multiple times, that she is between 80 and 100; why is she so coy about her age?) comes through and gently exhorts the readers to bring their possessions to order. And I loved her idea to keep a box, clearly labeled “throw away”, to hold personal and confidential treasures.

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** The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes

A true birder would undoubtedly enjoy The Meaning of Birds infinitely more than I did, but it is a charming compendium of stories about various birds, mostly UK birds since the author live there. Some chapters are mostly about science: flying, what birds can see, while others are about our relationships to birds: using the feathers, eating them, shooting them for sport — all lively and full of finely observed details.

My only gripe is that, although the author is aiming at a general public, his idea of general public is one that includes instantaneously conjuring up the picture of a marsh harrier, for instance. (He does provide many illustrations, but not for all the birds he mentions.)

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Filed under Non fiction

* The Heirs by Susan Rieger

I very much want to believe that The Heirs is a satire of a wealthy family, who inconveniently discovers, after the death of the father, that he had a second family on the side, but I am not so sure. And the blind assumptions pile up: children with moderate academic ability will go to Princeton, because, legacy. We will purchase vast apartments side by side to house our biological child and mother (long story!) because, inherited money. We will actually purchase an entire hospital wing, also because, money, inherited. And obsessively track the genealogy of anyone we meet so we can position them within the limited 400 families that count.

If it comforts you, read the book and see that the rich do have similar (if better hidden) problems with their wives, husbands, ex-boyfriends, children, and themselves.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Hippie Food by Jonathan Kauffman

If you find it completely normal to eat tofu, yogurt, brown rice, whole-grain bread, or kale, it may be surprising to realize that 40 years ago it would have been extremely challenging to find them in a grocery store or restaurant, in the US that is.  Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat details how it all started (in California, of course!) with a surprising mix of influences, from “right-eating” maniacs who killed their devotees by forgetting that scurvy happens,  to travelers who wanted to replicate delicious meals they enjoyed during overseas travel made possible by cheaper airfare, to environmentalists who decried the hidden costs of eating meats, to idealists who created co-op stores. I was struck by how many of the pioneers had very little background in nutrition, agriculture, or the food industry, and yet they pushed forth a revolution. It’s an interesting look at changes that came slowly but transformed what we eat and how we eat.

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** Miracle Cure by William Rosen

Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine focuses just as much on the discovery of antibiotics as on the complex story of how the pharmaceutical industry managed to manufacture them in large amounts. Right from the start, the author describes men (almost all men) with large egos that were as interested in science as they were in pursuing fame (and lots of money for the industry men). And some of the science was downright dodgy.

By the way, the one woman in the story, Mary Hunt, found the rotting melon that gave rise to the penicillin strain used to this day. Hurrah for farmers’ markets.

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** Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman

It’s a little difficult to conjure up empathy for a family of four that spends $800,000 a year (and could spend more), yet frets about how to spend money. Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence pictures such a family and fifty other uber-affluent people in New York City, along with their worries about appearing too flashy and not having enough dough to do all the things they would want to do (lol). If you can suspend your hilarity, or anger, long enough to read the book, you will find that the rich are just like us: they worry about having enough money (to buy their third house, not to pay the rent); non-working spouses have secret accounts so they can buy the shoes they covet without their partners questioning their tastes (designer shoes, not sneakers); they worry about spoiling their children (because they always fly private jets, not just because they go on vacation with them).

It was quite fascinating to me to see how much the respondents valued hard work, being nice to others, and the importance of not bragging. Considering the relatively small size of the sample, I imagine there are many rich people who laze about, are mean, and brag — but it was comforting to see that at least 50 try to behave differently.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

** The Meaning of Belief by Time Crane

 

It would be wonderful if many atheists read The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, as it kindly views religion not as some kind of primitive delusion, but rather as a mix of a human need for transcendence and the equally human need to belong to a group. We are very far from the screeching Richard Dawkins (and close to The Dawkins Delusion).

My only point of disagreement with the author is when he undertakes to “prove” that no conflict is actually provoked by religion because the combatants are not, in fact, using theological arguments. Try telling that to the Serbs and Croats of his example: nothing about the religion of each side may spark the conflict, but certainly the combatants are clearly identifying the other religious group as “enemy”.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

** Catching Breath by Kathryn Laughed

Despite the author’s mostly lively prose, and her sense of humor, Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis can be a bit of a slog to read for non-professional scientists and I certainly flipped some pages rather fast in the most technical chapters. Still, it’s extraordinary to think that tuberculosis, which is the most-prevalent infectious disease in the world, gets so little publicity and is so poorly understood by medicine — probably because (a) it strikes mostly poor countries and (b) it has managed to survive for so long because its mechanism is complicated!

Be prepared to overturn some of what you thought you knew about the disease (for one thing, it’s not all about coughing, that’s only pulmonary TB) and to be horrified at the ways of long-dead scientists (Koch injected his much younger fiancee with his attempt at a vaccine; she married him anyway!) My favorite story in the book is that of rats that have been trained to sniff sputum samples (African pushed rats, don’t try this at home).

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*** On Living by Kerry Egan

You may hesitate to pick up a book about end-of-life patients, but I hope you will read On Living, a beautiful and funny memoir by a hospice chaplain who sits with her charges and listens, offering acceptance and occasionally compassion (never pity!), encouraging them to speak to the members of their families about secrets they never divulged before, and admitting to us all that she sometimes composes grocery lists in her head instead of listening fully.

Egan says that her own brush with mental illness allows her to fully hear every patient’s story, however deluded. I think she’s just a very dedicated and skilled listener.

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Filed under Non fiction