Monthly Archives: September 2018

*** The Best Cook in the World by Rick Bragg

As of this review, I officially declare my dislike of books that blend stories and recipes. But, say you, you liked this one, didn’t you? Yes, I did, but what I liked in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table was not so much the recipes, but rather the fascinating story of the author’s family, starting with his great grandfather, who had had to exile himself out of state because the law was after him — but returned to teach his daughter in law the basics of cooking. The author’s mother is a central character, as are her beliefs that sorting beans require a child-free kitchen, microwave ovens are the work of the devil, and onions need to be cooked with a light hand so as not to bruise them (I agree with this last one!).

Along the way we hear of cows mysteriously falling to their deaths (conveniently for people who need meat), more than one shooting, feeding train-riding hoboes from a version of stone soup, and incredible care lavished on food made from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Of course, the cooking occurs without modern conveniences so that the first step is to chop the wood needed to heat the stove. We have it so easy.

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* Squeezed by Alissa Quart

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America tries valiantly to place both hyper-educated but underpaid workers and workers at the bottom of the service economy in the same, squeezed basket, and does not always succeed since a struggling adjunct professor has vastly different problems, and possibilities, than an undocumented nanny. It also, more than once, affixes blame sloppily. While the author asserts that Uber exploits teachers by recruiting them as drivers, perhaps the real issue is that teachers are not paid well enough?

The slapped-together structure of the book and its strident tone are too bad, because it does highlight real problems and real solutions. Why don’t we have affordable daycare solutions? Why are schools so dismal in low-income neighborhood–and choice so hard to navigate for the parents? Why can’t we have a more generous child allowance? (The author is also a fan of a universal basic income, which I think is a fantasy, but the other ideas are completely reasonable.)

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*** Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

In Bluebird, Bluebird, a black Texas Ranger, temporarily suspended for his role in an unrelated crime, investigates two murders, one a black man from out of town and the other a local white woman, under heavy scrutiny by the residents, black and white, and the sheriff. He will eventually untangle a complicated family history, uncover the wrongdoing of the local Aryan Brotherhood, and solve another, years-old murder. The twists of the story continue to the very last page, along with the ruminations of the hero.

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* The Garden Party by Grace Dane Mazur

The Garden Party is a rehearsal dinner between two families that seem to have little in common beyond the soon-to-be bride and groom, and who deploy remarkably little effort to understand each other, or even to have a pleasant conversation without immediately judging the other party as utterly irrelevant. The author does assemble a couple dozen guests, all with complicated problems, but they interact so little (or, when they do, so inappropriately) that they mostly generate monologues that intersect but do not connect.

Meanwhile, the bride and groom are trying to get married in advance of their big day. I have a piece of advice for them: elope!

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** Empress by Ruby Lal

Nur Jahan, the subject of Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan was the twentieth wife of a Mughal emperor who, despite behind cloistered, at least in theory, and not exactly high-ranking as a wife (although it seems that her husband had wanted to marry her for years), managed to share her husband power, have coins minted in her name, led troops into battle, and even shot a few tigers (with a monstrous-looking musket; the illustration is amazing!) The last quarter of the book, with the political intrigue surrounding the end of her husband’s life, is as tedious as one can imagine, but the rest of the story is vivid and full of details about the life of the Mughal sovereigns, from their amazing wealth to their herds of elephants, to their vast empire and their conflicts with their neighbors. Nur’s life was amazing, and I wish the book did not constantly try to make it more amazing than it was. It’s very clear that her power derived from the one she had on her husband (remarkable for the time, and considering the unlovely custom of the harem), but the minute he disappeared, she was out, too.

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*** Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — albeit lonely, misunderstood, and an alcoholic. But she finds herself pushed into what is for her an active social life when she rescues a man who fell in the street, and through his family and a delightful friendship with a coworker she renounces her crazy crush on a bad popular singer, renounces vodka, and deals with her nightmarish childhood.

The book reminded me of Convenience Store Woman, but set in England and with a more uplifting ending. It’s funny but also sweet.

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*** The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Like a good mystery? You will enjoy the very real story told in The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, bringing together a brazen museum theft, a close-knit community of fly-fishing nerds, and a dedicated amateur detective who uncovers not the theft itself (that was done by the UK police) but the network of buyers who took advantage of it. It’s a thrilling entry into a world where possessing rare feathers blinds otherwise respectable people to not only thievery but also evasion of international law and willful destruction of scientific specimens. Fascinating even if you don’t care about bird, let alone fly-making!

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* After the Education Wars by Andrea Gabor

After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform brings together a series of in-depth articles about various school districts located in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and New Orleans, all with stories of either failed or successful changes — and the author clearly pushes the initiatives in Massachusetts and Texas, both instigated and implemented by insiders, as the best way to pursue improvements. It’s also clear that the reforms she described were tried in New York and New Orleans, inspired and in some cases paid for by outsiders inspired by the business work, were utter failures.

Her conclusion, that outsiders don’t know what they are doing and insiders do, is not sustained by her descriptions. Sure, the two examples of successful reform that she presents are successful, heartwarmingly so, lifting hundreds of students from outright failure and mediocrity. But that does not mean that insiders are always right. After all, there are hundreds of insiders in any school district and not all of them are successful, let alone trying to turn things around. And it’s striking that, even for the two districts she presents that were very successful, little seems to have been collected and shared outside the district that could help lift others. Finally, it’s all well and good to point out the evils of using test scores as the only measure of success — but wouldn’t it be good to agree on some simple metrics that would allow parents and others to decide how successful schools are? The author does present many examples of egregious cheating on metrics, but that does not mean that metrics per se are bad, only that they need to follow rigorous definitions and audits.

I wholeheartedly support the idea that schools are complex systems, and that no quick fix or magic metric will suffice to cure problems unless the system is changed, refined, and embraced by teachers and parents. But pretending that the teachers or even principals have all the answers and that any outside ideas or interventions are doomed to fail is not reasonable.

 

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Tin Man is the story of a lost love, told so beautifully that I thought the book was perfect almost to the end when it seems to lose some of its taut and heartbreaking flavor. It starts with an apparently simple story of a stoic man who works the night shift in a car factory, who is very lonely after his wife’s death but who is befriended by a young version of himself, it seems. The reality is much more complicated and unspools in flashbacks that go all the way to his own childhood when a kind neighbor took him in so he could escape his father. I don’t want to say too much of the story so you can enjoy it in this short and delightful book.

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*** My American Dream by Lidia Bastianich

Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in  My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.

 

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