Normal People stars two teenagers turning into young adults from different economic backgrounds who fumble through true love, betrayal, and general awkwardness. I often wished that they would just stop floundering, speak the truth to each other, and get on with it. I suppose it’s age-appropriate to flounder, but a little trying on the reader.
Monthly Archives: July 2019
Following Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, De Waal tackles emotions in Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions. We see a capuchin monkey losing it when his friend gets a delicious grape instead of the cucumber he receives for the same task, smiling primates (including humans) trying to make amends, chimps who recognize other chimps’ behinds (but only for chimps they know), bully alpha male apes who get killed by their fed-up troops, and orphan bonobos who can’t quite self-soothe. The author’s deft and empathic observations make it very clear that, of course, animals have emotions, and not too different from ours.
Flavia de Luce returns with The Golden Tresses of the Dead, which starts with a macabre discovery in her sister’s wedding cake and ends with suspicious evangelizing nuns. Dogger, the shell-shocked gardener, has become her partner in her official private investigation venture and serves as a wonderful foil and mentor.
The Art of Simple Living: 100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy delivers 100 short lessons on how to slow down and be more present. I particularly liked the idea that lining up discarded shoes could help bring order to your mind (good to feed our OCD side, too). Some of the lessons are repetitive, and others will bring to mind our friend Marie Kondo, but I found the whole exercise very calming, if not exactly joyful.
The Rules of Inheritance recalls the author’s struggles after both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer and died when she was teenager to young adult. She drank too much, got into ill-advised relationships, and generally felt alone and orphaned. She seems to blame her problems squarely on her loss, which may be too easy of an assignment. The best part of the book for me was her recalling her parents and their relationship.
Want some good news with your summer? The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World shares many studies that show that empathy is a skill, and therefore can grow over time. It also shares many examples of deliberate initiatives in a variety of settings to deploy empathy. And it also describes efforts to be less empathetic, when too much empathy would harm you, as would be the case in some hospital settings. Inspiring!
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir recounts Ruth Reichl’s tenure as the editor of Gourmet, which was shuttered in 2009, following the latest recession. Unlike her earlier memoirs, one about her mother and the other about her adventures as a food critic, this one disappointed me. At times, it seemed to be no more than a vacuous recitation of the luxuries afforded by the publisher (first-class travel, a generous clothing allowance, and an apparently bottomless expense account), rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and inane office politics. Still, there are several sweet personal stories about her son and interesting ruminations about the strange world of high-end dining.
In the typical dark Oates way, My Life as a Rat stars a panicked tween who blurts out to a police officer that her brothers killed an Africa-American schoolmate, and is shunned by her family into a lonely, unloved life that leaves her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitative men. There is a very small glimmer of hope at the end, but it’s a grim tale, and to me was most evocative of the havoc that one psychopathic brother can wreak.
Together with her unloved husband, the author of Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life goes to China, undercover, to proselyte for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organization that is banned by the Chinese government. There, she finds herself with a job as an unlikely podcast host, new friends, and an illicit correspondence with a Californian man that make her question her faith, and drag her away from it, and her family and old friends, who must shun her. I found her descriptions of living in Shanghai as a foreigner are delightful and her earnest description of losing her faith is arresting, although she could have excised the long exchanges with her Californian penpal.
In the introduction to Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law, the author notes that the initial inspiration for the book was a textbook for young prosecutors, and its origins show, with some chapters reading like a somber and rather hectoring list of do’s and dont’s–but fortunately others are full of stories that illustrate and inspire. I thought that he could have use a good copy editor, but he is a good guide to all kinds of controversial topics, from how best to obtain confessions to why prejudice taints the entire police and justice system.