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Book of the Month – May 2009

To liven things up I decided to designate a book of the month well, each month, and to choose a book of the quarter each quarter, starting right now. As I surveyed the books reviewed this month I found an immediate problem: there’s more than one book I really, really loved this month. So I will take liberties in this first writeup and talk about several books. If the problem occurs again next month I’ll move to books of the month rather than just one. With that, here we go for May.

My top recommendations are:

And I must mention three more books I enjoyed very much:

  • Closing Time, a memoir that could be a great novel of growing up poor (and Catholic) with an alcoholic father in Philadelphia
  • Flannery, a biography of Flannery O’Connor that (there’s a theme here) reads like a memoir… of a very Catholic writer.
  • Q&A, the immensely funny novel from which Slumdog Millionaire, so a novel in the form of a memoir!


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Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

All lucky streaks come to an end, although it would be very unfair to dub Gentlemen and Players a failure: it certainly reads well and keeps the reader turning the pages as the diabolical plot to destroy St. Oswald, an English private school, unfolds. If I had enjoyed Harry Potter a bit more I could probably say that the atmosphere is similar (uniforms, weird buildings, “forms” and “houses”) and there’s a whiff of Dan Brown in the way the intrigue twists around itself until the reader is not quite sure where it started. There’s the great character of the aging Classics teacher, Mr. Straitley, with his hard-earned wisdom (such as never show the students real anger, only manufactured anger — so true), his fights with the newfangled computer system, and his deep love of students.

But on the other hand some characters just don’t make sense. Can a slain student’s mother turn so swiftly from twittering snob to dedicated school secretary — at the school her son attended? I think not. Can the evil plotter fool Mr. Straitley almost to the end? And naturally there’s the trouble with the computer: just like in Rancid Pansies the part the computers play in the story seems made up, pasted on to make the novel sound more modern. All this talk of viruses and such is just not quite exact and distracts from the story, as does the complicated business with a missing student’s cell phone from which threatening calls are made. And surely the cell phone company would triangulate its location lickety-split under a police investigation. So the book didn’t quite work for me despite the clever plot.

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Rancid Pansies by James Hamilton-Paterson

A perfect package of funny (hilarious, even), goofy, and smart. Don’t be put off by the title (for which you will get an explanation in the book). Don’t be put off by the unlikely meeting of a one-armed woman sailing champion; a landslide in Italy; collective food poisoning brought on by a mouse vol-au-vent (yes, a mouse); and an opera about Lady Di. Rancid Pansies‘s humor is always underdone despite the outrageous happenings. Did I mention the visit to the Vatican to petition to beatify Lady Di? I liked this book so much I’m going to search for the previous one in the series, pre-landslide.

The only not perfect part of the novel is the use of long emails from the (opera-writing) hero’s scientist-boyfriend to his colleague and student. I can’t see anyone writing those long dissertations in emails, but it’s a small nit. Enjoy!


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Human by Michael Gazzaniga

Do not be fooled by the picture on the cover: there are no pictures in this book, which proved to be a pain to follow some of the explanations about the external anterior cortex (I’m making this up, I think) since my knowledge of brain anatomy is reasonably limited and the names are pretty confusing to begin with. Why no pictures? And why does the author feel the need to reassure us that he knows all those names? But I digress…

The proclaimed aim of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique is to show how humans differ from other animals, however the discourse often wanders towards straight neuroscience rather than any kind of attempt at differentiation, which is fine by me. There are enough mentions of well-known studies that I could feel smart, at times, and also, I must say, enough obscure stuff that my eyes glazed over more than once. It seems that the various sections were written almost independently of each other, with some pleasantly easy to follow while others strain both prose and the reader’s understanding. Don’t attempt unless you are really interested in the topic.

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