Category Archives: Non fiction

** Grocery by Michael Ruhlman

Parts of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America are unexpectedly sweet, and I don’t mean sugar-sweet, but emotionally sweet, starting from the very start when the author recalls, fondly, his father’s love of food shopping and his marveling at the variety and convenience of supermarkets. He also follows the family that owns and manages a chain of supermarkets in his home town of Cleveland, giving us a good feel for the remarkably thin margins of the grocery business, the amount of hard work required to physically move all products into position, the skills required to be a good bagger, and the zaniness of food conventions. As for the rest of the book, when he goes preachy on us about agribusiness, the horrible American diet, or vitamins, I could have done without. Turn the pages quickly in those chapters, the rest is really worth it!

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** An American Sickness by Elizabeth Rosenthal

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back is a horror show, heavy of the description and analysis of the horror and very light on the solutions. The horror is the US health care system, so incredibly expensive compared to other developed countries and yet yielding such poor results at the population level. The author, a physician turned journalist, cogently describes an industry that is treated as any others but does not obey the normal laws of markets as insurance companies, hospitals, physicians, and the pharmaceutical industry all conspire to increase their profits. I was underwhelmed by the list of “solutions”, which are heavy on patients asking for cost estimates ahead of time and shopping more wisely. Presumably she, with her physician’s background, can both determine which hospitals and physicians to choose and also get an answer to the cost question. Ordinary patients, most probably, cannot.

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* In Praise of Profanity by Michael Adams

I found highly enjoyable moments in In Praise of Profanity, especially the chapter on bathroom graffiti: some folks are patient enough to write proper quatrains that entertain and rhyme! The author also dazzles when he shows how profanity can add movement and intensity to dialog in real life and films.

But to get there, you will have to traverse the first couple of chapters, in which I think he tries to explain that there is no proper definition of profanity and we should not categorize words to begin with, and all words have the same rights. Hell no! As he himself points out, most adults who swear refrain in front of children, for instance, so clearly something interesting is going on. I would have liked to see more illustrations and fear sweeping judgments that all words are equal.

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* The Unmade Bed by Stephen Marche

I had high hopes when I started The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century since the author, a man, gave up a tenured professorship to follow his wife and her dream job, continuing to write but also taking on care taking duties for their son. What better spokesperson for men and women equality? Also, the text is amusingly annotated by his wife, who provides commentary on what was really going on, from her perspective, during the various anecdotes he recounts. And indeed, the best part are the tales from the trenches: the weird comments by well-meaning stay-home moms, the isolation of living with a toddler 24×7 (see Monday’s review) and the wonders of day care (free in Canada, let’s all dream…). The rest does not work so well, with tedious homilies (yes, we know men and women should have similar opportunity, and bizarre, unsupported statements (no, we should not institute separate boys’ and girls’ schools because your children happen to have very different learning styles, we should instead train teachers to use more diverse methods — and hire a few guys to teach kindergarten, to boot).

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* The Art of Death by Edwige Danticat

Although The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story starts with the moving story of the author’s death, it consists almost exclusively of analyzing other writers’ works about death, which makes the book feel like an exclusive, even exclusionary club if one has not read the texts — or if one cannot remember them (guilty as charged). I would like a little more emotion and a little less intellectualism.

 

I do remember the author’s excellent Claire of the Sea Light.

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** Inferior by Angela Saini

Did you think Darwin was a great scientist? Well, one thing he got very wrong is his belief that women were inferior to men (in intellect; somehow, he thought them superior “in moral qualities”, reflecting the prejudices of his time) — and we now have over a century of so-called science “proving” him right.  Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story sets out to show that studies designed and conducted overwhelmingly by men can confirm traditional roles and stereotypes, and even exclude women entirely from some studies, with the assumption that the results would be same. It all reminded of the discussion of whether animals are intelligent (not that women are animals, right?!)

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* Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Homo Sapiens. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, not so much. I suppose that the author gave himself an impossible task in predicting the future. Strike 1. Strike 2 is that the book is a muddle, fun to read (at times, when I was not enraged but the wild theories being put forward) but without a clean construction or purpose, meandering. If you approach it as a compilation of essays on various historical trends, and you are not bothered by the aforementioned wild theories, you might like it…

(And if you are worried about the string of one-star reviews this week, come back tomorrow. I have not finished the book I will review yet, but it’s a good one!)

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