My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South is a messy book, perhaps proving that, much like physicians should not treat family members, journalists should not write about their families. But the story is stunning, even if the exposition is convoluted.
The author’s brother went to prison for a senseless act of murder, and several other family members did time as well, whereas he did well for himself. Many reviews of the book present it as a story of racism, which it is, but it’s much deeper than that. The most interesting character in it may be the mother (of the author and the disgraced brother), who cares for all her many children (and many non-children to boot), regardless of their position in the world. I feel for her most.
The Impostor is biography of Enric Marco, a Barcelona man who claimed for years that he was a Holocaust survivor but was unmasked by a persistent historian who showed that he had never been detained in a Nazi concentration camp — and had so many other lies and embellishments embedded in his life story that additional wives, children, jobs, and political adventures seem to surface in every chapter.
The author very literally takes us along in his quest for the truth, which is sometimes charming, as when he relates his then teenage son’s reaction to the lies, but also makes for a drawn out and discursive story — as if the many lies weren’t enough to delay the conclusion. The most interesting parts of the book, to me, were the ability of the character to subtly change any story into one that was more heroic, more remarkable, and just credible enough to pass muster with the general public, and the wonderful assistance he got of the end of the Franco era, during which many records were lost, and many Spaniards decided that they would invent a more glorious resistance to the dictator. The book shows how important the work of historians can be.
Bitwise: A Life in Code is the memoir of a programmer, and I thought that its most interesting feature was to provide a glimpse of the typical personality of programmers. The author makes it clear from the first sentence, “Computers always offered me a world that made sense. As a child, I sought refuge in computers as a safe, contemplative realm far from the world. People confused me.”
That said the reader also gets to experience the wonders of a segmentation fault on page 37. It’s kinda unpleasant for non-programmers… But other chapters are more successful, as when he compares his infant daughter to a computer that gets upgraded on a regular basis (it’s much less creepy than it sounds, pretty funny actually).
The last part of the book is a reflection on how computers and algorithms are changing the world, and is less successful, in my mind, with the important exception of his thoughts on how data structures drive the way we engage with the world, taking as his example the way Facebook allows its users to characterize themselves. An interesting personal peek into the world of the people who create the technology we use.
I’m leery of titles that include the word “extraordinary”, but in the case of The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster , it is richly deserved. The woman at the center of the book has had a very unusual personal life, from abused child to drag queen to sex worker to matron and now founder and owner of a successful business. And her business is cleaning up after hoarders, homicides, and suicides, so she serves as a one-person resource for cleaning up unfathomable messes while soothing the nerves of her clients.
What I thought most remarkable about the book is how the author portrays a woman who has made many mistakes and also given generously to strangers in trouble, showing a frank and balanced story without ever making her demon or saint. It’s a remarkable story.
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.
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.
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.