Overwhelmed Southern Californian woman hires young live-in-nanny to take care of her young son so she can write about the travails of raising her older one (whom she conveniently forgets to mention during the hiring process — but she also forgets to check references and other details one might think are important). Add a couple of strange mothers (the nanny’s and her employer’s), hidden agendas for everyone, and messiness ensues. There are enough deeper moments to enjoy the story, but it’s not much more than a book-length satire of upper-middle class Angelenos.
I wanted to like Miss Burma, with its exotic setting and its (probably quite romanced) family story featuring a fearless young woman, but it never quite comes together. I was leery from the start, as the white grandfather notices a beautiful young woman and “falls in love” with her — and marries her — without being able to converse at all, since they speak different languages. And as the story builds it becomes mostly a history lesson of the travails of then-Burma during and after WWII, and specifically the oppression of minority ethnic groups. Too much history, too little story for my taste.
I am a fan of Mohsin Amid but Exit West left me cold. It starts intriguingly, in a war-torn city that feels like Damascus, with a not-quite-matched couple of lovers who soon determine to leave. And leave they do, entering a half-fantasy world that feels all wrong: didactic, preachy, and (to me) boring. Too bad, the beginning was promising with its fearless heroine and her conservative boyfriend.
The subtitle of Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal is somewhat misleading since the author, in fact, tells the entire story of Volkswagen — and I suppose he would argue that we need the entire story to comprehend the scandal. Reaching back into Nazi territory may be taking it a bit far, but it certainly helps understand the family dynasty, and dynamics, which created a culture of authority and submission to the leader that led to pressures to evade the US emissions tests. (In an American story, the same behaviors would likely be characterized as bowing to the pressure of the market.)
The most interesting part of the story for me was the family story, of how the various cousins participated, or not, in the company and how the family managed to keep control of the voting shares.
The author of Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front was a helicopter pilot for the National Guard who flew search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan and undertakes to share her training, her combat experience, and her fight to eliminate the military’s rules that exclude women from serving in combat roles. It’s quite a ride! Sadly the writing is only serviceable, replete with sometimes impenetrable military acronyms, and often boringly detailed when she recounts her (otherwise thrilling) missions. Still, I enjoyed the peek into what life is like for women military pilots.
There are plenty of irritants in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World: convoluted writing (or perhaps a poor translation), a meandering structure that generates annoying repeats, and several episodes of pseudo-science, in which bold statements are not justified.
And yet, following the author as he rambles through his beloved forest, as he notes how trees live and die and interact with each other and the rest of their environment, we come to share his love and knowledge of trees. How badly we treat trees when we plant them in isolated patterns, whether on streets or even in gardens. There is much hope in this book, because the forest is smarter than us.
In Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, the author explores the death of her mother, murdered by Mafia drug dealers and that of her father, a brilliant alcoholic who gave her much love but could not recover from a lost job. What could be a melodramatic quagmire is told soberly, through the eyes of a growing child who is neither an angel nor the mess one could imagine of someone growing in a dysfunctional family. It’s amazing how children can endure when there are a couple of truly helpful adults around them.