Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The House Of the Scorpion

by Nancy Farmer

In a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomized “eedjit” zombies, a young boy named Matt lives on the compound of a feared drug lord named El Patron.  Early on, he learns that he is a clone of the ancient, decrepit kingpin himself.  Aside from a friendly bodyguard and the woman who raised him, he’s treated with scorn and disgust by most of the family and employees, although El Patron orders everyone to act normally around him.  Gradually, Matt realized why El Patron needs a clone, and it’s not because he wants an heir.  Making his escape, he spends some time in a pseudo-socialist Mexican orphanage workhouse before finding his childhood friend, and some measure of meaning in his life.

This is an interesting and original book; Matt’s slow realization as he learns what the reader already assumed gives it a chilling suspense, and the pacing is good.  I thought the quality fell a bit in the Mexico section; Farmer seems to have been intent on critiquing the hypocrisy of an Orwellian socialism, which is not only attacking a strawman, but is rather out of place compared to the overall tone of the book.  Worse, the main resolution of the book happens off-scene, and Matt is simply told of the fate of everyone he knew at the hacienda in Drugland.   It’s a bit of dramatic let-down, though it sets things up nicely for a sequel. 

four stars

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


by Cornelia Funke
translated by Althea Bell

Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading.  When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives, calling Meggie’s father “Silvertongue,” Mo acts secretive and alarmed.  They take a trip to the house of a relative, Elinor, who is just as book mad as they are.  There, however, they are set upon by kidnappers who want a specific book, and Mo himself.  When they’re captured, Mo reveals his terrible secret.  When he reads aloud from books, he brings the characters to life, literally. Ten years previously, he read so lyrically from the book Inkheart that a pair of the book’s villains appeared in our world, while his wife was spirited into the book!  With some help from Dustfinger, who is by no means an ally but wholly self-interested, the three try desperately to work out a plan that will end the villain Capricorn’s reign of terror as well as get his wife back – a plan that depends on help from Inkheart’s own author.

I was not bowled over by this book.  It’s an interesting premise, even if it has been done before, but the book is overlong at 540 pages or so.  The characters are flat (the villains uninterestingly and thoroughly villainous; Meggie and her father are selfless and beatific), as well as obtuse, which I found irksome.  It’s absurd to think after you’ve been kidnapped from your own home by a mad, violent, powerful man who wants something from you, and then escaped, that you can simply meander back to that home with your ordeal over.  It’s downright stupid to think that situation can be resolved by talking. Some of the conceits of the plot are also a bit ridiculous: a normal, illiterate man from a magical but medieval world appearing here with nothing but the clothes on his back, somehow rising to become a crime lord?  And even established as he is in the story, Capricorn is the sort of tyrant who could be dealt with by two men with handguns; hardly an indefatigable enemy.  Finally, once the main conflict has been established, the book drags; the plot repeats itself and Funke takes a dreadfully long time to get to the real point of Capricorn’s plan, to unleash a murderous magical creature on this world.  For all that it is a love letter to classic children’s literature (Tinkerbell is appropriated as a minor character, as is a figure from The Thousand and One Nights), I found it more boring than engrossing.  I’d rather reread E. Nesbitt.

three stars

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef.  She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not.  At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure.  I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him.  Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer.  She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive.  Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable.  Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow).  But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me.  Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage.  She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually).  She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him.  Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow a good or exciting man.  So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that.  Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell.  I just want to hear the professional part.

four stars

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones

by Anthony Bourdain

Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece).  I’m a Bourdain fan, but most of these essays are simply too short to have any real impact.  That’s not to say they’re not bad; they have his trademark snide remarks, the New York swagger tempered by open-minded desire to learn more about others.  In a magazine I’m sure they’re fine.  But, for example, a mere three printed pages on Bourdain’s first taste of Szechuan food is nearly pointless; he barely begins to describe the taste before the essay is over.  A lengthy examination of Brazilian food and culture demonstrates how much more powerful his travel writing can be when he has room (on the page) to explore.  This edition had some commentary by Bourdain on his own pieces since their publication; some of his opinions have changed, and it’s fun to read him mocking his old self as briskly as he used to mock TV chefs.

three stars

Friday, October 18, 2013

Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable

by Dan Gutman

Twin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plot to use “YAGs,” or Young American Geniuses, to solve the complex problems of the nation, and find that they are on the list.  When they learn that a shadowy group is preparing a terrorist attack at (one of) the country’s biggest ball(s) of twine, their road trip becomes a race against time, made all the more desperate by the fact that their parents know nothing about their mission and by the fact that dangerous “dudes with bowler hats,” as well as their old health teacher, are trying to kill them.

It’s a very light, silly book, crammed with gimmicks like codes presented within the book and a suggestion that readers follow the trip via Google Maps.  With lots of actual spots of Americana oddities mentioned, such as the Donner Party Memorial, the PEZ museum, a Yo-yo museum, and the House on the Rock, the book is at times more gimmick than plot.  Some parents might find it troubling that the preteens are instructed by a stranger to keep secrets from their parents, but it’s all in fun, with no real violence.  It’s a simplistic kid’s book with some humor, such as when the kids gets their spy bags with Frisbees, cards, and fruit, which the kids are disappointed to learn are not laser Frisbees, spy camera cards, and bomb fruit, but actually just plastic toys and food.

four stars

Saturday, October 12, 2013


by Christopher Buckley

In the not-so-distant future, America teeters on the brink of economic disaster as the baby boomers start retiring. Enter beautiful young ex-Army-turned PR flak, coulda-gone-to-Harvard-but-Daddy-spent-the-tuition-money crusading blogger Cassandra, who on her blog suggests that Baby Boomers voluntarily kill themselves for tax breaks, saving Social Security costs.  When young people take to the streets, the ineffectual president (who happens to be in cahoots with her father, who is now a software tycoon and party patron) makes her an enemy, as does a TV preacher.  But the cause is taken up by a young congressman who shares an eyebrow-raising past with Cassandra, and soon people are starting to talk about actually passing the “Transition” bill into law.

I wasn’t too impressed with the previous Buckley I read, Supreme Courtship, and this book is of about the same weight.  Buckley’s satire, as I said about that book, is the toothless satire of the contented conservative shooting blanks at straw men.  The fact that his heroine must be “hot” and blonde “with liquid, playful eyes and lips” shows how concerned he is with serious ideas.  In over 300 pages, none of the characters seem very interesting, and the dialogue at times is positively ridiculous; his ideas about software are equally out of touch. His scenarios are mildly amusing but not actually comic, and he has no real point to make about Washington, just a modern modest proposal.  Light, frothy, somewhat arch, but it lacks punch.

three stars

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Zero

by Jess Walter

In the days after 9/11, New York police officer Brian Remy tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but succeeds only in causing a sort of temporal brain damage, in which he flits in and out of awareness of his own life as though through staccato, disconnected snippets of film.  Apparently recruited for some black ops anti-terrorist unit, he sporadically comes to his senses to find that he has gotten involved in some unpleasant and untenable situations – taking mysterious packages, going through citizens’ correspondence, beating and intimidating Arabic suspects, sleeping with women he doesn’t know whether he loves or is just using for information.  He has no idea what the reason for it all is – his genuinely confused question about what he’s doing inevitable taken as kidding or rhetorical musing – and as the black ops sting heads toward an insane, disastrous conclusion, he is helpless to stop it.

It’s written with more of a satirical black humor than this plot summary implies, a sort of modern Catch-22 as written by Don Delillo, with the typical distant lens he views humanity through to make it seem foreign and alien.  There are, indeed, a couple of scenes that pay almost direct homage to Joseph Heller’s masterwork, such as when Remy’s high school son pretends that Remy is dead, and he, his wife, and son have a straight-faced, absurd conversation about honoring grief and having respect for the son’s wishes.  Or another scene where some intelligence officers looking at some evidence, including a photo of a man eating in a restaurant, begin an earnest, utterly irrelevant discussion of how to properly cook it, and what wine might go best with it.  But the mordant humor gives way to a spooky noir feel in the second half of the book, and although the botched terrorist sting is clearly political satire, it lacks the deadpan absurdity of the earlier half, and comes to a comparatively predictable ending.  Altogether, this a tense, readable, original political satire, the work of a major modern talent.

four stars

Monday, September 30, 2013

Stink: Solar System Superhero

by Megan McDonald

The irascible and short second grader, Stink Moody, is outraged when he learns that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Friend of all things small (like James Madison, the shortest and best president), Stink takes up the cause for Pluto. Stink gets into a feud over this issue with a classroom rival, Riley, who has been to space camp and so comes off as a know-it-all, until his teacher suggests a debate. Stink wins the debate but learns a bit about not judging people until you get to know them, and sees Riley in a new light. This book contains the usual cheerful silliness of the series, and I enjoyed the real-life moral of looking to other people’s motives. There isn’t exactly a healthy respect for scientific opinion, though, which is a minus. It doesn’t matter how Stink and his pals feel about Pluto. The teacher should have given them the facts of how Pluto no longer fits the scientific consensus of the definition of planet. It’s just a kid’s book, but it’s rather dangerous to venerate popular sentiment over science. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

four stars

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Comrade Lost And Found: A Beijing Story

by Jan Wong

A sequel of sorts to her maddening, fascinating, invaluable memoir Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, this book chronicles Wong’s return to Beijing in 2008 to find the woman whom she denounced as a traitor at the height of the Cultural Revolution.  This betrayal has gnawed at her over the decades, and she makes the trip despite her fears that she will either find out nothing in the face of intractable Communist bureaucracy, or that the woman was imprisoned, tortured, or killed.  Bringing her family with her for support, she tracks down a lot of old friends and foes who seem happy enough to see her but aren’t exactly thrilled to talk about the bad old days, suffers through a banquet under the watchful eye of a humorless cadre, and marvels at the changes in Beijing since her college days.  (This last despite the fact that Wong lived there as a reporter off and on into the 1990s and made a few visits even in the early 2000s – this shows the tremendous rate of growth the city has undergone.) Little by little, and despite some obfuscations and lies from her sources, she gets a few hints about the woman’s fate – but then it’s time to come face to face and hear her story.

In my review of Red China Blues, I called Wong “deluded,” “naïve,” “blind,” “dangerously stupid,” and “an unrepentant spoiled fool,” which seems a bit harsh now that I write it all out like that.  Nevertheless, that book did seem like a personal apologia for her actions, while this one is, as she says, “tantamount to a Maoist self-criticism.” This is a much more palatable book in terms of the narration – Wong shows a little more perspective about truth and consequences here – and equally fascinating in terms of the human stories it tells from China’s tragic 1960s and 70s.  Wong’s own story is heartfelt and suspenseful, but what interested me the most was the historical whitewashing she encounters.  No country likes to talk about its black marks – America still celebrates Columbus and the Pilgrims as heroes, the Japanese don’t mention war crimes or the Rape of Nanking, Germany outlaws swastikas but would rather not talk about the extent of Nazism’s prevalence – but the ability of the Chinese to switch gears so drastically and with such equanimity is intriguing. As Wong writes, “It makes me wonder why, in a nation as vast as China, so few people try to come to terms with their past.”  Yes, it’s painful to revisit oppression, and no one wants to admit he was the oppressor, but the apparent wholehearted enthusiasm with which the Chinese have thrown their lot in with rampant capitalism and materialism is unsettling.  It’s as if the moral compass isn’t fixed; the Cultural Revolution was correct because it happened that way, and now laissez-faire capitalism is correct because it’s what’s happening.  It’s troubling to think in terms of such a collectivist mindset, but it’s hard to escape it as well.

four stars

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Get Rich Quick Club

by Dan Gutman

A girl whose goal is to be rich forms a club with her friends to further that goal.  Their idea is to create a fake UFO picture and shop it around to news outlets.  Against all reasonable expectations, this actually succeeds, until one of them has a crisis of conscience.  This is a silly, over-the-top, very kid-centric story, with the sympathy all on the side of the kids, who are materialistic, lying, and scheming, but not at all malicious.  One of the characters speaks in an absurd faux-Australian which grates after a while, and there’s little consequence to the kids’ machinations, but it’s all in good fun.

three stars

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Guilt Trip

by Ben Rehder

The fourth Blanco County mystery.  In this entry, game warden John Marlin helps the police to search for a missing SUV owner who may have drowned in a flash flood, while a local lowlife's house burns down in what seems to be a meth-related explosion. Marlin suspects that the two incidents are somehow connected, and they are – but in true Rehder fashion, the plot has dozens of disparate threads that intersect.  The main story involves a state senator who has a rather embarrassing kink, being blackmailed with photos of his proclivities, to force him to ban the controversial high fences around properties which stop deer from migrating freely.  There’s also a missing Corvette and charity money, a lowlife and a party girl on the lam, a would-be country star turned hit man, a pet psychic, a creepy stalker, and of course the loveable louts Red and Billy Don.  Marlin’s problem is that his oldest friend, Phil, appears to be implicated in the blackmail; and then there’s his crush Nichole, putting herself in danger as well.  I know that Rehder’s frequent, staccato character and setting changes, especially during action scenes, may irritate some readers, but I find his rapid-fire, red-herring style engaging.  Well-paced and intricately plotted, with sly humor, goofy characters, and a few moments of suspense, this book is on a par with the other books in the series.  Over the top mayhem makes for fast-paced, diverting fun.

four stars

Friday, September 6, 2013

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

by Paul Tough

Investigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists, Tough challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success.  He argues that the gap between poorer and wealthier kids’ success levels is caused not mostly through lack of cognitive stimulation, but through a chaotic environment where mothering attachment is lacking and childhood traumas are plentiful.  Evidence for this abounds: there is a drop-off in performance among elite prep school kids who have had no lessons in determination and failure management; the ACE score, a measurement of childhood trauma, is a reliable indicator of future performance; and a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college completion than standardized tests, regardless of the quality of the school (which makes sense: a kid in a chaotic environment with a high GPA obviously had high determination, while a kid in the richest prep school with tutoring and enrichment opportunities abounding, with an average GPA, is clearly not working as hard as he could be.  The good news is that according to some of his interview subjects, mothering skills can be taught and non-cognitive skills such as curiosity and grit are malleable traits and can be developed fairly late in life.

I found this book to be inspiring and important.  Written in an easy, engaging style, with great ideas and surprising revelations bursting forth from nearly every page.  The broad studies and character interviews are extremely valuable, while a surprisingly long discursus on chess isn’t so much – and why Tough gives any page time to the “bell curve” idea, which is basically giving a little air time to Hitler, is beyond me. Of course, in a way it’s a depressing book, because it makes clear how totally the system has failed low-income kids, giving the most needy the least instruction – though Tough notes that some programs, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, are trying to make a difference.  In the end, Tough diplomatically addresses what few dare to, though I have advocated for years: we don’t need teacher reform or school reform quite as much as we need family reform.  It’s a delicate thing for a well-off white person to criticize the parenting skills of poorer minority parents, but the fact is that with a few simple lessons to new parents after a child’s birth, many costly problems would be avoided before they began.  They do it in Germany – it’s too bad so many policymakers in America are so short-sighted when it comes to helping others.

four stars

Friday, August 30, 2013

Crispin: The Cross Of Lead

by Avi

Winner of the 2003 Newbery, this historical novel is set in England, 1377.  Crispin, an orphan peasant, is told by his village priest that there is a secret regarding his birth.  But after stumbling upon the cruel village steward making a secret plan in the woods, Crispin is declared a “wolf’s head” – a non-person whom anyone may kill for a reward – and he is forced to flee.  He comes upon Bear, a jester who secretly works to bring a worker’s revolution to England, and together they travel to the “big city” of Wexly, where to Crispin’s horror the steward has followed them, and both their lives are in danger.

This is an interesting choice for the Newbery – Avi strives hard to recreate the historical milieu in which Crispin lives, so first and foremost, the prose is absolutely drenched in medieval Christian thought.  Although Bear is an apostate, Crispin and many other characters are literally “God-fearing,” expecting swift and horrible punishments for their every transgression and believing utterly that a broken vow to Jesus (no matter how profane or involuntary) will result in immediate damnation.  Then, just so everyone has something to be offended about, Avi has Crispin, if not explicitly reject this mindset, at least question it; he stops praying and pledges to make his own decisions, and later uses the binding power of an unwilling vow as a tool for his own ends.  Finally, there’s the vocabulary: in addition to words like “trepidation” and “disconsolate,” Avi doesn’t shy away from the archaic terms: mazer, patten, kirtle, withal.  It’s a terrific historical adventure story, I would think suitable for older teens and up; its value is not so much in the plot (which is fairly straightforward, hardly original, and rather far-fetched at the end) as it is in recreating the highly religious, hierarchical, nasty, sometimes brutish and short lives of the medieval European.

four stars

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy
translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude

Stiva Oblonsky, an affable and slightly clueless aristocrat, has been caught cheating by his wife Dolly, and brings in his urbane married sister Anna to reconcile them.  She does, but falls in love with Vronsky, a dashing roué of a military man who is courting Dolly’s younger sister Kitty.  They begin a tumultuous affair, hindered by Anna’s somewhat cold, reputation-conscious husband, but the illegitimacy of their relationship causes unhappiness.  Meanwhile, Levin, a socially awkward intellectual and landowner, who is a sort of angry young man with sympathy for the working class, is also courting Kitty; when rebuffed by her, he withdraws but never forgets her.  That’s a very brief synopsis of the three main plotlines in this epic novel (nearly twice the length of Moby Dick).

As the story of a troubled marriage caused by cheating, an unhappy affair, and a happy, devoted marriage, this novel is taken up by many as a moralistic cautionary tale.  The polarization of the insecure but careful Levin, burning with intense but noble and innocent passion, with Anna, who is swayed by her passions without thinking of the obvious consequences, makes up the main characterization of the novel.  But Tolstoy is more subtle than this simple dichotomy.  There are no perfect beings in this book, there is no absolute right or wrong; it’s the practical (or impractical) decisions that people make which make them happy or unhappy, not their “inner characters.”  At times, the reader sympathizes deeply with the unhappy Anna, despite the fact that her troubles are of her own making; and he continues to present Oblonsky as a sympathetic fellow, even as he puzzles over why his wife should be so upset over his philandering.  Tolstoy shows that he understands human motive; whether you judge it right or wrong isn’t as important as that you know why they act as they do.  This is also a novel of manners, in a way, though there are some truly profound passages in Anna Karenina that explore the fundamental questions of life.  As the characters struggle with their own existentialist crises – the acceptance of society vs. following your heart, materialism vs. faith, raising up the working class vs. realizing that many of them don’t want to work hard or raise their station – how they handle those crises is what elevates them to happiness or bleak despair.  Although it’s an engrossing and intelligent novel, I don’t rank it as one of my favorites.  I was annoyed at times, as I can be with these stuffy characters from another era, at their infantile waffling or stubbornness.  For example, Levin’s jealousy is adolescent and totally baseless, yet it consumes him at times.  Anna’s insistence on going out in society, when Vronsky and all logic insist that this would be a very foolish thing to do, is baffling from a modern standpoint.  And I was plain bored during some passages, such as a long tedious hunting excursion Levin goes on which doesn’t seem to have much to do with some of the grander questions he deals with.  On the whole, this is a very fine novel, but to me not a Great Novel.

four stars

Sunday, August 18, 2013


by Audrey Couloumbis

A few days before Christmas, ten-year-old Jake’s single mother slips on the ice and breaks her leg badly, requiring an operation.  A very kindly neighbor and Jake’s gruff, estranged grandfather (and his small “nightmare” dog), plus a few other relatives and family friends come together to take up the slack, and soon things are bustling along more richly than ever.  Jake’s grandfather gently pushes him to get over his fear of swimming, the dog gets used to walking with strangers, chess games and movies are enjoyed, and hot meals and extra sandwiches are the order of the day.  Indeed, each of the principals learns a bit from the other, and though the book’s action only lasts a few days, there are indications that Jake’s idea of what a family is might be expanding.  There’s no melodrama or big crisis in this heartwarming, at times moving book, just an underlying message of caring for others, hope, and the supreme value of human connections.  It’s a beautifully written, warm, charming book.

five stars

Monday, August 12, 2013

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

The authors study the brain science behind competition – why some people thrive under stress and some don’t, the role of gender and hormone levels, the role of reward vs. risk, and so on – to uncover some findings that run counter to common belief.  One of these is that stress can be a positive factor in some types of personalities, called “warriors” here and distinguished from “worriers”; the latter thrive better in situations that call for planning, memory, and organization.  Another finding is that teams do not have to get along or be friends to succeed, rather dominating when players’ roles are known and unequal (think of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” or the NBA, where rivalries run high but skill and pay levels are generally conceded as commensurate).  Recalling studies I have read elsewhere about the science of top athletes “choking,” the book also explores how expectations and the presence of spectators can affect performance, and how the idea of “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose” is much more appealing to us, and thus by its framing determines how the same physical action might succeed or fail.  I found the information on the role hormones play to be fascinating: for example, testosterone does not increase aggression in competitors but rather increases determination, teamwork, fearlessness, tactical decision-making… indeed, any trait that will increase a player’s esteem in the eyes of others and determine a win. In the same vein, the authors show that oxytocin, widely known as the “love hormone,” does not merely increase a nurturing instinct but also sharpens the ability to determine threats vs. friends, and increases wariness and the protective urge, both of which help competitors win.  In regards to gender roles, in what is probably one of the more controversial section of the book, the authors assert that men, blind to their shortcomings, are more likely to take on competition with very little chance of success, whereas women, “better judges of their own ability,” tend to compete only when there is a realistic chance for success, which helps in part explain why there are far fewer women than men candidates for public office at the high levels, and why women make much more accurate stock analysts.  Finally, in one of the more counterintuitive findings, the book shows that positive thinking can actually hurt competitors: not taking the competition seriously, or assuming everything will go smoothly, does nothing to help one prepare.  Instead, top competitors review their failures rationally and indulge in “subtractive counterfactuals” – that is, identifying what one should not have done, identifying obstacles to success and removing them, rather than saying “if only I had…”

This is not a self-help book, but the science can, of course, be used to help improve competitors’ performance.  For example, knowing that each person has an optimal level of stress, that controlled focused anger can boost performance, or that reviewing failures is more productive than fantasizing about victory, can help competitors adapt a winning mindset.  The information is sometimes presented in a rather scattershot way within chapters, and there is almost no discussion of how environmental factors may influence competitions, but it is on the whole a lucid, thorough, illuminating, and useful work on one of humanity’s most basic urges – the impulse to win. 

four stars

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken!

by Sally Warner

EllRay (short for Lancelot Raymond), the smallest kid in his third grade class, is being physically and verbally assaulted by a large bully and his follower. Something of a cut-up, and with a short temper, normally EllRay would react to this stress with verbal comebacks or acting out in class, but he’s trying his hardest to avoid all trouble this week, because if he can do that, his normally demanding father will take him to Disneyland.

This is an interesting book that tries to tackle a rather important subject, and despite its humorous tone and slight word count, it manages to hit some points about what gives bullies their power. The book’s message seems to be that parental and teacher involvement is crucial to arriving at a resolution, and that a child’s physical safety is dependent on other students changing their attitudes toward bullying from standing by to directly intervening. Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out, since parents and teachers often remain unaware of silent, persistent bullying, and students almost never rise up en masse to take the side of the weaker party, except in TV shows and books.

Aside from the bullying issue, I admired how Warner kept her prose simple, and used EllRay’s narration to explain some expressions that kids might not get such as “enlighten me” or “bad vibes” which she has the adults employ. I was distracted by how many times EllRay made flat pronouncements about what boys and girls do, such as: “boys don’t skip,” “girls are neat,” “girls don’t tattle,” “girls know how to spread their misery around,” and so on. I realize this is an eight-year-old boy talking, but I’m not sure I approve of perpetuating these stereotypes in kids’ books. I also wondered at Warner’s depiction of the teacher, who while wise in the ways of her kids’ behavior, must “check her notes” constantly while giving lessons or defining unusual words. What might be Warner’s point there – that no one has all the answers, teachers are too overworked to prepare themselves for lessons, or what? In any case, I think kids will identify with the funny, put-upon EllRay, who explains himself and his world so well while dealing with pressure from parents and peers alike.

three stars

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

by John Medina

The author, a lecturer, researcher, and molecular biologist, lists twelve major principles that help explain how the brain works: though processes are improved by physical exercise, we pay attention to evolutionarily important things like sex and danger, we need sleep to cogitate properly, repetition is crucial to long-term memory, we learn more through a variety of sensory inputs, gender influences how our brain process certain interactions, and so on. In most of the chapters, he goes on to advocate for the integration of these findings into education, thus revolutionizing the traditional classroom.

This book is widely praised for its clear, lucid prose, but I didn’t come away all that impressed. I felt that Medina took up too much space describing various sections of the brain to no real purpose. Does it really help our understanding of how the brain works to visualize axons and brain sections and cells and neurons as, variously, stomped eggs, a scorpion with an egg on its back, or uprooted trees jammed together horizontally? There’s no relation between its physical structure and how it works, so what’s the point? (In the same vein, I was bemused by his habit of describing nearly every scientist he refers to. I simply don’t care whether a man looks youthful or his head is shaped like an egg; indeed, such dwelling on looks turns me off an author.) I also thought that Medina (using tricks based on principles of attention) relied too much on cutesy and misleading attention-grabbers like “we’ll learn that we each have a Jennifer Aniston neuron” (no, we don’t) or “we’ll learn the difference between bicycles and Social Security numbers” (overly playful and not at all accurate). I find deliberately misleading teasers like that to be insulting rather than enticing. Finally and most importantly, most of these principles are extremely basic. (Is it really cutting-edge news that repetition is important when learning, or that we need sleep, or that some people crumple under stress while others rise to the challenge, or that people need to feel safe in order to learn?) Despite that, Medina several times in the book proposes sweeping, pie-in-the-sky “solutions” to education problems based on this research, such as restructuring the school day into short lessons, the same content repeated three times, and thus stretching the school year into the summer to make room for all the information; or offering an early work- or schoolday as well as a later one to accommodate different sleep cycles; or mandating child care and parent classes to everyone. Some of these aren’t bad ideas; it’s just that they aren’t going to happen any time soon. Some reasonable, easily-implemented changes that could provide some benefit would have been better. It is an interesting, if basic, primer on the brain, and it is told lucidly; I just didn’t feel there was much point to it, let alone help for “surviving and thriving,” as the subtitle boasts.

three stars

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gooney Bird Greene

by Lois Lowry

An eccentrically-dressed and apparently over-imaginative second grade girl, Gooney Bird, comes to a new school and entrances the other students (and teacher) with her surprising, “absolutely true” stories.  With her deliberate, exact way of speaking and unusual phrasing, she describes her stories before telling them in ways that make it seem as though they’ll be tall tales – but there is always a humorous, prosaic explanation.  For example, “I was in jail when this happened” actually refers to Gooney Bird playing Monopoly and having landed on that square on the board; and getting a reward from “the prince” at “the palace” turns out to mean something quite different, though similar-sounding.  The same goes for “driving from China” and “arriving on a flying carpet.”

It’s a humorous, very brief book that also serves as instruction to children on how to formulate interesting stories, as well as to encourage them to believe that everyone has a story to tell.  I enjoyed the clever twists of language that revealed what Gooney Bird’s stories were really about, as well as the demonstration of how well “write what you know” can go when served by expressive language.  I did not at all like Gooney Bird’s personality, which is smug and self-satisfied, her too-adult speech patterns, or how she is portrayed as more clever and authoritative than the teacher of the class.  I think that’s a terrible example for kids who already often think they know more than they do.

three stars

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Matchlock Gun

by Walter D. Edmonds

Set during the French and Indian War, this 1942 Newbery winner tells of an episode in a Dutch-American frontier family. When the father is gone to track Indians, a scouting group of braves comes to the house, with only the young mother, Gertrude, and her eldest child Edward, to fight them off. Really no more than a short story, this slim book’s charm is in its tossed-off details – the young couple getting married despite his mother’s objections, the way another man rides his horse, the chores that need to be done on the frontier, the loft which the children sleep in heated by the day's fire – which give it some depth and make its characters more relatable. The “plot,” which just boils down to one brief and somewhat dubious action, is not particularly interesting. It’s a nice story, but was it really the best children’s book of its year? I can’t imagine it.

three stars

Friday, July 12, 2013

Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time

by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

The author, a marketing and sales CEO, lays out advice for getting ahead in this new, flatter, faster economy: foster and maintain connections with people. A cynic might, of course, take this as telling prospective salesmen or corporate ladder climbers to flatter their superiors and feign interest in activities that will get them closer to their goals, while hoarding the contacts they gather until such time as these might become useful to them personally. However, Ferrazzi, who worked his way up into the corporate world very quickly from a working-class origin, seems more or less genuinely zealous about promoting genuine human contact, and not just for the utile benefits it might bring. He counsels readers to join associations they have real interest in, to listen for others’ problems for which they might offer solutions, to mentor beginners and up-and-comers, to throw friendly dinner parties or otherwise organize social activities, and so on.

It is true that some of Ferrazzi’s ideas – such as researching others’ interests before you meet them and then “accidentally” bringing up shared connections, or his notion of the “deep bump,” mastering the art of meaningful small talk – are redolent of disingenuousness. And there’s more than a hint of the self-serving in his message of constant self-promotion. However, on the whole, he offers genial well-intentioned advice, useful not just for the young salesman but, I think, for anyone who works with others. Bring like-minded people together. Listen to others. Try to be helpful to those whom you can help. Be vulnerable and open when you talk. Don’t be afraid to ask for things. Favors and contacts aren’t equity to be hoarded, but an infinite resource that expands with every use. It’s hardly the typical sales advice, and Ferrazzi tells it with a warm, at times self-deprecating style. 

three stars

Saturday, July 6, 2013


by Neil Gaiman

The young girl of the title moves into a big new house with her kindly but preoccupied parents. She meets some humorously daft neighbors, like the two elderly ex-actresses steeped in nostalgia, and the old man upstairs who says he is training mice to play oompah oompah songs. There’s also a spooky door which seems to open onto a brick wall but actually leads to another world, similar to our own, constructed just for Coraline. There she meets her "other" family, with black buttons for eyes, who want only to keep her forever in this world that has better food, the colors she likes, and attentive parents, if only they can make her just like them. With the help of a mysterious cat, Coraline determines to rescue her real parents, and some additional captives, from the evil force behind this other world.

This is a deliciously dark novel, sure to delight children with the chills it sends down their backs. Gaiman’s descriptive prose and Dave McKean’s illustrations work together to enforce the menacing tone and creepy air: “Her other mother's hand scuttled off Coraline's shoulder like a frightened spider;” the voice “made Coraline think of some kind of enormous dead insect.” And just like a good horror movie, there’s a false ending of eerie calm before the truly final showdown. Gaiman offers a lesson in maturity here, as well, underneath the supernatural thrills. Coraline realizes that getting whatever she wants, all the time, which the other mother tempts her with, wouldn’t be fun or “mean anything.” This ominous, funny, offbeat, scary, sweet modern fairy tale is superb. I can’t imagine why it wasn’t at least nominated for the Newbery.

five stars

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Street Freak: Money and Madness at Lehman Brothers

by Jared Dillian

An account of the author’s experiences as a trader and, to a lesser degree, the bipolar disorder that got him hospitalized and, ultimately, drove him to leave the industry to become a writer of market reports. Fresh out of the Coast Guard, wearing the wrong clothes and a graduate of the wrong school, Dillian was a fish out of water but soon started getting the respect of his peers with his manic trading, even as his fits of temper and rookie mistakes continue to draw unwanted attention. His account is both brutally honest about his own faults and mental health, as well as a scathing depiction of trader culture. From the mountains of wasted takeout food to the flop sweat and flatulence on the floor, Dillian brings it all to life: the extreme meritocracy where employees are given free rein to do nearly anything to make money, which leads to a shallow culture where dollar amounts are the only standard by which to measure a person’s value, and those with the most money take the least risk.

Dillian has a way with a descriptive line and wry wit: a chief trader is “a walking molecule of testosterone,” the mass exodus to the Hamptons is a useless exercise in sitting through traffic just to “hang around with the same douchebags that I saw at work every day.” Still, to me, by far the most interesting part of the book is Dillian’s account of his stay in a mental hospital after a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. It is only here, taking a break from the endless oceans of trader jargon (which, frustratingly, he never explains), Dillian shows his true self: confused, craving something real, becoming inspired. For most of the rest of the book, Dillian may think he’s lampooning Wall Street, but to me, his misogynistic, egotistical prose shows he’s part of the problem, no different from those testosterone molecules looking down on everyone making less than he does.

four stars

Monday, June 24, 2013

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year Of Living With Joy

by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter

The author, a journalist in Florida and mother of three, was diagnosed with ALS at 44 years old. Deciding that she had about a year of health, more or less, left, she decided to live it with joy and pack it with as much travel, family time, friends, and fun as possible. She takes her Asperger’s son to swim with dolphins, has her 14-year-old daughter try on wedding dresses at Kleinfeld’s (on the premise that she will not live to see the real thing), finds her roots in Cyprus, tries to see the northern lights in the Yukon, and vacations in the Bahamas. She also writes a book, of course, tapping it out with her thumb on an iPhone.

This is an extraordinary journal of positivity, adventure, hope, and love. It’s absolutely tear-jerking in some places, and only a bitter curmudgeon would criticize it. So here I go. First and foremost, this is a family diary; it is a tribute to herself, for her children. I don’t question in the least the need for this tribute for her family, but I’m not sure that there’s a wider purpose here beyond family closure, as there was with the similar The Last Lecture. And I certainly could have been content for her family euphemism for defecation, “stink pickle,” to stay in the family. There’s also a disjointed chronology which means some parts get told twice; surely her co-writer could have tightened this up? Finally, this may be needlessly picky, but Spencer-Wendel seems incredibly naïve about a lot of things, which distracts from the book’s main point. How can an award-winning journalist in her forties, a mother of three with a master’s degree, not have ever even heard of ALS or Asperger’s, much less Cyprus’ Green Line? I found that very odd. Okay, heartless criticism over. Spencer-Wendel’s an undeniably brave woman, and her Buddhist-like wisdom (remove needless want, and you remove pain; don’t fear merely possible negative repercussions, but embrace adventure) is inspiring; I’m glad for her that she got a movie and book deal for her family’s security, even if I find the book a bit too personal to be truly affecting.

three stars

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Because Of Winn-Dixie

by Kate DiCamillo

India Opal Buloni (DiCamillo has a fondness for zany names), a preacher’s daughter newly arrived in town, has trouble dealing with the empty space left by her mother, who left the family seven years previously. One day she adopts a stray dog she finds making trouble in a Winn-Dixie. Having an overly attached, inquisitive dog puts India in new situations which lead her to meet some interesting townsfolk, like the good-natured old librarian with plenty of stories, a woman rumored to be a witch (another DiCamillan name: Gloria Dump), and a guitar-playing ex-con pet store clerk. Getting to know these complex characters helps India realize that the “perfect” girl she views from a distance is also dealing with loss and sadness, and the “bullies” she verbally spars with are basically friendly kids.

Deceptively lightweight, it’s a book that deals with deep, important feelings – friendship, loss, hope, acceptance, and new beginnings – in DiCamillo’s usual minimalist prose. I enjoyed this book a great deal and plan on reading it to my class; this is a story of coping with life, not wishing for fairy-tale endings. In the book’s only trace of non-realism, there’s a fictional candy, Littmus Lozenges, which taste sweet but also deeply melancholy for those who have experienced loss. An apt description of the book itself.

five stars

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Night Gardener

by George Pelecanos

The body of a black teen is found with one shot to the head in a community garden. MPD homicide detective Gus Ramone’s own teen son knew the boy, and Ramone is driven to solve the case. Two ex-cops – one who quit under morals charges and one a retired legend – think this murder might be related to a series of killings twenty years earlier in which the victims were all left in gardens, and take it upon themselves to investigate, though they have no authority. In a subplot, a young banger, inspired by the legend of ‘70s bad guy Red Fury (from the Pelecanos novel What it Was), wants to go on a spree that will have people saying his name for years to come – but he may have stolen from the wrong bad guys.

This is another hard-boiled, gritty, seamy-side-of-the-city crime novel from an established master. Engaging, suspenseful, and intricate, this is a page-turner from beginning to end. Phrases I’ve used to sing the praises of Pelecanos’ unflinching prose in earlier novels also apply here: he “creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs;” he “delivers the seedy underbelly of DC without rose-colored glasses or glorification;” he “knows DC streets, restaurant culture, the way criminals move and talk, types of weapons, and all the other little details that bring characters and plots to life.” I repeat myself because with every book, he proves again that he can deliver the human side of crime: the problems in the school system that foster cycles of ignorance and violence, the culture of expensive clothes and hyper-masculinity where appearance and reputation are king; the economic disparity; the undercurrent of race resentment, always bubbling near the surface. His minor characters are richly drawn and have an air of tragedy because Pelecanos knows that even drug addicts and gangsters have dreams and goals. In this book, Pelecanos tones down his irritating foible of defining masculinity in his work, though the stupid line “he checked out her backside, because he was a man” (which I found needless in Soul Circus) is here as well, and his nearly defensive preference for voluptuous women results in cartoonishly predictable body shapes for characters, as if this were a Disney cartoon: curvy women, whether wife or whore, have a lust for life and good heart, and slim hips are a near-sure sign that that woman is a humorless prude. I know this is nitpicking; I just continue to find it odd that an author who can bring empathy to killers and corrupt police can’t seem to shake his neurosis about manliness and body shape.

four stars

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Tale Dark And Grimm

by Adam Gidwitz

An amalgamation of Grimm tales, using Hansel and Gretel as the protagonist for nearly all. The brother and sister, here the children of a king a queen, run away from home after discovering their parents have committed a crime against them (though they don’t know the whole story). They arrive at the well-known candy house of the child-eating witch, but when that story ends, their adventures continue, in adaptations of “Brother And Sister” (in which the brother turns into a beast of the forest), “The Devil And His Grandmother,” “The Seven Ravens,” and others. Throughout, Gidwitz inserts his authorical voice to comment, using an ironically exaggerated concerned tone for “little kids” and their delicate sensibilities, warning of gory sections in the book; he also breaks into the story to lecture about bravery and forgiveness and coming through troubles as a better person.

It’s a well-done conceit, this consolidation of several Grimm tales into one shakily linear plot with an over-arching challenge and a resolution. Gidwitz reshapes the stories into suspenseful tales, in which both girl and boy are heroic and brave. I do think he over-uses the third-wall narrative device a bit, but older kids probably enjoy being addressed directly as if over the heads of younger ones. I read this to see if it could be a read-aloud in my class; the answer is unequivocally no. The author is a teacher of first and second graders and seems to think his tales are appropriate for them; I might even give a pass on the gore and violence (some of which is directed at children), but there’s a couple of rather creepy scenes – an evil, charismatic man whom Gretel has a crush on sucks the blood off of her head wound, for example. Yes, so I wouldn’t read this to fourth graders in a school. For older kids and adults, though, it’s a pretty clever horror/morality tale.

four stars

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

After his family is killed by a mysterious assassin, a toddler wanders into a graveyard, where he is adopted by a ghost couple named Owens, and formally given the Right of the Graveyard by all, which means he can fade from view, walk through walls, and so on. Under the tutelage of the mysterious “neither living nor dead” Silas, the young Nobody Owens, as he is called, sees the underworld of goblins, werewolves, and macabre dances, as well as the more prosaic world of school bullies and money-grubbing adults. Eventually, however, he grows old enough to seek vengeance upon the man Jack who killed his family, and no one, not even Silas, can dissuade him.

This 2009 Newbery winner is an amazingly inventive riff on Kipling’s The Jungle Books, not only in its overarching theme of the orphan brought up among powerful non-humans but including the scenes of the buried treasure that brings death, the mindless hooting greedy apes (here cast as goblins) who have pretenses to greatness, and so on. But you don't need to have read and enjoyed the Kipling to be amazed and delighted by this dark, thrilling tale. With black humor, real suspense, a righteous hero the reader can't help but cheer for, all told as if through the innocent eyes of a child (only a child is innocent enough to both believe in and to not be afraid of ghosts, after all), this is both a brilliant homage and a wonderful adventure book.

five stars

Friday, May 24, 2013

Little Women And Me

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Emily March, a middle sister who constantly schemes to get boys’ attention from her sisters, is magically drawn into the 1860s world of Little Women, as a fifth sister. Deciding that she has been put into the story for a reason – to save Beth’s life – she charges forth, oblivious to her anachronistic speech and behavior… only to get sidetracked by rivalry with the similarly creative Jo and by the arrival of Laurie, the love interest for one or more of the girls.

This is a generally simplistic novel, aimed unabashedly at teen girls (there’s talk of bras and strategic shaving and periods). The “romantic” plot and Emily’s lesson that she doesn’t always need to get boys’ attention just for the sake of attention is fairly heavy-handed, and there’s very little a young reader could learn about the world of Jo and Amy March in these pages. I thought Baratz-Logsted was trying to have her character both ways – literate and book-loving, yet completely, like, spacey about language and customs the way any teen girl would be. The extra twist at the end was unexpected and rather fun, but the plot ran too much toward the boys-and-makeup line than the trapped-in-a-good-book story I was expecting.

two stars

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Big In China

by Alan Paul
A music writer, Paul travels to Beijing with his wife and their three children when she is offered a job as the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief there. He works hard at the language, gets a driver’s license, enjoys the food, writes columns, and becomes the stay-at-home parent in the foreigner’s compound, complete with servants. With a new perspective and perhaps more time on his hands, he takes up guitar again and hangs out in music clubs. After being called on stage and performing a few classic rock standards, Paul thinks he’s found a winning formula and soon puts together a band with another ex-pat and three Chinese musicians. After extensive practicing and touring, this band is named “Best New Band in Beijing” – a rather stunning feat in a usually fairly insular culture that gives no quarter to foreigners.

This is a fun, witty book about how one man’s enthusiastic embrace of the new led him to revitalize his passion for music, and to change the music scene of Beijing itself. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and positivity in this book, something that is lacking in many Westerner-in-China memoirs. Where almost every other visitor and ex-pat dwells on the honking and crush of traffic, Paul sees it as an escapade. The exotic food, the language barrier, the culture clash – all is opportunity or adventure for Paul, not a challenge or hardship. Granted, his viewpoint could be called insular itself; as a member of a working ex-pat family and not a tourist, he probably didn’t deal with bureaucrats or xenophobes as much as some visitors. But regardless, his positivity and equitable understanding are refreshing and contagious traits. Whether it’s attending to his young children’s culture shock, his ailing father, his quiet and serious bandmate, or his tutor’s worried vacillating about the life path he is meant to take, Paul focuses on human connections, not differences. Musing on the changed landscape and displaced people in the constant reinvention he notices in Beijing, Paul notes only, and very wisely, “everyone’s view of ‘normal’ starts the moment they arrive” – he wasn’t about to fret about what Beijing was “becoming;” he was too busy being involved in what it was. This is an inspiring and very unusual tale.

four stars

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How We Decide

by Jonah Lehrer

A look at the existing literature on behavioral science and the conclusions it makes about how we make decisions; specifically, the book argues that we do not simply decide rationally. Rather, we use a blend of emotion, gut feeling, or instinct, as well as a rational weighing of pros and cons, when we decide. Or at least, we should. (The experimental literature is especially fascinating here, as for example in the man who has a brain injury that leaves him affectless and unmoved by emotion, and thus unable to make even the simplest decision, as he gets caught up in an endless loop of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility.) Snap decisions based on observation and instinct, Lehrer shows in countless examples, are often better (as in successfully crash-landing a plane or escaping a forest fire) than simply listening to one’s desires (as those trapped in credit card debt know too well). On the other hand, as Lehrer shows from examples in the fields of sports and art, over-thinking a mistake or a challenge can lead to perpetual self-doubt and undoing. The crucial point is that deciders must analyze their own decisions and watch carefully how much emotion is biasing their choices; we “know more than we think we know,” and if we apply reason to that knowledge, we can make efficient decisions.

This isn’t a particularly weighty or earth-shaking conclusion, and much of the material here can be found in other popular books on neuroscience. I recognized the hot hands study, the story of the firefighter who built a burnt patch to save himself, and several others. Instead of providing further insight on or alternative interpretations of these studies, Lehrer repeats their key points in such a way that they relate to his larger claims about decision making. I also learned, just before finishing this book, that Lehrer is the disgraced journalist who manufactured Bob Dylan quotes for a subsequent book. So, caveat lector, I suppose. Those problematic aspects aside, I very much enjoyed this book, with its wealth of fascinating anecdotes from brain studies and its practical, sensible applications of the studies to advice on how to decide. Lehrer’s style is breezy and accessible, and he has a gift for finding the empathy, suspense, and drama in every human story.

four stars

Monday, May 6, 2013


by Roald Dahl

Matilda, an intellectually precocious and sweet-natured girl, is dismissed and insulted by her oblivious, greedy, dishonest parents. Bored and aggravated by their bullying and ignorance, Matilda pulls pranks on her family, such as tricking her father into peroxiding his hair or making them think there is a ghost in the house. In school, Matilda befriends a loving teacher named Miss Honey who appreciates her, but the entire school suffers under the cartoonishly violent corporal punishment of the perpetually outraged headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Her rage at the injustice of Trunchbull’s methods causes Matilda to demonstrate sudden telekinetic powers, which she develops in order to right a great wrong that had been done to Miss Honey long ago.

This book shines with Roald Dahl’s typical humor and quirky disregard for reality, but also deals with matters important to children such as being respected and fairness. Dahl’s own unpleasant experiences at boarding school inspired him to rage against injustice and bullying; this sort of personal outrage gives his protagonists real fire, and sparks the reader to cheer at the bullies’ comeuppance. A scene in which an older child tells Matilda that school is like a war surely rings true as well for any precocious and gentle soul who faced the mockery of groups of older children, and makes these elaborate children’s revenge fantasies more grounded in reality than their magic qualities would suggest. As Matilda says of Trunchbull’s outlandish acts, "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable.” This could easily be said of Dahl’s philosophy and writing style. It’s a joy to watch Matilda put things right in such an outrageous and completely crazy way.

five stars

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

Celie, just 14 years old when the book opens, tells God (or her diary, or herself), of how she has been raped, abused, and twice impregnated by her father. When she gives birth, he takes the children away, then marries her off to a man who is so cold and uncaring that he is referred to only as “Mr.” Her husband attempts to seduce, then drives off, Celie’s only friend, her sister Nettie. Celie becomes both unwilling wife and reluctant mother figure to Mr’s feckless son Harpo, but her life is as drab and lacking in love as a farm mule’s. Her life changes when Mr’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, comes into her life. At first cold, Shug is later charmed by Celie’s kindness and shows Celie that she is also a woman deserving of love and respect. Celie is eventually able to say, famously, “I may be black, I may be poor, I maybe a woman, and I may even be ugly! But thank God I'm here." Her renaissance and new-found self-esteem throws the household into turmoil, but it also makes the men take a second look at how they run their lives. There are ups and downs after that, of course – this isn’t a book with easy resolutions – Nettie is found and lost again, Shug leaves to go on tour and finds new love, Harpo’s headstrong wife leaves him, then is imprisoned – but Celie now has dreams and hopes now, and can find the strength to face challenges and loss.

I found this to be a moving story, brilliantly told. Walker is telling a powerful story full of tragedy and redemption and heartbreaking loss, but she doesn't play cheap with the reader's emotions (I take some elements of the ending to be somewhat allegorical). Bad things happen to good people, and all the good people can do is find the strength to carry on. This strength comes, Walker seems to say, from deep love for one another, and (to a lesser extent) a network of friends and family who will fight for you. Celie is an astounding character, telling her story plainly, without complaint of the injustice, even with wry humor at times (especially when discussing the men in her life). She stands, I think, for the notion that one’s past doesn’t have to shape one’s present, or one’s attitude.

four stars

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Burglar In the Closet

by Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr, the debonair and non-violent burglar, is back, again implicated in a murder that takes place in the very domicile he is stealing from.  Bernie’s dentist knows he’s a burglar, and convinces him to rob the dentist’s ex-wife’s apartment, where she keeps a lot of jewelry.  She returns unexpectedly, and hiding in a closet, Bernie hears her death, but does not see her killer.  The dentist is not a likely suspect, since Bernie hit the place on a different day than the one agreed upon, but that leaves a list of possible lovers and acquaintances Bernie needs to look at to take the heat off himself.  It’s another charming, witty mystery; with his self-effacing yet urbane burglar, Block is as masterful at the comic caper as he is at the rough noir of Matthew Scudder’s world.  Bernie’s narration is highly entertaining, with zany plot turns and some offbeat characters to add to the lighthearted tone.  The main “reveal” of the killer’s name is less than ingenious, but on the whole it’s a clever book; it gets by on wit and charm.

four stars

[follows Burglars Can't Be Choosers] 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

American Shaolin

by Matthew Polly

As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies.  After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu.  This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, without an introduction or appointment, and ask to sign up for kungfu classes at the legendary temple – but that is exactly what he did.  Arriving in Beijing, he discovers that even the Chinese are not sure if Shaolin still exists, but he presses on anyway, and to his credit, he manages to arrive.  Not understanding the Chinese tradition of haggling (or extorting the foreigner), Polly agrees to an outrageous price to be taught kungfu at Shaolin, and his journey begins.

The account of Polly’s time in Shaolin is both hilarious and informative; it’s a coming-of-age story blended with a travelers-abroad tale.  Polly experiences all the shocks that China gives the Western traveler (I was interested to see that he describes his personality as splitting in two, an American Matthew Polly and the dopey, grinning Chinese version, always struggling to process what was going on – a phenomenon similar to that described by Peter Hessler in River Town; he also describes the same resentful, helpless feeling in the face of emotionless, unspeaking, staring crowds), but takes them in stride.  Eventually he is quite at home in Shaolin, distinguishes himself in kungfu tournaments, meets a few wastrel and pretender Westerners who follow in his footsteps, and even does the unthinkable: he dates a Chinese woman.  Polly’s memoir is a terrific read, but it’s also valuable in two main ways.  One, it documents the training process and some outstanding martial arts techniques studied at Shaolin, such as the Iron Forearm or Iron Head or Iron Dong (they all involve focusing qi through breathing and then punishing the specified body part daily until it is as tough as steel), which are fascinating.  Two, in addition to all the cultural mores that Polly diligently records (the little rituals of polite language that I find enthralling), because Polly revisits Shaolin ten years later, he is able to document how China has changed – not just in the ease of transport or shopping opportunities, but the emerging confidence and higher expectations of the Chinese people.  It’s an insightful, first-rate memoir.

five stars

Friday, April 12, 2013


by David Rakoff

A collection of humorous essays, both autobiographical and based on journalistic assignments. A homosexual and a Jew, Rakoff plays up his neuroses and fears as he discusses his early career in publishing as the bottom rung of the assistant ladder; the cancer that forced him to leave Japan where he worked as a translator; his work as a bit actor in television. He’s self-effacing and funny, but also startlingly perspicacious; his insight on how teachers think (in his piece on Austrian cultural-exchange teachers in New York City) is full of empathy and understanding. He comes off as a far more erudite David Sedaris, name-dropping writers, classic movies, Freud’s Dora, and characters from literature, all with wit and élan (of a bluff old retired pilot who fixes up houses: “there’s a sad whiff of mortality… like watching ‘This Old House’ hosted by Beaudelaire”).

An actor, writer, spoken-word performer and not-too-bad draftsman (he did the chapter illustrations for this book), Rakoff comes off in this book as a talented man weighted down by fears and neuroses, the classic over-educated person whose very learning causes distress by revealing the complexity and indifference of the vast world – which made it all the sadder when I learned that he died of cancer last year. All of the pieces in this book have humor, pathos, and poignancy; they really do evoke a sense of being alone in the world. I enjoyed “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave,” an account of hiking up a small mountain in New Hampshire and how it brought to mind Rakoff’s ill-fated time on a kibbutz, and “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff plays Freud for a Christmas window at Barney’s, the most. They’re easily the funniest stories, and let Rakoff explore the absurd in the quotidian, and self-reflection in the absurd.

four stars

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power Of Expectations

by Chris Berdik

A collection of studies on how expectations and belief can control our performance, even our very biology. Investigating the fields of sports psychology (especially the reasons for top athletes’ “choking” in the clutch), medicine (with its use of placebos and their lesser-known opposites, nocebos), wine tasting (breaking down not only the experts’ claims for superior sensory discrimination but also their consistency), and others, Berdik shows the many and varied ways in which what we expect, even what we are explicitly told to expect, can influence our perception and ability. From actual fear reactions during virtual reality experiences to being rated as more leader-like simply after striking a certain pose, these studies confound and delighted me, as they do all those interested in how we can use the hard-wired functions of the brain to improve our everyday lives.

I don’t like reviewing a book for what it is not (which is like saying “this cupcake is bad, because it is not a donut”), but I was expecting there to be a practical aspect to all these studies: now that we know, for example, that studies prove that most people are overconfident about their abilities, what do we do? How does can we adapt these findings – such as that people who play taller, handsomer avatars in video games act more attractive in real life – to our work lives? Instead it was study after study, with no conclusion or general thesis. Fascinating, but not particularly cohesive or utile.

three stars

Saturday, March 30, 2013

River Town: Two Years On the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler

A volunteer for the Peace Corps, Hessler lived in Fuling, a little town in Sichuan province, on the delta of the Yangtze and Wu rivers, for two years teaching English. As one of the few Westerners in the town since World War II, Hessler becomes the focus of not always kind attention in town, but as he learns more Chinese and more of the Chinese way of doing things, he sees his place more clearly and almost, at times, seems to fit into the daily life there. Of course, nearly everything in China is political: the literature he teaches is used by his students as a springboard to analyze their own lives, even as Hessler learns how hard it is to broach certain subjects in a culture where everyone is brought up to believe the same things.

Written in calm, meditative prose, this is an excellent entry into the annals of the Westerner-in-China body of memoirs. Hessler is wise beyond his years, and his China (or rather, his Fuling) is never of the sadly typical “oh look how foreign everything is” variety. He recognizes full well how foreign he himself is, and even during his lowest points of cultural contact – when men try to pick fights with him simply because he’s a Westerner – he reports with a detached and reflective eye. He learns rather quickly how to deal with some of the illogical bureaucracy – I enjoyed his clever face-saving solution when confronted with the lie that he was required to get a chest X-ray to participate in a foot race, for example – but he is troubled and bemused by certain other aspects of Chinese culture. He cites the lack of empathy and collectivist thinking that he saw in Chinese crowds, and the disturbing lack of fixed individual values in a culture where “wrong” thinking can become “right” as easily as it takes for an authority to say it. In his own small circle of students and friends, he hears of two deaths, a suicide, and a kidnapping (of a woman to become a forced bride). Near the end of the book, he muses that he can only brush against “the slightest sense of the dizzying past” that informed the values and behaviors that he encounters. His Fuling is, as he says, “a human place,” and that puts his memoir in the top ranks of its kind.

five stars

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burglars Can't Be Choosers

by Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr, a dapper and skilled burglar with a taste for fine things and no propensity for violence, is found by the police in a Manhattan apartment which is not his own, with the legal occupant in the next room bludgeoned to death. He flees the scene and hides out in a friend’s building, where he meets a suspiciously helpful girl who urges him to find the real killer. Tracking down the man who apparently framed him, Bernie gets caught up in a scheme involving blackmail, kinky sex, and lots of money.

This is Lawrence’s more light-hearted series, the flip side of Matt Scudder’s gritty rough justice, and it’s an enjoyable “noir lite” leavened with wit and humor, courtesy of Bernie’s wry, self-effacing narration. The mystery is clever, and although one of the twists requires a rather far-fetched coincidence (of all the apartment buildings in all of New York, she had to walk into mine…), but the solution to the main whodunit was a pleasant surprise. Bernie is a sympathetic character because he’s intelligent and benevolently self-serving, so I’m not surprised Block went on to write a number of sequels.

four stars

[followed by The Burglar In the Closet

Monday, March 18, 2013

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens

The famous tale of the titular orphan, born to a mother of uncertain origin but assumed to be low-born, who grows up mistreated and half-starved in the workhouses of the time. He is apprenticed out to a coffin-maker, where the contempt and bullying he undergoes impels him to flee to London. There, he is taken in by master criminal Fagin, who trains streets urchins to be pickpockets to enrich his own coffers. Fleeing Fagin and the harsh, brutal house-breaker Sikes, he is taken in by a gentleman and then a young lady in succession, where his lot improves, but the mystery of his parentage, and how he figures into the nefarious plans of Fagin, Sikes, and the mysterious man Monks, remain to be realized.

This novel is of course widely regarded as a classic, and though I don’t believe it to be of the same quality as Great Expectations, it’s not hard to see why it has endured: the villains of the story are vivid, fully realized, horrifying at times, and almost noble in their way at others. Dickens set out to present an honest account of vice with this novel, and he certainly succeeded: his willingness to give motives, fears, and conscience to the villains, rather than simply making them cartoonishly evil, is fairly modern. (Fagin is an absurd anti-Semitic stereotype, but I overlook that as a reflection of Dickens' time and place.) The novel also succeeds as social satire; especially at the beginning, with its descriptions of 19th century England’s treatment of the poor, he comes off as sharp, angry, and as full of black, biting wit as Twain or Swift. The book has its flaws, however. Despite his upbringing, young Twist himself is nearly a cipher, cartoonishly beatific and good; his personality borders on mawkishness, even sanctimoniousness. The same can be said for Miss Rose, the lady who takes him in, which makes them uninteresting as well as unrealistic. It’s no accident that Fagin and the Artful Dodger are as well-known to the general public as the titular hero himself. Finally, Dickens’ social satire is rather cut off at the knees due to his decision to make Twist the son of a gentleman, as if actual lower-class paupers don’t deserve happy endings and decent treatment. It’s a terrific story in its essence, though, with rich characters, suspense, and broad humor, as well as a righteous social satire and invective against hypocritical power mongers.

four stars

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Science And Sex

by Mary Roach

A cheery analysis of how and why scientists have observed, recorded, and theorized about human sex behavior, since gynecologist Robert Dickinson’s case studies in the 1890s, through the Masters and Johnson reach, Kinsey’s questionnaires, Marie Bonaparte’s studies on the relation of clitoral position to enjoyment of sex, and so on.  Roach travels to Denmark where she observes pig inseminators sexually stimulating the sows for better results; watches penile enhancement surgery in Taipei; peeks into the small and unsettling world of sex machine hobbyists; interviews the maker of a suction device for women (to increase blood flow to the clitoris); discusses the strange history of testicle grafts; and opens many other windows into the vast array of human sexuality.  Stuffed with the kind of tidbits of information that make you cross your legs and squirm (there is a great deal of historical insertions of objects into urethras, for example), and told in vivid, bold, often hilarious prose, this is a hugely entertaining book.  It’s not exactly a definitive study of human sexuality, being wide in scope but not deep and with very little in the way of general thesis; however, Roach’s winking, irreverent prose style, her wisecracks, and her wordplay set this book in the highest ranks of popular science surveys.

four stars

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Language Is: And What it Isn't and What it Could Be

by John McWhorter

A linguist explains for the layman, in easy, readable prose and affable wit, the professional view on languages: they are Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed.  He tries to dispel the ludicrous and unfounded belief that some languages are more “real” than others (which are thought of as “primitive”) simply because they are better known or have a tradition of literature.  Rationally, with no dogmatic axe to grind, he explains the prescriptivist view of language – all languages – as ever-changing oral traditions, most of them a macedoine of borrowings from neighbors, colonists, conquerors, and subcultures.  He inverts the layman’s suppositions about “primitive” creoles – it’s writing which is the perversion of language, not the other way around; and it’s the baffling impenetrability of, say, Navajo that is unusual, rather than the more simplistic grammars of Persian and English - which have been streamlined over time by an influx of adult immigrants who honed off some of the intricacies while learning them orally, as well as infusing some of their own language into the pot.

This is a terrific book, full of fascinating tidbits about individual languages (the English word “notch” used to be “otch” but the initial n was transferred to the indefinite article; Mandarin uses some shape-based classifiers for its numbered nouns; the African language Serer has ten genders; Twi uses various particles to indicate how you have come to know a statement; Berik nouns specify the time of day things happened to them) as well as wise, compelling pronouncements on language as whole.  McWhorter looks at a language’s entire background – its history of colonization or conquest, its geographic setting – to explain its own individual quirks.  As McWhorter notes, languages have fetishes over different things – English's insistence on differentiating the indefinite and definite articles of nouns baffles Mandarin and Russian speakers, who don’t use any articles, while other languages are anal about specific counting words or the relations of objects to the speaker.  This doesn’t make them “strange” or not “real” languages, just individual, and it’s that variation that is so endlessly fascinating to us language geeks.  Where I think McWhorter fails to convince is in his argument that textspeak and the slipping of written standards results in just as “real” a language than the AP Manual of Style; this may be true, from a linguistic point of view, but the actual criticism is that slipping standards are worse, not less real, than the heavy precedent of our vast, complex written tradition, which has ennobled us, and which is being forgotten.  This aside, the book is charming, captivating, and compelling; anyone who makes misinformed comments about what language is – and that is so many otherwise perfectly rational people – should be forced to read it.

four stars

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Flat Crazy

by Ben Rehder

The third Blanco Country mystery.  In this episode of game warden John Marlin’s adventures in law enforcement, a corrupt hunting guide named Duke Waldrip kills an angry client who demands a refund after discovering his mounted head was faked; the country goes loco after a chupacabra sighting makes national news thanks to a less-than-dignified gossip show’s attention; loveable redneck crooks Billy Don and Red try to catch the goat-sucker with typically amateurish planning; a man specializing in Asian midget porn procures some deer antlers as an aphrodisiac for an unconfident star; and someone has been illegally shipping in and shooting exotic animals (which just might explain the chupacabra sightings).

It’s another strong entry in Rehder’s series – not actually a mystery, since the murderer is known from the beginning (except for a small twist at the end) and it’s pretty clear what the chupacabra actually is – but it’s a great amount of fun.  The criminal is both dumb and devious; the hillbillies are self-centered, goofy and endearing; Marlin is an everyman, unlucky in love but optimistic, who doesn’t want to solve homicides but deep down enjoys the thrill.  As Rehder brings the disparate plot lines together and apart and together again in brief, staccato flashes of drama and chaos (the porn plot thread impacts the case only tangentially but quite viscerally), the madcap energy keeps the pages turning.  Comic madness plus suspense equals enthralling.

four stars

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Something To Answer For

by P.H. Newby

The winner of the first Booker Prize, this novel takes place during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and centers on Jack Townrow, a British man who makes his living as a corrupt Fund Distributor.  With nothing holding him to home, when he is asked to come to Egypt (called the UAR in the novel though that seems to be chronologically off) by Mrs. Khoury, the widow of a man he met ten years earlier in Cairo, he goes.  On the way, during a stopover in Rome, Townrow gets into an argument with two men over Britain’s knowledge or lack thereof of the Final Solution in 1942.  Townrow is incensed that anyone would believe the British government to be capable of colluding in genocide, while the Israeli and Greek are more cynical.   In Port Said, on the Canal, he goes to a bar he used to frequent, whose Greek proprietor spins him a yarn about Mrs K’s taking Elie’s body, along with a fortune in coins, to Lebanon though the Canal, which directly led to Nasser’s decision to nationalize it, precipitating the looming French and British invasion.  Townrow drinks until he blacks out – it seems likely to the reader that the bar owner drugged him – and awakens naked and bleeding in the desert, and is attacked by a startled camel driver, causing his head and eye to be bandaged for most of the rest of the novel.  After this incident, the novel becomes much more dream-like in its narrative, with Townrow a very unreliable narrator who gives false names, who cannot remember his nationality (though he asserts that he is Irish as part of a scam he tries to run on Mrs K), nor his age, nor whether his mother is alive. He imagines that Elie is still alive, or that he is watching the burial at sea.  He meets an Egyptian Jew, Leah Strauss, who is married to an American locked in an asylum back home.  She repels his attentions, though apparently she later becomes his lover, and she an obsession for him. Townrow walks though scenes of mob unrest (and kills a man, though apparently nothing comes of it), is arrested as a spy, and watches bloody gunfights between Egyptian and British troops with detachment.  At the end of the novel, Townrow comes to believe that a citizen is not responsible for the morality of his government and has only himself and his own actions to answer for.

I don’t usually write such a detailed plot summary in a review, but this book, with its scenes that seemed to go nowhere but had huge influence on what came after, seemed to call for it.  This is a somewhat bewildering novel, as it is difficult to tell how much of what was related actually took place or how much was a fever or drunken dream.  Did Townrow really dig up the body, or watch a burial?  Did he really kill a rioter accidentally?  The book is very much Graham Greene – efficient British man gets in way over his head in a post-colonial foreign country because he doesn’t understand the history and culture the way he thinks he does – but a Greene novel as co-directed by Christopher Nolan and David Lynch.  I understand that this is a story of self-discovery, and it’s written with skill and erudition, and its message that a person is responsible for his or her own morality is welcome enough, but there’s always a part of me that resents books which make no distinction between internal and external processes.  How can the reader judge whether Townrow’s choices are apt and his journey worth taking when we can’t even know what’s happened to him?

three stars

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Fixer

by Bernard Malamud

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel set during the end of Tsarist Russia concerns the titular handyman, Yakov Bok, an agnostic Jew who leaves his village where he’s had nothing but personal and financial failure and tries his luck in Kiev.  There in the big anti-Semitic city, Yakov poses as a goy Russian and becomes a brickyard foreman, not through deliberate machinations but a series of events and lies of omission which make this the easiest and safest course for him.  But after a young boy is brutally murdered in the region, the authorities seize on Yakov, a Jew living illegally under false pretenses, as their scapegoat and charge him with killing the boy for magical Jewish blood rituals.  He sits imprisoned with little hope, though one or two fair-minded officials sympathize with the injustice of his arrest. 

This is a powerful novel, and it is compelling reading because the eventual plight of Yakov is of such interest.  In Malamud’s setting, the system and its drivers are not clever or all-seeing, merely thuggish, ignorant, and hypocritical.  Though there are bits of circumstantial evidence that hurt Yakov’s credibility (he had previously chased the boy out of the brickyard for vandalism, he took in an old Jew who had been beaten and stanched his bloody head with his own shirt), basically the case against him is made up of whole cloth, invented baseless lies about him personally and the Jewish religion in general.  This is particularly ironic and brutal for Yakov because, as noted, he doesn’t consider himself a religious Jew: “From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare.  What was being a Jew but an everlasting curse?  He was sick of their history, destiny, blood guilt.”  One of the book’s most powerful and moving scenes is when Yakov is visited by his humble, God-fearing father-in-law, whom Yakov sends away, saying God is an invention and that he hates him in any case for killing Job’s children, “not to mention ten thousand pogroms.”  The book’s purpose, I believe is to expose injustice and to exhort all fair-minded people, especially Jews, to work against it: “there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew,” Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book.  “You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.”  And yet, because Malamud has shown that the system is not just weighted against the oppressed but completely unrestrained by any duty to truth or even credibility, that it can manufacture and disseminate inventions, I wonder whether this moral works.  What is there to fight, if facts don’t matter and lone voices are silenced?  The novel ends on an ambiguous note, but where this scintilla of hope may come from seems unfounded given the rest of Yakov’s experiences.

four stars

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now

by Jan Wong

The tale of the Chinese-Canadian author’s long path from a deluded, naïve red-to-the-core Maoist to a cynical reporter who sees just how wrong she was.  Wong’s life is enthralling in its sheer unlikeliness, even if Wong herself comes off as an unrepentant spoiled fool in the first half of the book.  Wong dismisses the concerns of her wealthy father (born in Canada, the son of an emigrant) to become one of only two Westerners allowed to attend Beijing University in 1972, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and demands to work in the fields, so she can be “purified” by labor.  She is far too stupid to understand that Mao’s policies were insane and destructive, and actually believed what millions of Chinese knew to be madness.  If Wong were Chinese, she’d be merely naïve, or a tool of the system – as an educated Canadian who should have known better, she comes off as dangerously stupid, and her book is full of excuses and alibis for her actions.  She takes pains to cite the turbulent political times, the anti-American sentiment, her youth… but those are not valid excuses.  Millions of Americans criticized their government in the ‘60s and ‘70s  without swallowing Mao’s gnomish madness, and tens of millions of teenagers may have impulsive tendencies but manage not to be raving absolutists about things which are obviously untrue.

So the first half of the book is infuriating, though still fascinating.  Very early into Wong’s first visit to China, she started noticing that the Cultural Revolution had trashed standards throughout China, that “some people seemed more equal than others,” that food stores were sparse; but still she remains deluded and committed to Maoism.  What kind of mind must she have had to be so blind?  At one point she is so brainwashed (not, it must be noted, by anyone but her own faulty reasoning and stupidity) she denounces students who want her help to escape China.  Wong realizes that this was a low point in her     development, but she maintains a defensive attitude about even this, comparing herself to other Chinese denouncers.  (She doesn’t seem to realize that they, who had to live there, may have had practical reasons to denounce others, such as to avoid more severe punishment for loved ones who may have been implicated.)  As with all brainwashed zealots, it is only after her personal desires or freedoms are impacted that she truly begins to question what she believes: “I was sick of the double standard… How dare he interfere in my life.  I had changed… I refused to endure the same kind of humiliation every Chinese endured,” she writes about the authorities’ attempts to prevent her from seeing her future husband.  Wong’s stupidity and self-interest is rather pathetic, and she is a highly unsympathetic narrator – but as I say, the book is fascinating, if only because her experiences are so unreal and rare.  After her apostasy, the book gets even more interesting, because of Wong’s unique ability to blend in with the Chinese people and get stories for the New York Times.  She writes about the lead-up to the Tiananmen reprisals, when students went on “hunger strikes” in turns (with snack breaks), and how it suddenly turned from a rather jovial sit-in to a massacre.  She gives in-depth reports on execution fields and the practicalities of summary executions; she visits entire villages made retarded and dwarfed by pollution; she investigates modern women trafficking; and she marvels at the breakneck pace of China’s embrace of capitalism, with its McDonald’s run by ex-cadre leaders, the new extravagance of penis and breast reconstruction (though the former has roots in China’s early rural economy, when boys had their penises bitten off by feral pigs as they defecated in fields at night).  “Even my maid had a maid,” she writes, bemused at the changes.  At this point Wong seems very clear-headed, but even late in the book, she claims that China was “an unrelentingly pure country” in 1980 because guards didn’t take bribes, compared to the pervasive bribery rampant in China today.  But surely she realizes that bribery sprouts from lawlessness, and the lack of bribery is more likely rooted in fear of a mad despot than some ideological “purity” that never existed?  It left me wondering if Wong ever really learned a lesson, or just got tired of being treated like a Chinese person.  That aside, it’s a fascinating look at Chinese written from a unique perspective. 

four stars

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bedside Manners: One Doctor's Reflections on the Oddly Intimate Encounters Between Patient and Healer

by David Watts

The author, an internist and poet, writes brief vignettes about a variety of patients – the resigned, the anxious, the pathologically neurotic, the demanding and blustering.  With the longest at around ten pages and most of them no more than four, these are brief scenes, ruminations on what a patient’s words or actions may actually be saying about their inner feelings.

The last word in the subtitle – “healer” – is aptly chosen, as Dr. Watts attends to not only his patients’ colons and esophagi, but their fears and hopes and memories.  Using as his precept “So you’re a doctor, but don’t go around acting like one,” he does a masterful job of checking his ego, putting himself in his patients’ shoes, allowing them their moments of fear or bravado.  As the kind of doctor who sees himself as a healer, listener, counselor, and fount of compassion, he also has a few rather pointed and amusing things to say about insurance companies and red tape.  As a poet, he is a talented storyteller with a gift for evoking a scene of high emotion in a  few lines and ending it on the perfect, ambiguous, moving, or wryly humorous note.  I did not like the way in which he eschewed all quotation marks; Watts may be a poet, but this is not poetry, and it was a distracting affectation. 

four stars

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Cavalier In the Yellow Doublet

by Arturo Perez-Reverte
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

The fifth Captain Alatriste novel.  The Captain and his young (but now rather handy with a blade) ward Inigo are in Madrid, walking a tightrope between their strict standards of honor and their rather lowly status among the pomp, poetry, and provocation of that city’s many cavaliers and officials.  Alatriste begins an affair with a famous and beautiful actress, María Castro (whose husband serves as some sort of half-jocular, half-bitter pimp), but is warned to stay away, as her favors are being enjoyed by none other than the king himself.  The Captain, of course, cannot be told what to do, and alienates friends and enemies alike by continuing to see the actress.  This, unfortunately, makes him the perfect patsy for a plot against the royal wastrel – and when Alatriste’s old enemy, the Italian mercenary Malatesta, pops up, they both know one of them must die at the hands of the other.

This is a superb historical novel, perhaps the best in the series.  The vanity of swordsmen for a decaying empire, duels over one wrong glance, strict adherence to considerations of honor, pageantry, assignations, plays, poets whose stars rise and fall at the whims of the court: this is Perez-Reverte’s 17th century Madrid, in all its gritty cinematic glory.  The suspense is masterful, with Alatriste and Inigo both independently betrayed by their foolish pride or love, and racing, swords in hand, against a very short deadline separately but toward the same goal.  Alatriste is not at all what the modern reader would think a hero – he’s a tired cynical old killer with no fear of death and his every action is mandated by his sense of pride and honor, not fairness or magnanimity – but he has a shred of sympathy for those over their heads and a few sparks of love in him, and that makes him a complex, fascinating figure.  He’s the perfect centerpiece for these thrilling, swashbuckling adventures of a grittier, prouder time.

four stars