Where Men Win Glory is Jon Krakauer's book about Pat Tillman, the football player turned Army Ranger who died in Afghanistan. It seems unnecessary forWhere Men Win Glory is Jon Krakauer's book about Pat Tillman, the football player turned Army Ranger who died in Afghanistan. It seems unnecessary for me to write much about it since Dexter Filkins (author of the very good book The Forever War) reviewed it for the NYT. I agree with what Filkins wrote, except that Filkins didn't think the personage of Tillman is enough to carry the reader through the book, and I did. Certainly the book qua book has plenty of flaws, but Tillman comes through as a person of extraordinary integrity, which makes the events surrounding his death all the more troubling....more
Moss offers a report on how food companies use the science of salt, sugar, and fat both to hook customers with deliciousness and to achieve business gMoss offers a report on how food companies use the science of salt, sugar, and fat both to hook customers with deliciousness and to achieve business goals for their products (e.g. shelf-stable, tastes acceptable). I took away two main points related to these themes.
First, the manufacturers aren't just adding more salt, sugar, and/or fat that you would cooking at home, they're actually using more of these ingredients than you can use at home through novel compounds, formulas, and processes. That is why these processed foods have an almost drug-like effect on people; they've been engineered to hit "bliss points" of those flavors.
Second, there's a telling anecdote at the end of the book about a company trying to reduce the salt content of processed meats and realizing there's a point at which the meat is so disgusting taste-testers will spit it out. To me, that's a pretty compelling reason not to eat that kind of thing even when salt is put back in.
Easy for me to say, though: I'm not used to eating much processed food. Fitting with the discussion in this book, I only like a small subset of processed foods that I was exposed to as a kid (soda, crackers). Having never eaten a Pop-Tart as a child, I'm not about to start now. Moss talks about how kids have a natural taste for sugar, but not for salt, and that their taste for those flavors is adjusted by what they're exposed to.
If you're interested in reading about our food supply and you're not interested in more of Michael Pollan's torrid love affair with local organic kale farms and you don't want to read the equivalent of b-roll of fat people, this book is worthwhile and doesn't harp at all on either of those areas. (Side note: My impression was that this book talked about obesity relatively sparingly given the subject and that Moss was pointing the finger at food companies for fostering the attitude that people should exercise more and eat less, that it's the "weakness" of their customers not the quality of their food. I would conclude though Moss doesn't flat-out say it that the food companies are fostering a nasty anti-fat culture in addition to selling crap food.)
Moss's attitude is a bit like Marion Nestle's, but this is much more like a business book than a book on what to eat....more
The chief storyline of this book concerns Meister Frantz Schmidt's efforts to restore his family name. Schmidt's father, a respectable woodsman, had tThe chief storyline of this book concerns Meister Frantz Schmidt's efforts to restore his family name. Schmidt's father, a respectable woodsman, had the misfortune to be standing around when a despised local noble required someone to dispatch some supposed would-be assassins, on the spot. The father was permanently tainted by this killing, leaving him and his son no choice but to become professional executioners. Frantz spends his entire (unusually long) life trying to revive his family's good name through careful strategy and unfailing probity and piousness. Reading this, you feel lucky to live in a modern society where you can't incur lifelong untouchability through the whim of a social superior. Frantz's carefulness and thoughtfulness also make him surprisingly sympathetic for a guy who personally killed nearly 400 people and tortured or maimed many more. No other livelihood was open to him, so he tried to be good at his unwanted profession.
I hadn't previously thought much about this, but early modern jurisdictions didn't imprison people for long periods of time; they simply jailed them until they were dealt with, by execution, flogging or some kind of punitive mutilation, or exile. Because the punishments were a one-time deal, they tended to be more extreme, with executions being handed down for property crimes or for repeated minor crimes, simply because that was the only way to permanently deal with a criminal. However, you don't walk away from this book thinking that we--by which I mean Americans--are much smarter than these early modern people in terms of devising punishments that are coherent or give the desired results. In fact, reading about how the city councilors get frustrated with recidivists and order the execution of teenagers, you're reminded how frequently teenagers get charged as adults in our society, just because someone thought them especially bad.
I read this book because I'm interested in 16th century Nuremberg, not because I'm interested in crime and punishment, and on that front the arrangement of the material is a little disappointing. Harrington follows the chronology of Schmidt's journal and the progress of his quest for social rehabilitation, which is quite interesting but perhaps does not warrant 250 pages. Meanwhile, you get glimpses of late 16th to early 17th century life throughout--ridiculous nicknames of career criminals, tiffs between master and servant, unruly teens, the fashion for "earth apples" (globes), recurrent outbreaks of plague, etc.--but these take a backseat to Schmidt's career. Harrington is so successful at bringing his narrow topic to life that I wish he'd highlighted and interpreted more of the details he encountered along the way.
As it is, this seems to occupy an uncomfortable middle ground between academic history (reflected by the author's meticulousness and contextualization) and popular history (reflected by its focus on one person's biography and inspiring personal story). I'd recommend it if you're interested in the period or in law and order....more
Okay, so the reason I read another one of these historical romance books is that Claire not only "hand-sold" this to me, she actually brought it to myOkay, so the reason I read another one of these historical romance books is that Claire not only "hand-sold" this to me, she actually brought it to my house. Since Tessa Dare was the author I was trying to read originally for the "read outside your usual genre book club" anyway--thwarted, though, by her immense popularity and my inability to get my hands on any of them--I invested two hours in this. In fact, I read it in one sitting because the cat was on my lap and I kept thinking that I was so close to the end, I may as well not disturb her.
I would say that it wasn't as good as the Courtney Milan book I read but still pretty fun, particularly because of the witty banter. Also, one of the characters is supposed to aspire to be a librarian, and boy does that work better in this book than in ostensibly more literary novels by the awful Eleanor Brown and scoffworthy Alice Hoffman.
Now back to your regularly scheduled history and science books, at least until Claire strikes again......more
he Two-Income Trap is a book about the economic pressures facing families today, but above all it's an indictment of an increasingly predatory credit-he Two-Income Trap is a book about the economic pressures facing families today, but above all it's an indictment of an increasingly predatory credit-card industry. (One of the book's authors was prominently featured in the recent Frontline report about credit cards.) The authors show how having a second wage earner hasn't been the boon that families expected. Parents--crunched by a competitive housing market and expensive college tuition--devote 75% of their income to fixed commitments like the mortgage, all in the name of securing a middle-class lifestyle. But when something unexpected happens--unemployment or illness, for example--the family cannot meet its basic obligations, and many ultimately declare bankruptcy after running up massive credit card debt.
The authors describe how credit card terms and bankruptcy law have become increasingly incomprehensible and punitive. For example, many credit cards have a small-print policy of "universal default," which means that they can revoke your favorable but conditional APR if you make a late payment on an account totally unrelated to your credit card--a utility bill, for example. Banks want you to take out and use as much credit as you can, because they know that most people will kill themselves trying to pay it back rather than default; they make more money by getting lots of people to take large high-interest loans and suffering a few defaults than they do when everyone dutifully pays off their small balance every month. So when a family is in trouble and starts running up balances, they actually receive more credit card offers than a financially stable person does. Meanwhile, the banks are currently trying to rewrite bankruptcy law so that credit card debts don't have to be forgiven--adding them to a very short list of responsibilties (e.g. child support) that remain even after bankruptcy. In fact, one bill even puts credit card debt higher on the list of priorities than child support, so that MBNA would have a better claim on the wages of a deadbeat than a single mother would.
You might expect the authors to advocate that women stay home, but far from it--women's income is now needed to keep up with the cost of living. Their primary prescription is something most Americans seem to have forgotten how to do: save. If you can't do that, they say, better to spend all your second income on restaurants and clothes; at least that way the spending is discretionary and can be stopped in an emergency. I think the book is a useful and interesting discussion, but it's not really one for the ages, so I'm giving it a relatively low rating....more
Quirky first fiction from a trendy Brooklyn guy--not really my cup of tea, but it was on the NYT's ten-best list for last year. It's the story of layoQuirky first fiction from a trendy Brooklyn guy--not really my cup of tea, but it was on the NYT's ten-best list for last year. It's the story of layoff season in a Chicago ad agency, and all the worry, scheming, and personal issues that come with it. Like The Virgin Suicides, it's told in the first-person plural and it shares a similar elegiac way of looking at a period that seems seminal and well-defined in retrospect. Ferris does a wonderful job of detailing everyday life in an office and how we relate to the people we work with, but the book alternated between feeling like there was nothing going on and feeling like the action was exaggerated. I also couldn't shake the feeling that the book was too much like e by Matt Beaumont, which is an epistolary novel in email about ... an ad agency in London. I read e in the BLJ (before LJ) era but remember finding it funny in a way that Then We Came to the End, with its high-concept narration and gratuitous 9/11 references, doesn't attempt....more
This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust (the president of Harvard, and a woman, FYI) is a history of the Civil War period that focuses on theThis Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust (the president of Harvard, and a woman, FYI) is a history of the Civil War period that focuses on the devastating death toll of the conflict and its effects on American culture of that time and since. The main threads of the discussion include attitudes of the Victorians towards a "good death," fashionable mourning, and the possibility of people simply disappearing; efforts to properly identify the staggering number of casualties and bodies and dispose of them appropriately; and the role of the government in directing the efforts to care for and compensate the people who had lost so much.
This last point is probably the most interesting aspect of the book. The author suggests that, because the raison d'être of the conflict was the legitimacy of the federal government itself, the government took a much stronger role in the aftermath. As the war progressed, the government moved from issuing vague, unenforceable orders to generals telling them to bury their dead, to actually disinterring bodies after the war ended and reburying them in official national cemeteries, which had never previously existed. Similarly, one of the reasons identifying the dead was so important was the availability of survivors' benefits for widows and dependent mothers and sisters. In these arrangements you can see the roots of today's entitlement programs.
The author has drawn together a huge volume of primary material to offer both an analysis and eye-catching details. However, like many academic books, this one suffers from being too repetitive, almost as if the chapters were individual articles, not intended to be read in order....more
Although I read this book in German, there are already lots of German reviews and it may get published in translation, so I'll review auf Englisch. ThAlthough I read this book in German, there are already lots of German reviews and it may get published in translation, so I'll review auf Englisch. The title translates as "He's Back" and it's about Hitler, who mysteriously reappears in Berlin in 2011 and becomes a TV star. His audience apparently believes him to be some kind of method actor or nth-degree Stephen Colbert character, and is alternately discomfited by his unironic profession of Nazi ideals and interested in his updated ideas, for example, about how protecting the German homeland environment should be a highest priority, which makes him a strange bedfellow of the Green party. Meanwhile, Hitler himself remains resolutely oblivious of how reviled he is by nearly everyone in the modern world, which sets up many scenes of dramatic irony when his modern producers and viewers are too polite to call him out on his occasionally outrageous statements, which they believe are part of his act.
What makes this the book somewhat groundbreaking is that it's a German comedy about Hitler. This doesn't feel special to Americans and British people, who have been making fun of Hitler since Charlie Chaplin, but in my experience, even when Germans do want to be funny, anything around Nazism is the last place they would go, rather like the German tourist who tells Basil Fawlty that his goose-stepping is not funny: "Not for us! Not for any German people!" That said, this book isn't a straight-up, laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. A lot of the the time the emotion the reader experiences is the kind of cringe that The Office (British version) evoked so relentlessly.
Although I enjoyed reading the novel for my own purposes--to exercise my German and find out what all the talk in Germany was about--I'm not sure I'd recommend this to American readers. It relies on a pretty detailed knowledge of contemporary German society (its immigrants, laws against promoting Nazism, other TV shows) that I doubt many Americans are up to speed on. Also, much of its style stems from the author's mimicry of Hitler's oratory, which involved torrents of high-flown, hyperbolic, old-fashioned language, in this book applied to such observations as the fact that there are lots of Starbucks around, or that reality TV shows are repetitive and insipid, or that Ikea furniture is made of firewood. It starts to be funny, and then you realize you're being amused with Hitler and you want to stop.
Ultimately, what made this book satisfying can only be described in German: Schadenfreude. It turns out that watching Hitler lost, diminished, irrelevant, a joke--but not a good one--is a little thrilling. Not everyone would agree with me, but as an American, I think the Germans (especially of my generation) are better at confronting their historical demons than we are, and I'm not surprised that this book, both for the symbolic reason of finally making Hitler a subject of comedy and for the thematic reason of revealing the panorama of a more pluralistic German society, became a bestseller there. However, the book ends on an eerie warning note, as Hitler moderates his rhetoric to match the times and uses his power of personal fascination to rebuild a circle of followers and fans....more
It doesn't seem fair to count this for my 2013 Reading Challenge, given that it can be read in a short bus ride plus part of lunch. The important thinIt doesn't seem fair to count this for my 2013 Reading Challenge, given that it can be read in a short bus ride plus part of lunch. The important thing to remember about this author is that he writes Shouts and Murmurs pieces that are about two pages long. Even by the standards of comedy books, this is short.
I find his sensibility amusing, and this book has a more cohesive theme than the previous collections: romance, to put it generally, but really how desperate, inept, and clueless his male characters are in their search for love. This book would seem funnier to anyone who has lived in Brooklyn in their twenties. Almost all of the stories are silly thought experiments, but the one about the time-traveling scientist is poignant.
I could say more, but I don't want to spend more time writing about the book than reading it....more
I ordered the next book I want to read from some shady seller on Amazon who shipped it nine days after my order, so I picked up something to reread thI ordered the next book I want to read from some shady seller on Amazon who shipped it nine days after my order, so I picked up something to reread that I wouldn't mind putting down when the new novel arrives.
This is the Harry Potter book I've read the fewest times, for the obvious reason that it came out last but also because I do objectively think it is the least good, and I can't blame the author. I can't think of any author who ever wrote under the pressure that Rowling did--maybe Charles Dickens? What individual creative endeavor had a whole industry riding on it? I was in publishing during the Harry Potter years and although I worked for a different company, we expected our sales to be better when the books came out because so many more people would go to bookstores, and happen to buy our books, too. It was the tide that lifted all boats. How could somebody write fluidly and freshly under those circumstances? And I don't think Rowling did, here, but as soon as the pressure was off and she was writing as Robert Galbraith, she did again.
Another no-win situation with this book relates to pacing. As I said in my review of The Silkworm, I think one of her best touches as a writer is how she draws out quotidian scenes and then spikes them with unexpected violence. But this book is one fight after another, either in the sense of arguing, or of duelling. Written duel scenes might work (The Three Musketeers?) but panoramic fights scenes seem difficult outside of movies. Sure, someone might yell "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!" during a battle, but when the author is reducing to allcapsing things, we've probably left the world of good writing.
Finally, all of the characters seem a little off-model to me--in some cases, they're being their worst selves but in others, they're simply a bit flat, and none of this seems to be on purpose. She lost control of the characters, since all the fans took them and ran, which they wanted to do because of the amazing sense of possibility and openness in the first four to five installments. And I think the flatness of the characters has to do with the closing off of that sense of possibility. Only one ending is imaginable, that Harry kills Voldemort, and we just don't have time here for funny tidbits like The Monster Book of Monsters or the Marauder's Map; the only new material here is required to end the book and, for the most part, not nearly so well foreshadowed as in the earlier books.
Still good for a skim? Sure, but I probably shouldn't have reached for this first, even as filler....more
It's really embarrassing that I read this, but I wanted to try out the Kindle Lending Library and this was the only recognizable title I hadn't alreadIt's really embarrassing that I read this, but I wanted to try out the Kindle Lending Library and this was the only recognizable title I hadn't already read. I can see why this book was such a bestseller, because it is actually insightful. It also takes about five minutes to read. The author's idea is so obvious once he's expressed it that all the chapters after the first one feel rather superfluous....more
I ran hot-and-cold on this book. The narrative style is simple, fable-like, and many of the mysteries Mma Ramotswe solves are not terribly mysterious;I ran hot-and-cold on this book. The narrative style is simple, fable-like, and many of the mysteries Mma Ramotswe solves are not terribly mysterious; it gives the impression that people in Botswana are rather guileless. The story unfolds episodically and for some reason the structure reminded me of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle--a book for small children. For these reasons, I kept having pangs of feeling that this book was terribly patronizing--though whether to the protagonist, the reader, or Africans in general, I'm not sure which.
At the same time, I found Mma Ramotswe's tenacity charming and her relationship with her Daddy affecting. Some readers said that the plot was predictable, but I'm not much of a mystery reader--I was surprised by many of the developments. I liked being pulled out of my everyday life into this portrayal of Africa, which is shown as very different from America, but not in an exotic way.
The author has churned out a large number of books, and I could see myself trying another....more
Although this novel of espionage in WWII-era Egypt is not short, the plot is rather slight. Follett seems to operate on two totally different scales,Although this novel of espionage in WWII-era Egypt is not short, the plot is rather slight. Follett seems to operate on two totally different scales, huge epic and little episode, and this is a little episode. I didn't mind that, exactly, but I was a little surprised that so little complication had been introduced into the plot before it entered what was obviously the final chase. The setting in Cairo is particularly effective and reminded me of the off-the-beaten-path milieux that make me like Alan Furst so much. ...more
What I liked best about this book was the way the plot is driven by coincidence and misunderstandings. This is the way real life works, a lot of the tWhat I liked best about this book was the way the plot is driven by coincidence and misunderstandings. This is the way real life works, a lot of the time, but it's hard to reflect in fiction, where the author wants to remain in charge. The book kicks off with a chance encounter that convinces the protagonist, a hit man, that his old mob clientele is out to get rid of him. The story has several surprising turning points where he looks for meaning in what he observes, jumps on the wrong explanation, and exacerbates his already threatened situation.
The protagonist is referred to by whatever name he's using at the moment--he doesn't have a real identity other than "The Butcher's Boy"--but the author tells us quite a bit about his past, being raised by to be a hit man by the previous master. We end up hearing a lot about the rules of the game, which is very different than, say, the Reacher books, where we observe someone acting on instinct, with few explanations or justifications.
My least favorite thing about this novel was the antagonists in the form of old-timey mobsters. They struck me as flat stereotypes, not very intriguing in the wake of The Sopranos having upended that trope.
I continued to enjoy the female Justice Department character, and I noticed that Perry's other series is about a female protagonist, so I'll probably read those after the last volume in this series. ...more
Now that I'm back in public libraries, I'm looking to try some books outside my usual favorite genres. Some of the areas I was curious about were romaNow that I'm back in public libraries, I'm looking to try some books outside my usual favorite genres. Some of the areas I was curious about were romance, sports, and novels published by "urban fiction" imprints. I was very satisfied to find Love on the Run on PW's list of the best romance books of 2012, because it's a romance, published by Dafina, featuring a star sprinter named Shayna who falls in love with her ambitious manager, Michael. Their romance is kindled as her career as a celebrity endorser takes off, but Shayna's ex-boyfriend Jarrell refuses to move on in ways that are sometimes irritating, sometimes creepy.
Like other romances I've encountered, this book features a lot of scenery that's aspirational: private jets and chefs; lavish dinners; and a honeymoon yacht (that no one seems to be sailing, so good luck with that). Not only is Michael rich and powerful, he also comes from a family of winners, with a successful doctor for a brother, a devoted mother, and a father who was an involved role model up until his death. Shayna, by contrast, was raised largely by her grandmother, while her flighty mother pursued various romances of her own.
Indeed the exploration of Shayna's family is the part of this book that feels least templated. I liked the portrayal of Shayna's grandmother, and the revelations about their family were surprising, although this plotline seemed to get somewhat short shrift in order to get back to talking about crab cakes and shoes and limousines. Shayna's mother, Beverley, is simply not much of a mother--not only does she not guide or encourage her daughter, she also behaves selfishly towards her. As the book opens, Beverley has married Shayna's ex-boyfriend Jarrell's older brother Larsen. This is somewhat embarrassing to Shayna, and it means that Shayna can't get away from (step-uncle?) Jarrell when they break up. Even after Jarrell (somewhat ambiguously) physically hurts Shayna, Beverley helps him in his machinations to get her back.
I was troubled by Jarrell, whom I found more villainous than the author seems to have intended. In the end, he leaves Shayna alone because he has a new partner. But why not leave Shayna alone because she told him to and it's her life? Neither Jarrell nor Beverley has a moment of actually respecting Shayna as the ultimate arbiter of her own body, future, and happiness, so I felt that this was unresolved, even if the author treats it as settled when Shayna and Michael marry.
As this is a contemporary romance book, it had a handful of steamy sex scenes, none of which were bad, though some of the synonyms used are pretty silly. In fact, silly is the word I'd choose to describe the sex scenes in general, which feel unconnected with the larger plot. Instead, they are connected with the characters' world of luxury. For example, when Shayna first visits Michael's well-appointed home, we hear about her "pulsating punnanny"--and she's just sitting on the sofa! (Memo to self: new sofa?) Their attraction seems to stem, not from some sense of love and understanding, but from their sheer physical attractiveness and being turned on by molten chocolate cake or whatever.
When I read random books like this, I don't know how to rate them. This novel did make me rather impatient to move on, but I do think it goes beyond the standards of the genre in terms of making the secondary characters and plotlines detailed....more