[I've been
« August, 2002 »
Nickle and Dimed

This book really split my friends. Some thought it was a really effective social critique from a known and talented writer. Others thought it was an insulting pseudo-realist look into the world of the underclass by someone whose only approach to such a lifestyle is to whine and complain her way through it.

As I was reading this book, I was itemizing all of my particular issues with it, reasons it made me insanely mad. By the time I finished with it, I was merely tired of Ehrehreich and wanted her to go home to her middle-class existence and boyfriend and house, probably even more than she did. Ehrenreich, who I generally respect as a writer, sets heself up as a fake poor person, gives herself a seemingly arbitrary set of rules, and goes out to live as she envisions a poor person would. She takes low wage jobs in a number of cities and tries to both keep the job and make a living while paying for rent, food, expenses, etc. Oh, except she rents herself a car, off the books. Oh, and she won’t share a living situation with anyone, forcing herself into more expensive lodgings with no personal posessions. Oh, and she quits jobs that are too hard and complains her way through the rest of them

Ehrenreich’s points -- made frequently through footnotes and a summary chapter at the end -- are valid and worthwhile. She explains how people living at subsistence level have an entirely different set of concerns than the next class of people above them. She explains how attaining and keeping housing and food become survival activities and how the current economic system makes this even more so. She stresses how lousy it is working in a lousy job and living in a lousy apartment, but she does a pisspoor job at getting inside the heads of the people she works with -- who can’t rent cars, or return to a boyfriend and a house at the end of their tenure. Ehrenreich seems to roll her eyes a lot and wonder aloud just how anyone can live like she has forced herself to temporarily live and all this does is further patronize people who are too busy working two jobs, raising kids and figuring out where the next meal is coming from, to give a shit about Ehrenreich’s undercover journalism. Subculture tourism at its finest.

Uncle Boris in the Yukon

This book dovetailed nicely with the Sacks book I was reading simultaneously. Both were memoirs of Jewish misift kids growing up around the same time period. While Sacks became fascinated with chemistry, Pinkwater grew fanatical about dogs and pets and having a pet of his own. I know Pinkwater more from the books he has written for young adults such as Alan P Mendelson Boy From Mars and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, I also vaguely knew he was involved with dog training. In this book, Pinkwater seems like a guy who lived his whole life to be involved with dogs -- he and his wife have many dogs as pets and devote enormous amounts of time to them and used to run a dog training school -- and that his writing career is only a tiny side project. The book is humorously illustrated by his wife and has lots of lovable pictures of dogs in it. It tells real stories but manages to be funny at the same time.

Uncle Tungsten

There appears to be a miniature subgenre of the memoir which is the chemical memoir. I only know two of these books, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and this one. In this book Sacks reflects on his adolescence, growing up in wartime Britain at the same time as he describes his love affair with chemistry. As Sacks was growing up, so was the discipline of chemistry and many grand chemical epiphanies of international importance occurred during the time of Sacks' boyhood.

Sacks manages to tell the tale of the discovery of the periodic table and various elemental discoveries while also telling stories about his family, his ancestors and the general atmopshere of the UK for a young neurotic introverted Jewish boy with brilliant parents and a large warm extended family.

Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness

This is another illustatred history book, somehwat like the morphine book I read earlier this month. That one was a slick glossy affair and this one was a black and white pamphlet with a purple card stock cover. However, this one has what the other did not -- a solid set of opinions on which to hang their research on. Ehrenreich and her co-author Deirdre English make a compelling case for the Western medical system’s systematic oppression of women, with resultant poor care and creation of dis-ease where previously there had only been complaints

The book is chock-full of illustrations -- photos, advertisements, editorial cartoons -- that support the claim that while women may have had a tough time of it generally in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, doctors and social pressures made this worse. Fashion dictated that upper class women be idle, delicate, and even frail while at the same time being completely at the beck and call of their husbands. Lower class women, on the other hand, were somehow able to overcome this ‘weak’ trait of womanhood, but were thought to spread disease and poison community morals. The authors do a good job describing the odd split in heath care for upper and lower class women while at the same time showing how they were both victims of a male-dominated medical establishment that was more concerned with preserving the status quo than with improving the health of womankind.

Planet of the Blind: A Memoir

This is not an easy book to read. It tells the personal story of a kid who grew up not quite blind. He could make out shapes and colors, often with little relation to what was actually in front of him. He also had parents who were not willing to consider him blind. This was not necessarily because they thought he could do anything despite his vision impairment, but more because they were too wrapped up in their own personal lives and were not very focussed on their children at all.

Kuusisto was in his 40’s before he got a guide dog, and even in his 30’s before he got a white cane. Before that he just careened around, deperately unhappy and trying hard to ‘pass’ for sighted. He was also an avid reader of poetry and a literature lover -- and a great writer -- which made his predicament doubly tough. The tale wraps up with a fairly happy ending, but it is a poignant tale overall.

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner

Now that Thomas Noguchi doesn’t seem to be writing any more books about being a medical examiner at a large metropolitan city, someone had to fill his shoes. This book is equal parts celebrity gossip, medical trivia and rumor quashing. Baden has some very strong opinions on some very famous cases, cases that he was somehow involved in, including the Kennedy assasination. He is a medical examiner in NYC and was the chief examiner until he was fired by Ed Koch in a politically charged series of events. Baden tells all and while the writing isn’t super interesting -- it was ghostwritten by Judith Hennessee -- the subject matter makes it very readable.

Unnatural Exposure

Every so often there is a ‘cybersleuthing’ story that catches my attention and winds up being worth the effort. This story is not one of those. basically Cornwell seems to not have been able to decide whether to make this a computer crime story -- grisly murder photos were sent to the medical examiner via email -- or an epidemic/contagion thriller -- one of the victims has a disease that looks a lot like smallpox. The end result is weak in both areas. The computer/Internet descriptions are laughable, and the contagion factor is too easily wrapped up to be too captivating. I need to stop reading mysteries.

Adrian Mole, The Cappucino Years

Not as good as the previous Mole books I have read, this book catches up with our hero after a marriage and divorce and a child. He is still somewhat clueless, still living at home -- for at least part of this book -- and still likely to get wrapped up in events over which he has little or no control or understanding. That said, this book was really funny and enjoyable to read, but the lack of understanding that Adrian has about the world around him [like when his parents are cheating on each other, or he is made fun of by his friends] seemed a bit more likely and forgivable in a child of 13 than in a grown man. The diary format still works well and helps move the book along and the cast of characters is as colorful as ever, but the book lacks the same sparkle and zing of the original.

In the Arms of Morpheus

Barbara Hodgson’s bio says that she is a book designer and writer. Her talents, in that order, inform this book. The subtitle is ‘the tragic history of laudanum, morphine and patent medicines’ However, anyone who is not an anti-drug activist will likely quibble with the word ‘tragic.’ Lots of people became addicted to opium derivatives, and many died. Patent medicines were always a dodgy proposition. Addiction is probably not a good thing. All of these are likely true and yet the adjectives Hodgson uses throughout this book seem to indicate that there was some vast social ill in all the opium-earting going on.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with many full page color images of old patent medicine ads and pulp paperback covers extolling the ills of morphine and opium. It was also well-researched, and mostly well written. However, the sum total was bland -- this book didn’t go anywhere. The chapters on notable drug-takers reads like a laundry list of famous people in the late 1800’s. So and so took opium, so and so injected morphine, so and so was an addict. Patent medicines contained ingredients that were not good for you. The end result, for me anyhow, was to say ‘so what?’ The book suffers from a lack of emotion. Hodgson is neither sympathetic nor antagonistic to the subjects she portrays. It is hard to tell what her opinions are. The book reads more like a college thesis than a popular non-fiction book. Check it out for the pictures, skip most of the explanations.

The Stone Monkey

Everyone knows, mystery novels are like drugs. Good ones leave you with a craving for more, bad ones just make you feel cheap and tawdry and like you’ve wasted your time. Once I read Cornwell’s forensic mystery earlier this month, I was jonesing for more good investigative crime novels. I had previously enjoyed this series, with quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme and his sexy fast driving girlfriend Amelia Sachs. When I went to the library to get another one of his books, i encountered the awful realization that not only did Deaver have many such books, but I couldn’t even remember which ones I had read.

That said, this book is interesting, well researched and compelling. It is, however, a gory forensic crime mystery and not half as interesting as The Bone Collector which, I’m beginning to uneasily suspect, may be the best of the lot. These books keep me up at night reading to find out what happens, at least some of the time i’m not disappointed.


Library cartoons. As librarians, we’re sent a link or a clipping any time someone sees a cartoon that is vaguely about a library or a librarian. Too often, these suffer from a lack of understanding about the profession and so they fall into the same old gags and gaffes that librarians have seen a thousand times before. Handman is different, he actually is a librarian and a good cartoonist besides. With a spcial flair for drawing Rube Goldberd like apparatus, he makes astute observations and wry inside jokes and even throws in an obscure cataloging reference or two. A delight from start to finish, even for the most jaded librarians.

Our Singular Strengths: Meditations for Librarians

Michael Gorman gets libraries. In some ways, he seems wistful that he has advanced to a management position and no longer gets to deal with patrons on the front lines so much. This thoughtful book of koans celebrating libraries and librarianship can make even the most crusty librarian feel honorable about their profession and give them food for thought. Gorman offers topics -- intellectual freedom, learning to be a librarian, the war of AACR2 -- and writes short paragraphs on them and ends each section with a final thought: I will accept no substitute for the unique value of books and reading, I will beautify my library to honor its guests, I will do what I can to make my library a compassionate place. He delights in Ranganathan and even goes so far as to offer his own New Laws of Librarianship. While I don’t always agree with Gorman, I respect the effort he made for the profession.

The Last Precinct

This is one of those beach reading books. In fact, I borrowed it from the vacation bookshelf of a friend’s vacation cottage they were renting, figuring no one would miss it. The book is a page turner, true. The forensic science in it is captivating. There’s just enough sex and gore to be titillating but not so much that it is repulsive. The female lead is tough without being completely butch about it, and the story is semi-believable. However, it was one of those thrillers that you’re reading and all of the sudden you think to yourself ‘sheesh, there’s only 20 pages left, how are they going to wrap this up in that amount of space...?’ and the answer is: badly, quickly and half-assedly. Up until the ending, I was all set to give this book a + review but I couldn’t do it in good faith once it all wrapped up. Cornwell is a great writer, I’ll have to try one of her other books.

The Circus of Dr Lao and Other Improbable Stories

Honestly I picked this book up because it had Ray Bradbury’s name on the cover and I’m sad to say I had never before heard of Charles Finney’s story about Dr. Lao. The story -- which takes up almost half of this papaerback -- is a strange and fantastical story of a completely amazing circus that comes into a small town and winds up impressing no one. Sort of. The book was made into a regrettable movie with Tony Randall and I’m quite happy I wound up finding myself a copy.

The rest of the stories in this book are also quite strong. Bradbury has collected many disparate authors, from Shirley Jackson to Roald Dahl to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who all tell fantasy stories about bad things that can happen to quite normal people in a world that is slightly different from ours.

David Frost’s Book of the World’s Worst Decisions

Yep, that David frost, the talk show guy. This book seems to have stemmed from idle bar chitchat where people were trading worst case horror stories of the coulda-shoulda-woulda variety. The British guy who thought it was a good idea to introduce African bees to local populations, the guy who sold all the rights to Elvis’s recordings before Elvis made it big, Adam and Eve, etc. The anecdotes are all told in a chatty style with no corroborating evidence whatsoever. Funny pictures. A quick fun and light read.

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float

I’ve known about Mowat since watching Never Cry Wolf as a kid and thinking that I’d never see a better movie again. In some way I assumed that he was a naturalist who wrote one book and then disappeared into the wilds. Turns out that he’s had a series of adventures and written books about many of them. This one is about the special relationship that a man has with his boat. Especially a cranky boat that won’t hold water too well.

All these adventures take place on the shores of various Newfoundland-area islands. The book starts out hilariously funny and then gradually relaxes to become mildly amusing once Mowat takes on a female first mate who one can only assume is his girlfriend because he doesn’t make fun of her like everyone else in the book.

Time Lord

When I picked up this book, I thought I was just getting another pop-history shot in the arm about one of my favorite subjects -- the creation of time zones. The truth turned out to be both better and worse than whan I was expecting. Blaise is no pop historian, he is an esteemed and very erudite writer with a graceful hand and a large vocabulary. Every sentence of this book was delightful. This is not to say, however, that all the sentences lined up in neat order to form a cohesive narrative. While I found all the anecdotes about Berman to be fascinating, sometimes I had a difficult time ascertaining whether I was reading a flashback or a future projection of him on any given page.

Blaise would also occasionally branch off into a philosophical rambling about the nature of time itself which, while interesting, detracted from the overall narrative and could have merited a book of its own. The overall gist -- that the creation of standard time zones really paved the way for a transfer of cultural norms from Victorian to Modern -- comes across well. However, the devil is in the details and I got a bit muddled trying to parse an exact sequence of events from all the lovely language.

The Science of Everyday Life

These essays are little science lessons into fascinating phenomena. They used to be radio shows which means they are engaging and just the right length for snack-sized reading. Ingram goes into the weird habit people have of sticking out their tongue when they are concentrating and explains why wintergreen lifesavers will spark when you crunch them in a darkened room. All the science is easy-to-digest while not dumbed down so that you feel condescended to.