Book Corner 2019.27

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The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

My fourth Lionel Shriver and alas my least favorite.  Granted, it’s three stars – I read the whole thing and was interested each night to get back to the story.  But nobody was likeable, least of all the awful main character, who had something snide to say about EVERYONE; and since it was told from his perspective, the over all vibe was relentlessly ugly and negative.

The protagonist, Edgar, switches careers midlife to become a journalist; and he is sent to Portugal to cover a fictional separatist movement.  The area and the ethnic group Shriver is writing about are fake; but even so, I winced at her constant disparagement of the environment and its inhabitants – can something be “racist” when the “race” it’s taking shots at is entirely fictional?  I think so.  This is beyond having a nasty protagonist with a tendency to put everyone down – Shriver is the narrator and she’s no better than her character.

I’m neglecting to mention a significant part of the plot – the mysterious disappearance of the journalist who preceded Edgar.  I guess I didn’t much care.

I don’t want to give away spoilers; what drove the plot and my interest was how Edgar chose to become involved, at first very peripherally but then more and more directly, in the violence that is at first distant from him, then literally surrounds him.  This is what kept me coming back night after night.

Book Corner 2019.26

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The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson

***

An extended rant on everything you could possibly find wrong with, well, the way we eat now.

I didn’t really learn anything, except a lot of Britishisms. “Clingfilm” for plastic wrap. “Veg” for vegetables – much preferable to the babyish “veggies” we say in this country.

But anyway, lack of balance really bothered me, more in the beginning of the book than the end. For example, passing rants about increasing alcohol consumption – but a broad swipe like that has no meaning; alcohol consumption has to be the most varied of all food & drink intake habits across time and culture. There are cultures where alcohol has no traditional basis and was never heard of centuries ago; there are cultures where wine is a daily drink. There are American subcultures who are teetotalers; while colonial America was apparently drunk on hard liquor throughout the days of the founding fathers. There’s no mention of any of this.

It got more enjoyable and balanced towards the end. For example, she’s actually tried and liked meal kits, so instead of rants, they get a balanced treatment. She’s better when talking about her direct experience than when presenting history.

Book Corner 2019.25

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

***

Noah is a comedian, and sometimes drops a one-liner or story that’s a little jokey, or even very jokey.  I thought the story about Hitler was LOL.  But it’s not a comic book.

Noah is not a writer, so it’s not a literary, gripping, flowing book.

Noah is not THE GLASS CASTLE, so it’s not “OMG how I survived my crazy childhood”.  There is racism and domestic abuse out the wazoo and worm-eating poverty.  But it’s not a shock book.

Ultimately it is a story: the story of his mother.  Noah knows what material he’s got, and that his mother’s story is the Big Story in his life, and he tells it simply and effectively.

Book Corner 2019.24.holy.shit

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We need to talk about Kevin.

Right now.

This novel consumed me.  In a way, my daily world revolved around that hour or so per night I could get back to the story.  Some nights the Disturbing factor was off the charts and I felt uneasy; most nights I just left the book in rapt admiration at how each chapter ending left me dying to know how it would reach its inevitable violent climax.

I didn’t even care about the secondary questions, like “Why does she stay in this marriage!?” and “Isn’t Franklin drawn as just a little TOO much of a jerk?  Why does she love him again?”  The mother-son relationship mattered too much to care about the realism or frustration in the other relationships.

LOVED the conclusion.  No spoilers.

 

Book Corner 2019.23

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A Man for All Markets by Edward O. Thorp **

I liked when Thorp told his life story – I love memoirs.  I liked his writing voice.  I looked forward to learning a bit about how he beat the casinos and then the stock market, fully prepared that it would likely be all above my head.

And yeah it was.  Thorp was a young prodigy mathematician.  He figured out how to win big at blackjack.  It involved counting cards, and memorizing strategies for 500 or so possible deals he might be faced with, and betting larger or smaller depending on where he was in the deck.

Then the casinos got wise to him, made some rule changes about betting, started shuffling the deck on him every other deal, and just plain started cheating, too.  He claims it was the cheating that made him give up gambling and turn to investing.

He then devised a hedging approach to investing, which had to do with plotting stock prices an buying certain ones while simultaneously selling them short – I understood this even less than I understood the blackjack, frankly.  I tried to get the gist of everything I was reading, but it did go on and on, and I kept wanting more life story.

The book itself felt like it would never end.  He gives a chapter of thoroughly boilerplate explanation of the 2008 financial crisis, which sheds absolutely no new light on anything.  He gives a chapter of investment advice which likewise fails to shatter the earth.  Finally he talks a bit about his own philanthropic outlays – endowing a mathematics chair at UC Irvine, and helping stem cell research.  Thorp is still alive, in his 80s.

Book Corner 2019.22

randomistas

Randomistas by Andrew Leigh

Let’s hear it for the randomized control trial!

And let’s hear it again! And again!

Page after page of brief examples and anecdotes of randomized control trials from all areas of life – medical, economic, scientific, educational, criminal, entrepreneurial, political, philanthropical… The results may surprise you! Or not! That’s what it’s all about – going in with an open mind, because we don’t know; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing a randomized control trial.

And that’s it! ( )

Book Corner 2019.21

sense

The Annotated Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

The five stars are for Jane, not for the annotator. I bought this for my Kindle for one of those “need reading now” situations.  Now I realize that Harvard University Press also has an annotated edition with a different editor which is probably the one I really wanted.  Also, a book with what appear to be beautiful illustrations like this is really one you want in hardcover, not a screen.  Finally, footnotes are something I’ve now thoroughly learned are things you really want to see on a physical page as well.  The reading experience on Kindle was greatly marred by having to click footnotes – I am an old-school typist who hates “clicking” in general, persnickety clicking in particular, like when you have to cursor your mouse right in the middle of a tiny checkbox; or, in this case, position your fat fingertip precisely on the little superscript, else find yourself thrown onto the next page instead of into the footnote.  That happened to me more than 50% of the time in the beginning, I’d say only a little less than 50% by the time I’d trained myself as best I could to hit the superscript.  And the nasty icing on the cake, and the reason I am not thrilled with this annotated edition – half the footnotes are mere definitions of words and expressions that are pretty damn obvious to someone with more than an eighth-grade education.  Once I’d clicked (with difficulty) a footnote on the word “amusing” which, I swear, did nothing more than define “amusing” as “entertaining” – then I had to train myself to identify which footnotes were most likely to be mere, stupid definitions vs. those which were likely to actually enrich my reading experience.  End of the sentence was more likely to be worthwhile; middle of the sentence, on a word more than four letters long, was more likely to be a stupid definition.

Back to Jane! The inspiration for this purchase was that I’d recently read Reading Jane Austen which made me want to re-read Jane Austen.  Even with all my complaints, annotations make a re-read much more fun.  And re-reads of excellent, beloved books always bring some new discovery, feeling, or interpretation.  I was surprised this time at how much I loved Marianne.  Most touchingly, I loved her love for her sister.  She makes clear upon first making Edward’s acquaintance that he is not her cup of tea; but once she understands that her sister loves him, she practically loves him even more on her behalf.  When he pops in for a visit, she’s almost more thrilled than Elinor – well, she is more thrilled than Elinor, because the visit is complicated, to say the least, by the presence of Elinor’s rival; but she is SO loving towards Edward, and genuinely happy to have her sister’s love interest there, on Elinor’s behalf, it’s just adorable and endearing.

I reconcile myself a bit more to her ending, too, which I used to feel was a disservice to her, fobbing her off on an old Colonel who wore flannel waistcoats who was totally contrary to all her predilections… but I’ve decided to take heart in the phrase “Marianne could not love by halves.” Once she had found herself developing a fondness towards Colonel Brandon, it could not help but develop into full-fledged love, I’m sure.