Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Books Read, March-April

March 12th: Bright from the Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind from Birth to Age 3, Jill Stamm. Just what the title says: I very much liked this and thought it was extremely helpful. More details here. Grade: A- (due to a somewhat repetitive writing style).

March 18th: Balzac's Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honore de Balzac, Anka Muhlstein. I absolutely love the French novelist Balzac (he is sadly not as well known in the English-speaking world as he should be: his work is totally incredible and really deserves its own post). He was a great observer and describer of realistic details, including food (in real life he was a great gourmand), and perhaps the first to use characters' meals and eating habits as a way to depict personality, class and economic status. This book uses Balzac's work as a way to illuminate 19th Century French food culture, when the modern restaurant (and all that goes along with that) was invented. Totally fascinating for anyone interested in Balzac, history, or food (in the intellectual sense). Grade: A.

March 25th: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. This is of course a young adult novel, and it shows, but it's still a great read. The best of the series. I wrote about the full trilogy here. Grade: A-.

March 31st: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins. Still very good, and expands on some themes from the last book in an interesting way. The action lags at times. Grade: B+.

April 2nd: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins. The final and concluding book is very dark indeed, shockingly so given the intended audience (American teenagers; generally anything for Americans is both "uplifting" and relentlessly optimistic). Some of the plot elements are quite silly. Overall I still enjoyed it. Grade: B.

April 6th: Rickshaw Reporter, George L. Peet. A memoir about the author's early career as a newspaper reporter in 1920s Singapore. I found its descriptions of old-time Singapore especially fascinating because so many cultural attitudes still persist, even though so much has changed. Apparently the British were really good at indoctrinating the Chinese with their cultural values. Without a preexisting interest in Singapore or British colonialism, however, the interest of this book is probably quite limited. Grade: C+.

April 7th: The Teeth of the Gale, Joan Aiken. Another "young adult" novel, this one set in early nineteenth century Spain, and also part of a trilogy (in this case, the last). The series follows the (mis)adventures of orphan Felix Brooke, bastard? son of an English soldier (who turns out to have been the second son of a duke) and a Spanish noblewoman, in a Spain wracked by poverty, crime, war, political problems, and evil of all stripes (warning: there is a lot of disturbing content, like severe child abuse, random murders for no particular reason, for whom no one is ever punished, and torture). Aiken is a wonderful writer, and it is fascinating to follow Felix's psychological development from a callow 13-year-old to a mature young man ready for grave responsibilities (as a husband, father, and manager of large estates). This book is the weakest of the series (the best is the second one, Bridle the Wind), but still excellent. Grade: A-.

April 14th: The Rat Catcher, Alexander Terekhov. Modern Russian literature in the vein of Gogol, meaning surreal, humorous and full of biting social satire and criticism. The plot revolves around the town of Svetloyar, vying to make itself attractive to tourists and their cash by inventing a glorious pre-Soviet past, complete with a fake archaeological dig (it was actually built in the 1950s). Only one problem: the town is plagued by rats. So two pest controllers (and embittered former academics now trying to navigate the free market) are imported from Moscow. Hijinks ensue.

I really wanted to like this book, because I love Gogol so much it was a contender for little R's middle name if she'd been a boy. But it is only mediocre. The narrative is rather confused at times, to the point that it was hard to follow what was going on. Due to poor character development, it was hard to tell who was who. And the protagonist's constant success with seducing women was stupid, and seemed more like the author's wish fulfillment than anything else. I did like the descriptions of rat behavior and rat-catching, and the ways in which provincial corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude were pictured. Grade: C-.

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