March 7th: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, Tracy Kidder. I had mixed feelings about this biography. It's well written, the subject is a fascinating character and it was most illuminating about conditions in Haiti and third world medical care generally speaking (a topic about which I knew nothing). On the other hand, it has a strongly hagiographic tone (always a mistake in biographies) and I strongly disagree with certain assumptions of Farmer and indeed the book in general. Just as a book, though, it's a great read. Grade: A-.
March 9th: Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Naomi Aldort. Another parenting book advocating "gentle parenting" (basically not using any punishments whatsoever in favor of trying to understand your child's underlying motivations). I like the premise but it's much better described by other authors. Aldort also makes (to my mind) some rather strange recommendations, like never taking your kid on errands because it's too oppressive for them. Finally, she has no relevant education, training or other qualifications, and makes her recommendation based solely on her personal opinion (rather than research or facts), yet the tone of the book implies she has considerable expertise and knowledge (many copies of the book, including mine, include a PhD by her name even though she doesn't have one). This is misleading. Grade: D.
March 16th: Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky. A history of salt: how it was procured, manufactured, processed, and used, in multiple eras and countries (with a particular focus on Imperial China and early modern Europe). Crammed full of interesting facts and obviously exhaustively researched, it is rather repetitive and a few chapters could probably have been cut without much loss. It also has no real organization or trajectory. It's more like a short encyclopedia than a book. Grade: B.
March 16th: Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan. A novel about a young woman's induction into the British Secret Service during the early 1970s. Appealing protagonist, authentic-seeming setting, continuously-evolving plot that never bores or becomes predictable. A bit too self-consciously literary for my taste, though (I hate it when authors are more concerned with their wordsmithing than telling a story). Plus the nods to the author's literary friends are distracting and irritating. Grade: B-.
March 19th: The Return from Troy, Lindsay Clarke. Retelling of the Odyssey from a modern perspective. This means lots of focus on the characters' inner psychology, no gods (their existence is assumed by the characters but not by the author and we never meet any), and non-supernatural explanations for all events (Odysseus' descent to the underworld is a result of drugs, illusion and sensory deprivation). I love the Odyssey--it is one of my favorite books of all time--so I enjoyed it. But honestly it is just not that good. Read the Odyssey instead: it's much better written and far more profound. Grade: C.
March 29th: Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell. This is a very slick book: well written, fast paced, and lending itself to compulsive reading (I had a hard time putting it down once I'd started). Lots of interesting tidbits in there (especially about Chris Langan and the author's ancestral land of Jamaica). Sadly, Gladwell's critical thinking skills are not very good and he makes many unwarranted assumptions based on rather flimsy evidence, particularly in the section on how rice growing makes people good at math (it is chock-full of errors on Chinese history: for instance, wheat is the main crop in the North, where Chinese civilization evolved). Grade: C-.