Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cluster Critiques

The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain by Daniel Gardner

We live in a very dangerous world.  Of course you probably already know that because you watch the 6 o’clock news.
Actually the world is only extremely dangerous for those of us who drive or ride in cars/trucks. Otherwise, The Science of Fear author Daniel Gardner explains, our generation is living in a world that is safer than at any other time since the beginning of time.  For example, a baby born in 1725 could expect to live 32 years. By 1800, that number increased to 56 years. Today, average life expectancy is 78 years.

The Science of Fear tells us what we already know but seem unwilling to keep in sight. We are afraid of the wrong things (e.g., terrorists, child abduction, flying, cancer) and oblivious to the real dangers in life (e.g., driving a car, getting the flu, drinking booze). Bottom line do not drink and drive, and as our moms always told us, wash your hands.

Read The Science of Fear if you have an insatiable appetite for learning (and re-learning) and a high tolerance for statistics.

The Round House by Louis Erdrich

This “best books of 2012” and winner of the National Book Award has plenty of provocative ingredients: rape, mystery, coming of age, tribal life, the ambiguity of tribal legal jurisdiction, and revenge. Set on an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota in 1988, The Round House by Louise Erdrich begins when fifteen-year-old main character Joe’s mother is raped and beaten but won’t tell who did it. When conflict between tribal and US law prevents the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator, Joe and his best friend Angus decide to bring the rapist to justice. What they learn is that revenge is overrated, indelible, and unjust.

Erdrich, who has written 26 other books mostly centered on Native American life, certainly knows how to string words together. Unfortunately, confusing and superfluous plot lines, too many characters I couldn’t and didn’t particularly want to keep track of, and an overdose of proselytizing (guilt-tripping us about the plight of American Indians) gets in the way of an intriguing, and otherwise beautifully written story.

The Round House is a better than average read, but not as good as its press.

The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager

The Nazis accidentally discovered it. The Allies won the war with it. It conquered diseases, changed laws, and singlehandedly shaped modern medicine. Although some claim that antibiotics are the bane of our generation, I cannot imagine a world without them, so when I saw The Demon Under the Microscope, I snapped it up.

I love to read about the history of science, but the soap opera of antibiotics is colorful enough to entertain just about anyone: Scientists bickering over patent rights, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s son being saved by the first commercially-available antibiotic, a pharmaceutical company improperly mixing a batch of antibiotics that killed hundreds of Americans, which led to the creation of the FDA.

The Demon Under the Microscope is a lot more readable than it should be.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

This book won so many accolades in 2012 that I feel conspicuous in panning it! I am not alone, however, as about one-third of the reviewers I saw online were less than thrilled. So what gives?

Behind the Beautiful Forevers features parallel stories of several residents of the Annawadi slum on the outskirts of Mumbai India, as marginally fictionalized by Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Boo, who lived three years “among” them. There’s Abdul, an enterprising Muslim teenager, who recycles the garbage of the wealthy; Asha, the Annawadi version of the “stage mother” who will do anything to give her daughter a better life; and Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap metal thief. All are seeking “the beautiful forevers.”

I didn’t like this book because I didn’t like the people in the book, and I didn’t feel that Boo's narrative was particularly unique. Her characters seemed singularly harsh, as if the circumstances irrevocable made them so. Regardless of the level of financial and societal stresses, whether it is pennies a day or millions a day, our humanity plays a role. We love, we laugh, we cry and we move on. I didn’t see that humanity in Boo’s characters, and that made her tale feel like a sad, voyeuristic exploitation of our guilt for being born into a better life.

If you want to read a truly inspiring book about the character that comes with survival in poverty, read City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, or A Far Country by Daniel Mason. 

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz 

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog is not about a boy who was raised as a dog. It is about a psychiatrist whose practice is primarily focused on traumatized children. The title is misleading and exploitive, and I’m ashamed to say I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

In truth, the book is a series of reports about Dr. Perry’s various patients, and how his experiences treating traumatized children informed his theory that they are more damaged than we understand. This is important because it is contrary to the commonly shared belief that children, like rubber balls, can bounce back from anything.

Although Dr. Perry’s accounts range from mildly interesting to stomach turning, he spends more time telling you how brilliant he is than he spends sharing the details of his experiences working with traumatized children.

One thing that jumped out of me is the fact that far more children are traumatized by ignorant and/or mentally ill parents/caregivers than by child abductors sensationalized in the media.  

There are surely better books on this topic. Mark this one off your list.

This “best books of 2012” about Lawson’s childhood read like the rural equivalent of an Augustine Burroughs or David Sedaris book; pathetically funny and horrifically dysfunctional.  Although that may sound like an endorsement, it isn’t. Having been raised in a somewhat similar culture of country life (and less than 100 miles south of Lawson’s hometown), I found her stories sensationalized, her use of profanity superficial and very uncharacteristic, and her too frequent asides distracting.

Lawson’s chronical of her somewhat unusual upbringing has garnered some curiosity-seekers, but I can’t help but wonder, like Burroughs and Sedaris, what will she write about after she runs out of stories about her crazy family And will it matter? Her blog is much better. 

Let’s pretend this book was never written. 

You’re Next by Greg Hurwitz

Kid gets left on a playground at the age of four. Grows up in foster care. Claws his way to respectability, a home, a career, wife and child. Then “dangerous men” deliver the message, “You’re next,” and he doesn’t know why and the police inexplicably won’t help. Then we enter into a repetitive loop of threats and near misses until you finally just don’t even care. 

Shallow characters, empty plot, forgettable. Don’t bother.

Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang by William Queen

This supposedly true and illogically highly rated book is about a Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the southern California Mongols motorcycle gang. Somebody stuffed the ballot box. Under and Alone is a intriguing book title, a lot of macho posturing, and much noise about nothing. I feel like Bevis & Butt-head for buying this POS.  

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