Books in July and August

I chose The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) as my pick for the book club, thinking it would be a sure thing. It's a great read, everyone loves it, and there will be lots to discuss. Right?

Wrong. Two book club members hated it ("Sentences too long! Words too big!") and two love/hated it ("Such beautiful writing! But I don't care about comics! And why the hell are we in Antarctica?!") Two more didn't finish it but were pretty sure they would love it after they did finish it, so that's good, I guess. I was completely thrown by that reaction—I honestly thought everyone would love it unreservedly. What's not to love?! They didn't seem particularly interested in my questions, either. (Maybe it's time to find a new book club? But we're reading Salman Rushdie next. I wonder what they will think.)

I loved Kavalier and Clay this time, too. (I read it and loved it once before.) The writing is gorgeous, the characters are beautifully wrought, the story is gripping. Okay, that bit in Antarctica was pointless as far as I can tell, but the rest of it was great.

Incidentally, my also-rans for book club picks were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I have no idea how either of them would have gone over. Sigh.

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts by Lenore Skenazy. Lenore Skenazy has been all over the media lately; she was on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, she was on Penn and Teller's Bullshit. Even my mother knew who she was when she saw this book. Obviously what she has to say strikes a chord, and what she has to say is that today's children are dangerously overprotected. Sometime in the seventies or eighties we all decided that the world is terribly dangerous and that children can't be allowed out in it by themselves. This is in contradiction of the evidence, which shows that children are safer now than they have ever been (apart from when they are in or around cars). This book convinces, with statistics and anecdotes and passionate argument, that children need to have freedom more than they need to be protected from bogeymen.

Skenazy also puts forward her theory as to why we have all become so scared (television news and crime dramas) and gives plenty of concrete ideas as how we can give our children the freedom and responsibility they need without going crazy with worry.

Read Skenazy's blog for the latest crazy story about people calling the police because some kid is walking home from soccer alone.

Exit Music by Ian Rankin is Rankin's last Rebus book. I'm afraid I can't review it very effectively; I suppose I wasn't paying very close attention when I read it. I did enjoy it. If you like Rebus and Rankin you'll probably enjoy it too, apart from the bittersweetness of it being the last. I hear his new book is good too, though.

Some piece of crap by Tess Gerritsen. I picked up a book from my mother's side table and started reading it when I ran out of books while I was out in Sask, and boy was it rubbish. I tried to look up the title on Tess Gerritsen's website, but it looks like it's one of the books listed on the "Romance Novels" page. The link to the "Romance Novels" is hidden at the bottom of the "Real Books" page, and the "Romance Novels" don't merit pages of their own, so it's quite possible that Tess Gerritsen herself knows what a piece of crap this book is.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's fairly hard to write even a bad novel—this one in particular seemed to call for a lot of research—and further if I could get paid good money to churn out bad books, don't think I wouldn't. I don't blame her in the least for writing whatever book it was I read (it was about prisoners of war in Asia), but I sort of regret the time I spent reading it. Although it didn't take long to read, and it's probably just as instructive to read a book that's awful (and figure out why it's awful) as it is to read one that's wonderful. Maybe more so. All in all I guess I'll call this a wash.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples and Michael Browning recounts some of Maples' most interesting cases, from the historic (he studied the supposed remains of the Romanovs) to the gruesome (plenty of those—he works in Florida). I am fascinated by all manner of gore, injuries and death, so the subject matter of this book was right up my alley. I learned, among other things, about how people dismember corpses, about autoerotic asphyxiation, and about weird ways to commit suicide. (Table saw? Really?)

Maples and Browning write eloquently and beautifully—I'm not sure which of the authors is responsible for the richness of the prose, but it made the book a delight to read far beyond the inherent appeal of the subject matter. Here:

Dreadful as all these processes [of decomposition] may seem, they are only the resolution of certain carbon-based compounds into certain other carbon-based compounds. Carbon is the element of life and death. We share it with diamonds and dandelions, with kerosene and kelp. While we may wrinkle our noses at some of its manifestations, we ought also to remember that this element comes to us from the stars, which wheel over us forever in silent, glittering array, pure fires obeying celestial laws.

As you can see, the authors don't shy from matters of philosophy, and also morality and the challenges of the profession of forensic anthropology: shortage of skeletons for training, lack of funding, lack of jobs despite the clear need for more forensic anthropologist.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales was an unexpected pleasure.

The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert I. Sutton. This is a book Blake took out of the library but looked interesting, so I gave it a read. It's pretty much what the title states: a book about how (and why) to create a workplace where people are civil to each other. It seems so obvious when you just type it out like that, but plenty of managers claim that conflict and nastiness is crucial to their success. Sutton has plenty of evidence to show that rudeness is expensive and unnecessary, and he provides lots of tips on how to go about acheiving an asshole-free environment. There's also a chapter with survival advice for people stuck working with or for an asshole. Worth a read if you work with other people, especially if you are part of the hiring process.


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