Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold – Jennifer Ackerman, 2010

Lots of interesting details but a lot of questions left unanswered or answered in contradictory ways. Cold germs spread all over the place so you should wash your hands… but the poker players using cards and chips soaked in nasal secretions (ie fomites, my new favorite word) didn’t catch colds, and many of those who played in the same room, with their hands restrained, did. To misapply William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” OK, that’s too strong, but we know so very very little. A decent book but ultimately a little unsatisfactory, especially because the author seems to put to one side everything laid out in the previous chapter when embarking on a new one.

In Spite of All Terror – Hester Burton, 1968

A teenage favorite I’ve read many times since. It brings WWII Britain to life for me like nothing else I’ve read, and experiencing 15-year-old Liz Hawtin’s ability to start fending for herself among strangers, with little to fall back on, always inspires me. Class divisions, career paths, family disappointment, the comforts of literature, even teenage pregnancy–it covers a lot. The bombing of London, which my own father lived through, is vivid, but what sticks with me even more is Ben Brereton and his grandfather joining in the little boats of Dunkirk evacuation. I’ve tried some other titles by Burton, but they don’t hold a candle this one.

84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – Helene Hanff, 1970 and 1973

I think I first read 84 Charing Cross Road in my grandmother’s collection- probably not in Reader’s Digest Condensed form, as most of hers were, because what’s to condense? And what wasn’t to love here, for a New Yorker with family connections in London? Plus epistolary novels work particularly well with teens – the novelty, the shortness, the illusion of intimacy with adults. I still loved it, but I was shocked that Hanff rails against fiction – all she cares about is biography and history, the dullest of the dull to me at exactly the age I read this. Her deep love of books let me skim right over that, I guess. This time around I saw a lot more of the wheels and cables behind the curtain, but it’s still masterful and a deserved hit. I still recommend it to people who love The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which owes 84 a huge debt IMO. The sequel, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (in which Hanff finally makes it to England), is much slighter–enjoyable but not really special.

Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome, 1930

Re-reading this first in the series now, I realize that one of the reasons these never caught on (or were never published?) in the U.S. must be Titty’s name. She’s usually referred to as “able seaman,” but I can see American middle-schoolers howling over a name that I took and take for granted. But I didn’t know until looking it up right now (on the Arthur Ransome wikia) that it’s not a shortening of a longer name, but comes from “Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse” (a poem I knew from my much-loved edition of Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales). I’d tried to pick this up a few times since my childhood but hadn’t stuck with it, so I was surprised how well it held up now. The Walker family sails a boat, camps on an island, plays capture-the-boat with the two Blackett girls (Nancy the pirate captain, my hero!), and prove their innocence in a houseboat burglary. It was a compelling plot even at the age of 46, and I still identify strongly with John’s pride, Susan’s sense of responsibility, Titty’s thirst for solitary adventure, Roger’s happy-go-lucky enjoyment, Nancy’s toughness, and Peggy’s desire to follow her lead despite her marshmallow core. And there are 11 more to enjoy again! Whee!

My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud – Kevin Clash with Gary Brozek, 2006

If I hadn’t been charmed by Kevin/Elmo’s appearance on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, I might not have picked this up, but my life wouldn’t have been very different. The three hours(?) I spent reading it wasn’t wasted , but one can get similar interest/inspiration elsewhere–although Muppets make everything better, even somewhat-cloying ones like Elmo. B-, although if I had been under 25 it would have rated higher for career inspiration.

The Yellow Room – Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1945

Jonathan and I both read and very much enjoyed the brilliantly funny Bab, A Sub-Deb; I enjoy classic mysteries; and I’d heard this one referred to enough that I figured it must be pretty good. Well, it was OK, but alas had none of the humor of Bab. I much prefer my mysteries leavened with witty dialogue, so I was disappointed by the straight-forwardness of this one, which didn’t have enough twistiness to hold my interest all the way through. C today, although it probably would have rated higher earlier in the genre’s development.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior – Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, 2008

I’m a total sucker for the Freakanomics/Malcom Gladwell genre anyway, but this book blew my socks off. It’s not very long and it’s full of the genre’s best features: counter-intuitive research results, sticky anecdotes, a breezy style. But two ideas that I’d heard before were described in such a way that they became striking insights for me: the extent to which I am irrationally loss-averse, and the power of the conflict between the altruistic and pleasure centers in explaining the striking arguments in Punished By Rewards. Knowing about my loss-aversion makes me wonder how to fix it. Coincidentally, I just read something that recommended taking a longer view in investing to avoid loss-aversion-driven selling low. But my problem tends to be more of a buy-and-hold-no-matter-what reaction (more generally than investing). As for the altruism/pleasure center conflicts, it could be very helpful in library and other non-profit PR in which I have input; ask for your supporters’ help because it will make them feel good, not because they’ll get anything out of it. Since we don’t have any budget for PBS-type incentives, we haven’t often diverged from that principle anyway, but it seems broadly useful. A great book and a quick read – A.

Random assortment 1

Argh… I know it’s not a realistic goal to blog every book I read, but the problem is when I start to just keep a list I think “oh, that one I want to write about…” But then when I want to look back & see what I read, it’s not there. So I’m going to try something new: when I’m done with one book, I can’t start another until I list it. Hah, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, I’ve set my timer and I will enter as many books as I can recall or document that I read within the past few months:

  • Georgette Heyer, Lady of Quality (1972) – B+, an old favorite
  • John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The Book of General Ignorance (2007) – B, lots of fun to read (from the QI folks) but dubious research
  • Garth Nix, Sabriel (1995) – A-, wow! a new fantasy I actually love! Must read the rest of them.
  • Sally Hogshead, Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation (2007) – D, started & then skimmed most before the library copy expired on my Nook; more of a business book than I realized