Thursday, June 23, 2011

Buzz by Katherine Ellison *****

ADD, ADHD, ODD, a few of the various label applied K-12 students, mostly boys, who have trouble sitting quietly and following the rules. Over the decades, the nature-nurture pendulum has swung back and forth. Today, much like the wave-particle dichotomy of quantum physics, both are simultaneously true and false.

In Buzz, the mother-author presents the latest self-help advice in the form of a memoir, a year-long history of her attempts to help and understand her middle-school son. The presentation is balanced and humble, until the last few pages, where the temptation to assume the role of authority and expert takes over and she passes judgement on all advice from the lofty heights of a published author - though after reading the book we know this is a mother whose 10-year-old son spent the bulk of his time on XBOX, drinking highly-caffeinated Red Bull, not budging unless he was bribed.

However, ignoring the last few pages, this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist offers a excellent overview of the problems of raising an ADD child and the various therapies offered from mainstream to laughable, from scientific to silly. For the most parents in a similar situation, this will be a feel good story, much like sitcoms and soap operas - "My life isn't that bad."

Lots of good information such as the Federal protection for ADD children and the requirements for schools to support them, the generally excellent response to medications with the accompanying side-effect of reduced growth - short stature, and complex nature of the family ecosystem and how the chaos impacts all family members and at the same time how the each family contributes.

Overall, an excellent book for all parents.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Confession by John Grisham *****

In a three-part saga, John Grisham, undoubtedly one of the best authors of the legal-thriller genre ever, unfolds a story of an innocent black high school student who is convicted of the murder-rape of a white cheer leader and ultimately put to death by lethal injection in Texas. The Confession part one is The Crime - largely imagined since the body is never found. Part two is The Punishment - recounting the ordeal of life on death row in Texas - the reigning leader in death penalty executions of all democratic jurisdictions internationally. (spoiler alert) Part Three is The Exoneration where almost everyone connected with this miscarriage of justice gets their just desserts and comeuppance.

This third section reads like a cautionary tale for Texas, its law enforcement, judiciary, and political organizations and staffs. Alternately, the book might be considered anti-death penalty porn, where all their pleasurable and vengeful fantasies come true. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project, the author has a clear point of view, but the swift old testament justice meted out to all guilty parties and the saintly new testament forgiveness by all the innocents gives this novel a distinct gloss of fantasy fulfillment.

Regardless, John Grisham tells a wonderful story and all but the most pro-death penalty will find it a wonderful read.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith ****

The Charming Quirks of Others is by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. However, this book is about, Isabel Dahlhousie, editor and owner of the Journal of Applied Ethics and general busy-body. In this installment she investigates three men applying to be headmaster of a private boys school who have been generally accused of wrong doing in an anonymous letter.

Isabel spends her time either jumping to wild and speculative conclusions about these men - one cut a rope allowing a fellow climber to fall to his death and another wrote the suspect letter to improve his own chances. These intuitions are interspersed with ethical musings, such as:
Was it possible that he was ... transsexual. . . . although she, of course, might not be prepared to convert a heterosexual relationship ... into a lesbian relationship with [her] former [lover].
Though more ideas than action, similar to much hard science fiction, the story is a fine mystery with logical, but surprising, reveals at the end.

Pleasant light reading for more educated and academic readers.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

At Home by Bill Bryson *****

Bill Bryson's new book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life raises his unique mixture of etymology, short biography, and historical trivia to new heights and depths. This volume is loosely organized around rooms in Bryson's family home in East Anglia, England, built in 1851. How loosely? Consider the chapter on the cellar which includes trivia and history of the Erie Canal, cement, log cabins, bricks, and stucco, coal, and steel.

For the reader of such literature, some of the material is repetitive, such as the etymology of crapper - not named after the inventor Thomas Crapper, and the observations of Elizabeth Wayland Barber in the absolutely best book of this genre: Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

However most of the material is fresh and fascinating, including a tidbit about the aspidistra - found in most Victorian parlors because it was the only plant able the survive in an environment lit by gas, and a argument that the oft repeat theory that parental attachment to children, and even the idea of childhood itself, is a recent invention is a theory not supported by any historical facts and most likely a fanciful fiction.

This book ranks as one of Bryson's best, though my all time favorite is still The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way with its explanation of how English with its largest lexicon, impossible spellings, chaotic grammar ended up as the international lingua franca.

While all the information I could confirm independently appeared correct, the book did contain one serious mathematical error. In giving the dimensions of 20 cords of wood, the example was actually 20^3 or 8,000 cords of wood. Regardless, I recommend this book without any other reservation.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons by Blaize Clement ****

Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons is a straight forward mystery without any plot twists or turns. The bad guys got rich running a Ponzi scheme centered about Florida real estate, smuggling illegal immigrants, and other unspecified dastardly deeds. They are willing to drop people into the ocean from their private plane and to kidnap government witnesses and their babies if anyone gets in their way. In the end, they are found guilty of every bad thing anyone suspected.

But none of this can be considered a spoiler, because fans of Dixie Hemingway, the protagonist, ex-deputy and pet sitter, all know she is never wrong and never fails. With a zero body count, one of the bloodiest scenes is when Dixie, not much at home in a kitchen, attempts to chop onions for a lasagna that is doomed to be replaced by takeout.

This delightful book is all about the people: Guidry, her current beau wants her to move to New Orleans with him, her brother Michael - the cook in the family - and his partner Paco, Opal the baby and her parents, and of course all the pets Dixie take takes care of in between apprehending the bad guys.

If you like cats and/or dogs and plots reminiscent the 50s sitcoms, this is the book for you.