Book Reviews for Winter-Spring 2010
Americans in Space
Mary E. Mitchell (SED’83) Fiction (Thomas Dunne Books)
“Somewhere in the cocoon of sadness of the last two years, I misplaced all of my niceness,” says Kate Cavanaugh, the grieving widow and mother of two at the center of Mitchell’s third novel. That may explain her decreasing tolerance for her rebellious teenage daughter, her overly maternal (but childless) next-door neighbor, her four-year-old son, who won’t stop hoarding ketchup bottles, and just about every other person who floats in and out of her half-lived life. Still trapped in her emotional bubble two years after her husband’s death, Kate struggles to reconnect with those closest to her without projecting her sorrow onto them.
Kate may not be particularly pleasant, but Mitchell gives her protagonist just the right amount of caustic wit and human weakness to draw the reader into her chaotic world. The book is full of tragedies both small (Kate’s awkward first dates with a soccer dad) and large (the suicide of one of the students she counsels at the local high school). But Mitchell’s deft handling of the final stages of grief — that light at the end of the tunnel that sometimes seems like an oncoming train — rarely wavers in this account of a woman trying to put her family, and her own life, back together. ~Katie Koch
Pam Bachorz (COM’95, CAS’95, GSM’03) Fiction (Egmont USA)
Candor, Florida, the setting of Bachorz’s debut young-adult novel, is a modern-day Stepford, a place where families brainwash their problems away with easy-listening music. Business is booming in Candor, not just for the town’s founding mastermind, but also for his seemingly perfect son, Oscar. Long immune to the “Messages” he should be receiving (“Never keep secrets from your parents,” etc.), Oscar runs a side operation, helping the town’s newest residents escape, for a hefty fee. This is 1984 for a generation wired to iPods and raised by helicopter parents; teenagers are engineered to study SAT vocabulary and eat organic, unless they listen to the counter-programming Oscar records on blank CDs.
Candor’s success lies in its wry details. Bachorz bases her satire on Celebration, Disney’s planned community in Florida, where she lived for six years. She also makes Oscar a convincing hero, tweaking his teenage bravado to expose the lonely boy who still wants to please his father, even if he is slightly evil. Oscar’s doomed romance with the headstrong new girl, Nia, provides the setup for his test of character. Does he save Nia from Candor and risk losing her forever, or keep her close and put her in danger? As he struggles for a solution, Oscar learns the value of free will and self-sacrifice, and that the two are often intertwined. ~KK
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
By Patricia Tanumihardja (MET’00) Nonfiction (Sasquatch Books)
For Singapore native Tanumihardja, Asian recipes provide more than cooking instructions — they “tell the stories of our immigrant past.” Fearful that traditional Asian cooking would become a lost art in the United States, she set out to preserve a vital link to her heritage. To find the secrets of these time-honored recipes, she went straight to the people who have cooked them for years: grandmothers.
After shadowing Asian-American grandmothers in their kitchens, Tanumihardja has compiled their recipes into a cookbook that spans from Pakistan to Japan and leaves no aspect of Asian cuisine untouched. Favorites include Chinese garlic fried rice, Filipino chicken adobo, and Japanese oyako donburi. Vivid photographs of the meals emphasize the colorful nature of Asian food made right. She meticulously recorded every recipe so that each dish can truly be replicated.
Interspersed throughout the book are profiles of the grandmothers themselves, which allow Tanumihardja to pay homage to the home cooks who helped her capture these unique culinary traditions. ~Samantha DuBois (COM’12)
The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies
By Jonathan A. Knee (UNI’81), Bruce C. Greenwald, and Ava Seave Nonfiction (Portfolio)
At first glance, The Curse of the Mogul might appear to be yet another exposé of Rupert Murdoch or some other industry titan. In reality, it’s a serious look at the flawed economic perspective — or lack thereof — that guides major media corporations. In fact, the authors argue, our public fascination with high-profile media executives only enables their irrational management, by taking the focus off of the nuts-and-bolts operations that really determine success or failure. “Moguls seem to long for anything to divert their attention from the crucial business of just running their companies efficiently,” they write.
Knee, a Columbia Business School professor, and his coauthors devote a fair number of words to the shortcomings of Murdoch and his ilk, but the finger-wagging takes a backseat to more solid advice on how to get media companies back on track. They argue against mindless acquisitions and haphazard expansion into new markets, no matter how sexy they may seem, and offer a clear-headed account of how the Internet has affected companies’ traditional competitive advantage. While a bit dry for a general audience, the book is perfect for investors and entrepreneurs seeking long-term guidance in a time of major media upheaval. ~KK
Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy
By Susan M. Reverby (GRS’82) Nonfiction (University of North Carolina Press)
“Tuskegee became the word for racism, experimentation, and government deceit,” writes Reverby, who chronicles both the national response to the infamous syphilis study and its patients, a group of African-American male sharecroppers from Alabama who were left, in the name of science, to suffer horribly from a curable disease. In this account of the forty-year Tuskegee study, Reverby also examines racism’s role in the evolution of medical science.
She traces the history of the study from its 1932 inception, the background of key doctors, nurses, and patients involved, and the media and government reaction to the initial Associated Press story, “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years.”
Originally, she writes, U.S. Public Health Service researchers hoped to discover what happened to individuals with late latent syphilis who were not treated over the course of six months to a year; however, it became a pursuit of “needed knowledge” about the long-term effects of the disease on African-American males.
Approximately 400 men were part of the study, and although none of them were deliberately infected, as the media led many to believe, most were not given adequate treatment or told that they were part of a research study, Reverby writes. She examines the media’s portrayal of the study over time, including public reaction to the patients’ deaths, as well as how “America’s Nuremberg” is perceived today. ~Brittany Rehmer (COM’11)
The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths
By Charlotte Gordon (GRS’91, UNI’01) Nonfiction (Little Brown)
The biblical Abraham may seem to personify religious faith. Chosen in infancy to, in effect, create monotheism, he refuses to worship his king’s gods, smashes the idols his father has sculpted, and bravely accepts God’s command to “go forth from your native land,” confident of God’s promise to “make of you a great nation.” More strikingly, in old age he unquestioningly follows God’s order to prepare his son Isaac for sacrifice.
In retelling Abraham’s story from before birth until well after death, Gordon sees his doubt as pivotal. When after ten years, he and his wife, Sarah, lose faith in her promised pregnancy, she brings him her slave, Hagar, to become the mother of that child.
A poet, scholar, and graduate of BU’s Creative Writing Program, Gordon makes vivid the resulting interrelationships, particularly among the central actors: Abraham, the two women he loves, and God. In an ancient Jewish tradition, she considers their words, motivations, and decisions, filling in gaps in the action and weighing a wide range of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic commentaries and tales to analyze their significance.
The Bible generally gives scant attention to its women. Gordon’s knowledge, insight, imagination, and noncombative feminist outlook, all well anchored in the biblical narrative and centuries of commentary, are among her book’s delights. Surprisingly, Hagar is her title character, important dramatically and theologically. A slave who could not call even her womb her own, she is pregnant and alone in the wilderness when she hears God’s voice and speaks directly for the first time. “You are El-roi,” she says, translatable as “seeing.” The only person in the Bible to give God a name, Hagar has “fundamentally shaped” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Gordon says, by conceiving of a god with individual personal relationships.
Distinctively, Gordon reads the biblical account as literature. Whether it is true theologically or historically, the biblical tale is true dramatically (Abraham is “like an Updike character,” she writes, “torn between duty and desire”) and has influenced Western culture for millennia. ~Natalie Jacobson McCracken
Bad Blood: Freedom and Death in the White Mountains
By Casey Sherman (COM’93) Nonfiction (University Press of New England)
In May 2007, the small town of Franconia, New Hampshire, was shaken when a local young man murdered a police officer during a routine traffic stop. The man was then killed by a vigilante passerby.
With the makings of a thriller screenplay, Bad Blood is a reconstruction of the day’s dramatic events: the funerals and police records, and even the conspiracy theories that followed. A seemingly simple case evolves into something else, leaving the reader to ponder why the two men snapped: did the young man simply believe he was above the law, or did the policeman overreact?
Casey is no stranger to suspense; his previous books include A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler and The Finest Hours: The True Story Behind the Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, which he cowrote with Michael Tougias. “As a writer, I was drawn to the Franconia story because it was so universal,” writes Sherman, who conducted an independent investigation of the case.
“In every small town in America, one could find similar stories about the hard-nosed cop and the rebellious kid that could not get out of the other’s way. But the question I kept asking myself was, Wwy did the tensions between these two spill over into murder?” The result is a fascinating blow-by-blow of two killings and their unexpected aftermath. ~Amy Laskowski