Monday, January 25, 2016

1946: The Making of the Modern World (Victor Sebestyen)

1946: The Making Of The Modern World by Victor Sebestyen provides a play-by-play of the events of the first full year after the end of World War II.  The year was action-packed, full of international drama from an unsettled Europe to an emerging Cold War showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Sebestyen does a very effective job capturing the year in context of a radically changing political landscape.

One of the best features of the book is Sebestyen's occasional, but poignant, use of footnotes within the book.  Whether it was to portray an individual's eccentricities in a greater context or to refer the reader to an additional author and their work related to a specific 1946-related event, the footnotes added tremendous value and were used wisely throughout the book.

Sebestyen captures the emerging political landscape in 1946 by weaving in past context where appropriate, showing how decisions made by global leaders were scrutinized and how the world went from being united against Fascism to being divided between democracy and communism as the two major political systems that governed the world for nearly forty years.

The 380-page book is well-sourced and a fast read.  Sebestyen should be applauded for not just recapping the year but for his ability to weave in the personalities of Stalin, Truman, Churchill, Attlee, and other global leaders to provide context in how and why events of that year played out.  Given how much change has taken place in our recent times, it's important to point out that the mid 1940's provided even more rapid change and instability.  The author illustrates that quite well in his book.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Restaurant Critic's Wife (Elizabeth LaBan)

As a Philadelphian, I've read (and depended on) quite a few of Craig LaBan's restaurant reviews.  So I was very interested in "devouring" his spouse's novel The Restaurant Critic's Wife.  In her acknowledgments, LaBan writes that "For the record, Craig is not quite as obsessive or controlling as Sam -- and he didn't even tell me to say that."  Which is good, because the restaurant critic (Sam) in the book is quite the unlikable character.

There's really not much of a plotline here.  The wife in this instance, Lila, has just moved to a close-knit Philly neighborhood with Sam and her two children, Hazel and Henry.  As a very well-known critic, Sam is obsessed with keeping his identity secret.  This sometimes just takes the form of wearing disguises when he goes out, but more often than not takes on ridiculous methods: wanting Lila to ask any potential friends if they own a restaurant, refraining from showing her face in public, and not wanting her to go back to the work she loves.  The entire novel basically just recounts Lila's banal days as she tries to follow Sam's "directions," but she obviously wants more for herself.  It's not difficult to figure out the ending here.

With such an unlikable character at its forefront and not much of a plotline, it's hard to discern what the point of The Restaurant Critic's Wife really was.  However, the writing is good, so this is a great book to throw in your beach bag when you just want to zone out in the sun.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much (Faith Salie)

I was excited to read Faith Salie’s Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much because that describes me to a tee.  A collection of oftentimes hilarious essays, the book is a quick read that will have you laughing at loud.  However, I didn’t quite understand how some of the essays were related to the topic as a whole.  But oh well – most of them were fun to read anyway.

Salie’s irreverent style works well in each chapter, as she comes right out and says what most of us are thinking. From her time winning “Miss Aphrodite” in her high school’s beauty pageant to her joys as a new mother, she doesn’t mince words, and extra fun for the average Joe who is not a celebrity, she names names of famous people she has encountered.  Not all of her essays are meant to be funny, however; the selection describing her agony of trying to get pregnant is especially poignant.

Some chapters are better written and relate more to the topic at hand than others, but those who so identify with the approval-seeking phenomenon will appreciate the book as a whole.