Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Title: A Fine Balance
Publication Info: Books on Tape, Inc. (2001)
ISBN: 0736684425


This novel – epic in length – tells the story of four people in Mumbai, India who come together during The Emergency of the mid-1970’s.  They are:

  • Dina Dalal – a young widow who takes up clothing manufacture to maintain her independence from her controlling brother.
  • Ishvar Darji – a kindly tailor from a low caste background who comes to Mumbai to work for Dina.
  • Omprakash – Ishvar’s more unruly nephew who works with him as a tailor.
  • Maneck – a young man from a mountain village studying at the university and staying with Dina as a paying guest.

In the first part of A Fine Balance, Mistry tells the life stories of each of these characters which actually could be four gripping novellas in their own right.  Then the story is told of how they all come together under one roof and after a rocky start forming a friendship.

This novel is marked by stark descriptions of poverty and injustice in India which Mistry none-too-subtly lays at feet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime.  This novel does not have a happy ending, but there is joy and love in the brief time of friendship of the principal characters that shows that their is some hope in the most dire of circumstances.

Favorite Passages:

She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.

Recommended books: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Côte d’Ivoire

Author: Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie
Title: Aya
Publication Info: Drawn and Quarterly (2007)
ISBN: 1894937902


This beautifully illustrated graphic novel is set in Yop City, a working class neighborhood in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970’s when the nation was prosperous and chic.  Abouet deliberately sets out to tell a story about Africa that is not about poverty and warfare.  The story is centered around the daily lives and flirtations of three young women.  <SPOILER> Of course there is some heavy stuff here when one of the young women becomes pregnant and is forced into marriage with the son of a wealthy Boss, but Abouet plays if off for comedy with the grown-ups as comic caricatures. </SPOILER>.  Oubrerie vibrantly illustrates this book bringing out the beautiful colors of the clothing and the city as well as the humanity of the characters.  I learned about this book via The Hieroglyphic Streets, where you can find more reviews, and apparently there are sequels that are worth checking out too.

Recommended Books: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Faith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince

Author: Greg Prince
Title: Faith and Fear in Flushing
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2009)
ISBN: 1602396817


Greg Prince, one of the co-authors of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing – the most intelligent and literate Mets blog there is – writes about his 40 years as the guy everyone knows as the big Mets fan.  Part memoir, part baseball history this book explores the ups & downs of fandom in parallel with the events of his life.  If this sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar in concept and execution to Fever Pitch.  That is Fever Pitch the autobiographical book by Nick Hornby about his love for the Arsenal Football club, not the wholly fictional romantic comedy film about the Red Sox.

Prince’s ruminations on the Mets are a pleasure to read for the most part although he does have a tendency for repetition especially in the more navel-gazing portions of the book.  As a fellow Mets fan, I enjoyed reliving the Mets good years and many fallow years from the perspective of another fan.  I think this book could be enjoyable as well to someone unfamiliar with the Mets or with baseball, especially since it gives a literary perspective on the game that breaks from the mold of Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers.

If there’s one thing I quibble with in this book is Prince’s characterization of Mets fans loving the Mets but hating the players.  While I think that negative attitude has become prominent in the past five years or so, historically that “win or your a bum” kind of thinking has been more of a Yankee fan ideology.  Mets fans used to be opposite, the cult of the underdog, a humanistic approach to accepting the players despite their flaws and celebrating their accomplishments and commiserating with their failures.  The Mets were a team the ordinary guy could identify with and thus players like Marv Throneberry, Lee Mazzili, Mookie Wilson, Butch Huskey, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo became local heroes despite never leading the league in anything.

At any rate, I find it harder to be a Mets fan these days not because of the Mets but because of the hostile and vulgar attitude of my fellow “fans.”  This book gives me hope because it shows that there are still thoughtful and literate fans among our numbers.

Favorite Passages:

Blogging revealed itself to me as Banner Day’s logical and technological successor.  Mets fans are always dying to tell you about being Mets fans.  We each fancy ourselves Mr. Met, except Mr. Met is mute and never stops smiling, whereas we never shut up and expend loads of bandwidth contemplating, complaining, and, only on infrequent occasion, complimenting.  -p. 255

I don’t love the Mets because it gives me license to behave as a “crazy fan.”  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to give one’s mental well-being over to the fickle physical fortunes of a batch of youthful millionaires.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to risk vast quantities of disappointment in the longshot search for a modicum of solace.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to think the angst I incur as a preoccupational hazard is, in fact, maybe its own reward.  But I’m a big fan.  I’m not a crazy fan. – p. 270.

Recommended books: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, Mets by the Numbers: A Complete Team History of the Amazin’ Mets by Uniform Number by Jon Springer, and Playing Hard Ball: A Kent Crickter’s Journey into Big League Baseball by Ed Smith.

Book Review: 722 Miles by Clifton Hood

Author: Clifton Hood
Title: 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (1993)
ISBN: 067167756X


772 Miles is a thorough overview of New York City’s subway system from the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit system in 1904, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation in 1923, the city-operated Independent Subway System in 1932.  According to Hood there was only a decade or so of financial success for the privately owned subway companies, largely built on real estate speculation in areas of the city opened up by the subway lines.  Then began a long decline in which corporate fiscal interests tangled with public interests and the subway began to lose out to the automobile in expanding the city. Hood likes to point out that in art representing the subway in the 30’s and 40’s that people are often sleeping.  Fear of crime was not a concern in this age when subway safety was concerned more with the trains themselves going off the rails. Even the consolidation of the subways under municipal control in 1940 was a failure in Hood’s view.  This book was published in 1993 before the subways were revitalized and repopularized, so it makes me wonder that if there’s ever been a Golden Age for the New York City subway that we’re living in it right now.

This book is a bit dry and kind of business-focused as opposed to the social and cultural history of the subway, but it’s not bad for a short history.

Recommended books: Subway Style by The New York Transit Museum, Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, and Change at Park Street Under; the story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Early Bird by Rodney Rothman

Author: Rodney Rothman
Title: Early Bird
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster (2005)
ISBN: 0743242173


This book starts off with a 28 year old Rothman losing his job as a television comedy writer and deciding to “retire early” to a senior community in Florida.  The premise reads like the plot of a dumb sitcom and the cornball style of writing in the early going of this book almost made me put it down.  Somewhere along the way the book changes its tone.  First, Rothman finds himself unable to leave after the joke has played out and second he begins to see the humanity of the elderly people living in retirement in South Florida and even makes some friends.  He also makes some wry observations of the cliques and petty gossip in the community that should disabuse anyone of escaping these things with the wisdom of old age.  Overall, its enjoyable book with some funny bits and some insightful bits that makes it just good enough to barely overcomes its weak start.

Recommended books: Dishwasher by Pete Jordan,
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent

Author: Benjamin Nugent
Title: American Nerd: The Story of My People
Publication Info: Scribner (2008)
ISBN:  0743288017


The author sets out to write about the history, sociology, anthropology and psychology of the nerd confessing that he is taking “a serious approach to a subject usually treated lightly, which is a nerdy thing to do,” (p. 11).  Early on Nugent defines the nerd:

I believe there are two main categories of nerds: one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machinelike, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machinelike… p. 8

The second type of nerd probably consists equally of males and females.  This is a nerd who is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion. p. 9

I would argue with his definition of the first category and the evidence he presents in the book even runs counter to the definition at time.  The second category is such a broad catchall as not really have much meaning.  Nevertheless, Nugent usually sticks to his thesis pretty well and the results are fascinating and informative.

Nugent looks to the history of nerds, finding examples in literature (such as the bookish Mary Bennett of Pride & Prejudice) to show that the type has existed for some time.  He also derives the history of the term nerd from college humor publications to Saturday Night Live.  The history of nerds is one of standing outside of the expected norm.  In late 19th/early 20th Anglo-American history, the expectation was “muscular Christianity” with an emphasis on the man of action over the man of books.  Over time, the qualities associated with nerds have often been the same that have come up in stereotypes of Jewish and Asian immigrants that ran contrary to the white muscular Christianity.

Various chapters focus in on aspects of the nerd subculture including Debate Club, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and nerd chic which Nugent argues isn’t nerdy at all.  Nugent also touches on the parallels between nerds and people with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

The best parts of this book are autobiographical.  Nugent confesses that he was a nerd until a dramatic makeover halfway through his teens which resulted in abandoning many of his nerdy friends.  For the book, Nugent revisits many of these friends as adults and discusses them as case studies who are both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Nugent uncovers a lot of self-loathing in these parts of the book and at times I found myself agreeing with  him. One of the more interesting observations to come out these discussions is the idea that – unlike in Revenge of the Nerds where we see a cheerful, helpful nerd parent – many real life nerds come unstable family situations.  The nerd child found escape in fantasy and the structure it provided. “It was no coincidence, I think, that we generally came to D&D from home lives that tended toward the unpredictable and confounding.  We wanted a place where you knew where you stood, where everything was laid out so you could see it,” (p. 176).

I found this book interesting because its a topic I’ve never seen written about before and I enjoyed the multi-disciplinary approach but Nugent’s writing style leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: ***

Futures at Fenway

Today I attended the Futures at Fenway baseball double header featuring two minor league games in a major league ballpark.  This is an annual event begun in 2006 which allows minor league players a taste of playing in historic Fenway as well as allowing ordinary fans – especially those with children – to see a couple of games at Fenway Park and steeply reduced prices.  I attended the first event in 2006 and my wife & son were able to go last year.  This year Susan & Peter weren’t able to attend as planned but with the extra ticket I was reunited with an former co-worker I’d not seen in six years!

We had six people in our group total, most of us meeting up for a beer in lieu of the first game between the Portland Seadogs and Bowie Baysox (won by Portland 3-2).  When I lived in Virginia in the 1990’s I was a frequent visitor to Harbor Park home of the Norfolk Tides, so I was pleased that the second game was a Triple A matchup of the Tides and Pawtucket Red Sox.  I dug out my old Tides cap and remembered the old chant

“We don’t drink,

we don’t smoke,

Norfolk! Norfolk! Norfolk!”

No one gave me a hard time for rooting for the enemy.  We did have a hard time finding our seats in row 16 of Sec. 32, because at first it seemed that there was no row 16.  But we did have nice seats in the back row in the shade with a great view of the Green Monster.  It was a lazy afternoon of cool breezes, frequent strolls and pleasant conversation.  The game was pretty good too, won by Norfolk which according to Wikipedia makes it the first time the Red Sox affiliate lost a Futures at Fenway game.  Next year, the whole family will go to the games.  You should too.