No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

A joke birthday gift from a friend, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club languished on my shelf for several years now.  I plucked it out the other evening, needing a break from a serious read.

Virginia Ironside is a British humor writer well known for her writings about getting older.   She’s also an agony aunt (British for advice columnist) with a column in the Independent, and once had a one-woman show,’Growing Old Disgracefully’.

In this novel/fictionalized diary, Marie has just turned sixty and decides to chronicle her life. Often funny, sometimes a bit sad, and usually snarky, this book has a cover blurb that calls it an AARP-issued ‘Bridget Jones Diary’.  

She has a curmudgeonly outlook on growing old gracefully,

~~ or not:

The thing is: I don’t want to join a book group to keep young and stimulated.  I don’t want to be young and stimulated anymore.

I’ve done fascinated, I’ve done curious.  I want to wind down,  I want to have the blissful relief of not being interested.  Like being able to spend a day doing nothing instead of being obliged to cram it with diversionary activity to avoid guilt and anxiety.

Ms. Ironside uses the diary format to up the humor.  She calls memory lapses CRAFT moments  —  as in ‘can’t remember a f***ing thing’.  She journals about a party discussion wherein no one can remember an actress’s name from a famous film.   Then two days later, this appears as the single entry, ‘Glenn Close’.

Here she argues with a friend, who talks about getting older as a time to have adventures and learn new things:  Marie just wants to put her feet up and ‘start doing old things’.

That’s what’s so great about getting old. You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping. It’s a huge release! I’ve been feeling guilty about not learning another language for most of my adult life. At last I find that now, being old, I don’t have to! There aren’t enough years left to speak it. It’d be pointless!

Marie’s life is constantly changing and evolving, there’s the arrival of a grandson, and the loss of some dear friends.   And, although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – unless a nice, rich and attractive crush from her childhood can change her mind.

This novel is an honest look at life as we age and, at times, I found it both touching and humorous.

However, half way through, the journal format starts to loose it’s charm and her continued grumpy treatises on the same points became tiresome.

Ms. Ironside has much more to say about being old (sorry, older) as there are two other books the Marie series all with equally funny titles:  No I Don’t Need Reading Glasses and No Thanks, I’m Quite Happy Standing.

The title cracked me up, but sadly No! I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub got put aside unfinished.  Marie (and the author) would be OK with that, she would understand and give me a high five — it’s our age –we don’t have to finish a book or go bungee jumping.


N.B.:  While we’re on the subject of humorous essays on aging, I found Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About my Neck” and “I Remember Nothing” ever so much better, and well worth whatever free time you have when not learning Swahili.

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

Have I told your about Pat Conroy?  I’m a card-carrying adoring fan. 

Mr. Conroy wrote books unlike anyone else, he was a magician storyteller and wove tales that explored the many layers of human nature. Fearless in his writing, his perfect wording could give any character or life event a voice — the frail families of the old South, uncertain love, the angst of loyal and betrayed friendship, the pain of suicide, and the infinity of human flaws  — really, just awe-inspiring.

Cancer took him quickly in 2016, at age 70.

A Lowcountry Heart is a collection of his blog entries, articles, speeches and letters but also contains writings and eulogies by those that loved him.  But fear not, this slender volume never treads into the saccharine, but instead is a joyful reflection of his life and times. Mr. Conroy shares his time in Vietnam, teachers in his life, his beloved Citadel, his adored second wife, and of course his love for the South Carolina lowcountry –the lifeblood of his books and his life.

When his publishers advised him that he should start a blog, Mr. Conroy hated the idea but then took it as a challenge. He used it as both a journal and a way to reach out to his readers. His blog posts always began with “Hey out there,” and closed with “Great love…”.

Unlike many authors Mr. Conroy loved book tours and especially meeting with his readers.

It (book tours) is part of the covenant I sign with Doubleday that I’ll do everything possible to help the sell the book, including not getting drunk on tour or embarrassing my publishing company with my cutting-up on the road. I go out to sell books and it has become one of the greatest things about being a writer during my lifetime. No writer should turn down the chance of meeting the readers of his work.

His book signings often went late into the night because he wanted to speak personally, and at length, with each reader. They opened up to Mr. Conroy because he asked, “so, what’s your story?”.  (I wonder what story I would’ve told…)

Mr. Conroy could have easily been a Southern ‘good old boy’, but it turns out he was a role model of humanity and progressiveness.  He actively supported racial equality, even having a public meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King at a time when race was still a heated issue in southern society.  On learning that a stranger and fellow southerner was dying of AIDS, Conroy went to be at his side so he wouldn’t die alone. Once, accidentally in a gay bar, he danced with a man because his mother raised him not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

His wife and fellow author, Cassandra King  wrote the introduction to A Lowcountry Heart — a beautiful piece of writing I read several times.

The book also contains his 2001 Citadel commencement speech — I’ll just say, I found myself trying to read it through my tears.

Mr. Conroy is likely best known for his books (and the films based on his books);  The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides and  The Great Santini. 

But instead, get thee to your favorite library or bookstore read my favorites; The River is Wide, Beach Music, and South of Broad. 

I’ll leave you with this, perhaps the most compelling part of this collection; Mr. Conroy is buried on a small island off the coast of South Carolina , in a modest cemetery of a Gullah Baptist church among a community that “graciously allowed a non-Baptist, non-African American writer to rest among them.”


A digital review copy was kindly provided by Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese via NetGalley

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been gathering some picture books to tell you about all at once. This winter, I enjoyed these visually enchanting escapes which took me from the streets of New York, to France, and even wartime England.




Well, grab a beverage of choice and sit right down next to me and let’s look at them together.


Going Into Town

A Love Letter to New York

by Roz Chast

When Ms. Chast’s daughter was preparing to move to Manhattan for college, Ms. Chast wrote up a tongue-in-cheek guide book with tips for suburbanites navigating the city. This little booklet turned into Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York which is a cartoon book about all the things Ms. Chast appreciates — or doesn’t— in the city she loves.

I love Ms. Chast’s work and always chuckle at her cartoons in the New Yorker magazine, on greeting cards, or her books. Remember THIS?

This book is a collection of  stories and visuals — the “overheard and the overseen”, on the streets of New York — and Ms. Chast is her usual funny and cynical self.

She starts with a brief background on how she and her family moved out of the city to the suburbs for the better schools and the chance to have actual trees.  But the downside was that her daughter had no city skills when venturing to university in the city.

There’s an introduction to the geography of Manhattan

Diners are all but extinct, hawks aren’t, Uber cars outnumber taxis, and in GENERAL:
3 blocks = 1 avenue
20 blocks/7 avenues = 1 mile
even streets run east, odd run west, crosstown run east-west

Going Into Town then goes on to describe the people you’ll encounter, with special warnings about the tourists…

It is evident throughout the book that poor Ms. Chast greatly misses living in the city.  There’s a section on the things to do from the obvious Broadway musicals and gallery openings to the more obscure — “best hat on a dog contest”.  She advocates looking — really looking  — as you walk around — freshly seen through her quirky visual lens.


While Ms. Chast may have wanted to give her daughter a straightforward guide to the city, she can’t help herself and interrupts the narrative with delightful digressions about such things as the quirky stores that sell nothing but ribbon or enticing off-brand lipstick.

or the city’s great variety of standpipes,

As the title says, this is Ms. Chast’s very own love story to New York:

I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love. I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it, too. I’m not worried about it being ‘ruined’ by too many people ‘discovering’ it. Manhattan’s been ruined since 1626 , when Peter Minuit bought it from Native Americans for $24.00.

And, if like me, you’re stuck on the opposite coast – you’ll have a hankering to follow the author’s advice:

One of the greatest things you can do in life is walk around New York



France is a Feast

A Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child

by Alex Prud’ Homme & Katied Pratt


From the coauthor of My Life in France, this volume is a collection of the photographs taken by Paul Child during his and Julia Child’s years in France.

This is a sometimes fascinating look at the lesser-known Paul Child, who in fact, was a talented artist, photographer, painter, lithographer, woodworker, metalsmith, stained glass expert, writer and poet.

Here’s just a sample of his fine photographic eye:

But Paul also delighted in photographing Julia:

She[Julia] was ten years younger than Paul, and not well known at the time, but she was a sunny, questing, powerful personality who had a profound impact on her husband’s evolution.  He adored her and photographed her constantly; without realizing it at the time, he was chronicling her rise from a fumbling know-nothing in the kitchen to an accomplished cook and author, and America’s first celebrity TV chef.


Because of my slight obsession with Julia Child, I found myself lingering on those iconic photos:

My Life In France was one of my favorite books about Julia and Paul’s life in France and I had high hopes for this photographic essay.  However, their relationship is sketched over and the often pedantic writing is focused on Paul Child, his career and interests. The final pages are devoted to the Child’s move back to Cambridge and Paul’s decline which Julia handled with courage and grace.  Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to know more about Paul Child but I often lost interest. Perhaps he will always remain in Julia’s shadow.

The photographs are fascinating and France is a Feast for the eyes, but alas, not the writing.


A Fine Romance

Falling in love with the English Countryside

by Susan Branch

A friend gave me an Amazon gift card for Christmas and I quickly ordered A Fine Romance.  I had longingly thumbed through this beautiful book in a little bookstore ages ago and added to my list of “someday books”.  Well, this past January was that someday.

This is not a travel guide, there is no agenda here other than to entertain and delight the reader  A Fine Romance is a hand-written, illustrated chronicle of Ms. Branch’s visit to England with her husband.  I lingered over almost every page — each watercolor is a tiny jewel — all interspersed with photographs, her reflections and observations

Here I’ll show you:







I read bits of this book each morning (with the obligatory cup of tea) in order to slowly savor the experience of going along as they roam the English countryside.

The book opens with the story of how the divorced Ms. Branch met Joe, which proved a bit tedious as well as, well, creepy.  Here’s the creepy bit; on one of their first dates, she asked for two hotel rooms but behind her back he reserves only one. She’s surprised,unsure but just goes along with it. (Say what? Ever heard of respect for boundaries?)

This little niggle in no way detracts from the charm of the book (I just had to make that comment).

Apparently Ms. Branch has a huge following and has an impressive website with recipes, events and merchandise which sports her watercolors on everything from calendars to party favors.  A bit over the top for my taste, but take a look HERE to see what you think.  She also has a BLOG which I enjoy, especially the travel entries, just to admire their elegant travel style — always accompanied by a great deal of luggage.

A Fine Romance is not only for Anglophiles, but for anyone who likes pretty villages, cozy cups of tea, and beautiful gardens.  Part travelogue, part diary, part sketchbook, part personal scrapbook —  A Fine Romance is just wonderful.



The War Brides Scrapbook

by Caroline Preston


I loved Ms. Preston’s previous novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt ,a gift from my sister.  So I had to purchase another “someday” book — her newest scrapbook novel, The War Bride’s Scrapbook.

It is 1941 and Lila has graduated from Sweet Briar without the two things her mother expected; making connections with moneyed friends and a rich fiancee.  Instead she came home with a magna cum laude and an art degree. Her true passion is architecture, but there’s little opportunity for women in the field.  She goes to work instead for her father’s insurance business.  She meets and falls hard for enlisted soldier Perry Weld and, after a three week whirlwind romance and marriage, he has shipped out.

Following the advice in a woman’s magazine,

Lila starts a ‘War Bride’s Scrapbook’ in which she chronicles their two-year separation — through their letters, but also tickets, menus, food labels, and newspaper articles.

This ‘story in pictures’ is told through this scrapbook device, as we get to know the characters and their experiences both at home and in war-time Europe. 

Just take a look at this visual and literary feast.

Lila matures into a strong independent woman who eventually gets accepted into the male-dominated Harvard architecture school and onto a career of her own.

Ms. Preston uses this scrapbook to give us a insight into the issues of the time — the changing roles and societal expectations for women, PTSD, the atomic bomb, and even the Japanese American imprisonment.

Many of the visuals are from Ms. Preston’s own collection of vintage scrapbooks and ephemera, but she also did a fair share of research and borrowed items from other artifact collectors.

The War Brides Scrapbook brims with vivid characters and a brilliantly laid-out collection of WWII-era ephemera.


Whew, congratulations  you made it through this long post.  So now, we’ll have to return to the real world of grown-up books -most, sadly without pictures.

Italian Fever by Valerie Martin

Back in January, I tended my yearly ritual of cleaning out my books.  Not a task for the faint of heart, as it involves days of books stacked on the floors of various rooms, books teetering off my bedside table, and overflowing bags destined for donation to the library.  I always end up with a pile of books on probation ~~ books I want to peruse a bit before deciding their fate.

Italian Fever made its way into this probation pile and I don’t remember where I got it, but I did remember why.  It reminded of some of my favorite novels that transported me to the warm and beautiful Italian countryside – Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, The Enchanted April, and of course, A Room With a View.

So one rainy night, I opened Italian Fever to determine its destiny.  While the novel wasn’t up to the caliber of the fore-mentioned novels, it did hold my interest and did envelope me in the atmosphere of the hot, sunny Tuscan countryside.

Our main character is Lucy, who is a New York based assistant to the famous US novelist, now based in Italy.   She harbors a deep resentment of DV’s success, despite his mediocre writing,  but her role has always been to coddle him along to finished manuscripts.  However, as we learn in the prologue, DV has died while walking at night and Lucy is sent to Italy to settle his affairs — including retrieving his latest potential blockbuster manuscript.

When viewing the photos of his body, Lucy notes signs that he may have been beaten to death.   Near his house in Tuscany she encounters a faintly sinister family of aristocrats: the elegant Antonio, his mother, his fiery but elderly father. Lucy seeks evidence of their involvement in DV’s death and the disappearance of his lover Catherine.  The local police are typically holding something back and not aiding in any further investigations.

At first, I thought Ms. Martin was giving us a typical amateur sleuth solving a crime in a foreign land — but no, not really.  There are surprising, but sometimes flimsy tangents in Italian Fever –as it twists from a mystery, into the Gothic, turns romantic adventure, with a bit of art history and, finally, a underlying ghost story.

The setting provides a beautiful backdrop to this unconventional story line, and for a few hours on that rainy night I was vicariously driving round the Tuscan countryside, window shopping in Rome, and gazing at Piero della Francesca’s fresco, The Resurrection.

Lucy winds up getting ill and the descriptions of being sick in a foreign country are some of the best passages in the novel. Her fever brings on bad dreams and disorientation which leads her to believe she is hearing ghosts and crimes being plotted.

Upon her recovery, Lucy, who has a sharp sense of humor, but lousy taste in men, allows herself to be taken in by the cliched Italian lover, Massimo — ignoring the much finer Antonio Cini.  There’s some hot romance and a stereotypical break up.

Much more is discovered about DV, his death, the missing manuscript, Catherine —  and I kept expecting a thrilling climax but alas, it did not transpire.  Having traveled along the many twisty roads of the plot, I didn’t find any depth of drama or suspense. 

As I turned the last page of Italian Fever, I decided that, yes, for a few house, I’d taken a pleasant journey to Italy with some beautiful sights, met some interesting characters, but nothing really memorable happened.


Once I stole a book…

It’s Throwback Thursday, when I rave about a book I read years ago.



The Known World

by Edward P. Jones

Once dear readers, I accidentally stole a book.  Stuck in an airport in 2004, I was of course browsing in the book store, magazine in one hand, this hefty paperback in the other.  I panicked when my long delayed flight was suddenly announced and quickly paid the cashier for the magazine, both of us oblivious to the book under my arm.  As I galloped to the gate, I mindlessly tossed the book in my bag.  Once I got on the plane, and looked at my receipt I realized the error of my ways.  I tempered my guilt by recounting the money I’d spent at this book chain (they have since gone out of business, probably due to thievery like mine). 

Turns out this lucre kept me fascinated for the entire cross country flight.  I barely looked up when the food was served. (Just imagine, once even coach passengers were served a meal on cross country plane trips.)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel centers on a family of free blacks who run a plantation in pre-Civil War Virginia.  The Southern slave culture was so deeply embedded, that it was not considered odd (or even ironic) when freed blacks became slave holders themselves;  a little know part of American history.

Henry Townsend is a young black man living in Virginia 20 years before the Civil War — a free son of parents who were freed slaves. His father, a skilled woodworker, holds strong convictions regarding the evils of slavery.  But Henry grows up to idolize a white plantation owner and the most powerful slave-owner in the county. Much to his father’s horror, Henry purchases his own plantation and keeps black slaves.  When Henry dies unexpectedly, his widow Caldonia struggles to hang on to his legacy, but things start to unravel as the plantation slaves start to break the bonds of their servitude.

These slaves (like some others of the time) were able to buy their freedom by working in off-the-plantation enterprises such as builders, artisans, and agronomists which allowed them to earn cash. They could then pay for their own freedom as well as the price demanded for their wives and children (at full market value no less) .

The Known World is unique and some thought it a difficult read.  The novel is not chronological, but follows thematic arcs, often going back and forth in time and recounting different versions of the story line.   I didn’t find it confusing — I enjoyed being told a riveting story from several different points of view.  Mr. Jones has provided a handy list of the numerous characters in the back of the book, but I never needed it. Somehow each of the many characters are richly rendered and fleshed out.  Each character had a fine-tuned personality and it was easy to keep them separate, as I got to know each so well.

 “The Known World” is an apt title, as it represents the limiting life of a few plantations which comprised the entire world for the slaves. One master may sell a slave to a nearby neighbor; another one is freed and moves in close proximity to his former master, so that their universe rarely grew larger. Even traveling on an errand from one neighbor to another, or from the plantation to town, required the written permission of the owner. 

I can understand why Mr. Jones won the Pulitzer for this novel.  His ear for dialog, eye for detail and command of the language was a joy to this reader, against the bleak backdrop of slavery and the grim ways in which power/greed so easily corrupt.

I highly recommend The Known World, filled with rich stories and a sense of place so real, so honest – you’ll find it difficult to believe you’re reading fiction.

A copy of this novel was unknowingly provided by a large anonymous book chain, which has since gone out of business.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I was allowed to go to my neighborhood library on my own ~~ an often needed escape from my younger siblings.  I adored the Aspen Hill Library and would wander the shelves, library card itching in my pocket.

I often visited the popular YA (young adult) shelves, but never really understood the appeal coming from home with Little Women, Black Beauty and Little House on the Prairie at my disposal.  I tried and dismissed Judy Blume, V. C. Andrews, and the insipid Beverly Cleary series (see I was a critic even back then).

But there was one YA book I checked out over and over again.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle opens with the classic line…

It was a dark and stormy night…

Published in 1962, this Newbery Medal classic is part science fiction, part time travel tale and I was mesmerized.  I could easily relate to Meg who doesn’t fit in at school and going through an awkward stage with unruly hair and braces.

Meg’s father has disappeared during a scientific trip and she, her little brother, and family friend Calvin are whisked away to find him.  Three strange women with mysterious talents help them follow their quest – Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit. And the reader is off on an adventure like no other.

Back in the 60’s, as I read this book over and over again, the appeal was not only the riveting story, but the intelligent way it spoke to young readers — with quotes from Latin, complicated mathematical and scientific theories — but also the respect and self-confidence it gave girls (and boys).  Meg is shown how to be herself and reassured that it is a good thing to be different from anyone else.  She is called upon to be brave beyond her wildest dreams, survive different species, experience new cultures, and use her brain to overcome obstacles.  In other words — everything I wanted to be and do.

Ms. L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time in the shadow of the cold war and upon re-reading this wonderful story, I now see the obvious references that mirror the 1960’s fear of communism — over my head at age 10.

A Wrinkle in Time has been made into a Disney film which opens today.  It stars Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and other big names.  It might actually be good, and now that I’ve just re-read the book, I can give myself permission to go see it.

If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time lately, I suggest you re-read it.

If you’re like me you’ll not only enjoy the adventure once again — but have a new admiration for how it influenced young readers to be bold, fearless, but mostly to have confidence in always being themselves.

Film Trailer HERE