Us by David Nicholls

You can rest assured Book Barmy followers, we’re done with dark thrillers for awhile.

Time for something completely different.

I read another book by Mr. Nicholls (One Day) a long time ago and was not enthralled. I found it one-dimensional and it often trespassed into a sticky-sweet romance.

So, when one of my favorite booktubers, Wilde Reads raved about Us by Mr. Nicholls I was skeptical, but in dire need of a break from dark thrillers – I borrowed it from the library for our recent trip down south.

Douglas and Connie, a British couple have planned a vacation through Europe, but it’s nearly called off when Connie wakes up and says “I think I want to leave you.” 

Douglas forges ahead and cajoles his wife to enjoy one last hurrah with their teenage son, who is soon off to college.   And thus begins a bittersweet and awkward journey through Europe. 

The past and present are told in many short chapters.  The family is on a forced march through Europe following Douglas’s precise itinerary, carefully laid out in numerous spread sheets.  

Douglas and Connie’s past relationship is slowly revealed  — how they met and fell in love, despite being complete opposites. Connie is an uninhibited artist, while Douglas is an introverted biochemist – they marry, inhabit a bohemian London apartment, have a child.  We see Douglas struggle with Connie’s artistic and unconventional upbringing of their son, and watch as Connie gives up her art and they move out of London to a larger house with a garden.  All seems to be going well – or is it? 

These are real people — Douglas, well-meaning but suffering from a lack of spontaneity; Connie, beautiful, charming, and artistic — and their son, Albie, a typical teenager filled with scorn for adult conservatism.

The dynamic between Douglas and Connie is funny and genuinely touching.

’I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.’ 

‘Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’”

So they’re off to Europe. There are painful scenes when Douglas is trying desperately to ensure everyone is having a good time, but these are contrasted with laugh out loud funny incidents, such as when it turns out Douglas has mistakenly booked the three of them into a questionable hotel in Amsterdam…

“Dad”, asked Albie “have you booked us into a sex hotel?” and they began to laugh.  It’s not a sex hotel, it’s boutique, I insisted.  “Douglas”, said Connie, “tapping the print of the bound Japanese lady, is that a half hitch or a bowline?”              I did not answer, through it was a bowline.

What I most enjoyed about Us was the subtle, bittersweet, and unflinchingly honest writing. 

I think our marriage has run its course.  I think I want to leave you.  It was like trying to go about my business with an axe embedded in my skull.

I could especially relate to this, about Douglas’s ability to appreciate modern art

It’s not about what you liked and didn’t like, Connie would reply, it’s about what it made you feel.  More often than not, it made me feel foolish and conventional.

And I had to nod in agreement with this about parties;

Because parties, dinner parties in particular, had always seemed to be a pitiless form of gladiatorial combat, with laurel garlands bestowed to the most witty, successful and attractive, and the corpses of the defeated lying bleeding on the painted floorboards.

This is a cynical, bittersweet, yet loving portrait of a love — of a relationship. A reminder that not every couple can be happy, no matter how much they love each other.  These are real and familiar characters; especially the befuddled Douglas, certain he can fix something unfixable if only he applied enough logic, pragmatism, and unfailing optimism.

Mr. Nicholls does not give us a happily ever after ending, no perfect tying up of loose ends.  This is a civilized yet loving portrait of the slipping away of a marriage.  Like Nora Ephron’s, “Heartburn”, this a funny and touching novel about a situation which, I’m certain, living through would not be at all funny.   

Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence

I needed a break from reading three dark thrillers in a row (just finishing my last one – really good, but more on that later.)

So I slipped over into the warm comfort of this book.

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

A Librarian’s Love Letters and the Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life

Ms. Spence is a young librarian and both her reading taste and vernacular reflect fresh, edgy thinking.  This makes for a very different sort of book about books.  No guilt-inducing, preaching on the books you ought to have read (I’m looking at you Clifton Fadiman).  Instead, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is comprised of breezy takes (or letters) on the books the author has read, owns, loathes, comes across, culled from the library stacks, or had patrons request.

Ms. Spence’s casual writing voice is scattered with cursing and some sex. There’s a letter to a book called The One Hour Orgasm which you’ll just have to read for yourselves, I blush — anyway suffice it to say, this book never gets boring.

Ms. Spence’s love of books and what they mean shines through. But she also reflects on the often unspoken truism that readers can, and will, fall out with a book, there are indeed books that become irrelevant, books that leave us angry, annoyed, or the worst offense of all – a book that leaves us flat.

Here’s some of my favorite snippets:

Dear Fifty Shades of Grey,

You made me say “erotica” to an old lady.  I’m going to hate you forever for that…

 

Dear Miss Marple Series,

You guyssssss!  I just want to thank you for being there for me.  Everybody loves you.  Seriously, everybody.  I mean people who like mysteries – Doy.  But also, did you know that truckers love you?  You guys on audio are like a gateway drug to reading for truckers.  Also, kids who read way above their grade level and are bored with everything in the children’s section.  …and teens with helicopter parents who want to make sure they aren’t reading novels with sex in them (as a rule, murder in a book is A-okay with these folks).

 

Dear Pictorial Anatomy of the Cat,

I don’t know how you got here.  Without your book jacket on – which is who knows where – one might have assume you were some sort of mythical fairy tale about kitties.  But in reality your insides …are about insides.  But don’t get me wrong.  I thought you lateral view of the abdominal viscera was neat. But, can I say something?  You’re creeping people out. You go on and on about the cutaneous maximums.  This is a public library. So…Go’way Now, Annie

 

Dear Another Saturday Night of Wild and Reckless Abandon:  A Cathy Collection,

I had to give (my friend) a little lesson on Cathy, Cathy.  Because when you’re not talking about dating insecurities and how to eat feelings, you were one of the first to address the contradictions of the women who’s trying to “have it all”.  You discuss the wage gap, mansplaining, and sexual harassment.  You try to explain fluid gender roles in a way Cathy’s own mom might understand.  Yeah, Cathy has a messy room and frets over her terrible hair.  She’s trying to figure it out.  That’s what makes her so lovable. I’m proud to put you right by my Gloria Steinem essays and Bad Feminist.  You may be a collection of cartoons, but you’re part of the sisterhood. You’re my favorite 80’s woman.

So, aach on girl, Tiny heart, Annie

Towards the end, Ms. Spence also give us ‘special subject’ essays such as 

“Excuses to tell your friends so you can stay home with your books

“Falling Down the Rabbit Hole-books that lead to more books”

“He’s Just Not That Into Literacy: Turning Your Lover into a Reader”

 

There’s a wonderfully funny letter to a Fancy Bookshelf at a Party I Wasn’t Technically Invited To, where, while hiding by the bookshelves, she snarks on the styled books, knickknacks and art — not to mention, the hostess.

Ms. Spence dedicates a letter to book group discussions, which she often overhears at coffee shops or the library, and has to resist the urge to break in saying — ‘OMG, you’re missing the whole point of the book –step aside and let a professional take over’.

The final epilogue is a endearing shout out to the importance of librarians and libraries.  Dear Fahrenheit 451 would be a perfect gift for any librarian, library workers or book-lovers on your list.  It’s a little early for the holidays, but at the very least add it to your own TBR list.  I know you have one.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Dear Fahrenheit 451

I read you in small doses which proved most enjoyable. Equally enjoyable was the long list of books added to my TBR list thanks to you and your charming, and approachable author.  We have much to talk about, hey let’s meet for a glass of wine.  I’ll be the one in the corner with a book ~~ BookBarmy.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

A digital review copy was provided by Flatiron Books via Netgalley.

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Secrets Kids Know (that adults oughta learn) by Allen Klein

My guilty morning secret (now that I’m retired) is I’ll often make a cup of tea and go back to bed to read for a bit.  That’s how I enjoyed Secrets Kids Know over the last several weeks. Turned out to be a delightful way to start my day.

I’m usually not a huge fan of the self-help genre, I find they regurgitate one simple principal over and over to fill pages.  But this is not the case with Secrets Kids Know.

The overall premise is as adults grow up we loose our joy in life.  Which affects many aspects of our lives, from our relationships, to our careers and creativity.  Mr. Klein helps the reader see a wide variety of things through children’s eyes — with his delightful insights, quotes, examples, and stories.

Each chapter (or secret as Mr. Klein calls them) is a breath of fresh air, here’s a brief sampling:

Be a Beginner, where we see how the innocence of not knowing something opens us up to all possibilities – without preconceived right or wrong.

Be a Fun Seeker, in which we see how clowning around like a kid can be restorative.

Be Curious, which asks us to use curiosity to inspire our goals.  The child-like question “are we there yet?” can be turned around on yourself  “Am I there yet?” or your company “Are we there yet?”

Be Truthful, where we learn how to see things as they are, and the value of honest observation, unclouded by adult preconceptions.

Each chapter ends with a “Grow Down” (vs. Grow up) assignment — more of a suggestion really — such as taking a nap, blowing bubbles out the car window during a traffic jam (gonna try that one), or consulting your child-like instinct when making important decisions.

I fear I’ve made Secrets Kids Know sound simplistic — it not.  The author recognizes that adult pressures, worries, and crises can’t be solved by being childlike.  We can’t always live in the moment, as if a three year old. Instead, Mr. Klein suggests that we incorporate child-like tendencies into our day-to-day thoughts and activities in order to cope with the burdens of adulthood, not to mention the nightly news.

Something as profound as being present – a Buddhist teaching I’ve long struggled with, was made relevant to my adult life with this quote:

One of the reasons children are filled with extraordinary amounts of energy and enthusiasm may be that they are in the present moment.  Their energy is not wasted on a wandering mind that exhausts itself through negative emotions. 

Emma Seppala

Unlike some other self help authors, Mr. Klein is no egotist.  He happily intersperses his writing with other’s stories, quotes, and insights – often causing this reader to chuckle…

One good thing about five-year-olds is they are always just a Krazy Straw and some chocolate milk away from the best day ever.

Simon Cholland

Mr. Klein is a Jollytologist® (yes he trademarked it), is a professional speaker, and has written a number of books on using humor in our personal and professional lives — to motivate, harness creativity, and heal.

While I won’t be donning a red clown nose (something the author advocates), I did refresh my walking music with some Bee Gees, helped a neighbor’s 1 1/2 year old with a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, and, yes, I’ll be buying bubbles.

Thank you to Viva Editions and the author for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest and non-compensated review.

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Lisa Scottoline

51rNRrrH2cLIf you’re a follower of Book Barmy, you may have surmised I’m not always a high-brow reader.  Yes, I read important books and am working through several classics (Trollope you’re killing me, buddy), but some evenings I just want to zone out, with some plain light-hearted fun.

You may know Lisa Scottoline as the Edgar-Award winning author of twenty plus NY Times bestselling crime novels. I’ve never read any of those, instead I know her for her series of humor books. I’ve Got Sand In All the Wrong Places marks the seventh in this very funny series.

I find it impressive that Ms. Scottoline can write both page-turning legal thrillers (she practiced as a lawyer before becoming a writer) as well as this series of hilarious and witty books.    The material for these laugh-out-loud books derives from a Sunday column that Ms. Scottoline and her daughter, Francesca write for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Each short chapter is a column from the paper written separately by either mother or daughter and each year a new book is derived from the year’s columns. (Obviously Ms. Scottoline is not only a best-selling writer, she is also a canny business person.)

Ms’s.  Scottoline and Serritella are strong, funny women who take on the subjects of daily life: love, dating, sex, no sex, pets, food, clothes, writing, traveling, health, hair, and more. No subject is off limits.

Ms. Scottoline’s love of family is apparent on every page and cause for humor as she describes her relationships with her mother, brother, and daughter.  Mother Mary (her dearly departed mother) was often the funniest subject matter.

Mother Mary is out of the hospital, and recovery lies ahead.

For the hospital.

Her honest love of her menagerie of dogs was especially funny in her book Why My Third Husband with be a Dog ~ on her Golden Retrievers:

Here is what the Goldens are like: fun, easy, friendly, happy, and loving, on a continuous loop. You could have three Goldens in the room and not know it. They love to sleep. They love everything. Honestly, I kept adding Goldens because I forgot they were there. You could be sitting in a roomful of Goldens and think to yourself, “You know, we need a dog”.

However, I find the best thing about Ms. Scottoline’s humor is her normal-ness and self depreciation. Graduating from a top law school with honors, she decided to become a crime novelist and succeeded. Got give that some respect.

Anyway, my head was full of these thoughts the other afternoon, as I was hurrying in a downpour through the streets of New York City, there to take my author photo. I know that sounds glamorous and it would be if I were ten pounds lighter and ten years younger, but take it from me, the best fiction in my books is the author photo.

This latest volume again is both humorous and poignant as it deals with daughter Francesca’s life in New York city which includes a brutal assault. But like the other books I found it funny, warm, down to earth, and, at times unpredictable

There’s an essay on the holiday season and how in the past, Ms. Scottoline found it all too stressful, and resorted to holiday shopping on-line.  The news of a bookstore closing, has her vowing to shop in actual stores — especially bookstores (hail comrade!) – and that maybe it’s supposed to be stressful.

It may be obvious as an abstract matter, but I realized that many other types of stores could go belly-up, if I keep shopping on my butt.  So I taught myself a lesson:  Vote with my feet. If I want to live in a community that has bookstores and all other kinds of stores, as well as local people happily employed in those stores, I have to out and buy stuff.  I’m putting on my coat and going shopping .  I look forward to the cranky shoppers, the waiting in lines, and the fighting over the parking space.  And I’m wishing you and yours a happily stressful holiday.

The terrifying CNN storm predictions for New York City has Ms. Scottoline texting and calling her daughter in a panic:

I became Hurricane Mom.   First thing in the morning, I called her, vaguely hysterical:

“Honey, did you see the TV? There’s going to be a big storm!”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Francesca answered, too calmly for my taste. “What are you doing?  Did you go food shopping?”                                      “I’m working. I don’t need to go food shopping. I have food in the fridge.”

“But do you have canned goods?”

“Canned goods?” Francesca asked, chuckling softly. “What are you talking about?”                                                                                                “Canned goods, canned goods!”

Francesca replied, “I think I have a can of beans…

“You need more beans, right away!”

“Why, what are you talking about? Please, you need to calm down.”

“I can’t! You need canned goods in case of a power outage! It’s going to be a giant, epic, historic, emergency, monster blizzard storm!”

“They always say that.”

“But they’re right! This is CNN talking! Wolf Blitzer!”

“I’m OK.”                                                                                                  “No,you’re not! You’re going to DIE!”

So you know where this is going. Drama ensued. Voices were raised. Things were said. Tears were shed. Mistakes were made.

Bottom line, there was a lot of passive voice happening, which is never a good thing, whether it’s a federal government or a mother-daughter relationship.

But it had a happy ending. There was no epic winter monster blizzard storm. I apologized to Francesca for terrorizing her. Francesca apologized, happy that I loved her enough to terrorize her.Meteorologists apologized for their predictions.

As for Wolf Blitzer, we’re not speaking to him.

So, there’s just a small taste of the Scottoline-Serritella humor.  Their complete list of books can be found HERE.

I highly recommend having this volume or any of the wonderfully-titled humor books by your bedside to dip into just before going to sleep.

Take it from Book Barmy, go to sleep with a loved one’s kiss and, after a few life observations from Lisa and Francesca — with a smile.

 

A digital review copy was provided by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley.

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Michael Dirda ~ Part Deux

Dirda Reception1

Michael Dirda

 

I received an email from one of my  legion of  loyal few Book Barmy readers regarding this post on the book of essays entitled Browsings by Michael Dirda.  This reader wondered why, as a declared Anglophile, I had failed to mention his essay called Anglophilia or perhaps I had skipped it?

Well, this sent me scurrying back to the book because I frankly didn’t remember said essay.  After reading it I realized that I must have skipped this one — you see, I did not adhere to Mr. Dirda’s introductory rule of reading his essays in order.

I hung my head in shame, and as penance, last night I again browsed through Browsings (sorry for that phrase, but you knew it was coming, didn’t you?).  I ended up re-reading several of my favorites and finding a passage or two I had fogotten.

The neglected essay Anglophilia was written during Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year jubilee and should be read in its entirety, as it is chocked full of British greatness.  Mr. Dirda admits his secret fantasy of being picked for a knighthood or an OBE.  He feels he may have earned such an honor given his lifetime of dreaming of Harrods Christmas hampers, box seats at the Grand National and pub lunches of shepherds pie.

In real life, his Anglophilia is limited to a Harris Tweed sport coat, a few Turnbull & Asser shirts (picked up at a local thrift shop) and watching Miss Marple mysteries on television.

(I watch them) less to guess the identity of the murderer than to look at the wonderful clothes and the idyllic Costwoldian village of St. Mary Mead.  My wife tells me I should check out Downton Abbey, but I gather that series might be almost too intense for my temperate nature.

Of course, most of Mr. Dirda’s Anglophilia is bookish, and he imagines his very own country house library – (my imagined room is quite the same):

…lined on three walls with mahogany bookshelves, their serried splendor interrupted only by enough space to display, above the fireplace, a pair of crossed swords or sculling oars and perhaps a portrait of some great English worthy.  The fourth wall would, of course, open on to my gardens, designed and kept up by Christopher Lloyd, with the help of Robin Lane Fox…There would definitely be a worn leather Chesterfield sofa, its back covered with a quilt (perhaps a tartan? decisions, decisions) and its corners cushioned with a half-dozen pillows embroidered with scenes from Greek mythology.  Here, I would recline and read my books.

Photographers Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg stay at the historic Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, GA

I found a few other passages I must read out loud to you…okay you can read them yourselves.

He ruefully muses about his book buying expenditures:

It’s true that even $5 book purchases do add up.  Yet, what after all is money?  It’s just this abstraction, a number, a piece of green paper.  But a book — a printed volume, not some pixel on a screen — is real.  You can hold it in your hand.  Feel its heft.  Admire the cover.  Realize that you now own a work of art that is 50 or 75 or even 100 years old.  My Beloved Spouse constantly berates me for failing to stew sufficiently about money.  For 30 years I diligently set aside every extra penny to cover the college educations of my three sons.  I paid off my home mortgage long ago.  I even have some kind of mutual fund.  Nonetheless, it’s hard for me to feign even minimal interest in investing or studying the stock market.  What a weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable – okay, make that profitable — way of life it is to think constantly about the bottom line.  Keogh plans, Roths, Schedule C, differed income, capital gains, and rows and rows of little numbers…The heart sinks.

And finally, I’ll leave you with more about his plan to travel around the US visiting second-hand bookstores.

(In addition to stopping at bookstores) …I’d naturally take the time to genuflect at the final resting places of writers I admire. Come lunchtime I would obviously eat in diners and always order pie for dessert, sometimes à la mode.  During the evenings sipping a local beer in some one-night cheap motel, I would examine the purchases of the day and fall asleep reading shabby, half-forgotten novels.

Thinking  I would not need or want to re-read this book, it almost went into the library donation bag.  See what I almost missed?  I stand vindicated in my board hoarding collecting.  I’m giving Browsings its permanent and rightful place on my bookshelves.

 

Browsings by Michael Dirda

,204,203,200_Browsings by Michael Dirda

A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books

What prompts me gravitate to books about other books?  They only add to my long lists and piles of books I want – nay, must read.  It’s a sickness I tell you – a real sickness.  You may remember this post, when, after doing the math, I soberly realized I’ll never read all the books I want to read.  But like a moth on its death journey towards a hot light, here I go again.  Send help…

I just finished reading Browsings, Michael Dirda’s collection of essays about – you guessed it — books and reading.  Mr. Dirda, a weekly book columnist for the Washington Post, is no slouch, he received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished literary criticism.

These essays come from his writings for The American Scholar.  I’d never heard of this journal and after some sleuthing (OK, a bit of Google searching) it turns out to be the quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  (No wonder I never heard of it.  Way above my mental pay grade.) Lest you fear, these essays are down to earth, funny and nowhere near as pretentious as “The American Scholar”.  Just read this from the back jacket cover:

He was once chosen by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the twenty-five smartest people in our nation’s capital  – but, as Michael says, you have to consider the competition.

In the introduction, Mr. Dirda recommends reading his essays no more than a few at a time, and also reading them in order.  I obeyed the first advice, but not the second.  I admit I did leap around a bit, but in the end, I read them all.  Browsings was my constant companion for that soothing half hour just before falling asleep.

The essays in Browsings are eclectic and seemingly random…from his sad musings of his mother’s nursing home to the loss of cursive penmanship – but the connective tissue is books, reading books, collecting books, finding books, talking about books and writing about books.

In fact, many of the essays are interspersed with reading lists (thus my ever expanding TBR titles).  We share a fondness for Christmas books — he lists and summarizes his favorites – (taking notes, taking notes…)

Another essay starts with a rant against his local power company when he was without power for three days during a DC area heat wave.*  By the third day, he blissfully escapes to a cooler, more northerly-located bookstore.  Mr. Dirda, naturally summarizes the numerous books he acquired.  (Come right this way folks, see the idiot making yet more lists of books…)

He has a love of older books – eschews bestsellers and feasts his eyes (and his wallet) on the vibrant dust-jackets of the 1940’s and 50’s.   There’s a divine essay dedicated to the golden age of detective novels – trust me readers, you, too, will be jotting notes.  Mr. Dirda, in another excerpt, reflects upon the bookshelves, favorite notebooks and writing implements of various great authors — what reader can’t resist picturing Colette writing with a beloved Parker fountain pen?

After reading an article about millionaire author and Law & Order producer David Wolf, who owns a home in Montecito, California — “where God would live if he had the money.” –he ponders excessive wealth and Tolstoy’s lament – “how much (land) does a man need?”  Mr. Dirda reflects on his own excess — books:

It’s certainly not as though I need any more books. Just yesterday I was up in the attic creating neat stacks of those I would like to read Right Now.

Of course the author speaks fluent French and taught English in Marseille.  He tells of a hunch-backed dwarf who cut hair in a garage, where one had to climb down into a pit so he could circle around and cut the hair.  I don’t do the tale justice, you must read it for yourself.

When I read the following passage, I wondered if Mr. Dirda was a ghost here in my home office, silently judging me hunched over my computer:

…I’ve discovered, you have to get out, you do need to see other human beings.  You can’t just read and write all day, much as I’d like to.   After a few hours in a chair, my body grows achy, my brain feel even mushier than usual, my tired eyes start to hurt.  To refresh myself I usually go for a walk, or if I’m feeling virtuous and resolute, I’ll hike over to the gym.  (Thanks much, how to be superior Mr. Dirda.)

I just love this guy, he’s a charming, quirky book nerd.  How could I not fall for a guy who dreams of traveling around North America in a van visiting secondhand bookstores. (Question, would a van be large enough for both of us and our book purchases? — Time to re-think the vehicle Mr. Dirda.)

After finishing the final essay, and in addition to the wildly optimistic new list of books I must want to read, I jotted down some quotes from Browsings – you bibliophiles out there will relate:

I also think of some books as my friends and I like to have them around.  They brighten my life.

 

The world of books is bigger than the current best-seller list.

 

Books don’t furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know.

What fun it was to spend time each evening with a witty, engaging and off-the-charts-smart booklover whose reading covers a surprisingly wide breadth of interest and expertise.

Look for his other books which include Book by Book (own it), Classics for Pleasure (want it), and Readings (just got it).

 

(*N.B. He’s talking about Silver Spring, Maryland, where I grew up and summers were indeed brutal.  I spent those hot, humid days with Nancy Drew in front of a cooling fan until I was forced to go out and play. That says a great deal don’t you think?)