May 19, 2022

‘Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe’ by Bill Bryson

Laughing is so cathartic.  Take the worst time and find something to laugh about and, my God, you just can’t help but feel better.  The science that says just putting a smile on your face, changing the arrangement of your facial muscles and thereby affecting your mood, is right on.  Cool huh?

Bill Bryson never fails to make me smile.  In fact, I laughed so hard at his description of his legs involuntarily propelling him down a Belgian hill before crumbling into a ditch, I was worried the neighbors would come check on me.  And they are not close by.

John, if you were concerned, it’s OK now.

Thank God, Gary the mail carrier wasn’t near by either.  He caught me in a big old mess of curlers and a face mask once and now looks nervous, rightly so, when he has to come to the door.Any way … (what’s a good yarn without digression?) … Neither Here Nor There is a collection of musings on Bryson’s travel through Europe in the late 80s and early 90s.  He travels fearlessly around by his lonseome.  He stops where he wants to and thinks nothing of jaunting off to the unknown alone.

For all his claims to be overweight and lazy, he doesn’t appear to be.  He walks everywhere.  Miles and miles.  He sleeps twitching on trains, dines alone, chats up strangers.  He rises early, he has little fear of the unknown.  In truth, he comes by his humorous impressions by being one of the more brave, adventurous men I have come across.  I truly admire his nerve.  His self-effacing jokes are all the funnier for their irony.  I too went alone to a movie in Amsterdaam and I was more scared than amused.  I too spent a sleepless night on a Greek ferry and it was no picnic (probably because I was 12, but that’s another story.)  He really impresses me.
He also jokes about his appetite* but really, anyone who walks straight up the mountain of Capri, while still smiling at nuns, is allowed to eat doughnuts with abandon.  He presents a bumbling, self-flaggelistic, middle aged man, who is actually the definition of ‘Diamond in the Rough.’
Humor aside, but not too far off, Bryson is dead-on in his descriptions of the European countries he visits.  By not beating around the proverbial bush, he paints a precise, honest picture of each country.  Anyone who has ever been aimless in Bruges will appreciate his candor.Anyone who has feared for their life in an italian intersection will laugh out loud he/she reads, “You turn any street corner in Rome and it looks as if you have just missed a parking competition for blind people.”

Anyone who has enjoyed the German-speaking towns of Switzerland with names, “like someone talking with a mouthful of bread: Thun, Bulach, Plafeien,” et al will love him.  Come on, Gstaad is more fun to say than to go to.

Every minute of a Bill Bryson book is a lesson.  Fact and humor abound and I can quite truthfully recommend every single thing he has written.
*In A Stranger Here Myself, he has a chapter on the reckless joy of American junk food that is practically the pinnacle of humor as far as I am concerned.

‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater’ by Frank Bruni

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater is a good book.  Frank Bruni was the food critic for the NYT until May 2009.  He held the post for five years replacing Biff Grimes who replaced my favorite, Ruth Reichl.  Bruni wore many hats as a writer and reporter over the years and this is his first autobiographical food book.

He is an extremely likable guy.  His accounts of growing up in a large food obsessed italian family are tactile.  You expect, indeed hope, to be passed a sandwich at some point.  He relates how hard it has always been for him to reconcile his need to be fully sated by food with his gastronomic appreciation of it as an art form.
Food appeals to Frank on so many levels that it becomes confusing and as he loses his way (weigh), he gains weight and loses his self esteem.  It is marvelous to bear witness to his climb back to his real self.  We have all had these weights upon us in one form or another and can all feel his genuine pain at being trapped within himself.
The food critic posting becomes an ironic savior.  He learns that food is not a temporary entity to be hoarded but an eternal offering to be savored.
This said, I would like to have had more accounts of his travails as the NYT food guru and less dating accounts.  It isn’t that I don’t care, and am not thrilled for him to be in love and happy, but that I would prefer more information about the life of a critic.   Possibly I have been irretrievably spoiled by MK Fisher, Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten, but there you are.
I look forward to more of Frank Bruni.  Go for a long run, head to Fromage and get some cornichons, Stinking Bishop and sesame flatbread, and then pick up the book.

The Stacks in Jen’s Life

Our much missed and absolute favorite book reviewer is back – hooray! Jen returns with a review with a difference … rather than one book she considers her stacks.  Hay stacks?  Chimney stacks?  Wrong and wrong again … curious?

This is so weird for me—this feeling of being literally unable to even remember a book that I have read when I sit down to review it for you.

I have read tons and tons and tons lately, but I can’t seem to tell you what any of them were about.

Maybe just telling you what I am reading can count as a review?  A little blathering about my stacks?

Excellent choice, thank you.

The downstairs stack is as follows.

I am reading Putt To Death by Roberta Isleib.I just finished Six Strokes Under by the same woman and will read A Buried Lie next.  If you like golf, all are good.Then Carl Hiassen’s The Downhill Lie.

I am also staring at The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickenson and Closing Timeby Joe Queenan.Next up is Born Round by NYT food critic, Frank Bruni.Geraldine Brooks, March and People of The Book will be shortly thereafter.

Committed by Liz Gilbert sounds good, but I’m not in a “committed” mood at the moment.

Maybe someone has a book about beating something to death with a pan?  Kidding.  Ignore that.

As you certainly deserve more than this mindless drivel, I will try hard to pay attention.Truly truly.  I won’t bore you but a little family drama goes a long way, even for your fearless book reviewer.  It renders me mindless, but sadly, not speechless, which is an unfortunate combination.
Hopefully next week I can elaborate more, but if not, I’ll tell you about the upstairs stacks …
Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.”  

‘Little Chapel On The River’ by Gwendolyn Bounds

Fact is often better than fiction.  Have you ever looked at a brightly colored fish or flower and thought, “It is not possible that that just appeared in nature.  I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Fact is like that too.  Imagination is contained by our perceptions so it makes sense, but some plots are so wonderful you think they must have been monkeyed with.  “Little Chapel On The River” is true.  What a wonderful thing that Wendy Bounds is articulate enough to have captured such a true moment in the world.

After evacuating their apartment across from the World Trade Center on September 11, Wendy and her girlfriend have to move on.  Literally and figuratively, they must find safe ground from which to grow new roots.

Fatefully, Garrison, N.Y., is waiting.  Unbeknownst to Wendy, it will save her and transorm her life.  She, in turn, will return the favor.

Guinan’s General Store and Pub is a long standing bastion of comfort, safety and beer in a tough world.  The more things change the more they stay the same at Guinan’s and this is the gift.

Wendy befriends a wonderfully honest, grizzled, kind, amusing group of people.  All real, all amazingly human.  As she bartends, opens the store for the 5:07 a.m. commuters, listens to stories and winds her way into the hearts of the Pub, Wendy blossoms from a Wall Street Journal writer to a woman of many talents.

Each new door that opens bring her back to the gifts of her childhood and the joys of life she has been stepping over and around to get to work.  Her truest self is re-emerging and she and the town are delighted.

Her sense of belonging to something larger than her self was in dire need of Guinan’s.  We all are and through her book we find it.  Much like my thoughts on “World Made By Hand”, the things we need the most are seemingly small, often overlooked and right there for the taking if we simply open our eyes.  We all have the spirit of Guinan’s within reach if we know where to look.

‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith

Jen is here this week with a book written by the author of the much better known “One Hundred and One Dalmations.” Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” is sometimes compared to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and yet is something altogether different but equally—if not more—enjoyable.

Nothing like a good book to cheer one up. This is like a grown-up version of Mandy (Julie Andrews) and The Secret Garden (Francis Hodgson Burnett).  I adore those two books, so what a treat to find this.  Originally published in the late 40s, it was hard to come by for a while. Thanks to the book fairies, it was reissued.

The heroine is a teenage girl living in a castle in England in the 30s.  Cassandra Mortmain (fun to look for hidden meanings in that name!*) is remarkably even-keeled and cleverly perceptive despite being between a rock and a hard place.Her mother is dead, her step-mother is not much older than Cassandra’s sister, her father is a famously screwy novelist and they have no money.  No money.  They don’t have food, heat, much clothing or any intention of paying their rent on the castle.

But it is not depressing.  Like a fairy tale there is a plethora of hopefulness.  I never worried that anything really awful would happen because Cassandra doesn’t.  She has that glowing, occasionally dramatic teenage stamina that never questions the power of love and magic.
Love and magic abound.  The castle itself is a mix of hundreds of years of additions—towers and moats and druid mounds.  Cassandra is in love with it all.  Years of poverty have stripped the family of its possessions and the castle of its furnishings, but we still feel Cassandra’s love of it all.
As she comes of age and searches inside herself we are lucky to be privy to her musings.  She describes herself as, “a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.”  How clever.
She pines for love and for security.  She wants to find true love and happiness for herself and those around her, but she will do nothing at the expense of something else.  No bit of goods is worth the sacrifice of one’s true self.
What I like best is that she ultimately gets everything she wants but realizes that the wanting is often better.  She is a better person for having wanted and struggled and she knows that the joys in life are from the journey as much as from the arrival.*Cassandra: in Greek Mythology she was a princess of Troy who was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo.  When she spurned him he cursed her.  She would be an unbelieved seer.
Mortmain: (Fr. dead hand).  Also a legal term regarding ownership in perpetuity of real estate.  So, Cassandra, the only one who truly sees the castle around her, will own it in her heart forever.  Cool, huh?

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with her three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

“Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides

We love it when we’ve read something before Jen – a rare event to be sure – but it makes us feel extra-knowledgeable about her review. And, as this is the case with her book choice this week—”Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides—we can say with complete confidence that, yet again, her review absolutely hits the mark. 

I am speechless.  Could be the early hour.  Could be the end of my mental faculties – if indeed that wasn’t years ago.  It could be Middlesex.

I liked it.  It wasn’t mind-blowingly fabulous.  It wasn’t riotously funny or life-changing, but it did make an impression that I am hard pressed to articulate immediately.  One would argue that I shouldn’t start typing until I am able, but that’s no fun.
Middlesex is a good, good book.  A man looks back on the family history that has helped him reach this point in his life.  He starts with the small village life of his grandparents (maternal and paternal).  We travel with them to America where they set their wild recessive genes free and the results is our hero.Our hero is also our heroine.  Cal/Callie Stephanides is a hermaphrodite.

What I liked about Middlesex was its non-voyeuristic presentation of Cal … ( there’s your hint where this ends up).  We are not scadenfreudistic.  We are in Cal’s head and it’s a terrific place to be.  I really liked him.  And her.
The book’s narrative is well done.  I am surprised that I didn’t like it more because there is no tangible reason why I wouldn’t.  Callie is great.  Her grandparents are interesting and likable, as are her other relatives.  The settings are both familiar and unfamiliar and well-blended.  The descriptions of growing up in the 60s and 70s are right on (no pun intended).
Eugenides has a very vivid, extraordinary mind (like his stunningly beautiful, androgen-insensitive mermaid Zora) and I think therein lies my problem.  Possibly spoiled by Mark Helprin (3.15.08), I expect more of the magical unreality that lies just off the page in Middlesex.  It reads as a different but relatively unremarkable story in spite of its broader issues. (hermaphroditism, teenage drugs, sex, family jealousy, cultural differences, social change etc.)  They all carry more weight than what is delivered.  There may be too many interesting issues to develop so sadly we don’t see any fully developed.
With regard to the issue of hermaphroditism; the differences approached by my friend Norah Vincent in Self-Made Man (1.29.09) would be fascinating to hear from Cal/Callie’s perspective.  If we are going to learn what this means to Cal/Callie, we need to hear more than hair sprouting on the upper lip and Adam’s apples.  There is more to being both sexes than this.

I’d love to hear what happens after Callie runs away in more detail.  How does she change from a girl to a man without serious psychological problems?

When we don’t hear what we want to, then Callie’s sexual organs become not as interesting as her Uncle’s racist aspirations.  Other issue entrance us like the unfair practices of early car makers toward their culturally exceptional employees and the Black Muslim racism of Detroit that we briefly see through Desdemona’s eyes.

I wanted to see more of what Uncle Zizmo was transmogrifying into.  How on earth did he end up where he did?  What was the story with Dr. Philobosian once he reached America?  How did he reconcile his grief with his new life?  How did father Mike live his double life under our noses with such horrific consequences.

Middlesex is more about the periphery of Cal’s life and his/her place in it than the fact that there was a his/her issue at all.  Eugenides presents both and doesn’t give us enough of either.  I like him as an author and love his ideas.  Hopefully we can see more of both in his next book.

“The Big One An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish” by David Kinney

Last week Jen reviewed “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which cleverly caught us out because it wasn’t really about fishing at all. This week she reviews “The Big One An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish by David Kinney and so we think, “Hah! We’re not about to be caught out again,” but guess what, it’s all about fishing. Can’t win! 

From Flyfishing in the Yemen to surf casting on the Vineyard.  Right now the 64th annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is winding down.  Every year every fisherman worth their proverbial salt is out there trying to win one of the divisions.  Surf casting, fly fishing, on land or sea, day or night.

Catch the biggest Blue, striper, False Albacore or Bonito  This is the best tournament and this is the best book I have read about it.  David Kinney explores it on his own and introduces us to a myriad of crusty characters.  Even crusty in pink linen sports-coats. Everyone is in.  With 29 different categories, anyone can win.  Some win more than others .

I loved thinking about the unseen details that go into fishing.  I love casting but flyfishing for me involves unhooking myself from trees.  Surf casting is my love.  Standing on the shore hurling different weights of lures out into the great beyond to see what bites.The thought that you can stand, literally at the edge of the ocean and throw out a string that could lure a great wild creature to shore is mythical.  Less mythical is the fact that I can only catch Bluefish.  My dog could catch bluefish.  When they frenzy, it is hard not to catch them.

I loved hearing about tides and the pull of the moon and the colors and weights and times of day and season when it is possible to catch the biggest fish.

It is a science and I really find it fascinating.  So many variables converge to make optimum settings and the people who know are the people who study.  Years and years of patient practice is what makes these fishermen great.  Of course, luck is also involved and even young children have won the Derby by being in the right place with the right hook at the right time by pure coincidence.
The fun is the passion that drives the Island and the Derby.  Kinney captures the fun and presents the story without over- dramatization.  Facts—interesting facts—make the book.
We should all be part of something we love so much.  The utter joy that these men and women feel each year is worth more than all the prizes in the world.  To feel that passionate about anything is to really live.  They are exhausted, cold, filthy, fishy and totally entranced and delirious with focus.  The Derby is a whirlwind.  If you enjoy fishing, this is a must read.  You can go to the site for a complete list of current winners.  It might be cold out but these people are catching great fish!
For the record, I am a catch and release gal unless I am going to eat it.  Then I do …

“Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” by Paul Torday

We can never pretend we haven’t noticed when we’re late with Jen’s review – first the emails arrive, then the phone starts ringing and finally when we see a line of cars cruising up and down the street, we know there’s a problem. OK slight exaggeration…but not much, so without further ado, here she is – our Jen and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (note the pure poetry there.)

After reading Linda Ahnert’s brilliant homage to my beloved Nancy Drew, I really want to talk about Nancy, but I’ll tell you what I thought of this first.

Nancy would have loved this puzzle.  Salmon Fishing In the Yemen was good but I was surprised there wasn’t a bit more to this book with such a clever premise.

Dr. Alfred Jones is coerced into creating a viable project under which it will be possible to fish for wild salmon in Yemen.  Coerced because he thinks it is a highly unlikely scenario and subsequently a waste of his time.  It would also be a waste of the five million plus pounds that a Yemeni sheik will be spending.  Not to mention the eye rolling and general outburst that accompany such a ludicrous attempt at aiding British/Yemeni relations.

But then again, maybe it isn’t so ridiculous.  Maybe this is book about faith.  A book about why taking a seemingly impossible task upon oneself is worthwhile.  More than worthwhile, in fact, possibly life-altering for all involved.
As Alfred Jones, his partner Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the British Prime Minister, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama, and others become aware, this is an undertaking representing more than just fish in the desert.  There are spiritual, scientific and political implications that reach far.
Paul Torday has written a story through letters, email and transcripts between the principal characters.  Much like the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (which you know I love), the format is increasingly personal and compelling.
The Sheikh has a very real reason for believing such a project is necessary.  He knows it will be laughed at, he knows his millions will be spent, he is prepared regardless of the obstacles.  He believes that the social differences in his culture can be nullified by the single-minded passion that fisherman share.  Faith in fishing.  If people can be brought together through faith, then he has done the work of God.  Fishing is one road to faith.
Belief in the possibility of introducing salmon to the deserts of Yemen is another.
Dr Jones and Chetwode-Talbot battle personal struggles entangled in their business and scientific interests.  They become quite fond of the Sheikh and respect his vision whilst battling popular opinion.
Certain skeptics think this is beyond idiotic and those who take part do so only to serve their own personal interests.  Dr Jones’ wife in particular is a short-sighted, self-absorbed moron who thwarts him at every pass.  The PM’s secretary is another delight.  What an idiot.
Jones, the Sheikh and Chetwode-Talbot work together to create plausibility from implausibility.  They reach for the impossible and we love that they do.  We curse the pencil-pushers and applaud the dreamers.  I would like to have seen more philosophical discussion on the implication of chasing faith, but perhaps I am still spoiled by The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
A slightly off-putting cop-out of an ending is not reason enough to disregard the book.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen closes in on very interesting principles that I wish Paul Torday could elaborate upon.  He gets us close and it seems to be up to us to take the idea further.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski

Lots of people think that the book our Jen selected this week, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski, is very good, including Stephen King who noted he doesn’t re-read many books, but will be doing so with this one. Yet again Jen’s review has tickled our fancy too and we think we’ll also be reading it very shortly.

I had dinner a few weeks ago with a gentleman who said this was his favorite book.  My step-mother liked it but thought the middle a tad long-winded.  Stephen King said he,” flat out loved it.”  How could I resist?
Ultimately, I agree with them all. OK – done.

Kidding.The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a hell of a book.  Long, but good-long.  A young boy growing up in Wisconsin has to face some very serious issues.  His family has bred dogs for generations and lived an idyllic life until the black sheep (read total psycho) of the family returns.  Edgar, the boy, is in the teacup when the tempest arrives.
Born mute, his considerable intellect is torn asunder by death and deceit.  His Uncle Claude is the tempest and the Sawtelle dogs are the grounding rod.  Edgar must find himself using their strength of character and his own.
Wroblewski paints a truly involving portrait of the mind.  The outside world is beautiful: the postcard-perfect farm, the shamanistic woods, the magnificent barn … but the story is the human mind.  How to handle extreme adversity?  How to stay focused and self-reliant without capitulating to fear or self-loathing?
Edgar and the dogs are it.  We are with them.  My favorite personality—and its subsequent depictions and thoughts—is Almondine.  Edgar’s dog, and he is her boy, is so remarkably wonderful I am hard pressed to say how much I loved knowing her.  The chapters from her perspective are remarkable.  I do not look at my dog with the same eyes anymore. Almondine is a character who will resound within me forever.  More than Claude, more than Edgar, she is the touchstone for the story.  For me, at least.
As good as the plot is, the training of the dogs is fascinating as well.  These dogs are all so tangibly individual it is a pleasure to witness their actions.  They are as much individual characters as the humans.
When I was young, my great-grandfather had a barn like the Sawtelle’s.  It was magic and I would still be in it if it were possible.  It was a world unto itself and the sense of safety and promise is so well described by Wroblewski that I felt home.
The magic of this book is larger than a simple story.  The barn is not just a barn.  The dogs are not just dogs.  Edgar is not just a victim.  His story is the story of faith.  The story of redemption and come-uppance.  The story of love and magic.  It does get long-winded, but don’t forget how hard it must be to write such a book.

Read every word.  You will miss it when it’s over.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout

Jen takes on Olive this week (no, not the kind with pits but rather one-of-a-kind Olive Kitteridge, who lives in Crosby, Maine) and finds herself captivated by the tangled web into which she ventures.  Author Elizabeth Strout won a 2009  Pullitzer for this book and we’re thinking, if there were a Pullitzer for book reviews, our Jen would win one hands down. 

This is collection of stories all involving at some point the same character, namely Olive Kitteridge.  What we see is the world of Crosby, Maine, through the eyes of many of the residents at various times in both their personal and the town’s history.
Olive is the common denominator and we see her through many eyes as well.

Elizabeth Strout is a very good writer.  From the first page I was completely in tune with the characters and Crosby.  Like a small town movie, you walk right in and can go have coffee with anyone you like.

It is slightly maudlin, but not disheartening.  Lives are hard and people are sometimes sad, but you are never tempted to leave or be disdainful.  These are inherently good people and you want to be with them.

Unlike a straightforward novel, the bits and parts of small stories make a perfect venue for Crosby.  We are presented with insight we could not ordinarily have and have a veritable kaleidescope of offerings.  However, it never feels anything but straightforward and palatable.  No flash, no tricks.  Strout isn’t attempting to dazzle us with craft she just moves us along.

Every transition is smoothly done.  No shocks, no, “What the heck? Now where are we?” moments.  The painting of Crosby, Maine, and Olive Kitteridge is, forgive the analogy, like an impressionist one.  A canvas filled with pointilist dots that creates a whole.  Like a Chuck Close or Seurat, Strout has a real gift for this and the result is beautiful.

“The Excellence of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery

L'elegance_du_Herisson_161x240Mon Dieu. To fluctuate between my passion for the written word and my passion for the story at large is to grow accustomed to a weekly barrage of, dare I say, potential malarky.

Will it be Twilight or Sartre?  How can we know?

L’Elégance du Herisson has the appeal of the popular and the allure of the erudite.  Ooh, that sounds snotty but it is so good.

It took me two weeks to keep my head clear enough to read this book.

I must admit, all pontificatory preconceptions aside, I am not bright enough to breeze over the ideas presented on most pages of this book.  In fact, I felt rather moronic—an all too frequent occurrence lately—to even appreciate this book without putting it down way too often.

I loved it.  I did not put it down because I did not want to keep reading.  I put it down to think about it … why is Renée referred to as the Hedgehog?*

An aside: (Went to look this up at the suggestion of a poor man who mistakenly asked what I was currently reading.

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is the title of an essay by Isaiah Berlin, regarding the Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἐχῖνος δ’ἓν μέγα (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”).  Renée loves Tolstoy and, in fact names her cat Leo.   Monsieur Ozo names his cats Kitty and Levin.  It is feline homage to Anna Karenina.)

Where was I?  Oh yes, my page by page questions … Why is Phenomenology so off-putting?  How did I not fully appreciate Anna Karenina?  Does a pricey education make the student better than others?  Are the rich inherently better and more deserving or is grace God-given?  What the hell is the point of playing Mozart as you pee?

Every page made me feel uneducated—and not in a bad way.  I am very well educated, but this book, by nature of the self-proclaimed, autodidactic protagonists is a scream for more.  I know nothing!  I need to know more!  It was a fabulous challenge rather than a trauma.

The plot, that of two quietly brilliant women (Renée and Paloma) hiding their true intellectual selves, brought together by a new tenant (Kakuro Ozu) in the building, is wonderful.  Their stories alone would make an excellent book.  Factoring in the format, that of dueling personal essays, takes it to truly excellent.  Much like James Joyce’s Ulysses, wherein the format is half the story, The Elegance of The Hedgehog is so damned clever it appeals across the board.

I hesitate to mention that I have not even finished … I don’t know what I will do without it.  I took it from the Library but will go buy it to peruse again at will …

Take a minute, or a month to appreciate this book for all of its worth.  It won’t let you down.

* A father of a friend made reference to what I had previously failed to realized is a central thematic reference to the novel.  Why am I always the last to realize I lecture sans platform?  Don’t tell my kids….

Why I Read

Be warned, dear readers, you’re in for a surprise this week when you click to read Jen’s book review.  OK, we’ll spill the beans – there is no book!  Yes, this week Jen analyzes why, in her opinion, she is the most voracious reader that we’ve ever had the pleasure to meet … and of course, it makes fascinating reading.

I thought this week might be a good time to monopolize your attentions with a lecture.  The teacher in me just can not resist the rapt attention of a room full of vacuous, drooling students.  Oh, no offense.  I refer to other students I have had.  You all are a lovely, quick, intellectually-emboldened bunch.  Cute too.Anyhow, I am not yet finished with the book I am currently reading, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary.  It is really good and rather than rush through it (too many big words to do that anyhow), I thought about why I like reading so much.
Many obvious reasons leap to mind.  The stories are usually compelling.  I want to know what happens to whom and why … and what shoes they have on.  I like figuring out who dunnit.  Did Holmes really get pushed off Reichenbach Falls?  I like visualizing the colors and styles of settings.  A feast of lobsters on the shores of Maine with a bottle of whisky.This leads to an escapism, which is another very persuasive reason to read.  A book takes you to a different place.  A world unlike your own where only you are going.  Sometimes it is familiar, sometimes not, but it rarely matters.
It is fun though, if one’s real life is less than exotic.  No time-travel, no murder, no espionage, very little actual French cooking. But of course, no tropical paradise in Jimmy Choo sandals can out do the sheer pleasure of emptying the dishwasher again before 8 a.m., but we have to try.And the idea of murder is always appealing early in the morning.  One child on the 7 a.m. bus, two more on the 8:20.  I do laundry, breakfast, kitchen, school snacks and shower for work while my husband is leisurely picking out his tie and watching Matt Lauer.  People have been killed for less, but I digress.*

Reading can take you out of your physical situation but more importantly out of your mental situation.  Many places you could not find yourself emotionally are within reach.  What would you feel like if your parents died ? (awful – I speak from sad experience).Or what if you were transmogrified and attacked by crazed villagers (also awful ).  What if you were born old and aged backwards?  How about being a woman in the 40s?  Or married to that icky Frank Lloyd Wright?  Or fighting for your life below the streets of London?  What would it feel like to be the Prince of Wales and fight for your life with crazed bikers in a marsh in New Jersey?Isn’t it marvelous that we have the means to answer these queries at our fingertips?

The more I can read, the more I can learn.  The more I can learn about other people and other places, the better chance I have of formulating a coherent grip on my immediate life.  The more I know about myself, the more use I can be to others.
As Elizabeth Gilbert points out in Eat,Pray,Love … she can not change everyone but if she starts with herself, she can make a very positive impact on others.  In whatever free time I have, I choose to read to make myself a better person.  So far so good , I think**
* In all fairness he then leaves and works a much longer day than I do.  I manage to fit in a fair amount of thumb-twiddling, but I have to maintain my nasty attitude for appearance’s sake.
** Reminds me of a joke … Descartes is on a plane and the stewardess offers coffee or tea.  Descartes replies,’I think not,” and promptly disappears.

‘The Story Sisters’ by Alice Hoffman

Shouldn’t we all be enjoying these last, lazy hazy days of summer before school starts next week by kicking off our shoes, relaxing and doing nothing much of anything? Not our Jen. She stayed up all night reading this week’s book pick – that’s how compelling she found “The Story Sisters” by Alice Hoffman.

Alice Hoffman is one of my most-beloved authors.  She is consistently good.  Often, great.  “The Story Sisters” is a case in point.  I stayed up all night reading it.  Even exhausted, I couldn’t stop.

Three sisters are growing up on Long Island.  They live with their divorced Mother and each face horrible challenges.  In the face of traumas they grow closer and farther apart.  Each has a proverbial cross to bear and we are enraptured and horrified.

The eldest, Elv, keeps a terrible terrible secret that almost destroys her.  The youngest, Claire, shares it with her and it links them in very destructive ways.  The middle sister, Meg, tries to extricate herself from a situation she doesn’t understand.  The mother, Annie, is sadly excluded from a situation she could support.  The girls turn inward when they should seek help and it almost kills them.

Each sister is remarkable and heartbreaking without losing our admiration.  How could we turn away from such gravitas?  Such extraordinary circumstance can be a seed for growth or destruction.

Alice Hoffman takes us into an almost magical world that the sisters create to survive.

As they grow and things fall apart, there are several characters who can save them and we hope and pray they can.  We stretch our hearts to seek the light they crave.  In New York and in Paris there are opportunities for redemption that they must recognize or die trying.

Like all of her books, the world is just withen our reach and we enter without a second thought.  “The Story Sisters” could be a disturbing book of pain and loss, but Alice Hoffman ‘s gift is hope.  There is an undercurrent of strength and love that we expect to prevail.  Like, “Neverwhere” ( Neil Gaiman), “The Story Sisters” tells a story of great heartache resulting in great release.

Books offer us the gift of living vicariously through others and learning their lessons.  “The Story Sisters” is a momentous immolation.

“Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

Published 08/14/09

While the cat’s away, Jen will play.  But Jen is a good girl, and seeing as our editor has been in London, England, for a while, Jen dutifully read a book about London in her absence.  However, “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman is not about the London tourists see … well, actually, it is in part, but it is the “London Below” that is gripping.

Whilst our fearless editor was gallivanting around London and we were all home pining for her, I thought a book about the timeless city would be appropriate.

“Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman is really neat.  (Hey, I could have said NEAT-O, so leave it alone).  I really enjoy the inner machinations of Neil Gaiman’s brain.  He has written some really interestingly strange books.  “Coraline”, which was just made into a Tim Burton film, and “Stardust” to name two.
He has a definite dark side that takes us far far away from real life and almost, but not entirely, brings us home again.

“Neverwhere” is the story of two Londons.  One up above with which we are all familiar and then the London Below with which we are not.

Richard Mayhew plods along in his routine ‘London Above’ life.  He has a fiancée, a job, an apartment.  He expects, and indeed hopes for, more of the same.

Guess what?  I know you know.  He not only does not get it, but seemingly no longer wants it.

He meets a girl named Door who lives in ‘London Below’.  Door is from a very dangerous, very exhilaratingly different London.  Richard is sucked in and can not extricate himself.  He meets the wildest characters.  An infamously selfish hunter, two outrageously creepy henchmen, an Angel and loads of rats.
Richard finds himself fully engaged in a new way.  He is terribly afraid he will not get his old life back.  He is terribly afraid he is in mortal danger.  In this, he finds himself more alive than ever.  What part of his other life is as deeply fulfilling as constant fear and his mastery over it?  Complacency is rarely the path to true happiness.  Great trials reap great rewards.  It works this way in our world too, people, so pay attention …
Gaiman’s talent for presenting the outlandish is well restrained.  It seems quite feasible that this world should exist.  These people could quite possibly be in our peripheral world.  At the end of a lovely summer, it is always nice to have one last little vacation … especially if it is in your own head.

“Pushing Up Daisies” by Rosemary Harris

Published 08/02/09

It’s summertime – it is honestly, despite the weather, and our ever optimistic Jen has a wonderful book suggestion this week for those lazy, hazy days we’re spending on our beach towels … or rather (hopefully) about to spend. It’s the garden-themed mystery, “Pushing up Daisies” by Rosemary Harris 

Just back from a marvelous vacation where I read not a word!  Horrors.  But I did carry this book around with me just in case.

It really is fun, even lonely and covered in sand, it made me happy.  Now that I have had a moment, I will say it is a great fun summer read.  I finished Harris’ second book, “The Big Dirt Nap,” and had to go find this one.

They are part of a new mystery series about Paula Holliday, an ex-TV exec, who now owns a gardening business.  A Dirty Business.
She is great fun to tag along with, as are the other characters.  Set in the fictional Springfield, Conn., ( I am guessing Stamford or Cos Cob), she keeps stumbling upon mysteries that only she can figure out.
There are local police, friends, a groovy diner owner and some love interests, but Paula is the main dish … and she’s great.  The plots are clever enough to whisk you along and while it certainly is not Kafka – who cares?  Do we need to metamorphasize on our beach towels?  I think not.
I look forward to more.  Like Janet Evanovich, Sarah Graves, Nancy Atherton et al, Rosemary Harris is a treat.

“Midsummer” by Marcelle Clements

This weekend it is the Midsummer Festival in Old Lyme. So why not prepare for the splendid event by reading “Midsummer” by Marcelle Clements. It might not be quite as upbeat as the festival but, as our resplendent reviewer Jen Mann concludes, it is nevertheless, “a beautiful book.”

This is a beautiful book.  Rather depressing, but still beautiful.

A group of friends rent a lovely old house in the Hudson River Valley for the summer.  They are all a bit lost in their lives and hope that the joys of summer will revitalize them.  We do too.  They all seem to be nice people who could use a break.  What we get are some magical descriptions of summer and some insight into the troubled mind.

Happiness should not be as elusive as it seems to be for them.  Maybe they are drinking too much to find it.  Cocktail hour seems a bit pervasive.  Anyhow, in the midst of their dreams and introspection there are some jewels to be found from the writing prowess of Ms. Clements.

Kay starts to open up, but decides that magical thinking is not possible (I disagree), “Everything considered magical exasperated her.  It was interesting, but only as a curiosity.”

There is happiness to be had but they don’t quite know how to approach, much less hold onto, it … “The beauty (was) a kind of pain”.

It took them , “years to get rid of excessive idealism.”  What they unconsciously want is to get it back.  “The visions of the Hudson at dusk, the rose garden, the crickets in the lawn, are all vehicles to find their way back, but they can’t.”

Each of the six main characters wants, needs, to feel love and joy again, but they have lost the ability to hold on to it.  It is right in front of all of them.  We see it, but they let it waft away and it is too sad.

If the reader can hold on to it.  If the reader can see it and not let go the way the characters do, then the book is worth the read.  Please, you think, never let it slip away completely because all you’d have left is an empty shell and it breaks your heart to see them live that way.

“Plum Spooky” by Janet Evanovich

As all her loyal readers know, Jen Mann is never late with her reviews so where, you ask, is it? Well, it did a disappearing trick and decided to explore the world of cyberspace, which segues beautifully into her book choice for this week, “Plum Spooky” by Janet Evanovich, a story about, in Jen’s words, “Who stole this and kidnapped whom and shot who with what?”

Stephanie Plum is not an Existentialist.  She does not give much thought to the world at large and her place in it.  If she accepts fate, it is with regard to the inevitability of dinner at her family’s house.

She is more of a bull-by-the horns type of gal.  She jumps right in to situations and we love her for it.

The passion and rioutous adventures that plague her life are a joy for us all.  She would definitely be more of an objectivist.  If birthday cake will make her happy, she will eat it.

I know I shouldn’t review these.  They are candy on paper.  I have read and really loved reading them all, so, actually, why the heck not?  Why drama and not monkeys?Stephanie Plum is a Trenton-bred bounty hunter who loves birthday cake and attracts trouble.There are 14 books in the series and then four aside-type books that fit in between.
I laugh, really laugh, when I read any one of them.  Like Carl Hiassen, with whom I am equally enraptured, Evanovich paints these unbelievably hilariously off the cuff pictures. Plum Lucky has monkeys and hookers and the Easter Bunny.  Stephanie steals cars, brings fire-farters home to dinner and gets her man every time.Well, more than one man but that’s a long story.
One monkey, Carl, profers very rude gestures and plays a game-boy.  Her almost brother-in-law gets shot in the derrière with a nail gun , her best friend Lula runs amok in the woods encased in poison green spandex and stilettos.  Stephanie is in love with not one, but two, maybe three, different men.  Her family is manic, her bail-runners are nuts and her hamster, Rex is adorable.  Nothing is quiet in New Jersey .
The talent that manifests itself well is Evanovich’s skill at keeping the mayhem in check.  It is not ludicrous (well, alright,it is, a bit…)  There is still a modicum of normalcy.  Stephanie’s parents sit down to dinner at the same time every night.  Her Mom does her laundry.  Stephanie is a good girl and really tries to eat things other than cake.  Her boyfriends have steady employment.  There is a vein of happy complacency in there somewhere.
The plots are all thriller-type mysteries.  Who stole this and kidnapped whom and shot who with what?  Stephanie gets in trouble but always gets out.  She loves two (maybe three) men and vascillates between them, but not in a sleazy way.  I can promise you a laugh-out-loud reaction to almost any of these books.Who doesn’t love an indecorous monkey, sasquatch and take-out pizza?

“Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious,Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I learned When I Read Every Single Word of The Bible” by David Plotz

Just when we thought we were beginning to understand the sorts of book Jen likes, she throws a curve ball with,”Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious,Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I learned When I Read Every Single Word of The Bible” by David Plotz.  Forgive us, but it seemed appropriate to leave publication of her thoughts about reading a book about reading The Bible until Sunday

I regard this as a slightly inane Cliff Notes for the Bible.  It was everything he found it to be and his book follows suit.  It is very interesting, slightly irreverent, and clever.

What I remember most about my Sunday School adventures is the oatmeal cookies (and the fact that Madison Avenue Presbyterian had both a pool and bowling lanes in the basements.)  I then studied eastern religions in College, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

That about sums it up.

I, like David Plotz, have not read the whole Bible.  Nor do I really want to, so this book looked perfect.

He reads the whole thing.  The whole enchilada.  What he finds is startling in its violence and horrors.  He finds a very cruel, vindictive God.  We are both surprised.

The God of the Old Testament is not too approachable.  Rape, incest, murder abounds.  Parents killing children.  Children killing parents.  Yikes.

He takes you book by book through the Bible.  Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus etc …
He calls Deuteronomy the,” Moses farewell tour.”  He mentions Leviticus, “in the same hushed tones that … Hollywood exectutives whisper ISHTAR.”
Luckily he has a wonderfully outrageous sense of humor, which makes the content palatable.  Otherwise it would be frightening.

My God, and his, is a very different sort.  In amongst the evils, are the stories we know and the parables worth learning.

All humor aside he tells us to read the Bible for ourselves.  He says he felt like he was understanding his world for the first time.  He was humbled.  It is perfectly acceptable to debate religious interpretation and challenge the beliefs of others, but only if you know all the facts.  One can not presume to judge without full disclosure.
Keep an open mind, remember the importance of The Bible as a stepping stone and don’t lose heart.

It is worth the read.

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Jen has this habit of selecting “Must Read” books and without hesitation, we join her this week in heartily recommending, “The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls. In terms of a real-life story of beating incedible odds told without a trace of self-pity, it is, to quote Jen, “an example to us all.”

If I ever meet the parents of Jeannette Walls, I am going to have a chat with them … in this world or the next.  Big time.

Boy, did they tick me off.

Jeannette was raised, with her three siblings, by very interesting, but very selfish people.

She is too nice to hold this against them, but I am not.  Maybe because I have three young children at home, I am easily dismayed by a parents inability to take care of their offspring.

Before I go on, I’ll back up.

Jeannette is a very successful woman.  She is able to look back at her life without rash judgement.  She tells us the true story of her upbringing in various impoverished situations by two people.

Her Mother is a crazy free spirit who believed that her own happiness came before that of her four children. The world owed her. Her children owed her. She was a victim and believed she had no ability to step up and help herself or her family.

Jeannette’s father was a hard-scramble, creative alcoholic, who tried, but failed, to put his children’s needs before his own. At least he tries. He is also supremely screwed-up (I believe this is the scientific term) and fails his family and himself.

Into this fray come four children who are never adequately fed or clothed or sheltered. Homeless is a state of mind the parents embraced. No ties. No responsibility. This was the goal and it was a roaring success. Unless you were a small defenseless child who wanted comfort and security. Gee, who’d want so much?

Jeannette chooses, amazingly admirably, to focus on the positive aspects. There were some remarkably tender moments. One Christmas there are no gifts so her Father takes each child out to look at the night sky. He tells them to pick a star which he then gives to them.

They certainly learned resiliency. They learned how to pick up and keep at it when faced with terrible odds. There was no where to go but up and most of the kids stood up and faced the danger head on. They worked hard. Harder than their parents. They worked and worked and escaped and made solid safe lives for themselves.

I admire the lack of self-pity. When offered nothing they went and got it for themselves. They were not coddled. They were loved but not protected. They all made it on their own terms and if we don’t take our hats off to them we are crazy. “The Glass Castle” represented a dream that Jeannette went out and made for herself.

It should be an example to us all.

Why Sometimes I Don’t Read

Our Jen was—along with (in our unscientific opinion) approximately half the population of the Lymes—sick last week.  We’re so glad to learn that she’s now recovered and here she is back again for your delight with the revealing (and riveting) antithesis to her earlier column on why she reads.

Here is the companion piece to the ever-popular,” Why I Read.”  It is fair to say that many, many people ask me how I have the time and mental where-with-all to read two books a week and review them for your entertainment.  I say I don’t know.  It just fits in somehow.  Like extra piles into the washer.  It’s a mystery, but it works.

Until it doesn’t.  Sometimes, even your fearless book reviewer just can not bring herself to pick one up.  Sometimes she reads some she hates and doesn’t want to review them (sparing you loads of whining.)  Sometimes she lies in the tub and reads Danielle Steele and is embarrassed to review them.  When all these happenings converge you get a perfect vacuum of book reviews.  I know this is momentously hard to overcome for many of you and I apologize for selfishly sapping your will to live but it can not be helped.

To bring some small bit of happiness to you I will tell you the whole unadulterated truth.  I read Margaret Atwood’s newest book, “The Year of The Flood” and disliked it.  It was as depressing as “Oryx and Crake” and it sapped my will to live.  Then I read “House” by Danielle Steele.  That was OK.  Then I read “Kaleidoscope.”  That was too much Danielle Steele for me.  Back-to-back unreality, happy ending and endless cash is too depressing.

Then I started “Crow Planet,” which will be good but made feel bad about the planet going to hell in a hand-basket because I won’t drive a Prius.  So I read “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves,” the original, written and mesmerizingly illustrated by Wanda Ga’g in the 30s.  I also did many crossword puzzles from New York Magazine and read People. And Clifford’s Halloween.”

I felt much better so I picked up “Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time; My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals” by Richard Coniff.  I am only on chapter three and I love it.  He is clever, humorous and brave.  I will review this next week when I finish.

I have today off so I am going to read a new as yet unpublished book that the author handed me yesterday.  I can’t tell you who or what, but stick around … I will.

I thought it only fair to divulge all, so there you have it.