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I’ve really enjoyed other books by Nick Hornby, and a patron recommended Funny Girl when he was returning it last week so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s set mainly in the 1960’s, although the end is in present times. It’s about a young woman, Barbara Parker, from Blackpool, who wants to be the next Lucille Ball. Barbara wants this so badly she is willing to leave her dad and her auntie Marie in Blackpool and go to London where she knows no one.

Hornby is respectful of Barbara’s ambition — in fact, one thing I really like about his books is that Hornby is respectful of all of his characters. Even the nakedly ambitious or the slightly mean-spirited or the completely irritating ones.  He has a a generosity of spirit towards all of them that is really endearing.

Back to Barbara, or Sophie as she is known in London. She is smart and funny and unvarnished and when she auditions for a comedy show on the BBC the writers, Tony and Bill, and the producer, Dennis, realize she’s brilliant and hatch plans for a series. But Funny Girl isn’t just about a happy young successful team and their smash hit show. Tony and Bill are gay, although Tony’s not sure if he is also attracted to women, especially after he marries one and is happy. Hornby writes about how dangerous it is to be gay in London in the 1960’s. And how society is changing swiftly but there are still people who use the word “courting” and are openly prejudiced. And how in the tumult of these changes, people mostly want what they always have.

In other words, in the framework of this funny novel about the birth of a modern sitcom in 1960’s London, Hornby talks about the ever changing, ever the same human condition. We struggle with our ambitions and hopes, and struggle to reconcile them with the ambitions and hopes of our family and friends. We hurt each other inadvertently or purposefully, we apologize and make amends or lurch off to do it again. We try to learn and be better people and be worthy of those who love us.

Hornby also notices that people have always thought the young were careless or unserious. In one scene Tony is trying to write a new show with Sophie’s friend Diane about a young woman making her way in London, and he asks ” What’s her problem?” Diane doesn’t understand his point, and he goes on to patiently explain that’s how scripts work — the characters have a problem that they work out. Diane, who is herself a young woman making her way in London, says “Yeah, but they’re all so depressing, those programs . . . . None of my friends want to watch them.” They go back and forth a bit and she tells him that only her parents and grandparents watch that kind of thing, and Tony’s appalled. It reminded me of modern conversations about which generations prefer which social media or online content.

Look for Funny Girl  if you’d like a historical novel of manners full of astute observations of human nature that has as much to say about our own world as the one it’s set in.

I really enjoyed Monica Wood‘s book Ernie’s Ark a few years ago and wrote here on bookconscious that I liked it much better than Olive Kitteridge. Today I reviewed her new book for the library’s “book of the week” feature in a local weekly paper.

The One-In-a-Million Boy is the story of the unlikely friendship of Ona Vitkus, a 104 year old Maine woman, and an 11 year old Boy Scout who comes to do chores for her on Saturdays. When “the boy,” as readers come to know him, dies suddenly, his father, Quinn, fulfills his son’s agreement by continuing to visit Ona for seven more Saturdays. As Quinn gets to know Ona he learns that she and “the boy” had become friends, and that he had convinced her to pursue some Guinness World Records.

Quinn mourns and tries to comfort Belle, his ex-wife, as they both get over the shock of losing their son. And without trying to, he too befriends Ona, and begins to see his son’s quirks through her admiring eyes. “The boy” appears in Ona’s and Quinn’s memories, lists he made in his journal, and the transcript of his interviews with Ona for a school project. The book examines the secrets each character keeps, the little things people hang onto through hard times, and the impact simple kindness makes on the lives of others. Wood’s characters are sympathetic without being sappy. Quinn, haunted by his own mother’s death and his failings as a father, is particularly well drawn. If you like your fiction heartfelt but not tear-jerking and peopled with misfits, you’ll enjoy The One-In-a-Million Boy.

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post; I have two reviews due for Kirkus tomorrow and both books arrived late last week, so I’ve been busy with those. Before that I was busy with the book I’m going to tell you about today — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr. I chose this book for my “published the year you were born” title for Book Bingo; that said, I believe this book was written the year I was born and published a year later. This book is both uplifting and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing because I didn’t realize how little I understood the time it was written and because it was a disturbing time. The nonviolence of the movement MLK had founded was called into question when justice did not appear to be coming after federal legislation. Victories won on the national level did not mean equality in many communities. And the Black Power movement was not only questioning nonviolence, they were countering it. MLK writes of being booed by young black people in Chicago. I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea? Probably because white people wrote my history textbooks — and honestly, we never made it through the Civil Rights era in high school history class anyway. I guess I grew up thinking the civil rights movement was a success and that was all I needed to know. Of course I’ve since realized that is a trite and incomplete view of things.

Where Do We Go From Here is a moving book, as MLK passionately defends nonviolence as a tactic and gives eloquent and clear voice to where America — black and white — should go, together. The wisdom packed into this volume is almost overwhelming. King writes that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And then he lays out, point by depressing point, all the ways American society is not governed by this kind of power, nor ruled by this kind of justice. That racism is so deeply ingrained as to be invisible, often leaving white liberals unaware of their deep-seated prejudices. Look around and you’ll see why it’s depressing — the same could be said of American society today.

King also wrote that poverty and militarism must be vanquished for all people, black and white, to ever come together and make a better world. That we are all linked, black lives to white lives, American lives to foreign lives. That we have to take care of the other in order to preserve ourselves.

I admit, I could not finish this book. The horror of realizing that a leader who saw what needed to be done to complete the work he’d started, saw that without economic justice there would be no racial justice and no peace in the world, was permanently silenced by just that kind of injustice and violence was more than I could stomach in the present climate.

But I know this: the thing that keeps me going is the belief that love eventually prevails, in the face of everything that stands against it. King knew it and refused to give up. It has to happen, as he writes, “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact.” One person at a time, that’s what we’re here to do.

I’ve been struggling with coming to terms with a difficult person I have to interact with regularly. As an experiment in cultivating compassion, throughout Holy Week I prayed silently for that person by name and also prayed for understanding on my own part of his situation; what could cause this anger and bitterness and malice, and how could I respond? Could I turn my heart of stone (fear, resentment, anger, irritation, suspicion) into a heart of flesh? No matter what you think of prayer or God, know that this mindful, intentional shift in perspective worked. By the end of the week I was able to not grit my teeth when I faced him, to reflect with compassion on his misery rather than react resentfully.

That’s love correcting everything that stands against love. That’s justice. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete – it’s an action, correcting. It’s not done yet, and may not be in my lifetime. But things will get better, and if we look hard enough, and reflect carefully enough, they will have begun without us.

 

At a holiday party, one of our guests asked people to name their 6 favorite books ever, and my eighteen year old included I’m a Stranger Here Myself. So as you begin to read this please know I am predisposed to think highly of Bill Bryson and whatever he writes, even though I tried hard when I was events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore to book him for an author event and couldn’t get an answer, let alone a booking.

I was actually a little afraid to pick up his newest book, which revisits some of the sites Bryson wrote about in Notes From a Small Island. That’s another favorite around our house, and sequels, which The Road to Dribbling sort of is, rarely hold up in my experience to the original. But this book is classic Bryson — that perfect mixture of laser-like cultural critique laced with laugh-out-loud wit, gentle self-deprecating humor, slightly squirm-inducing naughtiness (suggesting young litterers should be killed, for example), and an autodidact’s erudite appreciation for wherever he’s visiting, clearly explained so the reader is infected with Bryson’s own curiosity and admiration. Plus, he is openly admiring of so much.

I’ve heard people grumble that Bryson just gripes a lot (or bitches, as he’d call it) and profits off the unfortunate fools he lampoons in his writing. But I’ve always felt Bryson is generously affectionate where its due. Being unfailingly willing to call bullshit when he sees it, and to expose assholes or idiots, is a longstanding literary tradition, and more recently, keeps millions of people in America actively engaged with current events via programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. Without this potent mix of fearless, intelligent commentary and sometimes inappropriate but always spirit-lifting humor, surely we’d all have lost our minds by now.

So if you like books that make you snort with laughter into your pillow as you vainly attempt not to awaken your spouse,* this book is for you. If you like books that will teach you something you had no idea you were missing (I’d never heard of Oliver Heaviside, or Motopia, or the species Homo Antecessor, or a good many other things), this book is for you. If you like books that fill you with a sense of warm recognition of our common humanity, our common intolerance for officially sanctioned idiocy, and our common appreciation for kind-heartedness and generosity of spirit, this book is for you. And for the record, I no longer book events at Gibson’s so I am not just sucking up. But Mr. Bryson, if you read this, the events coordinator who succeeded me is named Elisabeth, the store owner is Michael, and they’d be delighted to have you.

*I met Bill Bryson at a book signing in Seattle in 1999 or 2000, when he was touring for In A Sunburned Country. When he signed my copy of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I told him I’d brought my whole family to the reading because the children wanted to see this man who caused their mother to laugh so much that she shook their father awake when she read at night. My son was about 8 at the time and was supremely impressed that Bryson read a passage of his book which included the word “fuck.” He thought Bryson was brilliant then, and he still does.

 

For my book bingo square “a book on display in the library” I picked up All Together Now. I haven’t read Gill Hornby’s debut, The Hive, but I ordered both of these novels for the library based on their reviews. Now that I’ve looked up an interview with her, I’m a fan — anyone who says “I’d like to actually be Jane Austen” is my hero(ine). Also she is brave enough to write a novel when she is married to Robert Harris and her brother is Nick Hornby AND — and this is the most inspirational part — she didn’t publish until she was in her 50’s. I’d like to be her. I’d like to think I’m on my way. I’m not yet 50, but my kids are not needing me as much these days and as you all know, I was fired from my newspaper column last year.

Also, I really like books which are set somewhere totally different than where I live that remind me of what my grandmother always said: people are the same everywhere. Gill Hornby does that — her people are my people, even though I’ve never met anyone exactly like them. She has an excellent sense of the frustrations and small joys of everyday life.

In All Together Now the community choir in Bridgeford, a small town whose civic pride in in decline, and whose High Street shops are threatened by a proposed superstore on the edge of town. Through a cast of characters who sing in the choir, Hornby tells the story of the town trying to get back its vibrancy and the choir carrying on after their director is seriously injured in an accident. 

There’s Bennett, former choir schoolboy, who has also recently found himself formerly employed and formerly married. And Annie, the empty-nester librarian who feels something’s missing in her life. And Tracey, single mom with a secret. Jazzy, who has problems at home but fancies herself the next Adele. And many others, from various walks of life and backgrounds, who come together for various reasons to sing.

Without getting sappy or treacly, Hornby pulls all these lives together with the superstore drama and tells the mostly happy story of people finding themselves joined in a common purpose. Each of them also manages to learn something about their own happiness as well. It’s nice to see middle-aged characters whose midlife epiphanies are both ordinary and transforming – like many people, they are each trying to find their way in a changing world when it feels like just yesterday, they were the ones ready to change it. A charming, uplifting book. And you’ll want to play all the songs. 

Nils Uddenberg is “a retired professor of medical psychology,” and when he was in his early 70’s, a cat made itself welcome in his garden shed. This little book is the story of how Uddenberg and his wife “have ‘come down with cat.'” Kitty, as they name her, is “a small, gray-brown speckled cat” with “large, yellow eyes.” Despite not wanting a pet, least of all a cat, Uddenberg notes, “With her determined approaches the cat had shown a measure of faith in us, which I found it difficult to be unmoved by.”

Sprinkled with natural history, psychology, literary cat references (T.S. Eliot, Doris Lessing, Jean Cocteau), tidbits about Sweden and Uddenberg’s interests (including travel to Africa and classical music), and illustrated with beautiful, whimsical drawing by Ana Gustavsson, The Old Man and the Cat: A Love Story is a lovely way to spend a couple of evenings. Like life with a cat, it’s cozy, warm, pleasant, entertaining, and edifying. Uddenberg’s clear admiration for the little creature is endearing, as is his honesty about his own reluctance to have a cat at first, the disruptions to his routine and even his need to adapt in some ways to life with Kitty. For example, he admits finding her hunting disruptive and even a little repugnant, but he understands it’s in Kitty’s nature; he and his wife stop filling birdfeeders so that Kitty will hunt mice rather than songbirds.

Uddenberg is a keen observer of animal and human nature and he writes eloquently about what it means to have a cat in his life. “Kitty has become a part of of our lives, and vice versa. Not because we understand one another, but because we quite enjoy our time together. . . . For me, it has become a philosophical challenge to try to understand at least a little about her world.” Readers are the fortunate recipients of this challenge.

 

 

I read this book on the recommendation of a friend and because it fulfilled the “book with a non-human character” square on my book bingo card. Here’s the review I wrote for the library:

Have you ever listened to squirrels chattering and felt it sounded almost like words? Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is pretty sure she understands them. Her fiancée, Paul Vreeland, wants to trap the squirrels in her attic. The Portable Veblen is the story of Paul and Veblen. He’s a doctor whose invention, the Pneumatic Skull Punch, could prevent the damage that occurs from swelling after a traumatic brain injury. He’s been courted by a mega-pharmaceutical company and is about to oversee a trial at a VA hospital. Veblen is a volunteer translator with the Norwegian Diaspora Project. She loves the work of the economist she’s named for (as you may know, he invented the phrase “conspicuous consumption”) and lives in a simple cottage that was so ramshackle it was uninhabitable when she found it. He wants a house and a boat.

They have in common dysfunctional childhoods – he’s the son of hippies whose guilt over their disabled older child prevented them from really being present for Paul, she’s the daughter of an institutionalized Vietnam vet and a severe hypochondriac. Growing up, he took solace in science, she in words: “When you entered the cavern of another language, you could leave certain people behind, for they had no interest in following you in.” Can Paul and Veblen survive their engagement? Will things implode when their families meet? What is the squirrel saying? A quirky love story, for fans of The Silver Linings Playbook. As a bonus, readers get a crash course in Thorstein Veblen.

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