Archive for April, 2014

Some of you may already know Tom Holt‘s work, but it was new to me when I picked up Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Sausages from a pile of books I’d just checked in at the circulation desk in my library. I order fiction, so I like to see what patrons are reading, and this book looked well loved.

The cover calls it a “comedy of transdimensional tomfoolery,” and Holt’s work reminded me of the great Douglas Adams. He’s witty in that sharp English way. This book features a successful businessman, Mr. Huos, whose riches rely on a strange ring, which is part of his even stranger origin story. A pair of sisters who are lawyers with brothers who are musicians and a “weirdness expert” named Mr. Gogerty, along with a flock of clever chickens and some intelligent pigs, all help solve the madcap multidimenional mysteries in the novel. How does Huos build so many housing tracts in bucolic Norton St. Edgar? Who is drinking Polly Mayer’s coffee? Where has the dry cleaners on Clevedon Road gone? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Polly’s stream of thought towards the end of the book: “She couldn’t be scared, because something like this couldn’t have happened. Fear needs belief. This was just silly, and silliness only made her irritable.”  Holt’s work hits the sweet spot of piquing the reader’s curiosity without being either scary or dumbed down. He’s entertaining in a way that makes readers think, which I enjoy very much.

If you like offbeat humor, urban fantasy, a puzzling mystery, or all things English, you’ll enjoy Tom Holt. He’s written a slew of books, so I look forward to trying more of them.


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My column ran today — it’s not online yet, and the print version cut off the last sentence and part of the 2nd to last, so I’ve pasted it here instead.  Enjoy!

In The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, Alfie Kohn uses some of his previous theories on the problem with rewards, homework, and competition to debunk the prevailing view that “kids today” are over-indulged, over-protected narcissists , and that their helicopter parents made them that way. Given his earlier research, Kohn wondered what evidence supported such anecdotes?

He notes that many of the criticisms are contradictory: recent articles in such respected publications as Atlantic and The New Yorker note children are pushed to compete from a young age for elite accomplishments and are also shielded from competition by “everyone gets a trophy” policies. Similarly, parents are accused of being both too involved in their kids’ lives and too oblivious to anything but their smartphones. In an attempt to untangle these inconsistent allegations, Kohn searched for data to support criticisms of modern parenting and found none. Instead he contends that the often repeated concerns are driven by  “a traditionalist viewpoint” about children’s place in society, opinions presented as fact. And that logical fallacies and a lack of statistical evidence flaw many widely reported generational  issues.

Kohn proceeds to analyze each of the most common complaints about kids and parenting. His conclusion? “The real alternative to narcissistic self-absorption is not mindless obedience but reflective rebelliousness,” and “intellectual progress (that) demands we refuse to take things at face value or accept everything we’ve been told.”  In other words, the best thing we can do for our kids, and ourselves, is teach them to question what they hear and read, starting with reports about their own alleged self-importance and the mistakes their parents are making. A provocative, important read.

Eve O. Schaub lives in an area of Vermont where specialized eating habits, like locavorism, aren’t uncommon. But in her book Year of No Sugar she relates how people react to her family’s effort to stop eating foods with added sugar, “. . . it’s not just with waitstaff and counter people but friends, relatives, acquaintances; I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. . . .” Although most people are tactful, their dismay is clear. Inspired by Dr. Robert Lustig’s obesity research and David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison, Schaub embarked on a year of no sugar, (with certain exceptions, like monthly family desserts) and her husband and kids joined her. Her memoir, inspired by the blog of the same name, tells the story of what she learned and how they managed when much of the food we purchase, even organic and natural versions, includes some kind of sugar. I found the book interesting and the facts about sugar’s impact on our health and well-being  compelling, albeit somewhat limited – Schaub cites few sources beyond Gillespie and Lustig. The book’s excessive use of italics for emphasis, perhaps intended to convey a conversational tone, is visually disruptive. But Schaub writes with passion and personality and I hope her experience inspires others to learn more about the ubiquitous sweeteners we consume.

Holly Robinson’s Beach Plum Island is a family novel with plenty of emotional punch. Sisters Ava and Elaine have very different reactions to their father’s death. Resentful of his much younger second wife Katy and disdainful of their half-sister Gigi, Elaine appears to be a polished professional  and volunteers for a suicide hotline, but escapes on the weekends into binge drinking and hookups. Ava, a potter and teacher with teen sons, reaches out to Gigi. Together they decide to pursue mysterious clues their father gave in his last days about a brother they never knew existed. Robinson weaves each sister’s story into a tale of grief and love that explores the ways women adapt to expectations, the consequences when those become too much to bear, and the healing power of love.  Along the way, she includes details that bring every scene to life – like this description of the sisters’ Great Aunt Finley’s living room, furnished with  “. . .a plaid recliner with cat-scratched fabric  . . .a sagging brown tweed couch and a coffee table with so many water rings on its surface, it looked like a deliberate helix design. There was a wooden lamp, its base carved like an owl, and magazines were stacked all over the floor and on top of every horizontal surface.”  Vivid details like this, as well as the particulars of Ava’s art, Elaine’s work, and Gigi’s horseback riding and fully fleshed out secondary characters, bring Beach Plum Island into deep focus as the story unfolds. An uplifting but not overly bow-tied ending makes for satisfying reading.

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For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for letters. I love sending and receiving them, and I love reading them — not only family letters, but also collections of letters from historical figures and fictional letters in epistolary novels like Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s a love story about a poet, Elspeth, who lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and receives a fan letter from an Illinois college student, David, in 1912. They begin a faithful correspondence and through their letters, fall in love. When David volunteers for ambulance service (before America formally enters WWI), they finally meet.

Naturally it’s a star-crossed love — Elspeth is married, for one thing, and she has never left Skye because she’s terrified of being in a boat. Other plot twists I won’t reveal conspire to separate the lovers. The book alternates between their letters and those of Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and her fiancee Paul, a pilot in WWII. Margaret discovers her mother’s wartime romance when a bomb reveals the letters, hidden away in their Edinburgh home for years. Elspeth’s reaction to the bombing is to go to London. In the face of this unexpected behavior, Margaret decides to learn about her mother’s life before she was born.

As Margaret reconnects with Elspeth’s family in Skye and discovers a side of her mother she has never known, Elspeth writes letter after letter trying to track down what happened to David. By the end of the book the mystery is solved, once again entirely through letters.

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the ending was a bit tidy for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed the physical look of the letters on the page more than I did the e-book, which I downloaded from my library. But if you like epistolary or historical novels and/or Scotland, you will probably find Letters from Skye appealing.


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