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Archive for March, 2016

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.

 

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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. 

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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.

 

 

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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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