A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Creative non-fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Coverage: ?? My enjoyment: 2/5

Bryson’s second book. This is the story of his hike on the Appalachian Trail.

This was my first and very probably last Bryson book. I love humor and had heard his books were hysterically funny. However, I found his humor to be quite mean spirited. Whether he was gratuitously making fun of well-known individuals (“the inestimably priggish and tiresome Thoreau” or Daniel Boone who “wrestled bears and tried to date their sisters”) or lambasting entire populations (every human in the South was portrayed as a variation of absurdly stupid and / or outlandishly obnoxious) — he rarely had a nice thing to say about anybody.

His writing is top-notch and I definitely laughed out loud at several of his lines, but after a while you get tired of listening to someone rant about how stupid, incompetent, and ridiculous everyone else is. Each chapter has some bit of history or doom like predictions about the climate, species deaths, or endlessly burning coal fires, and much of it was actually interesting. However, I got the feeling that his “research” consisted of browsing through some pamphlets and newspaper headlines (in 1996 the Internet was weak and puny) because he never delved into a subject, just dropped a few facts (all depressing) without ever going into the complexities of what is behind each and every problem.

He was paid to write this book and I don’t think his heart was in it. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t even come close to finishing the trail!

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz (Fiction / Humor / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

Funny, acerbic, and irreverent (Lisa Lutz’ signature trio). The action follows two best friends — Luna Grey and Owen Mann. No, they never slept together; yes they are the most important people in each other’s lives.

The story spans time, bouncing between 2003 and 2019 with important (and weird, always weird) flashbacks to the familial primordial ooze from which each has sprung. Four murders — connected but not in the way you think — and an intricate web of secrets, trust, suspicion, and guilt pervade the narrative.

The plot is consistently surprising and the characters engaging — plenty to love and plenty not to love. The pages are full of bizarre details that help us deep dive on who Luna and Owen really are and how they became that way. As an aside, I love the way Lutz describes her minor supporting characters — deftly reducing them to one to two sentence descriptions that capture the essence of what they present to outsiders — it’s a talent.

I always have fun reading Lisa Lutz — I was a big fan of the Spellman Files, but I’m glad she is moving to stand alone stories as I think Izzy Spellman is at the point where she can’t acgtually develop any more without losing what makes her interesting in the first place — the Spellmans are spent!

A few fun quotes:

“Thinking about being good didn’t make you good. Sacrificing individual happiness didn’t make the world a better place.”

“Sam didn’t believe in using words to state the obvious, or fill up silence, or attempt to ease discomfort.”

“I don’t like it when you ask me to explain men to you, like I have special insight into lascivious behavior.”

“He wasn’t Teflon; closer to particleboard. He soaked everything, letting it warp him, become part of him.”

Once, Owen had tried to talk to the guy. He asked Mason what he did when he wasn’t smoking pot. Dude, that’s like a really personal question, was Mason’s response.”

“He was obsessed with variety, which Luna had only recently correlated with his inability to stay faithful.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 25th, 2022.

Boy by Roald Dahl (Autobiography sort of…)

Penguin Books is reissuing Roald Dahl’s “not an autobiography” memories of youth. It reads exactly like one of his fantastic children’s books, and in particular it is easy to see the inspiration for my favorite — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — in many of the stories. It is consistently funny and engaging and fascinating in its ability to demonstrate the development of one of my favorite childhood authors. Since his childhood began in 1916, the descriptions of what life was like (operations without much anesthetic, the typical (and ridiculously cruel IMHO) boarding school experience, and complications of international travel) are plentiful and eye-opening. All in all a very fun (and fast) read.

Looking at some background on Dahl, I’m surprised at all the vitriole — he’s been accused of racism, profanity, and sexual innuendo. The examples given were ridiculous. I despair.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman (Fiction / Mystery / Humor)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

Another fun title (the second) from Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series. In this episode, our four retirement village oldies take on the local drug lord, the useless baddie who attacked their most timid member, and a tangle of spies spying on spies — one of whom happens to be Elizabeth’s very-ex-husband.

A reminder on the characters from my first review: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

As an American, I had not heard of Richard Osman before reading the first book, but I gather he is well-known in Britain as “an English comedian, producer, television presenter, writer, and the creator and co-presenter of the BBC One television quiz show Pointless.” I like his writing a great deal — funny, wry, with characters who could appear dull on the outside but are actually intriguing on the inside (as so many people are if you take a deeper peek). His spare style distills what you need to know without muddying the waters with a lot of extraneous fluff. I gulped it in a single sitting.

BY the way, I feel like I just reviewed Osman’s first book — The Thursday Murder Club (link) but apparently that was about a year ago. Time flies when … everything is closed and you’re stuck in the house? In any case, one benefit of Covid is that every single one of my favorite authors appears to have tripled their productivity. My “to read” pile is overflowing.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir) — 5 stars

Tagging along on Trevor Noah’s South African childhood is quite a ride. This series of vignettes are told in Noah’s signature comic style while simultaneously offering real insight about life during and after apartheid in South Africa.

The “illegal” offspring of a black woman and a white man, Trevor is always the outcast — never fitting into any of the official segregated groups (black, white, colored, and Indian). This is the best (to me) kind of memoir — we get the stories as they felt to him as a child, laced with adult commentary on what he later came to realize about the context. I appreciate learning about a place and time through the actual experiences of a single individual living it. While historical and cultural trends are interesting at the macro level, I never feel close to understanding something until I see it through the eyes of people living it.

The adult commentary (with just the right amount of background facts (e.g. the number of official languages in South Africa, the complexities of apartheid, and specific tribal practices) gave me a radically different perspective on apartheid, different systems of oppression, and how context shapes the people who grow up within its confines. The comedy helped me read through experiences that would be too hard to read without. However, it is his insight that makes this book worth reading — insight into how we judge others. Insights such as what makes us think someone is like us or different, what assumptions we make about what people mean when they say or do something, and what really constitutes equal opportunity.

I liked some of the stories better than others, but while discussing at a book group, found that others had almost the exact opposite reaction. That in itself is just as interesting — showing how even a group of people with similar backgrounds processes information in completely different ways.

Yoga Pant Nation by Laurie Gelman (Humor)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Always hysterical, this is the third in Gelman’s “Class Mom” series. Jennifer Dixon is the ever-wry, always-irreverent class mom for her 5th grade son in Overland Park, Kansas. This year she gets coerced into leading the biggest fundraiser ever (she calls her team the “We Fundraise Until Kingdom Come Team” or WeFUKCT); gets startlingly accurate messages from her friend’s crazy mother-in-law (or rather her two ever-present spirit guides); fights off a surprising custody battle; and deals with what appears to be the simultaneous rapid decline of both parents who see “little people” in the basement. This is a comedy, so OF COURSE everything works out just fine and with plenty of laughs on the way.

This is number three in the series — it can certainly be read on its own but why not start with number one (Class Mom) and/or number two (You’ve Been Volunteered) while you’re waiting for Yoga Pant’s July release?

Just a few fun lines — I should have highlighted more but I was too busy laughing:
“Yes, I’m hilarious. In fact, these past two years have been a yuck a minute as I have endeavored to understand Viv’s unique parenting style that can best be described as a cross between Mary Poppins and the surgeon general.”

“Ah yes, “that baby” — also known as the light of my life and the bane of my existence, all rolled into one perfect almost-two-year-old package.”

“In my mind I wonder just how far this PC thing is going to go before we all just give up talking.”

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 13th, 2021.

The Gifted, The Talented, and Me by William Sutcliffe (YA / Humor)

When his dad’s invention takes off and the family suddenly finds themselves rich, 15-year old Sam finds himself in a posh home and enrolled in the North London Academy for Gifted and Talented. His mother (clearly channeling a Northern California wealthy bohemian) encourages him to find his special talent. So begins this laugh-out-loud funny coming-of-age story about an “average” kid who is forced to find a creative side that he really doesn’t want at all.

Great characters and hysterical dialog — especially the internal dialog (trialog?) between his optimistic brain, his pessimistic brain and his … dick. Amidst an array of humorously drawn characters, all subject to equal-opportunity parodying, Sam does figure out what is important in relationships with others and with yourself. A fun, fun ride. Plus … very cool ending.

Thank you to Bloomsbury YA and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Character: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A fun new offering from the author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. LA lawyer and single mom Jessica and her 16-year old total-teenager Emily tour East Coast colleges. Along the way they connect with old friends, colleagues, and a personality-ridden tour group. Plenty of great banter (both live and text based), likable characters, and some quite decent insight. Amidst the lightness are serious themes around getting into college: pressure, competition, how far parents are willing to go to give their offspring a boost. There is a lot of focus on how to know what the “right thing” is and how to make sure you are doing it. Nicely drawn relationships — mostly female but without (too much) male bashing.

I put this in the category of “hanging out with friends” books — meaning that while I’m reading it, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing. While some of the events towards the end veered off the credible scale, they really didn’t affect the main themes or take up too many pages so I found them easy to forgive.

Just a couple of fun quotes:

“I know a lot about philosophy, and people say it’s a pointless subject, but I swear I see human thought changing in front of my eyes every day. In the two decades I’ve been teaching, opinions and attitudes have evolved and altered and swung back and forth, and I have a ringside seat.”

“It’s not a constant interview which is what seems to happen when two adults get together. What do you do for a living? where did you go to school? What does your wife do?” She looked out the window. “You guys are weird, you don’t know how to communicate, you’re too busy stratifying.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 16th, 2020.

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (Fiction)

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5

I wanted to like this book — I loved Dating Big Bird and Animal Husbandry — but somehow it just didn’t work for me. What was intended to be “a hilarious, heart-breaking and thought-provoking portrait of a difficult marriage, as fierce as it is funny,” for me was just a thin veneer of attempted humor over a whole lot of neurosis, pain, and sadness. Some stories are too cringe-worthy to be funny.

The book opens with dysfunctional Judy deciding to wear her dog in a baby sling. All the time. Judy is a one-time successful children’s book author who has been suffering from writer’s block for years. She now writes for a self-help website, though she is remarkably unable to help herself. Husband Gary is a self-medicating pothead who has been unable to overcome his intense anxiety and has largely given up trying. They want to divorce but can’t afford to physically separate and so cohabit the family home. And their teenage son is … a teenager. Need I say more?

Zigman writes well and the book does end on a positive note in the very last chapter, but the positive ending isn’t supported by the events and cringe-worthy character actions of the rest of the book. The bulk of the book just tracks our educated, middle-class characters as they continue to not get their act together and irresponsibly run away from their problems (to be fair, Judy really did have to face a lot of depressing things, but I didn’t feel the novel really covered how she handled these things). I’m not a fan of dysfunction – we all have our problems and we all do things we regret — but I’d rather read about how people get a grip and turn things around — not about how they continue to screw up.

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.