Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

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

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”

Adult Assembly Required by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

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

A light and fun novel that allows us to inhabit a happy, kooky world full of lovable characters with more intellectual curiosity than I typically expect in this genre.

Laura Costello has abruptly moved cross-country to study physical therapy much to the dismay of her academically-oriented family and charming but domineering ex-fiancee. Within days of her arrival, her apartment house has burned down along with all of her belongings. Luckily for her, as an uncharacteristic downpour converts her to utter bedraggledom, she wanders into Nina Hill’s bookstore (the star of the utterly delightful The Bookish Life of Nina Hill) and things take a sudden turn into the neighborhood of charm, quirk, and delight.

I love Waxman’s writing — it’s simultaneously funny and thoughtful. While none of the story is particularly realistic, it also isn’t stupid — it creates a world I’d like to inhabit even if I don’t ever expect to do so. In addition to the plot (which is engaging), there are lots of interesting descriptions of various fields of study from the perspective of someone who really knows and cares about it. For example, I loved the descriptions of the human body and what it does mechanically during every day activities.

The setting of Larchmont Village (a real LA neighborhood that sounds like a place I’d like to visit) along with a lovely boarding house run by an even lovelier landlady reminds me a bit of Maupin’s Tales of the City books, albeit with a little less focus on sexual experimentation and discovery.

Some fun quotes:
“What had been tobacco and paper was now dog vomit, and Herbert was sitting under the kitchen table regretting his life choices.”

“Anything’s interesting when it’s explained by someone who cares about it.”

“I’ve learned recently that my mind isn’t the safest neighborhood to go into alone.”

“Laura looked at the cat. The cat looked at her. Neither of them said anything, Laura because she didn’t speak cat and the cat because she was mentally composing a letter to her senator.”

“Ferdinand was no longer pregnant, but she was still built along capacious lines.” (bookstore cat)

“Anxiety lives in the unknown future, depression lives in the unforgettable past, and peace lives in the acceptance of the present moment.”

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 May 17th, 2022.

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.