How to be a grown-upCo-written by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, How to Be a Grown-Up is a fascinating peek into upper class New York and the world of start-up websites – in this case, one for upper class babies and their parents. More than a little absurd, this world of over-consumption and ambitious, yet inexperienced, young bosses is the one in which Rory finds herself – after her husband, an  aspiring actor, dumps her.

Kraus and McLaughlin are the authors of The Nanny Diaries,and there are definite similarities – in the dynamic between the very rich and those struggling to get by. Some of the scenes do seem to be written filmically; we can almost see a  Scarlett Johansson or Anne Hathaway-type breaking her foot as she juggles the impossible demands of her tyrannical bosses and the equally formidable demands of her two children, while teetering on five-inch heels.

The most successful part of the book is the satire of the workplace – the two young entrepreneurs in charge of the start-up dress in the skimpiest of outfits no matter how cold they are, and regard “things” such as wastebaskets and a work space as unnecessarily retro. It’s satisfying to see the tables turned, and  Rory’s experience and know-how are acknowledged as valuable.

If the authors had focused more on the work aspect of the book and less on the inexplicable choices Rory makes in her personal life, the book would have, in my opinion, been better for it. Still, it’s a revealing and interesting look into a very fast-paced world, not well-known in Iowa – even in the metro Quad-Cities.

BarbaraBarbaraa German language film, subtitled in English, is a fascinating glimpse into the Cold War. Nina Hoss plays Barbara, a doctor who has been exiled to rural East Germany from Berlin for reasons that are not clear. That is a theme of the film – the viewer is not sure what Barbara did or is doing now that is subversive, but we know that she is now secretly working against the government. She is suddenly, and seemingly randomly harassed. She suffers these indignities with a stoicism that is, ironically, nakedly apparent on her expressive face.

Unsurprisingly, she holds herself aloof and apart from the other staff – in particular, Andre, another doctor. The dialogue between these two, and others, is minimal and subdued – much of the power of the film lies in the close-ups of these two characters faces.  Even though it is suffused with paranoia, the film is beautiful and evocative of a simpler and less-technological time.

A mixture of the political and the romantic, this is primarily the portrait of a particular woman who maintains her dignity and integrity during a time when trust was not given easily or thoughtlessly. And when real emotion breaks out, it is all the more powerful for having been restrained.

Talking with Dogs and Cats by Tim LinkI don’t know what I expected when I started reading Talking with Dogs and Cats, but it wasn’t what I got. I’ve read quite a few of the animal behavior books we have in the library, and this one is unique.  It was actually pretty gratifying to know that, instinctively, I’ve been doing a lot of things the author, Tim Link, suggests. For example, he encourages us to talk to our pets – not just a lot of orders and instructions, but greet them in the morning and when you come home from work. When they go to the window and bark madly, walk over and try to see what set them off. Acknowledge the squirrel or UPS man, and thank them for bringing it to your attention. Tell them when to stop and reward them for stopping.

Pets need to feel that they have a job, and that job may be watching out that window and letting you know what’s going on in the wide world. Yelling at them to be quiet is likely to be ineffective, and, actually, counterproductive.

When you have multiple pets, it’s hard not to have a favorite, but you still need to spend time and pay focused attention to the others. You’ll be rewarded with a better understanding of the animal and a better relationship. I can attest to this. Since reading the book, I’ve made a point of communing with the dog who is not my favorite – an dachshund whose single-minded dedication to finding any edible object and barking about it, does not usually make one want to spend discretionary time with him. His sister, on the other hand, is incredibly loveable and has many interests other than seeking out and swallowing things before she’s quite clear about what they are.

Anyway, Mini Mutt and I have been having one-on-one conversations and I really feel that we have been connecting. When we run out of things to talk about, we sit companionably together. It’s very nice to have these calm times to balance  other times where we’re both shouting in our own ways.

You may not agree with every bit of advice in this book, but any book that causes you to look at things from another’s point of view is always valuable.

Life and Other Near DeathLibby Miller finds out (on the same day) that her husband is not at all who she thought he was, and their marriage was not what she thought it was. And that she has terminal illness.  The internal monologues make you wonder how you, too, would cope with a day like that. For me, the first half of the book was most interesting, as Libby struggles to cope with seismic shifts in every aspect of her life – her job, her home, her health, and her family.  She begins to realize that nothing at all in her life will ever be the same.  This Camille Pagan novel is written in the first-person, so we are privy to her wildly swinging emotions. Her reaction to her husband’s news is both horrifying and funny.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences  is an odd amalgam of standard fiction and chick-lit. Some of the latter’s conventions are apparent – the tone is self-effacing and self-mocking, the main character is young (ish) and attractive, and good at her professional job – though she is a PA to a horrible boss. There is a spirit of re-invention, and, inevitably, a romance with a man who is a soul-mate, rather than someone she has stayed with, out of habit.

However, the reader (or this reader, anyway) had certain expectations about the illness that were not met, so it didn’t follow a typical airport fiction trajectory.(No spoilers here).  The tone often veers into pretty dark territory – the illness and death of Libby’s mother is a driving factor in how Libby deals with her diagnosis. The result is that the reader is thrown off balance, and isn’t quite sure where the story is going. It’s a novel with a high-concept plot that delves deeper than expected.

 

 

First ImpressionsFirst Impressions by Charlie Lovett is subtitled “a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen.” It’s a quick read, quickly alternating between the present day and 1796 when Jane Austen herself is in the midst of writing early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (or is she?) There’s some doubt as to whether she or a good friend and fellow author mentored her or whether he actually wrote Pride and Prejudice.

Lovett does a good job of organically integrating historical information about Austen and her books. It doesn’t feel like you’re being fed lessons from high school English, but as if you are really beginning to know Jane and what motivated her to write the stories that she did.

In between chapters about Jane Austen are those that focus on Sophie Collingwood. Her family owns a large estate, as well as an important library of books that contain important clues to the first editions of Pride and Prejudice.  A recent graduate of Oxford and an expert in antiquarian books thanks to her uncle Bertram. Sophie becomes involved in literary intrigue, in which she and others try to untangle the early works of Austen, and those of her friend, Reverend Richard Mansfield.

Suspense builds as Sophie, some shadowy rivals, and two suitors try to solve the mystery. Lovett does a good job of laying the groundwork, so the ending is unexpected yet grounded in the information the reader has been given. For example, subsequent generations of the Mansfield’s and Austen’s publisher are revealed to be active participants in the contemporary mystery.

Guest CottageThe Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer is a great companion to Enchanted August (see blog post of July 15th). Not only are both set in idyllic New England islands, both novels  are self-limiting in that the cottage rental is for the month of August. (Is this a east coast thing? It seems very exotic to this midwesterner).

The knowledge that this a short-term co-habitation allows for a pleasantly predictable dramatic arc (meet-cute, attraction, development of romance and friendship, sadness of the looming end of summer).

The characters in both books are suffering from unsatisfactory or dysfunctional family situations, and are looking for healing, as well as escape, however brief. They find all this, as well as transformation and joy.

This is the first Nancy Thayer book I’ve read, and I’m happy to find that she has many more in her backlist. She actually lives in Nantucket so her writing has the ring of authority.

What is therapeutic is the satisfaction she obviously takes in the quotidian tasks of cooking, grocery shopping,  cleaning up, and so on. Life on the island also consists of going to the beach, sailing, visiting quaint shops and getting ice cream. One could do a lot worse than spending time in these fictional worlds.

Modern FarmerYou may notice a new magazine at the Fairmount branch. Modern Farmer is a quarterly hipster/agriculture magazine . It’s a fascinating combination of actual horticultural information but with a  small-is-better vibe. There is no pretense that they are the voice of big ag. “We’re making fun of ourselves, in a way, because we don’t know anything about farming,” said former editor-in-chief Ann Marie Gardner.

The sophisticated design aesthetic is  an interesting contrast to the stories about goats, cows and pigs.  Recent stories feature news about a bird flu vaccine, as well as Brad Pitt. Some of the most inspiring articles are about young men and women trying and succeeding in diverse ventures – such as a husband-wife team of alpaca farmers in New York, a woman raising quail in California, and three young people growing papayas, coconut and other fruits and vegetables in Bali.

The magazine, founded in 2013, is struggling. It actually suspended operations earlier this year, then promised a summer issue. We hope that they can overcome their financial difficulties. It fills a unique niche, with  a point-of-view not seen in mainstream magazine publishing.

Johnny HellerMarley and meHorrible Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local audiobook aficionados got an opportunity to hear a master narrator at work and to quiz him about his craft. Johnny Heller, award-winning narrator, actor and stand-up comic visited Bettendorf Public Library July 15th to read aloud and take questions from the audience.  A resident of Manhattan, he seemed genuinely interested in learning more about Iowa in general, and the Quad Cities specifically.

Heller is an interesting combination of  the highbrow (trained as a Shakespearean actor) and the low to middle brow (he delights in adolescent humor, which serves him well when narrating juvenile books). He read from several of his books (Marley and Me and  Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys).

He gave several insights into the process. Most fascinating was how he chooses someone (an actor or actress perhaps) to pair with a character, so he can instantly call up that persona. When asked how narrators can seamlessly and quickly move between male and female characters, he says, ideally, he’s in a zone where he doesn’t consciously have to make those decisions. He doesn’t try to do “female” voices. it’s more about their character. He softens his voice for females but doesn’t go several octaves higher.

Other tidbits, he gets paid by the hour – the finished hour of product, not what he puts into it, so as an experienced  narrator, he’s more efficient and the ratio of time spent and actual output is more equal.

His favorite part of the job, though, is to foster the love of books and reading. Mixing with the crowd before and after, Heller clearly enjoys the extensive traveling involved in the job, and doing whatever he can to promote the appreciation of story, in whatever format it may be.

 

 

 

Burning RoomThe audiobook of Michael Connelly’s latest (hopefully, not the last) Harry Bosch novel is brilliantly narrated by Titus Welliver. The Burning Room is enjoyable on multiple levels. First, there’s the evolving relationship between Harry and an assigned protegee, Detective Lucia Soto, as well as Harry’s internal monologues about the careerists in charge of the LAPD and the incredible talents of Welliver and, probably least of all, the actual plot.

Bosch grows into an ever more fascinating character; professional in that he cares first and foremost about solving cases, rather than the political implications of each and every action. He skewers the bureaucratic bluster in the guise of the bumptious Lieutenant Samuels, Bosch’s nemesis. As they investigate two entwined cold cases, Harry imparts his survival skills and hard-won knowledge to Lucy Soto, a smart and hard-working disciple. Will she carry the torch in future Connelly books?

There’s a fine balance in audiobooks when it comes to altering the reader’s voice between characters; they should be distinct enough that the listener can follow a conversation, but not so in-your-face that you’re brought out of the story. Welliver’s  gift is his ability to create, with consistent and subtle intonation, a conversation’s back and forth action. So much more efficient than “he said” and “Harry replied,” and “she shouted.”

His narrating work can be heard in several Robert B. Parker novels, while his acting can be seen in The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Twisted and Transformers. Age of Distinction. I’m sure acting is not easy, but reading aloud in such an intelligent and enjoyable manner must be even harder.

 

NYTimesBookReviewMore often than not, the Sunday New York Times Book Review contains a passage that you wish you’d written, or that you’d like to save somewhere to inspire yourself about the importance of books, reading and libraries.

For example, this was part of a July 5th interview with Anthony Doerr. By the Book is a recurring feature in which writers are quizzed about their reading life. Here’s an excerpt:

“Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?

Gosh, I’m not sure. Last year I bought an Eliot Weinberger essay collection to my son’s lacrosse practice and took a wayward ball to the shin because I was sitting too close to the field. I did read “The Sheltering Sky” when I was 11 or 12 years old. (“Mom, what’s hashish?) But I don’t think I got in trouble for it.  On the contrary, I was incredibly blessed because neither my mother nor the local librarians ever said ‘This is outside your age range, Tony.  You can’t handle this.’  They trusted us to make our own paths through books  and that’s very, very empowering.”

From Anthony Doerr: By the Book, New York Times, p. 8, July 5, 2015.

Or sometimes, it hits a little close to home. To quote Judd Apatow:

“My buying-to-actually reading ratio is 387 to 1. …I have actually convinced myself that buying books is the same as reading…”

This is in answer to the question: “Whom do you consider the best writers – novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets – working today?,” he says, “I am the last person you should ask because I don’t read that much.”

From Judd Apatow: By the Book, New York Times, p. 7, June 14, 2015

I intend to browse through back issues at the Main library, and look for Carl Hiaasen, Neil Gaiman, Anne Lamott, Alain de Botton, Marilynne Robinson, and Michael Connelly, among others (you can also browse the archives online to see a list of featured authors).  These are folks that I’m guessing are going to be both witty and not so very full of themselves.

So, how would you answer the By the Book questionnaire?