Monthly Archives: February 2009

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

I’m on a roll: three good books in a row! Lark and Termite is the story of a family that’s much out-of-the-norm and beset by unusually burdensome challenges but that works despite the struggles. Lark and Termite are siblings (hlaf-siblings, since nothing is simple in the family) who live with their aunt following their mother’s abandonment and suicide, respectively. They live in a small West Virginia town where their aging and hard-working aunt is helped by her ex-lover who is also her employer and much more, as well as her neighbor and sometime admirer — or is it Lark he admires, in impeccable taste?

Little by little Termite’s father’s story is revealed as he dies in the Korean war — together with their mother’s complicated life. It could all be quite grim except that it is not: tough going, for sure, for all the main characters but there’s much love and hope as the complicated familial history is revealed. Very satisfying.

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Rancid Pansies by James Hamilton-Paterson

A perfect package of funny (hilarious, even), goofy, and smart. Don’t be put off by the title (for which you will get an explanation in the book). Don’t be put off by the unlikely meeting of a one-armed woman sailing champion; a landslide in Italy; collective food poisoning brought on by a mouse vol-au-vent (yes, a mouse); and an opera about Lady Di. Rancid Pansies‘s humor is always underdone despite the outrageous happenings. Did I mention the visit to the Vatican to petition to beatify Lady Di? I liked this book so much I’m going to search for the previous one in the series, pre-landslide.

The only not perfect part of the novel is the use of long emails from the (opera-writing) hero’s scientist-boyfriend to his colleague and student. I can’t see anyone writing those long dissertations in emails, but it’s a small nit. Enjoy!

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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is not a bird book, although you can learn a lot about marabous and hadadas via the story and the drawings that herald each chapter. But there is a bird counting contest (see here and here for others), although its point is to gain a lady’s affection rather than bird-bragging rights. We cheer for Mr. Malik, the modest, honest, kind hero, as Mr. Khan, his showy rival, hires planes, helicopters, and Australian birdwatchers to get to win.

A  sweet book, of which the African setting and subtle pace recall The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The author even affects a panama hat in the cover picture just like Alexander McCall Smith . A little too deja vu perhaps?

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All Shall Be Well by Tod Wodicka

Can books with outrageously long titles live up to their names? Maybe not this one. All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well starts with a hilarious premise: an aging American who revels in medieval re-enactments tries to recover his ties to his children, who have drifted away after one too many eccentricities, including a complete reliance on his wife and son for all practical details including earning a living… The description of the earnest would-be medievalists, who dress the part and eschew such modern implements as cars (obviously) but also oranges and drinking water (they go for mead instead) is funny and clever. Who knew it would be so difficult to pretend to live in the Middle Ages for a day only to be foiled by a jet plane flying overhead?

So what’s the rub? The book just grinds to a halt amidst the revellers and the children, all ideas spent, and it seems that the transatlantic action was just a pretext to show off that the author was comfortable on two continents. Too bad!

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Breakfast at Sally’s by Richard LeMieux

Breakfast at Sally’s is a clumsy but very inspirational (as promised by the subtitle) exposition about the homeless, centered on the author and his adored dog but chronicling the lives of dozens of others who become homeless through bad luck, addictions of some kind or other, or both. LeMieuxcaptures the surprisingly tight-knit society of the homeless in the Washington town where he lives. Just like in any other social group there are generous souls, losers, fixers, children and the very old, exploiters and helpers. If you stick with the descriptions and skip the (not many) pages of haranguing the book works very well.

It’s clear that a rich society should be able to help the downtrodden more effectively. The book describes many homeless people who can, and sometimes do hold down jobs and would need just a small push to live in decent conditions. Why are they shoved on a two-year waiting list (with young kids too)? The problem is more complicated for the many who are unable to work but surely we could and should provide decent housing for the working poor, especially since it seems that a modest amount of help for the deposit would solve many problems.

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Modern Manners by P.J. O’Rourke

Having enjoyed On the Wealth of Nations  by the same author I decided to try Modern Manners, which was deemed very funny by the blurb on the cover — and it did not quite live to those expectations. Sure, there are many witty one-liners but also many repeated not-so-funny themes and the book feels quite dated already (the copy I read was dated 1989). Where are the cell phone boors, for instance?

A disapointment despite the occasioanl hilarious bits.

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Farewell my Subaru by Doug Fine

Farewell, My Subaru is a mostly lighthearted description of the author’s efforts to lead a green life in a hot and dry (but occasionally flooded) ranch in New Mexico. There’s minimal preaching about the virtues of being green (thankfully and unlike other unbearably self-righteous”green” books such as  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) The absurdity of some of the changes, such as ditching the Subaru of the title for a monster truck (converted to run on biodiesel, mind you) is occasionally noted but not always… If you’re looking for a more self-deprecating tone on a similar topic of life-changing adventures read The Year of Living Biblically. But this author has a good sense of humor and a hefty dose of self-deprecation that makes the book fun to read — if you don’t think about the issues too deeply.

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