Want a light but not completely silly book for summer? Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe fits the bill. It stars a carefully composed set of characters, from the pater familias settling uncomfortably into retirement, his wife who is on a house decorating frenzy, their heartbroken and bored son, and assorted house visitors. Minor drams ensue.
I kep wondering why the wealthy couple employs a personal assistant (so fancy!) and a gardener (reasonable) but no housekeeper. It may be better to not think too much about such details.
The title of Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More makes it sound like a self-help book but it’s not, not really. It’s more of an expose of how much time we spend doing administrative work we need to do every day, work that’s neither fun nor recognized (nor paid!) but is nevertheless required to live. The author, with a full-time job and two small children, has a particularly hard time with the volume of life admin.
She astutely points out how life admin easily shifts to the person who does a task once, or better, or faster–and stays there forever. I’m not sure I would FaceTime with a friend to get through onerous tasks, but it might work for you! And, to the creators of life admin (schools, medical insurance companies, and the like): lighten up, will you!
Eli, the hero of Boy Swallows Universe, has a drug-dealer stepfather (who will be killed in drug wars), a depressed mother (who will end up in prison), an alcoholic father (who cannot hold a job), and a mute brother (with other issues). But he has a plan: to corner the heroin market in Brisbane. It will take him to a career in journalism, a terrifying meeting with a drug kingpin, and back to a family drama he tried to forget. I just loved this story of a boy with big ideas in a world that thinks that children can’t do much.
In a picture-perfect suburb that resists any change, a war is brewing against those who dare to transform the historical, small houses with mansions. Neighbors plot against neighbors while their neglected children suffer intractable headaches, skip school, and generally wonder what the adults are up to.
If you enjoy reading about the (mild) angst of midlife affluent white folks, this book is for you. Despite dozens of chopped-down trees, a fire, and a kidnapping, I felt I could have taken a nap and missed nothing.
I’ve lost count of how many memoirs Dani Shapiro has written, but I know it’s a terrifying number already (and I liked some, not all). Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love is the sign of things to come, I imagine, as it springs from her chance encounter with an unexpected first cousin after she had submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.
Her father is not her biological father, and although she quickly identifies who is, she needs to know how it all happened (very decorously, by the way, following the now strange logic of early artificial insemination programs). She takes us with her as she navigates websites, her crumbling relationship with the woman she thought was her half-sister, her tentative contacts with her biological family and, very deliciously and kindly, the loving support she gets from her husband and son. (Her teenage son provides the most hilarious moment in the book, when he happily surmises that his new grandfather may well give him the gift of a full head of hair!)
A great reminder that family secrets can cause a lot of pain, even when the outcome is pretty good, as it is here.
Unsheltered presents twin stories of two struggling families, in different centuries, living in the same house, or so they think, in what was created as a utopian subdivision (but probably “utopian” mostly for the pockets of the developers). The contemporary family suffers from multiple ills, from the lack of good academic jobs to an ailing grandfather and the sudden death of a young mother, and the story is well told, but still strange in parts. Why would loving parents, even distracted by a job loss, not ask their young adult daughter why she returned abruptly from a year abroad? Why would they not at least guess about her predicament? And why would a young father, even distraught, casually abandon his baby to his parents? There are no good answers in the story.
The other story is of a fascinating woman who pursued a learned correspondence with Darwin (of On the Origins of the Species fame), and clearly the book was crafted to highlight that story. I kept finding that the handoffs between the two stories felt a little overdone, so the book did not quite come together as it could have.
If you go looking for your ancestors, you may find a racist grandmother, a corrupt banker great-grandfather that helped create an economic meltdown, another great-grandfather who was the bastard son of a miner and who hitched his star to that of his employer — but perhaps not the Jewish great-grandfather from your family’s legend, as the author of Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging discovered. She undertakes research on three continents to accomplish her search, and surprises herself when she finds that knowledge of the local language and customs is pretty much required for success (duh!). The third part of the book, when she delves into DNA analysis, is more predictable and was, to me, less interesting.