A Month of Books: June 2019

During August I was immersed in a line-editing project, a memoir by a physician who shares a practice with her husband in rural upstate New York. Her story of how she got there after running away from home at 16 to study sculpture in New York City and how she has lived her life serving an under-served community is fascinating. For someone like me who loves to play with grammar and punctuation and word choice, line editing is fun. It is also very time- and attention-intensive. To give my brain the occasional break, I read a bunch of novels, several of them on the light side. (More about all of them when I eventually get to writing about August.) I do want to share now, though, a passage from one of the funniest of the books, Dear Committee Members (Julie Schumacher). The “hero” is an English professor at a liberal arts college where the liberal arts are now getting short shrift. He often has to write letters of recommendation for his students who are seeking jobs far afield from literature. For all my fellow English majors out there, this recommendation is for you:

“Belatedly it occurs to me that some members of your HR committee, a few skeptical souls, may be clutching a double strand of worry beads and wondering aloud about the practicality or usefulness of a degree in English rather than, say, computers. Be assured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.”

And now to the books this English major read during June…

Late in the Day (2019) – Tessa Hadley
The Grammarians (2019) – Cathleen Schine

The Art of the Wasted Day (2018) – Patricia Hampl
Save Me the Plums (2019) – Ruth Reichl

Reviewers had lots of praise for Late in the Day, so I am definitively in the minority in finding this novel a disappointment. (I am usually a fan of Tessa Hadley. This is #7 for me.) The main characters are two couples (Christine and Alec, Lydia and Zach) who have been close friends since their school days, and the only character that I found sympathetic dies in the first chapter. That’s not a spoiler. Zach has to die at the beginning of the book as the two story lines braided through the book are how they all interacted as a foursome for the decades before Zach’s death and how the remaining three interacted after Zach’s death. They all lived in a gentrified area of London and moved around in the arts & letters world. Alec, a poet who is now teaching, is a bit of a whiner; Christine is an excellent painter who struggles to see her own worth and worries a lot; and Lydia is chronically lazy and relentlessly melodramatic. Even the Guardian’s reviewer had to admit that Lydia was “sometimes grating.” Zach, who had owned an art gallery, seemed to be the only who was comfortable in his own skin. They wrestle with aging and with adultery, both sexual and emotional, and mostly just seem to have a hard time understanding themselves and each other. And I had a hard time caring about them. The minor characters are the children of the couples and two of the mothers-in-law. The children aren’t given enough depth to be interesting. The two mothers-in-law, however, had lots of personality, saw the various stages of the couples’ interactions  more clearly than the four characters did, and consistently gave sound advice. If only their children had listened to them. In fact, I think that may be the key to my frustration with the couples: they don’t seem to have matured very much over the years. Perhaps that’s what Hadley was communicating in the title: it was a bit late in the day for them to start to grow up.

Cathleen Schine is also one of my most favorite authors. (The Grammarians is #10 for me.) I was lucky enough to “win” my copy through one of those Goodreads giveaway/publisher promotion contests. My uncorrected proof copy arrived early in June, three months before the official publication date. (If I had been more disciplined in producing my monthly reviews in a timely way, I could have scooped the New York Times, like I did with Coe’s Middle England. The Times reviewed Coe on Aug. 21 and Schine on Aug. 31.) This novel is a treat, especially for writers, English majors, and all the rest of us grammarians. A laugh-out-loud funny and warm portrayal, from cradle to late middle age, of twin girls Laurel and Daphne Wolf. Both have been enamored of words and wordplay since before they could even speak a word. (Illustrating this capability is a particularly clever trick on Schine’s part.) Their love of language defines them. Having done everything together when young, Laurel and Daphne do eventually differentiate themselves by how each makes their love of language integral to their lives. Yes, there’s a time as grown-ups when they fall out over their differences, but the rupture is not ultimately tragic (despite what pre-sale book blurbs and even the first chapter may have you believe). In fact, the Wolf family, immediate and extended, is enviable in its members’ clear affection for and support of each other. How delightful to read a story about (generally) happy, loving people. Schine’s own delight in playing with language is a bonus.

I should have liked Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day better than I did. All of its elements appeal (especially the notion that wasting a day should be a revered art form). Part travelogue, part memoir, part contemplation on the writing life, it is a 270-page ode to the essay form. Her interest in Michel Montaigne (born in 1533 and generally considered the first practitioner of the essay) leads her on a circuitous pilgrimage to his chateau near Bordeaux. She weaves elements of Montaigne’s life and of her pilgrimage throughout all her reflections in this volume, whether those are of her Midwest childhood or her current life in Minneapolis, where she is a professor in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. She has an elegant yet very accessible style, with evocative descriptions. However…about one-third of the way into the book, she starts to address a specific reader as “you,” first occasionally, then with greater frequency and in longer passages. It becomes clear that she is addressing a loved one who is no longer alive, and by the end, we know that she is addressing her late husband, Terrence Williams. (I looked him up and found he had died of heart failure in 2015). If I had known from the start that the book was also a kind of conversation with a dearly missed spouse, I might have had a different reaction. But instead I found the technique distracting, and I felt uncomfortable, as though I were reading something meant as private correspondence.

Nothing private in Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums. Subtitled “My Gourmet Memoir,” this  is the tell-all tale of Reichl’s tenure as editor-in-chief of the upscale food magazine Gourmet, from the fanfare of her tenure’s beginning in 1998 to the infamy of its ending ten years later. The New York Times called the book “poignant and hilarious.” I’ll give you poignant, but hilarious? More like hair-raising, as might happen if you were riding in an out-of-control roller coaster car that careens from a great height to crash to earth, sending all occupants flying and destroying the car. Any entertainment is provided by Reichl’s unvarnished, if at the same time embellished, descriptions of people, places, things. The good, the bad, and the ugly. From the gross extravagance of perks and publicity at the beginning to the sad scramble at trying, and failing, to keep the magazine alive, she names names, starting right at the top with S. I. Newhouse, and then right down the line of Condé Nast publishing executives, major and minor. Reichl’s exposure of some of the nastiest temperaments and ugliest antics must have raised eyebrows when the book came out. The book also captures a key decade spanning: (1) the prosperity of the Bill Clinton years to the Bush legacy of the Great Recession of 2008; (2) the rise of e-publications and the fall of print; and (3) the changes in Reichl’s family life as her son grows from a kid in elementary school to a college student at Wesleyan. Reichl manages to stir all of this into a delicious stew of a story. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

If you are wondering about the title…

“This Is Just to Say” (William Carlos Williams)

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
and so cold

A Month of Books: May 2019

In May I started to read Mary Oliver backwards.

I came to Mary Oliver late, only after I had read her essay collection last summer. She died this past January, 83 years old. From reading her essays, I knew I had missed something important by not being familiar with her poetry, and I wanted to remedy that. But becoming familiar with five decades of poetry was a pretty daunting prospect. Her Devotions saved me. Published in 2017, Devotions: The Selected Poetry of Mary Oliver includes selections from her first collection in 1963 (No Voyage and Other Poems) to her last collection in 2015 (Felicity). All told, 26 volumes. My plan was to take the title of the book to heart and each day read a poem or two, starting on page 442 and working my way to page 3, backward in the book, but forward in her life. That plan lasted about three days—not because the poems disappointed, but because I have no discipline! The poems are wonderful, the language precise and grounded in the natural world yet magically lifting the common into the realm of extraordinary beauty.

I am spending so much time on a book a started in May rather than finished because I preferred the poems I read to any of the books I read. The four books below weren’t bad. They just weren’t good enough to merit keeping on my bookshelf after reading. Off to the library book sale they go…


Books Read:

The Reporter’s Kitchen (2017) – Jane Kramer
Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault (2019) – Cathy Guisewite
The Beneficiary (2019) – Janny Scott
Number 11 (2015) – Jonathan Coe

Jane Kramer joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1964 and began writing for the “Letter from Europe” section in 1981. (While she is still identified as a staff writer, her most recent piece for the magazine, as far as I can tell, was in 2017.) The book flap describes The Reporter’s Kitchen as her “beloved food pieces from The New Yorker…arranged in one place…a collection of chef profiles, personal essays, and gastronomic history.” This sounded like something that would be right up my alley, yet I found the first half (the chef profiles) surprisingly unengaging. Maybe not enough action verbs. Maybe her taste in chefs just wasn’t my taste in chefs. Since no profile was more recent than 2013, she wrote brief updates at the end of each. A 2008 profile was particularly enthusiastic about a couple, married in 1985, who traveled to exotic places for their television show and their cookbooks. Toward the end of the profile, the man says he’s looking forward to returning to Thailand, maybe to write a novel. In the update, it turns out that in 2009 the couple separated, and the man has since been living and cooking with a Thai woman on the Cambodian border. (Kind of makes you wonder how perceptive Kramer was about the couple.) The essays and history were more compelling, but only relatively.

I had high hopes for Cathy Guisewite’s essay collection, Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault. In 1976, while a vice president at a Detroit advertising agency, she created the comic strip “Cathy.” The strip went on to syndication and at one time was carried in 1400 newspapers around the world. Guisewite chose to discontinue the strip in 2010, feeling that her character, the single career woman in the square-shouldered suit, had become foreign to the up and coming career women of the early 21st century. (Good timing. “Cathy” didn’t have live, or die, through the sad demise of print newspapers.) This new foray into writing essays grew out of Guisewite’s dismay about being a “grown-up” in a world that is changing too fast. So many changes in her relationships, with her parents, with her daughter, with her friends, with her career. She’s also clearly none too happy about being closer to 70 than 60, and the various physical changes she is experiencing. (I want to point out, however, that she has the Dave Barry gene: she looks as though she is 40.). I had liked the comic strip and its sharp wit. Since I myself am not unfamiliar with the changes she is facing, I was looking forward to reading her take on all of them. And there is humor, but the essays live up to their billing (“heartfelt and humane”) too successfully. I wanted a little less heart and a little more heat. But if you want to avoid agitation before going to sleep, these essays are just right for your bedside table. A pleasant way to wind down.

Janny Scott was a New York Times reporter and the author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. With The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father, she is closer to home. Her grandparents were Edgar Scott and Helen Hope Montgomery (purported model for Tracy Lord, as portrayed by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story). Their marriage merged two of the great Philadelphia dynasties of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her father, Robert Montgomery Scott, was one of their two sons. For the first 2/3’s of the book, Scott focuses on the fortunes and misfortunes of the three generations of both families before her father’s. Those chapters brim with stories of immense wealth and, in many cases, the wasting of it, and were fun to read as a Philadelphian. The last third narrows the focus onto her father’s fortunes and misfortunes and aren’t so much fun to read for someone who remembers him. It must have been painful for Scott to write. Much of it made me wince, but ultimately there was so much repetition I became numb. Still, anyone interested in the rise and fall of the old Philadelphia will appreciate the tale told by someone who lived in the midst of the ruins. (Note: Keep a marker at the family tree for reference. Many of the first names of both men and women are the same generation after generation. It’s easy to lose track of who’s who.)

I bought Jonathan Coe’s 2015 novel Number 11 because I had loved Middle England. Five different sections make up the book, and at first I thought it was just going to be five different stories with the only common thread being that the number 11 was important. My edition was in small print, making the writing seem dense. Frankly, I dozed off a bit during first couple sections, and I put the book away for a while. When I picked it up again in the third section, I realized he was cooking up something much more than slightly interlocking stories. By the end, I was holding on to a blistering satire about the era of British government duplicity, media manipulation, raw greed and nauseating displays of disposable wealth, all kicked off by Tony Blair’s falsehoods used in dragging England into the Iraq war in 2003. I still hadn’t quite figured out what all had happened in this “baroquely plotted” novel. So I cheated. I went to Goodreads to skim a couple reader reviews. The second one I read reminded me that Coe is a big Tolkien fan. (Duh. That’s one of the reasons I had liked Middle England!) I went back,  reread the first parts of the first section and discovered that I had missed a very important clue and that I had forgotten a very important plot detail by the time I had picked up the book for the second go. At that point, I recognized that the story was, as they say in Britain, “brilliant.” If the book hadn’t been so long and the print so small, I might have picked it up and started all over again. Having said that, if you are not already a fan of Coe and familiar with some of his pet tropes, this is definitely not the book to start with.

Months and Months of Books (12/2018 to 4/2019)

What I have done since I last posted:

  • Celebrated Christmas 2018, New Year’s 2019, and two weddings (one of them my son’s).
  • Published my tale of woe about backyard birds: Bye, Bye Birdies.
  • Signed up for Medicare Part B.
  • Traveled to Hollidaysburg, PA (my hometown), once.
  • Traveled to New York City twice, for The Lehman Trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory and the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library.
  • Attended a play, two operas, and an open rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
  • Saw in person the following writers at various venues: David Sedaris, Dani Shapiro, Jennifer Egan, Roz Chast and Patricia Marx (together), Dave Barry, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Gopnik.
  • Churned out 10 alumni profiles for Princeton.
  • Read 20 books.

What I have not done since I last posted:

  • Written anything about those 20 books.

I am going to change that now. To make it easier for all of us, my comments will be brief. Below is the list of the 18 books that I read between December through April in the order that I read them, with title (F for fiction, NF for non-fiction), author, and my reaction. (I am determined to get back on track and will cover the May books in a June post.)

Unsheltered (F), Barbara Kingsolver: Another disappointing Kingsolver novel. Stick figure characters for Kingsolver’s soapbox. Her novels peaked at The Poisonwood Bible. Not Recommended

Almost Perfect Christmas (NF), Nina Stibbe: Seasonal essays by author of the very funny collection Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home. This one is fun, too. Recommended.

Calypso (NF), David Sedaris: I love David Sedaris’s essays. If you don’t, or haven’t read any, this is a good book to start with. Yes, there’s some snark, but also more compassion, generosity and humanity than in previous collections. Still lots of laughter. Highly Recommended.

Night of Camp David (F), Fletcher Knebel: A political thriller first published in 1965 following the ratification of the 25th amendment. A Senator believes that the president is insane and works to get him out of the White House. Vintage (strategically) reissued it in 2018. I learned a lot about Congress and its procedures. Recommended, but only as a novelty.

 My Life in Middlemarch (NF), Rebecca Mead: An elegant book by long-time New Yorker staff writer combining literary criticism and biography of George Eliot, with a little bit of Mead memoir thrown in. Highly recommended, especially for English majors.

The Victorian and the Romantic (NF), Nell Stevens: Using the same construct that Mead did, Stevens combines literary criticism and biography of Mary Gaskell with Stevens’ memoir thrown in. Too much speculation about a lesser author and too much memoir by a lesser writer. I like Stevens (see Bleaker House in my November News/Month of Books), but this book falls short. Not recommended.

The Master Bedroom (F), Tessa Hadley: An early (2007) Hadley novel with what have become classic elements for her: a large house that is falling apart and a dysfunctional family also falling apart. The characters are sympathetic, even when going wrong, and the story is wholly original, with surprising conclusions. Recommended.

 Manhattan Beach (F), Jennifer Egan: I confess that I was not a fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I loved this book. It’s a good, old-fashioned character- and plot-driven novel, primarily set during World War II at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Strong female lead, with gangsters and sailors and family mysteries. Highly Recommended.

Transcription (F), Kate Atkinson: At the time I read it, her most recent novel. (She now has a new Jackson Brodie novel out.) The story of an MI5 office in World War II London with a cast of characters differing from the usual spy novels. The book is enthralling, amusing, and so clever I almost started it all over again, just to figure out how Atkinson had pulled it off. Highly Recommended.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, (NF), David Sedaris: I chose to read this after I had seen David Sedaris live in early January. The early years are pretty tough going. Drugs. Promiscuity. Living rough. But it was in a way thrilling to read his “wishful thinking” in his 1980s entries, and then to “watch” as he works very hard at his career and acquires the very fame that he had hoped for along with a stable romantic partner. Recommended to existing Sedaris fans. (Others may be put off by those early years.)

Best American Essays 2018 (NF), guest ed. Hilton Als: I mentioned in an earlier post that these collections reflect the tastes of the guest editors. I could appreciate why Als chose the essays that he did, but reading them felt like homework. Not recommended.

The Library Book (NF), Susan Orlean: The story of the terrible Los Angeles Library fire in 1986. Orlean weaves in characters from the library’s past and present as well as information about libraries in general. Another Orlean book that combines extraordinary research and reporting with her impressive command of language and style. A great read. Highly recommended.

The Faraway Nearby (NF), Rebecca Solnit: Solnit is a columnist at Harper’s and is known for her “famously lyrical prose,” so I thought I ought to read something by her. This book is part memoir during her mother’s decline and death and part travel journalism. There were many exquisite passages, but I wasn’t committed enough to appreciate all of her complexity of style and format (e.g., a crawl that ran at the bottom of the pages throughout the book). The fault was mine, not hers. Others may be more up to the task. Recommended, with reservation.

Bowlaway (F), Elizabeth McCracken: I don’t know how I missed Elizabeth McCracken before this novel, though she has written other novels, short story collections, and a memoir. I’m going to have to catch up, because this book was terrific fun. Set in a small Massachusetts town at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a bit of a picaresque family saga with a matriarch who arrived in town out of nowhere and opened up a bowling alley. Things get even wilder after that, for a couple generations. Highly recommended.

Middle England (F), Jonathan Coe: The Guardian calls this “a bittersweet Brexit novel.” A group of close, now middle-aged, friends and their families live through the seemingly sudden cultural shift in England that leads to Brexit. The action takes place around Birmingham (the middle of England) and London. Coe writes with sharp humor and soft heart. The book is completely engaging, with its political satire balancing his affection for his characters caught in events. (This is the third of a trilogy about the same group of friends, but you don’t need to have read the earlier two books. I hadn’t read them.) Highly recommended.

Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Adventures in Gascony (NF), David McAninch: McAninch had a stint as editor at Saveur, but this was still only a “B” version of the “Hey family, let’s go live in France for a Year” genre. Its only distinction was that the area was Gascony rather than one of the more popular regions. Not Recommended.

Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog (NF), Dave Barry: I bought this book at the library event that featured Dave Barry. He was great in person, but I was a bit disappointed by the book. Not only had he covered many of the stories during his talk, the premise felt trite: dog teaches man how to live better. (Shades of Marley and Me.) Barry is clearly shaken by being on the other side of 70 (even though he still looks 15), and this comes through, making the book more poignant than punchy. Just not your typical Barry book. Not recommended.

The Incomplete Book of Running (NF), Peter Sagal: This book was a very big disappointment. It is billed as a memoir about how running has been helping Sagal (of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” fame) through some tough times since he was a kid, most recently through a painful divorce. I was prepared to be both sympathetic and amused. Instead, I found his mean-spirited harping about his ex-wife and daughters off-putting. I ended up being sympathetic for them, not him! And the book needed a good development editor: no discernible structure governing the chapters and we really didn’t have to hear about each of his bathroom breaks in his many marathons and training runs. Frankly, it’s a second-rate book that got published only because he’s the host of a funny NPR show. Not recommended.





November News/Month(s) of Books 2018

I last posted in early October, and even then I was two months behind in reporting on my book consumption. The days since have slipped through my fingers like water. I promise I have not been sitting around eating bon-bons (although I did go to London in October for eight wonderful days). What I have been doing is: writing and reading; getting my running program back on track (with a small blip or two); and preparing for the onslaught of the holidays, in the middle of which is scheduled son Jay’s wedding.

The latter two activities bore fruit in two essays. On November 28, Broad Street Review published my essay on coping with the pressure cooker that has been the holidays. Earlier in the fall, Humor Outcasts ran my essay on running in the rain. You can read them at these links: Overbooked for the Holidays and Have a Nice Trip

As for my reading…since the end of July I have read twelve books. (I took a little hiatus in October while I was traveling, resulting in my monthly average falling from four books a month to only three books a month. A slacker, I know.) In a ploy to get caught up, with the hope that come January I will be back on track, I am going to give quick summaries only of the books.


Julian Barnes, The Only Story (2018): Elegant, Barnes-ian prose and classic three-part dramatic structure, but ultimately it left me feeling sad.

Leah Franqui, America for Beginners (2018): Debut novel about three strangers brought together for a cross-country road-trip. She takes a little too long to get everyone into the same car, but it’s a sweet story in the vein of Anne Tyler. (Full disclosure: Leah is the daughter of one of my high school classmates and she went to school with my children. I’m starting to get jealous of all these youngsters I know getting published!)

Anne Tyler (herself), Clock Dance (2018): Much better than her last two — A Spool of Blue Thread and Vinegar Girl (part of the “Hogarth Shakespeare” project). I like settling in with an Anne Tyler. I know what I am going to get — but that may be faint praise.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (2015): Saw Atwood at a Free Library of Philadelphia Author Event and found her to be highly entertaining. I somehow missed this sense of humor in the handful of Atwood books I had read previously. It is definitely in fine form in this satire of a young couple, crushed in the economic downturn, “volunteering” for a planned community that purports to have the solution to all economic and societal ills. The current of wry humor runs through the whole book. I loved it.

Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success (2018): Shteyngart was also very entertaining during his Free Library of Philadelphia appearance (though in ways quite distinct from Margaret Atwood) and a copy of this book came with the tickets. I read it first, and it was not my cup of tea. Described as “a penetrating exploration of the ultra-rich .1%, [it] follows a billionaire hedge-fund manager who flees New York by bus in search of simpler life.” Even though I saw what the humor was, I just couldn’t get over that the protagonist was a clueless jerk who should have had his mouth washed out with soap. Having said that, Jon read it after I did and really enjoyed it. (Female vs. male perspective when reading? That’s for a different discussion!)

Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind (2018): I am a fan of cozy village murder mysteries, especially when they come in a series and I get to know all the principals over the course of years and years. Louise Penny is the queen of producing cozy (Canadian) village murder mysteries (with high octane plots). This is #14 of the Armand Gamache stories and is right up there with her best. (I will note, however, that this is the first time that I guessed the crux of one of the major plot lines as soon as it was introduced.)


Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First (2011): A classic Adam Gopnik book, combining erudite learning (in this case, the history of restaurants) and personal Gopnik lore (his love of cooking). Not everyone is a Gopnik fan, and I appreciate their reasons. Having said that, I am a long-time Gopnik fan whose appreciation of him was deepened last summer. By chance he and I were in the back of a church in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, awaiting the start of a Schubert concert. Recognizing him from various book jacket headshots, I screwed up my courage and went over to him. He was a delight. Personable, open and chatty. We had a short conversation about his books, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival and our mutual affection for Cape Cod in general. Now I can hear his voice in my head when I read him.

Nell Stevens, Bleaker House (2017): Fun memoir, especially for English majors. Stevens, who already had a PhD in Victorian literature, was an MFA candidate who won a grant to go anywhere in the world to work on writing a novel. Of all places, she picked Bleaker Island in the Falklands, practically a wasteland. She fails to write her novel, but comes to realize, among many other things, that she really should be doing non-fiction. She now has two more non-fiction books out as well as credits in the New York Times. And she’s only 32…

The Best American Travel Essays 2011, Sloane Crossley, guest editor: I don’t usually buy the “best travel” collection, sticking to the plain old “Best American Essays” series. But a number of years ago I picked up this one because Sloane Crossley was the guest editor. Not surprisingly, each year’s collection tends to reflect the temperament of the guest editor. This edition was no different. I enjoyed almost every one of the picks that Crossley made, even the ones that weren’t overtly “humor pieces.”

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (2016): Widely recognized as a leader among today’s geochemists and geobiologists, Hope Jahren has produced an extraordinary memoir that is also a science textbook. Her writing is lyrical as she intertwines her growth as a scientist with the growth of the very plants and trees she studies. Even in the 1990s, it was not easy to be “a girl” among men in her various scientific and academic communities, yet she surmounted every challenge. Her fierce determination and dedication to her calling are almost unfathomable to someone like me, an English major who has skipped around all over the place. But I couldn’t put the book down, it is such a compelling story. If you read only one book from this list of mine, read this book.

The other two books were the equivalent of junk food: Peter Mayle’s last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, which must have been pulled together quickly just before his death and deserved better editing, and A Time of Love and Tartan, one of the five gazillion books that Alexander McCall Smith has pumped out from his writing desk in Edinburgh. The two really shouldn’t count, but they did keep me distracted through a very bumpy four hours on the second half of our flight home from London.

And now, I am off to a wedding…

A Month of Books: July 2018

Books Read:

The Italian Teacher (2018) – Tom Rachman
Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) – Hans Keilson
Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books (2016) – Ursula Le Guin
Upstream: Selected Essays (2016) – Mary Oliver

My two favorite books in July also happened to be two “slender volumes”—Keilson’s novel Comedy in a Minor Key and Oliver’s essay collection “Upstream.” Even though the two together added up to barely 300 pages, they each held me rapt in their words far longer than did the other two books.

The Keilson novel sat on my “To Read” shelf in our living room for years. I first learned of him when Francine Prose profiled him for the New York Times in 2010. Keilson, a Jewish German/Dutch novelist and physician, had been in the Dutch Resistance during WWII and set many of his works in the war years. He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2009, and in 2010 two of his most well known (in Europe) novels, Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) and The Death of the Adversary (1959), came out in English. I chose Comedy over Death for my shelf. Keilson died in 2011, and the book continued to sit on the shelf. I don’t know what prompted me to pick it up this summer. It’s not exactly a beach read. But I am very glad that I did. An ordinary young Dutch couple, Wim, a bookkeeper in a factory, and Marie, a housewife, have been hiding a Jew, Nico, during the last days of the Nazi occupation. Nico dies of pneumonia while with them, and they are faced with having to dispose of his body. Of course, there is nothing “ordinary” about this at all, as the perilous task could expose them. Keilson’s quiet, elegant story-telling makes the extraordinary courage and compassion of the couple, and others in their community who are also part of the Resistance with them, both more real and more miraculous than any melodramatic rendition could have done.

In five sections, Mary Oliver’s Upstream offers essays on nature, literature, and Cape Cod. They span her life, from her childhood in a suburb of Cleveland through her nearly 50 years of living in Provincetown. (She only recently relocated to Florida.) The middle section’s studies of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth were a little too close to literary criticism for me, bringing back memories of graduate school. I sped through those. But every one of the essays in the other four sections was a delight to read. Oliver is, of course, a poet. And her word choice is so finely tuned, the detail so precise, that you see what she is seeing and feel what she is feeling, whether it is delight or discovery or, very rarely, despair. Here is her description of turtles in egg-laying season:

They come, lumbering, from the many ponds. They dare the dangers of path, dogs, the highway, the accumulating heat that their bodies cannot regulate, or the equally stunning, always possible cold.

     Take one. She has reached the edge of the road, now she slogs up the impossible hill. When she slides back she rests for a while, then trundles forward again. Emerging wet from the glittering caves of the pond, she travels in a coat of glass and dust. (p. 51)

And you don’t have to be a woodsman or “outdoorsy” person to enjoy reading these essays. (I went camping in the Adirondacks once, and once was enough.) Read the essays for the pleasure of witnessing a master at work.

On the surface, the content of Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter resembles Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done. (See Month of Books April/May.) The sections are:

Talks, Essays, Occasional Pieces
Book Intros and Notes on Writers
Book Reviews

Just the kind of stuff I love to read. In spite of the similarity, though, I could not warm to the Le Guin material in the same way I warmed to Moore’s. Le Guin’s use of language enlightened but (at least for me) didn’t entertain, so I was reading on only one level. And she was often pretty grumpy, whether about the dire state of the publishing industry, clutched in the paws of giant corporations (inarguable), or about her unhappiness that science fiction (about which I know nothing) is always treated as a second-tier genre. The not trivial number of negative reviews she chose to include surprised me. In particular, she was a bit rough on Margaret Atwood. I couldn’t help feeling that in those reviews lurked some underlying envy that Atwood’s dystopian novels were treated as mainstream. (In Le Guin’s judgment,  the novels of Atwood and Jan Morris should be categorized as Sci-Fi.) On the positive side, I wholeheartedly agreed with her on several of her conclusions: not a fan of Wallace Stegner, big fan of Kent Haruf and  José Saramago. The best part of the book was in the last 15 pages: a 1994 journal of a week at a women writers’ retreat north of Seattle. In these pages I saw Le Guin the writer rather than the critic, and I liked her very much. She captured the evolution of her initial unease about even attending the retreat into her deep appreciation for the natural setting, the friendships that developed and, ultimately, the writing that grew out of her stay: “all the beauty, the sunlight, the rabbits, the deer, the walks, the good fellowship of the younger women, the sweet deep silence of the nights, and the waking to see the treetops through the tulip window of the loft in the first light—all that was gravy.” Her descriptions of “all that” were the meat of the piece for me.

I won’t spend much time on Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher. I had very much enjoyed his 2010 novel The Imperfectionists, but this one disappointed. The basic tale is the classic one of a son, overshadowed by a famous father (in this case, a renowned painter), who dwells in that shadow his whole life, never reaching any heights in anything that he chooses to do, including becoming a painter himself. The interesting story embedded in the chronicle of the son’s life is that the son, as an adult, actually copies his father’s paintings and fraudulently sells them. But even that episode peters out. Olga Grushin in a New York Times review reacted to this section with, “I, for one, found it highly ambiguous and not a little horrifying. Yet so apparent are Rachman’s humanity and intelligence throughout that this ambiguity must be fully intended.” I don’t share her assumption that the ambiguity was intended. The book felt as though he had written quickly and just had to wind things up. I’m not sure Rachman even took the time to let an editor go over it before publication. Surely an editor would have objected to the sentence construction of a character “deploring himself” and to Rachman’s sloppy overuse of adverbs, e.g., “Grinningly, Pinch waves this away.” That one would have had such an easy fix!

(So speaks the former English teacher…)

A Month of Books: June 2018

Books Read:

In This House of Brede (1969) – Rumer Godden

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) – Lorrie Moore

Warlight (2018) – Michael Ondaatje                                                      

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (2018) – Tim Kreider (essays)

In June, a friend recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, and a long dormant memory cell lit up. I had read The River when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Although I couldn’t remember the story, I did remember the pleasure in reading it, an exotic author taking me to India, a land of lush greens and brilliant colors.

Well, a quick search on Rumer Godden revealed that she was Margaret Rumer Godden, and while she was living in India as an expat she ran “Peggy’s School of Dance.” So much for exotic author. But she was a prolific British writer who received the OBE, so I carried on with the book, which depicted a world that could not have been farther from the India of The River. The quick Wikipedia synopsis is “Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman, leaves her comfortable life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community of contemplative nuns.” Frankly, the book was more of a chronicle than a novel, setting out details of liturgical life and relating high and low moments for the order, without much of an engaging narrative arc. I couldn’t generate a lively interest in a closed order in an abbey near an English country town. I couldn’t keep track of the various nuns and their titles. And I couldn’t shake a sense of claustrophobia while I read. Having said that, the first chapter, describing Philippa’s preparations for leaving the outside world and the people who loved her, and the last chapter, describing Philippa’s departure for a new community even farther removed from Worcestershire are so exquisite that reading the whole book was almost worth it. It was a reverse Wizard of Oz. The first and last chapters are written in Technicolor, while the main story is all grey tones

The other two novels are works by a new favorite writer and an old favorite writer.

In Moore’s second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, narrator Berie Carr, vacationing in Paris with her husband, reflects back on the summer she was 15, when she and her best friend Sils worked at Storyland in Horsehearts, their small town in upstate New York. Moore captures the desultory pace of a small town in the summer of 1972, the close friendships teenage girls develop, the uncertain sexual ground the girls walk, and the reckless paths that they can choose without thinking. When Sils gets into trouble, Berie crosses a line in order to help her and is caught. The summer is shattered, with Berie effectively banished from Horsehearts. Berie goes on to private school and college, to a career as a photographic curator and marriage to a physician—surely what ought to be considered a successful escape from a small town. Yet none of these later stages brings Berie any joy, and her marriage is tense.  For Berie, that small-town time, not only with her best friend but also with other girls in her class, shimmers golden, as is captured in a beautiful elegy to her high school’s Girls Choir. While it might not sound like the jolliest story, this slim volume is a gem and a joy to read. Moore’s humor and humanity shine through her elegant prose.

I loved The English Patient. I read it slowly, savoring the writing as well the romance of the story. When the movie came out, I refused to see it—in spite of its illustrious cast. I didn’t want the movie on the screen to disturb the movie in my head. I liked Warlight, which came out a couple months ago, but it is no English Patient. I have to confess, I may have read it too fast to really take it all in. Set in London and in the nearby counties, the novel is a mystery story. Why do the parents of 14-year-old Nathaniel and 16-year-old Rachel take off during the last days of World War II and leave them in the care of a disreputable cast of characters? Nathaniel narrates from a vantage point of 14 years later, so it is also a bit of a coming of age novel. The first section focuses on the immediate year or so after his parents disappear, with later sections going back and forth between those teen years and his perspective as an adult. He does eventually unravel the mystery and, without giving too much away, it turns out that the mother is more hero than villain. Yet Nathaniel always remains detached from her story. And I remained detached from Nathaniel, just wanting to get to the solution of the mystery. Even then the facts resist clarity, and perhaps that was Ondaatje’s goal: to tell a tale only partially visible through “warlight”— the dim, foggy light of a London night during the blitz when black-out curtains were drawn. One could only see events cloaked in mist. They could never be discerned clearly.

I fell for Tim Kreider on August 4, 2014, the day I read his essay “A Man and His Cat” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. The essay opens with, “I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife.” The essay touches on how people over-invest in their pets, the money we over-spend on pets, the pathological syndrome of over-attachment to an inappropriate object. Mostly it’s about how Tim Kreider loves his cat. Not how much he loves his cat, but funny, self-effacing examples of how he loves his cat. I immediately Googled him and found he had published a collection of essays in 2012, We Learn Nothing. Amazon Prime delivered it two days later, and I had gobbled it up by the next afternoon. The essays were wide-ranging – personal stories, comic sketches, astute observations — with the same funny, self-effacing, voice, but sometimes with a touch of pleasant snark and often with salty language that must have been held in check for the NYT. I added the book to my “saved” essay collections that I keep within an arm’s length of my writing desk.

When his next collection, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, came out earlier this year, I gobbled that one up, too. In each essay, Kreider limns an affectionate, often loopy, occasionally learned look at an episode in which a different dearly loved woman — ex-girlfriend, close friend (sometimes with benefits), confidant, counselor, co-conspirator — has a starring role. The cast includes an actress and an artist, a schoolteacher and a sex worker, a child development researcher and a pastor of a Brooklyn church, his mother… and his cat (in a revised version of the NYT piece). For an epigraph, Kreider quotes Fred (“Mister”) Rogers: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” While Kreider may be a self-professed failure at making romantic commitment, he excels at giving this best gift, the gift of his honest self. He has given this to the women and to the readers. He can be “hilarious and profound,” witty and wry. He is sentimental without being sappy, and he wears his heart on his sleeve as often as he holds his head in his hands in reaction his own faults and fancies. Reading the essays made me wish that I could be one of Tim Kreider’s friends.



A Month (or two) of Books: April/May 2018

Books Read, Fiction:

Foreign Affairs (1984) – Alison Lurie

A Summons to Memphis (1986) – Peter Taylor

The Monsters of Templeton (2008) – Lauren Groff                                                      

A Long Way from Home (2017) – Peter Carey

Every Shiny Thing (2018) – Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Books Read, Non-Fiction:

Look Alive Out There: Essays (2018) ­­– Sloane Crosley

Autumn (2017) ­­– Karl Ove Knausgaard

See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (2018) – Lorrie Moore

I started this Month of Books installment on June 13. In a ’40s movie (or even in this year’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”) pages flying off a wall calendar would represent my extended delay. What was taking me so long? I had eight books to cover. I started with snapshots of the novels, only to find myself mired down, starting over and then reluctant to open up the Word document at all. The fact is, the only novel I enjoyed was Every Shiny Thing. Full disclosure: Laurie Morrison, one of the co-authors of this middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia, is the daughter of a dear friend, and my copy was an autographed gift. I am not biased, however, when I say it was the only one of the five that I couldn’t put down. I really wanted to find out how the two middle school girls at a Quaker private school got through the predicaments they faced. The writing does not talk down, the voices of the two narrators are distinctive and genuine, and I recommend it as an example of the best kind of age-targeted novels out there today.

In contrast to the other four novels, all three of the non-fiction collections were noteworthy.

Look Alive out There is Sloane Crosley’s third essay collection. Her first collection came out in 2008, promptly became a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and was optioned for an HBO series. I was a fan of hers even before then as she originated the “Townies” column in the New York Times, and has since written for every publication a humor essayist would want to write for. And her 40th birthday is still weeks away! She writes of dealing with noisy neighbors, ascending a volcano, having an older relative who was a porn star, catching cabs in New York City. Her observations of the world around her can be laugh-out-loud funny, darkly mordant, gently snarky, and, in this third volume, poignant – sometimes all in the same essay. I am wildly jealous of Sloane Crosley. I want to be the Sloane Crosley of her mother’s generation.

Lorrie Moore is probably best known for her short story collections, in particular Birds of America (1998), which was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards. I first came to her through her novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Two scenes in that novel are so harrowing that I still have bad dreams about them. When she appeared on the Author Events schedule at the Free Library of Philadelphia I signed up, to see what she was like in person. Turns out she was terrific, completely engaging and entertaining, with a sly, dry sense of humor. She read an excerpt from her non-fiction collection See What Can Be Done, a recounting of her spur of the moment wedding. Her timing and intonation were pitch perfect. (Not all authors read their own works well.) And her handling of the Q&A was generous. Luckily, I had bought a copy of the book before the talk started, so I stood in (the long) line to get her autograph – not because I wanted the autograph, but because I wanted to ask this charming, lovely woman how she had written those two scenes that haunt me. When I asked her, she sat back, thought a moment, then said she didn’t know how she did it, that she procrastinated and kept writing around them. Not a complete answer, but I got the sense it was as hard for her to write the two scenes as it was for me to read them. I then started reading the new book in the car on the way home. (Jon was driving.) It is also terrific, completely engaging and entertaining. A chronological sampling of her non-fiction writing from 1983 to 2017, the bulk of the pieces in the collection are book reviews she has written for the New York Review of Books. But Moore’s book reviews are really broad-ranging essays. She also includes profiles and a handful of traditional personal essays. Each piece was a delight to read. Her reviews range from Nora Ephron to John Updike, Alice Munro to Richard Ford. She also covers television series and movies. Her range of knowledge is awe-inspiring, and her agility with the English language and metaphor so potent that you always know exactly what she means and then some. For example, when talking about the television series True Detective (a show I never watched, but now wish I had) she praises the originality of the program, noting that key elements are “in perfect sync with one another.” The setting, the cinematography, and the acting are “all threaded on the same needle” by the director. She is also a champion of the novel form: “We don’t always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us.” And she is wary of academic film theory, “often written in a prose with the forensic caress of an appliance warranty.” She is fun to read (if a little too fond of adverbs). She also happens to be part of another one of my spooky coincidences. I learned that Lorrie Moore was a student of Alison Lurie’s at Cornell, and a generation later Moore was a mentor to Lauren Groff. I had no clue of this inter-generational connection when I chose my novels for this set of reading.

I recommend the Crosley and Moore collections without reservation. In fact, I strongly encourage you to have both handy to dip into whenever you want a treat. The third essay collection, Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is another matter.

To quote Wikipedia, “Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author, known for six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle.” I had read enough about these novels to know that I wasn’t interested in reading them. However, about a year ago I enjoyed his essay on chewing gum in the Sunday New York Times Magazine‘s “Recommendations” column and noted that it was adapted from an essay in Autumn. I also learned that Autumn was the first of four collections of essays, gathered by season, written as letters to his then unborn daughter. This premise appealed to me, so I bought the book. The essays are short sketches of things encountered in his every day life. Some are beautiful renderings of unlikely subjects (Petrol); some are silly (Bed); some are surprisingly fun (Telephones) and charming (Toilet Bowls, “the swans of the bath chamber”). Some I could do without (Piss, Vomit), and some I just couldn’t follow at all (Silence). The bigger concern for me, however, is what I always struggle with when reading something in translation. What am I really reading? How much of the nuances of Norwegian am I missing, or conversely, how much of some of the charm is actually due to the work of the translator, in this case Ingvild Burkey? And what’s with the weird punctuation? Was that also an attempt to capture something about the flow of Norwegian prose, or was it just that Penguin didn’t want to let a copy editor near the book?

In any event, I cannot in good conscience recommend Autumn without reservation. Yet I am glad that I read it, and I have bought both Winter and Spring. I’ll keep you posted.




April/May News

Once again, “work-for-hire” assignments took up the bulk of my writing time during April and May. On the creative side, I posted only one lone piece on the Humor Outcasts website: my argument with Virginia Woolf over the nature of moths. You can find it by clicking on this title: Death to the Moth.

I did keep reading and will be sharing my thoughts on those books, short and long, in an upcoming “Month(s) of Books.” For now, though, some examples of uncanny connections and a question about coincidence.

  • One of the books that I read was the 2008 debut novel by Lauren Groff (of Fates and Furies fame). The setting is Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, NY, given the alias Templeton in the book. One of the major characters is the editor of Templeton’s newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal. A week after I finished the book, I read an article in The Writer written by “Libby Cudmore, who is the current managing editor of the Freeman’s Journal in Coopertown, NY.”
  • Two weeks ago an essay promoted in “Literary Hub,” a digest of “The Best of the Literary Internet,” caught my eye. It was written by a Tom McAllister, who had taught a non-fiction workshop in the very first Philadelphia Writer’s Conference I attended. (I hadn’t thought he was a very good teacher, but he continues to get books and articles published and I continue to read them, in an annoyed kind of way.) The link took me to McAllister’s lament that none of his friends or family ever buy his books. The publishing site was “The Millions.” I had never heard of it. Two mornings later, in New Sentences, my favorite column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson featured a sentence written by Lydia Kiesling…”the editor of the website The Millions.”
  • Several months ago when I was doing a Times crossword puzzle, I could not get the clue “those involved with forensics.” Crime labs didn’t fit. Coroners didn’t fit. Auditors didn’t fit. The following morning I was astonished to see that the answer was “debaters.” Debaters? What do debaters have to do with forensics? Well, those with better vocabularies than mine apparently know. In particular, David Sedaris knows. The very next day I read a piece about Sedaris in which, among other things, he shared that he likes to write speeches for high school debate teams “when they are practicing forensics,” or argumentative skills.

I have many more examples. I’ve been keeping a file. Is there some scientific explanation for these types of colliding occurrences? Is it some brain activity, like the explanation for déjà vu? Is it just a weirdly high rate of coincidences? Am I reading too much into it? Or am I just reading too much, period?

And now for something completely different…

I have to share an item from the May 2018 issue of the AARP Bulletin, page 12. It is extracted from an article distinguishing spurious health fads from genuine health fixes. Below is a clip, verbatim, describing one of the genuine fixes:

Fecal Transplant Donor stool with healthy bacteria inserted into a patient’s colon to alter the flora and treat ailments such as lupus and diabetes. “People have pooh-poohed this idea for years,” Ligresti said.

A sly piece of AARP humor, or just a tone deaf editor?



A Month of Books: March 2018

Books Read:

Miller’s Valley (2016) – Anna Quindlen

The Essex Serpent (2016) – Sarah Perry

Heroes of the Frontier (2016) – Dave Eggers                                                      

Keeping On Keeping On (2016) – Alan Bennett (collection of prose pieces)

(I’ve only just now noticed that all of my March books were published in 2016. Purely coincidental. I did not go on a nostalgic pre- Nov. 8, 2016, binge.)

Miller’s Valley is Quindlen’s eighth (of nine) novels and the fourth one that I have read. I read them because I am a big fan of her essays. (I wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Anna Quindlen or Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I started reading at the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. Of course, we are all around the same age, but that hasn’t changed my aspirations.) I haven’t become a big fan of Quindlen’s novels. I can appreciate that they are well-written and well-constructed, but that’s it. Miller’s Valley did not change my impression.

And I am a big fan of Dave Eggers the person. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was great. He does good things with his publishing house McSweeney’s and with 826 National, his network of seven tutoring centers around the country. I met him a couple months ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was promoting The Monk of Mocha, his latest non-fiction book. I bought a copy and in it he wrote a lovely inscription to my daughter, who has volunteered at the Boston center of 826. However, I find his novels uneven: I liked A Hologram for the King (2012), but gave up on The Circle (2013). Heroes of the Frontier was just frustrating. In this book, described in a New York Times review as a “picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age,” the “heroes” are Josie and her two young children and the frontier is Alaska. Running away from the mess that is her life in the lower 48, Josie has packed her kids into a rattle-trap RV and they go on one ill-conceived adventure after another. I get the “picaresque” because of the adventures without a real plot. But “coming of age” requires some narrative arc, and I detected none. She lacks judgment at the beginning of the novel and lacks judgment at the end, and she consistently puts her children at risk. I mostly just wanted to strangle her.

Now to the books I did like…!

The Essex Serpent is the second novel by British author Sarah Perry, but the first to be published in the U.S. Set at the very end of the 19th century, the story entwines two plots: (1) the growing hysteria among the populace of a small village on England’s eastern coast that a mythical murdering sea creature has returned as divine punishment on the village for some unknown corporate transgression and (2) the consequences of independence for a wealthy recently widowed London woman (Cora), an excellent amateur naturalist who relocates to the village with her son in her quest to find a scientific answer to the serpent mystery and in the process strikes up a close friendship with the village vicar. Perry is an elegant and engaging writer with a nice wit who can capture a moment with wry lines such as, her “father,…whose tenants liked him contemptuously,…had gone out of business” or, upon Cora having uttered an empty pleasantry, she and a cripple “both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass.” She also uses the word “livid” in its 19th century meaning (to describe a discoloration of the skin, not an emotional state) so that it would be contemporary with the time of the novel’s setting. That was pretty impressive. (I taught Wuthering Heights for a number of years in my schoolmarm days, and the word “livid” shows up all over the place in that book.)

Perry’s novel is a classic late Victorian novel, with Gothic overtones and several subplots, and is a fun read (if a little long). But Perry also brings a 21st-century sensibility to her portrait of the complicated relationship between the highly intelligent country pastor and the highly intelligent – and willful – woman not his wife. Perry examines friendship, irrational fear, and the literal and figurative serpent in our midst. No fairy tale ending here, but also no moralizing punishment meted out, as it might have been if written more than hundred years ago. It was a refreshing study of how passionate yet compassionate people manage to work things out. Since 2014, Sarah Perry has won or been short- and long-listed for more than a dozen awards in Britain for her two novels. I look forward to her next book.

As for the Alan Bennett collection, to be truthful, I am still reading it, have been reading it for a couple months, and expect to be reading it for another couple months as it is 700 pages long. It is a delight. Bennett has been one of England’s most charming men of letters and comic writers since “Beyond the Fringe” in the 1960s. He’s probably best known as a dramatist (“The History Boys,” “Lady in the Van”). He is also a wonderful diarist and his diaries from 2005 to 2015 make up the bulk of this collection. (I am up to 2011.) To read his diaries is to live vicariously an idyllic life (at least for an English major and Anglophile). He and his partner Rupert divide their time between their home in London and their home in Yorkshire. They plan outings to village churches far off the M roads. They have tea with their friend Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire to us). Bennett spends his “working” days at a writing desk in Gloucester Crescent or backstage with actors we’ve come to know from watching four decades of Masterpiece Theatre. He writes with gentle, yet sardonic, humor and a clear-eyed assessment of what has been lost as he ages and as Britain stumbles into the 21st century. If you’ve never read any Alan Bennett, you might not want to start with a 700-page tome. Try The Lady in the Van (non-fiction) or The Uncommon Reader (fiction). If you do know Bennett’s work, this collection is a treasure.

March News

Since my last “News” bulletin, only one creative piece has managed to escape from my computer. It was a remembrance of things past as I approached an interesting milestone: receiving my Medicare card. (No madeleines were involved.) The piece was posted on Humor Outcasts: Crushing It.

I wish I had more to report  for March, although I wasn’t completely idle. I wrote a half dozen biographical profiles that will be of interest to Princeton alumni when they vote this spring for alumni trustees to the University’s board. The profiles do not have entertainment value. Instead, I am going to use this space to share my admiration for Sarah Ruhl, the American playwright who, among many other things, was nominated for a Tony Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for her play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” She is also on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and is a wonderful essayist. In 2014, she published 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. The subtitle is “On umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater,” and that’s only a partial list of topics. The essays (in addition to being envy-enducing) are engaging, entertaining, and in many instances  enlightening.  Essay #13 is “The drama of the sentence,” a meditation on the power of individual sentences, on the importance of how “word follows word,” transcending just the telling of a story. (Sam Anderson in his “New Sentences” column in the “New York Times Magazine” also focuses on the power of a single sentence.)

Below are two sentences that I’ve saved as examples of the power a careful arrangement of word following word can have:

“What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realised, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf afterwards.” (From Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl.)

“Lynwood was malevolent, truculent, and brittle, and it seemed as if one were always in midsentence with him, as if the subject had been lost but the verb was firing like a crazed piston so that one might perceive the action but not the context.” (From Kenneth A. McClane’s essay “Sparrow Needy” in The Best American Essays 2017.)