I’ve been putting this off for a couple of reasons…

Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

Mostly, writing this review is making me feel like I’m a pretty bad person. The author’s love for his wife and his grief at her loss really comes through and I appreciated Sheffield being so open and honest in his writing. And, I’ll admit it, I cried pretty darn hard during the chapters dealing with his wife’s death and his grieving process, but mostly I just couldn’t identify with either Sheffield or Renee. It may be because they are infinitely cooler than I’ll ever be, at least when it comes to music and being on top of the Next Big Thing – or it may be because they’re just enough older than me that even though I recognize some (about half, I’d say) of the bands and songs Sheffield mentions, I wasn’t grown-up enough to have the same sorts of memories associated with them that they do. I’m not sure I’m being clear – basically, when Sheffield and Renee were busy being a broke newlywed couple drinking beer and listening to The Smiths or Nirvana, I was a junior high kid singing along to Mariah Carey.

If you’re 10 years older than I am or you have an older sibling who was 10 years older than I was, you’ll probably find yourself liking Sheffield and Renee a lot better than I did. No matter how old you are, though, it will make you think about the fragility of life and love and cry a bit about it.

My rating: B-

What a lucky bitch!*

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

When I started this book, I kept thinking “Ugh, I’m gonna hate this lucky bitch” – I mean, she gets to eat at the most fabulous restaurants in New York City (in the 90s) on the New York Times payroll – jealous, much? But I didn’t hate her – she’s still a lucky bitch, but I definitely didn’t hate her.

She came across in her writing as funny and thoughtful and honest and, holy hell, does she know how to talk about food! It must be one of the hardest things to write about, right up there with music – how do you describe something in words that can be experienced with every sense except…well, reading isn’t a sense, but you know what I mean. But she definitely manages it – I could picture, smell, and almost taste every dish she wrote about, even the bad ones!

Part of the fun of the book is also the disguises she comes up with, completely disappearing into other personas in an attempt to dine anonymously – some bring out the best in her (Brenda) while others are the worst (Emily). I found her less pleasant identities a little awkward to read about as she really did go all out and very nearly become the characters she created, even the pretentious, rude ones and it wasn’t fun to read about her being horrid to waiters and every once in a while, her fellow diners. At her worst, Emily, it is Marion Cunningham of all people (not Ritchie’s mother, but the cookbook author instead) who brings her around and leads to one of my favorite moments in the book. I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s worth the slog through Emily’s night out to get to the end of the story.

But mostly it’s a love letter to the food scene in New York City – and not because all of the restaurants are fabulous, they’re not and she includes those reviews along with the positive ones (I think there’s only one restaurant that receives a 4-star review included in the book, I don’t know how many she [or, for that matter, other reviewers] handed down over the years she spent reviewing for the Times). It’s a love letter to the vibrancy of the variety and options available in New York – she goes to super fancy restaurants like The Rainbow Room, Le Cirque, and the Box Tree but she also goes to noodle joints (though it sounds like those aren’t cheap either) and a friend of hers takes her on a food tour of New York towards the end of the book that sounds like heaven.

I wish I had the financial resources – or the job at the Times – to gain her level of knowledge about food and wines because it sounds like it brings the experience to a whole other level.

My rating: B+ (I would have given her an A, but I’m a petty, petty blogger who can’t bring myself to give such a lucky bitch an A even though she probably deserves it)

*[Yes, I know she’s not just lucky, she’s talented and worked hard to get where she is, but I’m going to comfort myself with the lucky bitch thing.]

LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLLLLLLLLLLE!

Welcome to the first ever Three Men in Various Places SMACKDOWN!

In this corner, written seven years before our current champion but lacking a dog…it’s Three in Norway (By Two of Them)!

And in this corner, still laugh-out-loud funny over a hundred years after its publication and holding a very special place in your announcer’s heart; it’s the book that’s so good, its author was named twice…it’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)!

Okay, we all know how this is going to end, but when I saw that this Three in Norway (By Two of Them) was the inspiration for my favorite book in the history of the ever-ever, I figured I should give it a read. And, actually, I’m glad I did because it makes me appreciate Jerome K. Jerome’s writing ability even more. Not that Three in Norway is bad, it’s just…different. While they’re both ostensibly travelogues, I think only Three in Norway really is and I’m afraid I think that’s what makes it less enjoyable.

The authors’ voice takes a little getting used to as its written in a strange mix of third person and first person (no one ever refers to themselves as “I” but they do say “we”), but mostly it’s just quite…dry. I never really felt like I cared about the three characters and the three of them all seemed fairly interchangeable – unlike George, Harris and J. who are both charming and memorable.

Also, there’s a lot of fishing. I mean, a LOT of fishing. And reindeer hunting. Neither of which are really my thing and I don’t think it’s possible to make fishing seem exciting, so there are quite long stretches of story where I was just bored. One person I lent Three Men in a Boat to gave it back to me after they’d finished it and said “I didn’t really get it – nothing happened.” Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last much longer. Turns out all those asides and tangents that Jerome incorporates keeps things lively and interesting – otherwise it would just be three dudes in a boat on the Thames. Three in Norway, on the other hand, never ventures out of the present moment (or hardly ever does).

To be fair, I think the Two of Them were not going for the same comic effect that Jerome was – and if you’re wanting to go hunting and fishing in the wilds of Norway with Three in Norway as your guide, you’d probably be glad of that. But, really, apart from there being three men and the fact that they’re going somewhere, I would say there are actually very few similarities between the two (yes, I know Jerome originally did intend his book to be a genuine travelogue – thank goodness that didn’t work out!).

I dogeared a couple of Jerome-esque pages to show you that there are glimpses of a similar wit here and there:

Lighting a fire for breakfast was a toilsome busines, but at last we found some wood dry enough to burn. It continued raining in a nice keep-at-it-all-day-if-you-like kind of manner, so we resided in the tent, and read, and indulged in whisky and water for lunch to counteract any ill effects of the reading–for some of it was poetry. (p. 38)

They also get into one or two situations that would do George, Harris, and J. proud:

Soon the cauldron was heated and brought into the tent, and the eager crowd drew near with cups and spoons, and one lifted the lid, while another plunged his cup into the steaming savoury mess. And then arose a great cry of horror and desolation, and the sleeping valley rang with the wail of men in despair, for John had put the wrong pot on the fire, and we had been presented with boiling, dirty water in which the dinner-things had been washed up; while all the time the soup pot was quiet, untouched and cold in the corner of the tent where it is kept.

And speaking of their tent, these guys have a pretty sweet setup going! I mean, an actual camp with a stove they built themselves and everything – and they bake bread in it!

The one place where these three outshine George, Harris, and J. is in their actual woodsmen skills – George, Harris, and J. would have starved to death on the first day if they’d relied on fishing and hunting for their sustenance.

And I do have to give them credit for recognizing genius when they see it:

We all think Mark Twain the best writer for camp life that has yet been discovered, and we have three or four of his books here. Besides our library of light literature consists of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dr. Johnson’s Table-talk, and novels by Whyte Melville, Walford, and Thackeray. But Mark and William get more work than all the rest. (p. 173)

Let’s be honest, we all knew this was never going to be a fair fight, but I think Three in Norway does an admirable job at the attempt even though it doesn’t quite make it. But if I ever go fishing in Norway, it’ll be the first book I turn to.

I’m keeping it short and sweet…

Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stories by Mike Birbiglia

You know what? I’ve been staring at this post for a while now, trying to think of what to say and I’m just going to have to take my cue from Virgil Thomson: I like Mike Birbiglia; I also like his comedy and his book.

My rating: B+ (And that’s only because he includes bits that he’s already used in his standup – if it had been all new material, I would have given it an A.)

 

Nonfiction: Awesomeness

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

Okay, I probably should have labelled this Nonfiction: Pop Culture Essays because that would have been more specifically accurate, but when it comes to Chuck Klosterman, I can’t help myself. He’s amazing! I’m afraid I’ve let this review go for too long because I was too intimidated about gathering my thoughts into a coherent manner that would do this book justice, so I really have nothing clever or particularly relevant to say other than that he is a pop culture genius and that you should read the book.

Basically, he takes pop culture (e.g., Kurt Cobain, Alfred Hitchcock, and Abba) and somehow, SOMEHOW BECAUSE HE’S A GENIUS, uses it to make super-insightful inferences about people and society. The one about Hitchcock and voyeurism and reality television is my favorite, I think. That and the Abba one. Oh, and the laugh track one! That’s my favorite favorite one. I would try to explain them to you, but it will just devolve into complete and utter fangirling and, anyway, I’d never be as eloquent and yet concise as he is.

My rating: A

p.s. – Chuck, I totally read the football essay even though you said I could skip ahead to the one about Abba, but I stuck it out! And even though I didn’t understand a word of your supporting evidence for your theory that the NFL and football are actually forward-thinking sports in the guise of old-school conservativ…ism(Is that a word?), I completely bought it and thought it was very insightful. Which I have to admit is not a word I thought I’d ever type in the same sentence as the word football.

Nonfiction: Memoir

Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin

I know she can be a little divisive – when my mom unwrapped this present at Christmas, my grandmother exclaimed ‘Oh, I can’t stand her!’ – but I (and my mom, obviously) really like Kathy Griffin. So I was intrigued by her memoir. From watching her specials (I’ve never really seen much of My Life on the D-List) and based on her stand-up, which is mostly gossip based), I assumed she would be a fairly superficial person and wasn’t sure she’d have much to say, but I was sure it would be entertaining at least.

Boy, was I proved wrong!

She comes across as a very mature, smart, and, yes, thoughtful person. Like Craig Ferguson, she strikes me as somebody who puts a lot of thought into the decisions she makes. And, man, is she hard working! Talk about paying your dues. No matter if you like her or not, if you read her memoir, you wouldn’t be able to deny that she has worked hard to get where she is and deserves all of her success (such as it is).

And she really seems to honestly enjoy what she does – she’d have to, considering how many setbacks and opposition she’s met along the way – and she knows how lucky she is to get to do something she loves so much.

I think she has a little bit of trouble connecting with the reader and I can’t really put my finger on why I feel that way. She’s very open about her family and her struggles trying to make it in LA and her frustration as everybody but her seemed to be succeeding, but sometimes it still sort of feels like she’s performing a bit. But it wasn’t until she was finished talking about her marriage that I felt like her writing had become more personal.

My rating: B+

p.s. – I’ll admit I was thrown by the chapter on her relationship with Steve Wozniak – I still am not sure what was going on there – but everything else I thoroughly enjoyed.

Graphic Novel/Memoir

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

I couldn’t sleep this morning and once the sun started to come up and the birds started to chirp (and for once were not drowned out by the wind tunnel that is our condo here), I gave in and got up. It’s already a beautiful day, so I decided to sit on the balcony and finish French Milk.

If I hadn’t already been a fan of her art and her writing from reading her blog (I’ll have to cone back and add links when I get home – I don’t know how to do it in Edward’s WordPress app), her book would have convinced me from the very beginning. She has a very intimate way of writing – I felt like she was just telling me (italicize that) about her month and a half in Paris. And her sketches (and occasional photograph) of her and her mom and the things they see (I want to go to Paris again now), the things they eat (so hungry), the things they bought (I long for the coat she found at Marche aux Puces), and the things she was thinking (she was just finishing her studies at the Art Institute and about to face the real world) all add to the cinnection she creates with the reader.

And it’s also a charming love note to Paris. I know I’m in Hawaii now, but I wish I were in Paris all of a sudden! She’s reminded me if all the things I still need to see there.

So, yeah, a great book – I hope to see another from her soon!

My rating: A

Off to climb Diamond Head – not feeling so dizzy as yesterday, so I don’t think I’ll fall off after all. Hopefully.

Nonfiction*: Memoir

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before (and I just checked – I don’t think I have), but I’m a fan of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (dammit, now I have the opening titles song stuck in my head), starring Billie Piper (who was Rose in Doctor Who and who shares a birthday with somebody you know and love). So, after watching two and some series of that, I decided to finally give in and read the book it was based on, Belle de Jour‘s book The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. Except that it’s not called that anymore, as you can see (I’m never thrilled with getting the TV/movie tie-in version of books, but for Rose, I’ll make an exception, I guess).

And I have to say I was kind of conflicted. Mostly I was disappointed to find that I just didn’t like her! I like Billie Piper’s version of her very much – which was why I decided to read the book (her character has just published the book the show is based on and she’s in the midst of writing the second one…on the show – it’s all very meta and kind of confusing to try to explain it). This may not make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen the show (or read the book), but it seems to me that the show is narrated by Hannah (the real Belle) and the book is narrated by Belle (the call girl). It helps that on the show we’re allowed to see her insecurities, her friends, her thoughts – all the things that I can identify with.

I mean, I wasn’t expecting to relate to Belle (I don’t think we could actually have less in common), but I was expecting to connect with her and I just couldn’t. Maybe it’s that I couldn’t get past the hints of pretentiousness that are in the book – the dates are given in French which really annoyed me (also, I may have been disappointed in myself that I couldn’t remember my French for the days of the week – how quickly you lose things you’re not using! [Shouldn’t it be du jour?]). You’re a London call girl, why are you speaking French?! If you were a Parisian call girl, it would make sense – being a London one just makes it an affectation (um, unless the real Belle is French, in which case…never mind [but I don’t think she is]). Or maybe it’s a barrier that comes of writing anonymously. She’s since revealed her identity, but at the time she hadn’t, so she can’t tell us too much about herself or her friends for fear of revealing enough to identify them, but it does keep a distance between her and the reader. I mean, maybe it was all one big extended metaphor for what she does, but for someone who made a living by creating the illusion of personal connections, it didn’t seem to me like she was very good at it.

But on the other hand, it’s not that I didn’t like it. I think I did. It’s the kind of book that is hard to put down and easy to just think ‘Well, one more day. Okay, one more. Okay, just this last one. Well, I may as well finish the month now.’

My rating: B- (Watch the TV show, it’s much better! Mondays at 10p.m. on Showtime…)

*Since she’s revealed her identity, she’s writing another book which will be shelved under fiction this time instead of memoir like the first two (?) volumes are. That does make me wonder about how much of it is actually true, although it’s entirely possible that her publisher is just suffering from James Frey syndrome and trying to cover their asses…just in case. I’m not sure it should make a difference, but for some reason it kind of does.

Nonfiction: Autobiography

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson

I never knew much about Craig Ferguson – I liked him well enough on The Drew Carey Show and every now and then someone would link to an episode of his show which I would watch – usually because he was interviewing someone I was interested in. But I found myself becoming intrigued by Craig instead. His show is on far too late for me to watch, though I sincerely wish I could get by on less sleep so I could stay up for it. Then somebody posted a review of his autobiography, recommending it as a good read.

Helpless to resist, I immediately went to the bookshop. But then I thought “Wait a minute. You know what would be better? Having the silver fox himself read it to me.” Instead of kidnapping Craig Ferguson, though, I did the next best thing. I bought the audiobook!

Now I think I’ve mentioned on here that I do sometimes have trouble with audiobooks. I love my Jerome K. Jerome audiobooks (particularly the one read by Hugh Laurie – shame that it’s edited – and the one read by some guy that I don’t know but features Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s [whose parents were a bit greedy in the name department I feel] “Frolic” but I will even listen to the one read by Marvin Jarvis even though he makes J and George and Harris sound very snooty and superior with one another and not at all how they do in my head [which is usually the main problem I have with audiobooks in general]) and my Harry Potter ones (don’t make me choose between Jim Dale and Stephen Fry, I just can’t!) and Jon Stewart’s America the Audiobook always makes me laugh. But there are others that I’m not so fond of – The Know-It-All whose author/reader, A.J. Jacobs, who sounds super-scripted which, yes, I know he is, but the others don’t make it sound that way and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson who has the most passive voice ever (I love you, Bill, but I can’t listen to you!). But also I find them hard to pay attention to – reading is too much a visual activity for me, I guess, and if my eyes aren’t occupied in snatching up the words from the page for me (I know that’s a disturbing visual, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe it), I find myself drifting off and thinking about other things.

Fortunately, not so with Craig. Not only did I get to listen to his lovely, lovely Scottish accent for seven hours, it really felt like he was telling me his autobiography rather than reading it. But all of that could have not made up for poor writing. Not that it had to. On the contrary, his writing! Oh, his writing! He is thoughtful and articulate and thoughtful and funny and thoughtful and honest.

And thoughtful.

Now, I don’t mean thoughtful like kind or generous or whatever – I mean, I like to think that he is, but obviously I have no way of knowing. I mean thoughtful like he has obviously thought a lot about his life and the things that he’s done and the things that he is doing and why he did them and why he thought he was doing them at the time. I don’t know if this is a result of writing your autobiography or just his personality or even a habit he picked up during his time in rehab, but I really, really like it (and he comes across this way on his show, too, so I’m going with it’s just how he thinks). Because instead of just listing off the things that have made his life amazing (and it is – I find him amazing) and adventurous, he obviously is aware of just how lucky he is to have experienced not just life but his life in particular.

And his honesty! Again, I don’t actually know whether or not he’s being honest – the whole thing could be made up for all I know – but I think one of the reasons that I find his writing literally beautiful is that it is truthful (OMG, Keats was right!). I think he has an earnest way with words, whether he’s talking about growing up in Glasgow, his difficulties with drugs and alcohol, his attempts to find his niche, his relationships, or his decision to become an American citizen, I feel like he’s deliberately outlining his experiences and thoughts for the reader which creates a deep and trusting connection between himself and us.

My rating: A

I’m going to have to see if there’s an audiobook version of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, because if there’s one thing that I think I might enjoy even more than listening to Craig Ferguson tell me about his life is Stephen Fry telling me about his.

Also, note to Eddie Izzard: I hope you’re working on your autobiography because you are in spot number 3 on this list.

Nonfiction: Reference

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Basically, this should have been called QI: The Book. It’s a book filled with questions that you think you know the answers to. And if you’ve seen all the episodes of QI (as I have!), you actually will know most, if not all of the answers. If you haven’t, then there is much knowledge to be imparted!

I think my favorite is the question about what noise the world’s largest frog makes. The answer is that it doesn’t make any noise since it’s mute. But, and this is where the book is at its most fun, do you know why, when asked what noise a frog makes, we all say ribbit, ribbit? It’s because that’s the noise made by the type of frog that lives in Hollywood and is part of their stock noise library (it probably has a more official name than that, but Josephine is sitting on my lap and I would have to make her get up to be able to reach the book and actually look it up) and, therefore, is used whenever they are filming in a jungle or swamp, &c, no matter where the film is actually set. Neat, huh?

The book is written with the same airy tone that the show has which means you’re only vaguely aware that you’re learning – the best way of doing it, if you ask me!

My rating: B+ (And I hope it goes without saying that you should all be watching QI [Stephen Fry is a god!])

Nonfiction: Linguistics

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

I had no idea there were so many invented languages! I could have named Esperanto and maybe Klingon, but there are hundreds and hundreds of them. The first one is credited to Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century nun. I knew she wrote in a strange way, but I guess I always just assumed it was a combination of Latin and old German and…nunspeak. Apparently, it’s considered an invented language.

One wave of language inventors attempted to create a language that was not just words, but also the definition at the same time. It works in theory, but you also have to memorize an extremely complex tree of ideas and concepts that then lead you to the syllable or word that you want. Then you also have to contend with how the words are being used.

The trend that produced Esperanto came from attempts to unite the world by dissolving the language barrier. It came the closest – there are actually native speakers of Esperanto! Problems here stemmed from the biases within the languages (many of them were based in Western European languages) and the reputations that the languages began to take on (many linguists didn’t take them seriously, often because they viewed supporters of invented languages as eccentrics and outsiders rather than scholars).

There also seems to be a pretty big faction of language inventors that attempted to remove emotion from language, leaving only logic behind. Their theory is that eliminating emotion would eliminate misunderstandings. Unfortunately, the language is so complex that, according to Okrent, actual conversations are few and far between.

Okrent provides histories of the various languages, as well as fairly personal profiles of many of their creators. She also describes the way they work and includes examples of constructions. The grammatical explanations can be a bit technical for those of us who aren’t linguists, but I think I managed to muddle my way through most of them. So if you’re looking for an introduction to invented languages, their uses, and their creators, I would highly recommend Okrent’s book as an accessible, witty, and interesting guide.

My rating: A-

A book review, a recipe, and…a secret…

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

I have developed a new literary crush – make room in the mud wrestling ring, Skulduggery and Sherlock, David Lebovitz is here! (Er, except he’s real, so…)

After living in San Francisco and working at Chez Panisse for almost 10 years, David packed up and headed to Paris with three suitcases and, from the sound of it, only a rudimentary knowledge of the French language. The Sweet Life in Paris is a collection of his stories along with quite a few recipes (he worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco, so he’s my kind of guy, though he specialises in chocolate [which we’ll get to in a minute]).

Some of the stories and recipes are from his blog and some are new (I think, I’m working my way through his archives as we speak, so it may just be that I haven’t gotten to them yet). Most of them involve affectionate observations of Parisian quirks and foibles and the experiences of an American expat adjusting to life in a new city.

Really it’s his writing that makes his book so enjoyable – he has a warm, wry sense of humor which makes the reader feel like he’s talking only to you (I imagine him being the kind of guy that can really pull off a wink). He’s famous enough to get special treatment at some places, but, probably because he’s in France, can also report on life as a regular Joe (I’d love to see his kitchen – sounds comparable to my last one), which makes for interesting and also identifiable experiences to read about.

I only have two nitpicky things that I think could have improved the book even more – as far as I could tell (and I’m entirely open to being corrected here), the recipes didn’t always relate to the stories being told in the chapters they are associated with (and I’ll admit this would be tricky, but I think it would have been nice) – though I think this might have been because Random House weren’t sure if it was a memoir or a cookbook. And, despite his intimate tone, I felt like he definitely kept a distance between himself and the reader. I guess, to be fair, it’s a food/travel book more than a memoir, but since I like him so much, I really wanted to get to know him a bit. Quite a few things, mostly personal, are glossed over – maybe he’s saving them for his autobiography. I certainly hope so!

My rating: A-

Because his specialty is chocolate, I decided to take this opportunity to tell you all a secret. After approximately 15 years of not eating chocolate, I have finally started again. It’s in its experimental stages at the moment, but so far it’s going pretty well. I still have a LOT of carob powder to get through and, since it works so well as a cocoa powder replacement, I’ll use it that way, but the prospect of getting to learn how to bake with actual chocolate is a very exciting one!

For my first chocolate baking outing, I went with David’s Mousse au Chocolat II (here’s a different Chocolate Mousse recipe from his website) because I had some cream leftover from a disastrous strawberry dessert from a few nights ago and because I’m not sure how long I should keep a dessert made with raw egg and whether or not I could eat it before I ended up giving myself food poisoning.

If David ever reads this he will probably cringe when I say that I used…Nestle* chocolate chips. I know, David – I long to try Valrhona, but for budgetary and patience reasons, I had to make do with the standard semisweet chocolate chips. Besides, after 15 years of no chocolate, I really can’t tell that it’s not a gourmet chocolate (frankly, so far, I can’t even tell it’s not carob).

Also, I didn’t have any Chartreuse that the recipe called for, so I substituted equal parts vanilla and almond extracts. Other than that it was super easy – took me about 15 minutes or so probably and is very tasty! Very, very rich, but very, very tasty – I can really only eat a tiny portion of it which means it’ll last a while (hence the egg avoidance), but it’s very satisfying even in miniscule amounts.

Right now, the main thing I’m taking away from my chocolate experiment is how did I live this long without Nutella in my life?!

*OMG, Nestle is responsible for Hot Pockets?! What have I done?! Now I just feel dirty. (Don’t worry, that link is not to the Hot Pockets website – click on it, I promise it’s funny.)

Nonfiction

The World According to Clarkson, Vol. 3: For Crying Out Loud by Jeremy Clarkson

I love Top Gear. I love Jeremy Clarkson and I love Richard ‘Hamster’ Hammond and I love James May. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I love them in a hobbit-y fashion. Yes, you heard me, Claire. Don’t make me say it again. While waiting for my flight at Heathrow to come home from my recent holiday, I made the mistake of foolishly wandering into the Borders store in their waiting lounge area looking for a copy of the Stephen Fry in America book. Alas, they didn’t have it, but to comfort myself, I left with three other books, one of which was Jeremy Clarkson’s latest.

I was a little bit wary. I knew that I probably wouldn’t agree with everything that Clarkson had to say, but I knew I’d probably agree with the way he said it. And I was right. Many of his essays – they’re very short, I’d hardly call them essays, really (actually, this book is a collection of his articles written for The Sunday Times) are laugh out loud funny (particularly the ones about his daughter’s dog, the labradoodle), but even when he’s saying something that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, he’s at least saying it with a fairly logical argument to back it up and in an entirely witty fashion.

So, yes, I’d recommend it, just be aware that you might find yourself unwillingly nodding at much of what he has to say…

My rating: A-

Nonfiction

Blitz: The Story of 29 December 1940 by Margaret Gaskin

The next in my Blitz research readings, this book took me nearly forever to finish. And I can tell you why, too. The entire book reads like front matter – I kept sighing in frustration and thinking ‘Man, this Introduction is LONG’ only to realise that I was on page 100-and-something, deep in chapter 14. The first half of the book is background information, leading up to December 29 – the raid which resulted in the second Great Fire of London and the famous, famous picture of St. Paul’s rising, somehow unscathed, from a dense cloud of smoke as the City burned around it. Led astray by yet another subtitle (Margaret, either get there quicker or change your subtitle)!

When we finally get to the main action of the night in question, the pace really picks up. Until it immediately drags to a glacial pace again. I see what she was trying to do – throughout the introduction, she introduces certain characters (some are firemen, some are journalists, some are American, most are Londoners, some are women, some are men, all of them are real) that she is then going to follow through the events pretty much as they happen. Unfortunately, I found this hard to follow. It may have been my fault – not realising where she was going, I didn’t know that I needed to remember all these different names (the only one I could recognise each time was Nev Coates). It also made it sort of difficult to get a sense of the night all in one go because it was chopped up as she jumepd back and forth around the City, checking in on the different people. I think it would have been easier to follow – though perhaps less pretty – if she’d just taken us through the night person by person.

(I have to say, though, that the sections of the book are fairly cleverly named – I didn’t get it until I got to the section of the night itself which is called “Fugue” – that’s when I realised what she was meaning to do with the different characters, weaving their experiences together to create one tapestry of the night [I’ve always wanted to use that tapestry metaphor and it just fits here – I don’t care that it’s cliche!].)

She had lots of interesting information and she definitely captured the feeling of being there, right in the midst of the towering flames and the bombs falling, but I feel like I should have been glued to the page, holding my breath to find out what havoc was going to be wreaked on London. Instead, it just felt like a burden to pick this book up each night. So I see what she was trying to do and I’ll give her points for it (and for using the St. Paul’s photo on her cover), but it’s not what I was hoping for.

My rating: B-

Nonfiction

Few Eggs and No Oranges: A Diary Showing How Unimportant People in London and Birmingham Lived Through the War Years, 1940-1945 by Vere Hodgson

It’s quite a subtitle, but then, it’s quite a book. There are lots of books out there about the Blitz, but this one kept coming up as the one to read for a view of civilian life in London (and Birmingham) at the time. And I can see why – although there are still great, huge gaps in my knowledge of the Blitz and this book didn’t necessary help to fill them, I think I got a really good day-to-day view of what it was like. I mean, not that reading a book means I know what it was like or what it would be like, but I think I have a better idea now.

It was simply amazing to read about Vere’s experiences. I knew the Blitz was bad, but I had no idea – it went on fairly steadily from 1940 to 1945 and within those five years there were month-long periods during which every night there would be raids that would go on for hours. The entire country was basically going on little to no sleep for five years. And you never knew when or where they’d turn up – there are many times when Vere signs off her diary saying ‘We’ll see if I’m here tomorrow or if they’ve gotten me.’ Plus it sounded like they were expecting to actually be invaded at any moment. I had no idea how close Britain came – and yet somehow they managed to keep their spirits up. Vere and her friends would go to the cinema or to a new play (she went to see The Passing of the Third Floor Back!) or have winter fundraising events or she’d take the train to visit her family in Birmingham. This makes for oddly surreal diary entries – things like how there was an air raid the night before and then she went to see the Citizen Kane or something.

So I still have much more about the Blitz to read, but Vere’s writing is engaging and practical and provides a new perspective (and tone).

My rating: A

Also, this book is rather hard to find, but I managed to track down a first edition on one of the used book websites and look at the book plate one of the previous owners left in it:

It’s like we were meant for each other!