Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella

Find in catalogAt one point while reading this, I thought, “I wish just once Sophie Kinsella’s characters’ comic misunderstanding was actually a tragic reality, and instead of living happily ever after, they would get a divorce.” But, having read practically every one of her fluffy and formulaic (and sometimes quickly forgettable) books, I knew it was just a pipe dream. This time round, our story centers on Sylvie and Dan, who freak out when a doctor says they might have 68 years of marriage left. How to keep things fresh? They decide on project “surprise me,” not realizing the can of worms they have opened up. Even though in many ways the book follows the Kinsella formula, there are are some interesting mysteries and solutions and twists and turns. I enjoyed the focus on her relationship with her reality-challenged mom and her dead dad, although one aspect of the denouement frustrated me. I really loved all the details of the unconventional work practices at her nonprofit job. (Now that I think about it, work life plays a big part in Kinsella’s books). This was a fun enough read, but unlike some of her earlier books, it won’t be a re-read.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjahlian

Find in catalogThe Flight Attendant of the title has had many blackouts after drinking, but none so bad as waking up next to a dead guy. Did she kill him? (That is answered in chapter 2, eliminating a great deal of suspense). Why was he killed? (I think I know, but I’m not entirely sure; there are potential real reasons and fake reasons, and I didn’t figure out which was which). There is some suspense, and a few surprises, and one twist that seemed obvious to me. The characters aren’t very likeable, but they are interesting (especially our self-destructive flight attendant, emphasis on flight [from the scene of the crime].) As in my Sleepwalker review, I had some quibbles with language (the author kept saying “love-making” where I would just say “sex,” especially when talking about a one-night stand). I also doubted authenticity from the first sentence: “She was aware first of the scent of the hotel shampoo.” After a while, she’s aware of the scent of sex. (At least it wasn’t the scent of “love-making”). But what she should smell above all else, right away, is blood, because she’s in bed with someone who’s drenched in it! Despite these annoyances, and despite the book not being super well-written, I was still hooked to see where it would end up. Dare I say it would make a good read for a long flight? It would!

Wild Things by Bruce Handy

Find in catalogIt IS a joy to read children’s literature as an adult, as the book’s subtitles states. Some of the joy is nostalgia (“Oh, I loved this book as a kid!”), some is seeing the world through a kid’s eyes again (“Sit here for the present. Yeah, I would’ve expected a gift, too!”), some is new understanding (“Wow, C.S. Lewis must’ve had some real hangups to treat Susan so terribly.”) It was also a joy to revisit beloved pictures books (Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny), early readers (The Cat in the Hat,), and novels (Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, the Oz books), and learn more about their philosophical, psychological, literary, and biographical underpinnings.

This book was such a pleasure! What fun to reminisce about Frances the badger (originally imagined as a vole), Ramona Quimby (Oregon-born and bred!), and Charlotte (who in the book’s drawings was mostly shown from a distance, because the illustrator “struggled to invent a loveable spider”)! What fun (and sometimes not fun) to discover new things about old favorites. (Yeah, Laura’s Ma was plenty racist.)

I especially appreciated the breadth of Bruce Handy’s research. The book was littered with interdisciplinary facts. Dr. Seuss was a screenwriter and worked on on early treatment of Rebel without a Cause! To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street is written in anapestic rhyme, which Byron and Shelley also used! His asides and footnotes are engaging and funny. “Children’s literature bleeds absent parents, but few are missing because they became dinner. Aside from Mr. Rabbit, there are the parents from James and the Giant Peach, who are eaten by a rhinocerous. Does Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother count?” “Ramona thumping her feet against the wall, thinking wild fierce thoughts reminds me of Max stewing supperless in Where the Wild Things are. Perhaps someday the two could have a playdate.”

He might step on some toes with his opinions on cherished books (thinking The Magician’s Nephew was weak–though I definitely agree with him that it’s not the Narnia book to start with, despite how the publishers now order them, or that A Wrinkle in Time is preachy [well, he does have a point]). He may also open some eyes to books they hadn’t considered. After all, he opened his own. (“There’s a lot of “boy stuff” in the Little House books, lots of hunting and hammering, sawing, and shooting. Delighted and transfixed–cooties be damned–I breezed through all nine in the series.”) You may find yourself breezing through some long- forgotten or long-loved classic, too.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

Find in catalogThis slim volume about going through your belongings before you die so your loved ones don’t have to is a quick read with not too much new information for this reader of minimalism books. I wonder if it’s an international bestseller because, like Marie Kondo, the author is a non-American declutterer with a hook? (Though there’s nothing in this book as hooky as Kondo’s “spark joy.”) My main take-homes (except don’t take things home–they’ll cause clutter!) for the “cleaning” part of death cleaning were “take part in all your house has to offer,” “get rid of the big stuff, like furniture, first,” and “if you can’t keep track of your things, you have too many.” The main “death” part were “don’t ever imagine anyone will want to–or be able to–take off time to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself” and “death is not the time to be overly concerned with material things.” She also gives good tips on having a conversation with older people, like your parents, about what they plan to do with all their stuff and how to help them death clean.

The author’s personality comes through clearly, and she’s a bit wacky. (So was Marie Kondo!) Highlights include her throwing unwanted paintings on the fire, wearing a wok as a hat, and going skiing in a bikini. She’s not shy about mentioning dildos, even at “age 80 to 100,” (her self-proclaimed age) or throwing shade on her grandchildren for not writing thank you notes. She also has quirky illustrations (hmm, so does Kondo) but in this case, she drew them herself.

Bottom line: if you’re looking for useful decluttering advice, and you’ve already read Kondo’s books, skip this, and if you haven’t read Kondo’s books, read those instead, unless you specifically want to know more about this Swedish artist/author. I would only buy this book to give to an older person to help prompt them to consider death cleaning, and even then it’s delicate.

Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible by Tim Gunn

Find in catalogTim Gunn’s Fashion Bible is a very engaging read. You might expect by the title that the book talks mostly about Tim’s fashion rules, but although it does sprinkle in his fashion rules and personal anecdotes, it’s mostly a very breezy gallop through the history of clothes. What did the wrap dress evolve from? (Togas.) Why did simple, empire-waist dressed emerge during the Regency? (A backlash to the ostentatious gowns of the French monarchy.) Did men ever wear corsets, or skirts? (Yes!) There’s a ton of information about the whys and wherefores of hemlines, bustles, designs, and designers, and a ton of great photos that perfectly complement the text, like a discussion of a Windsor knot, and then a photo (along with the tidbit that it was named for the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne.) Fun fashion history overview!

A World Without Whom by Emmy J. Favilla

Find in catalogI’m a long-time word nerd, but language changes so fast, and I’m not as up on internet slang and usage as I could be. Thanks to Emmy J. Favilla, Buzzfeed’s global copy chief, I’m a little more educated. She taught me the right way to pronounce the gender neutral terms Latinx (“Lat-een-ex”) and Mx. (“mix”), confirmed that “I’mma” is spelled that way, and clarified that SMH stands for “shaking my head”, not “so much hate” as I first thought when I saw it. She talks at length about “how not to be a jerk” when writing about sensitive issues like race and sexuality and how to write for a global audience (which includes a rollicking list of British swear words and how strong or mild they are). There’s plenty of memes, and plenty of texts with her fellow staff about pressing matters like is dog pile hyphenated or not. Underneath it all is a firm understanding and explanation of language and grammar. I enjoyed this irreverent yet rigorous guide!

Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel

Find in catalogI’ve enjoyed many pieces of art that use Pride and Prejudice as a jumping off place: Lost in Austen, Bride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So I was excited to hear about this new work, which mashes up Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein. Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which takes the original text and adds ultra-violent zombie mayhem, this novel uses the language and spirit of both novels to craft a new tale. (It leans more heavily on Frankenstein, which I have never read, but luckily there’s also a new annotated Frankenstein at the library: a perfect companion piece!)

This novel centers on Mary Bennett, that most awkward, nerdy, and overlooked of the Bennett sisters. Through a new interest in the natural sciences, she comes in contact with Victor Frankenstein and his creature. I found the characterization of Mary to be consistent with Austen (although there is a very out of character Mrs. Bennett moment). I knew little of Frankenstein beyond the creation of a monster, so reading this was enlightening as to its full story and characters. To say much about the plot would spoil most of it, but I can say that there are plenty of times I thought the story was going left but then went right. At times it is lurid and other times tender. Most of the time it’s a compelling read and might be so even if you never read Austen or Shelley and want to get a taste of these 1800s characters who conceivably could have met in “real life.”

Two cleaning books: Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk and How to Manage Your Home without Losing Your Mind by Dana White

Find in catalogI flipped through Simply Clean, which was very pretty and well laid out, but immediately discarded it when I saw that doing the dishes wasn’t on the daily task list. I can’t get behind any cleaning book that pretends that dishes aren’t part of cleaning! And I really can’t get behind any cleaning book that makes believe you can keep your house clean in 10 minutes a day, unless you have a tiny house, which this author definitely doesn’t because she talks about how to clean your bathrooms (plural). Which by the way, she says is to spray cleanser in one bathroom and then go to the other bathroom to spray cleanser and then go back to the first bathroom to wipe the cleanser. There’s your 10 minutes right there. This is also the kind of cleaning book that says in order to declutter a closet, you have to take everything out, wipe down the closet walls, vacuum, try everything on, and then put things back on identical hangers. Who’s got time for that (besides Marie Kondo)?

Find in catalogThat’s why I will hold up Dana White’s How to Manage Your Home without Losing Your Mind as the gold standard for realistic cleaning. Her book is really basic, but really useful, and I’ve seen changes in my house following her methods. Some of what she says is kind of obvious, but yet I wasn’t doing it regularly. Like, doing the dishes every day (but then being totally bummed out about the state of my kitchen). Other useful practices: following the “visibility rule” (clean and tidy what’s most obvious and bugging you before you do a project like decluttering the attic) and following the “container concept” (limit your belongings to what fits in a certain space; weed out the items you like least when you want to make room for new items you like more). It’s also really helpful to me to have a laundry day. She devotes two chapters to this, which could seem like overkill, but wasn’t.

Both these books have a 28 day checklist for cleaning your house, and the difference is night and day. Simply Clean has 28 cleaning projects that you do on top of your regular chores. (Again, who’s got time for that?) How to Manage Your Home says wash your dishes every day. Then if you have energy, go around your house and pick up items out of place. If you still have energy, sweep your kitchen floor. And then do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And just doing that will help keep your house under control so you can start tackling some larger tasks after you’ve had 28 days forming new cleaning habits. As a tired and overworked person, I appreciate that.

Junk Beautiful by Sue Whitney

Find in catalogOK. So you’re not reading this decorating book for its erudite vocabulary. (“Nifty-noodle,” “shootie doots!,” “poopdee-dooped.”) Nor for its cutting edge scientific observations. (“Research tells us we spend a third of our life sleeping.”) But you might want to browse through it for ideas and photos if you like decorating, buy a lot of stuff at yard sales, or better yet, have a lot of junk (their word) you’d like to repurpose in your outdoor spaces. Though some ideas had me shaking my head (Why would you serve sushi on an old roller skate?), others were kind of cool (using a big classroom abacus as a towel rack, posing a mannequin in old swimming togs near your pool). The book showcases 24 different outdoor spaces, from tea garden to sun room to picnic, with lots of examples for accessorizing with unusual items like enamel refrigerator drawers, naval belt buckles, vintage faucets, and even a “wee little urinal.”

Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Millburn

Find in catalogA memoir of how a guy changed from being a high-rolling business man who owned 75 Brooks Brothers shirts to a blogger who owns the bare minimum. His best friend/co-minimalist adds not very illuminative end notes. I did get some good new ideas to ponder, chiefly that collecting and organizing are acceptable forms of hoarding, and that most things you keep “just in case” can be replaced for $20 in 20 minutes, so there’s no need to hang on to them. But I also found something about the tone preachy and superior, and didn’t finish the book. He talks about how on his path to becoming a minimalist he read blogs by Josh Becker, Courtney Carver, and Leo Babauta, and I would recommend these blogs, as well as his own blog The Minimalists, or his book “Essential” (review to come!) over his memoir.