Stories I Only Tell My Friends (Rob Lowe)

In a word: Compelling

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I listened to this in August, after school started. Can I still call that summer reading? If yes, this might be my surprise favorite read of the summer. I bought it on an impulse when I was trying to use up some Audible credits after hearing Gretchen Rubin give the book a passing positive mention on her podcast. This is my favorite kind of favorite book: one that I acquire almost by accident, and begin with zero expectation.

I confess that I began this book knowing Rob Lowe only for his role as Chris Traeger in Parks and Recreation. Chris is LITERALLY my favorite character on Parks, so that is not a bad association at all, but it turns out that a few seasons on a quirky sitcom is just the tiny tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lowe’s acting career. I think my total ignorance of Lowe’s pre-Parks life is part of what contributed to my enjoyment of the book: I had no idea where the story was going!

Here is what I learned: Lowe’s life story (at least, according to this book) can be roughly divided into three parts: 1) his life prior to his big break into Hollywood, including some really sad but interesting stories about growing up in Malibu in the 1970’s; 2) his early career, beginning at age 17, a dangerous mix of youth, fame, money, and a total lack of adult influence; and 3) his post-rehab life in which he grows up, stays sober, gets married, and pursues a “normal” life as his Hollywood/TV career continues.

Along the way, with a humble, conversational style, Lowe recounts stories of life among the rich, famous and powerful, including (but not limited to!) hanging out with Martin, Charlie, and Emilio at the Sheen’s house, watching his TV debut while sitting on Cary Grant’s bed with Grant and his daughter, sketching on a paper tablecloth with Andy Warhol, hanging out with Pavarotti and Sting at Sting’s country estate, chatting up Lucille Ball in a green room, dating Princess Stephanie of Monaco, sleeping on a fold-out couch with a teenage Tom Cruise in an apartment in Oklahoma, getting photobombed by Bill Clinton in the White House, riding on an airplane with the 9-11 terrorists.

This is a celebrity memoir that reads like an autobiography more than a collection of famous thoughts on various topics. And what a story Lowe tells! He describes his years of wild living with a tone that, while not exactly repentant, is never salacious. He goes from one star-studded episode to the next without ever sounding like he’s name-dropping. From the very beginning, you can hear the voice of the end product: a man who has found ultimate satisfaction in his roles as husband and father, a normal guy with a lot of extraordinary stories to tell.

I listened to the audio version of this book (highly recommended!), which is why  I only managed to note one great quote as I read (it’s the first one). But I snagged a few more from Goodreads to illustrate Lowe’s effective style:

“This insane logic holds right up until I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. Then, very slowly, I turn and face myself full on. I am so hammered that I can barely stand. The girl I love has just left me because I can’t keep my word and I have no integrity. My grandfather is dying. My mother is in crisis, desperate for help and comfort, and I have cowered and hid in shameful avoidance. I have arrived at the bottom.”

“Nothing in life is unfair. It’s just life. To the extent that I had any inner turmoil, I had only myself to blame. I also thought of my two boys and what kind of example I hoped to be. I would always want them to take charge of their own futures and not be paralyzed by the comfort and certainty of the status quo or be cowed by the judgment of those on the outside looking in.”

“[Kids] don’t really listen to speeches or talks. They absorb incrementally, through hours and hours of observation. The sad truth about divorce is that it’s hard to teach your kids about life unless you are living life with them: eating together, doing homework, watching Little League, driving them around endlessly, being bored with nothing to do, letting them listen while you do business, while you negotiate love and the frustrations and complications and rewards of living day in and out with your wife. Through this, they see how adults handle responsibility, honesty, commitment, jealousy, anger, professional pressures, and social interactions. Kids learn from whoever is around them the most.”

“You can’t build a life on a backstage pass or free swag at Sundance.”

Amazon blurbed this book “A wryly funny and surprisingly moving account of an extraordinary life lived almost entirely in the public eye.” For these qualities and many more, I was so disappointed to get to the end of this book!

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris (Jenny Colgan)

In a word: Darling

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I read The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris on vacation a few weeks ago, and it was really cute. Jenny Colgan has written a lot of food themed novels, and what’s not to love about that? This one tells the story of Anna Trent, an English girl who worked in a giant chocolate factory. After a bizarre accident, she finds herself in the hospital recovering in the bed next to her kind, but very sick, high school French teacher. The two become close during their lonely days at the hospital, and after Anna’s recovery time is over, Mrs. Shawcourt connects Anna to an old friend of hers: Thierry Girard, a famous chocolatier in Paris.

Anna’s Paris adventure is rocky at first: she struggles with the language, her coworkers don’t like her, her apartment is tiny, her roommate is erratic; but as she gets into her element, she discovers the delights of the city. There are some great characters throughout the novel-Thierry, the passionate, boistrous chocolatier; his uptight, British wife; the quirky, loyal shop assistants; Thierry’s handsome, estranged son; Anna’s flamboyant roommate; and Anna, the self-conscious protagonist, trying to find her way in the world.

This book is a cute novel that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside and also craving fancy chocolate. Definitely a fun summer (or weekend!) read!

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star (Heather Lynn Rigaud)

When I picked this up from the sale rack at Hastings, I knew it would either be brilliant or terrible. But at 40% off, I was willing to take a chance. I can’t quite tell you why this book ended up in my basket after I panned at least a thousand other Austen tribute novels, other than the hope that this one promised not to take itself too seriously. Either that, or the idea of Darcy in leather pants was just too intriguing to pass up.


Back story: I have hated every other book I’ve read that attempts to play off of Jane’s classic stories, characters, or themes. (Correction: Katherine Reay’s novels are an exception; see our reviews for Lizzy & Jane and Dear Mr. Knightley.) But overall, Austen-inspired novels  seem to exhibit one or more of the following problematic elements:

a) terribly written stories and characters whose only hope of success is by association with Jane the Great
b) blatantly derivative plots disguised as “sequels” or “spinoffs”
c) pretentious authors actually trying to write in Austen style

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star suffered from none of the above. In many ways, it was actually a successful adaptation of my beloved characters and story: original and clever in its modern setting, yet true to the essence of the characters and to the major plot points of Pride and Prejudice.

Fitzwilliam “Will” Darcy is the mysterious front man of rocker group Slurry, a trio comprised of Darcy, his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam, and his college friend Charles Bingley. Desperate for an opening act as they begin their fourth national tour, they book up-and-coming girl band Long Bourne Suffering, made up of the beautiful Bennet sisters and their pal Charlotte Lucas. The relationship between the three single rock stars and the three sexy single ladies is strictly business…until it’s not (which takes about three hot seconds). As the plot progresses, readers encounter lots of familiar characters: the girls’ sleazy agent Bill Collins, the overbearing label owner Catherine DeBourgh, the too-good-to-be-true music video director (and former Slurry member) George Wickham, Darcy’s sweet and sensible little sister Georgie. It all works surprisingly well.

But despite this promising beginning, I do NOT recommend this book.

I wasn’t naive enough to expect that the essential virtue of Jane and Elizabeth (and Charlotte…and Bingley…and DARCY, for that matter) would survive this modernization. Darcy is a rock-and-roll icon, after all, so I wouldn’t have expected him to smolder for four hundred pages before he dared to risk the intimacy of addressing Elizabeth by her first name.

BUT. The sex scenes in this book are so over-the-top and frequent that I had a major crisis of conscience about even finishing the book.  Instead of having the characters articulate their thoughts and resolve emotional conflict through self-reflection and conversation, they immediately fall into bed (or whatever surface might be even closer). At one point, Darcy even admits, “We communicate better through our music…or non-verbally.” News flash, Mr. Rock-and-Roll Star: relationships don’t work that way. And neither do plots; long pornographic scenes are just not a substitute for character development and dialogue.

A serious literary analysis could find plenty of other things to pick apart concerning the plot and characters, but this novel is unapologetically fan fiction, not literature. Some serious editing could have made this story a novel riff on a classic favorite, but as it is, the indulgent sexual scenes weigh down the effect. Sexy-Darcy fans who want to keep their consciences intact will just have to content themselves with watching Colin Firth dive into the lake at Pemberley…again.

 

Books I Can’t Stop Recommending

Since I’ve started posting more on social media about my reading life, I’ve had a lot of people ask me for book recommendations. Although I have read a lot of books this year, I find myself recommending the same few books over and over, so I thought I would share them with you now.

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Category: Quirky/Unusual/Different from other things you’ve read

  1. Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I have written briefly about WYGB before because I reread it in June (for my third or fourth time), but I wanted to give a little more details here.

Semple is a super interesting writer. She wrote for Arrested Development, which is a show well-known for witty one-liners, hilarious banter, and tons of inside jokes. WYGB delivers on all of these accounts.Bernadette herself is a quirky, misunderstood, slightly-crazy mom who goes missing, and her daughter Bee is putting together pieces to find out where she went. The style of this novel is unique: the story is told through a compilation of emails, memos, newspaper clippings, and flyers. I have heard that the style is off-putting to some readers, but I loved it. When I chose this book for my book club in July, the discussion turned into a read-aloud of all of our favorite parts of the book. It was my dream come true.

Memorable quote: “This is why you must love life: one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb.”

2. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The ridiculous title was the first thing that appealed to me. I read the author interview at the back and learned that his inspiration for this novel was a conversation with  friend where they started thinking back on all that a person would have seen if he had lived through the past 100 years. The story follows Allan, a man who climbs out of the window in his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday and embarks on an accidental adventure. The story switches between his current flight and his past escapades. Jonassan cleverly crafts Allan’s life story to include interactions with most major political figures and world events that show up between 1905-2005, from building the first atom bomb to engaging  in a drinking battle with Harry Truman on the night that Roosevelt was shot. The story is obviously far-fetched, but it is very clever and fun and full of dry wit. The book is translated from Swedish, but I think it keeps its humor really well.

Example quote: “Never try to out-drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.” or “Allan thought it sounded unnecessary for the people in the seventeenth century to kill each other. If they had only been a little patient they would all have died in the end anyway.”

Category: Suspense/Thriller

3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Lindsey had talked about Rebecca for years, and after I read it, I totally understood why. It is an awesome thriller that is gripping to the end, but it doesn’t have the graphic or scary details that often come with the genre. Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who marries a widower and goes back with him to the home he used to share with his late wife, Rebecca. The new wife (you never learn her name, although she is the narrator of the whole novel) tries to adjust to life in Rebecca’s shadow, but the longer she spends in the house, the more she realizes that things are not what they seem. Who exactly was Rebecca, and what happened to her all those years ago?

4. The Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny (Book one is called Still Life)

I have gushed about Louise Penny before, and I’m sure this won’t be my last time. There is something about this series that I can’t get enough of! Penny has created a wonderful cast of characters who play in each of these murder mysteries. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is thoughtful, kind, perceptive, and wise, and he is very good at his job as head of homicide. His character is what makes the series so wonderful. These books are murder mysteries, but they are so much more about the characters and their lives and about human nature and relationships than they are about graphic details of murders. Some of the books have a little bit of weird mysticism thrown in, and they all have some language (one of two of the characters in particular), but overall they are really great if you enjoy a good mystery!

Category: Funny

5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I love a good celebrity memoir, and this one is my favorite. Mindy is hilarious and down to earth and surprisingly insightful. I remember thinking, “YES! Why does no one else talk about how weird/dumb/ridiculous _______ is?!” In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Mindy discusses the awkwardness of growing up, making friends, chasing dreams, and feeling left out, but she does it all in a way that shows that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Also, she gives some great behind-the-scenes details from The Office, which is always very fun to read. There is some language and adult content, but this book is way less shocking and gritty than a few other celebrity memoirs I’ve read. I liked this first book better than her second, Why Not Me?, but that one is fun if you want more Mindy. This is my go-to book when someone says they need an easy book to get back into reading. It is a quick, easy, fun read!

Example quote: “All women love Colin Firth: Mr. Darcy, Mark Darcy, George VI—at this point he could play the Craigslist Killer and people would be like, ‘Oh my God, the Craigslist Killer has the most boyish smile!”

A Mini Review & Book Pairing: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Leslie has already named this book her “Life-Changingest Book of 2016.” And…it’s hard to top that recommendation. But now that I’ve finished it (and made a loaf of bread, to boot!), I thought I’d add my thoughts.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking SchoolIn case you missed Leslie’s review, here’s the short recap: a professionally trained chef gives basic cooking lessons to a group of unconfident home cooks. And almost without exception, the lessons are life-changing for these women– they go from Hamburger-Helper-Level cooking to baking artisan bread, chopping aromatics in seconds, and butterflying whole chickens. It IS inspiring, and I find myself thinking back to parts of the book often as I work in my own kitchen.

Although reading this book was a really helpful start, I’ve found myself wishing that Kathleen Flinn would actually come to my house and invite me to her cooking school. I’ve struggled with my own mediocrity in the kitchen, and I feel like just a few helpful lessons would catapult me into new realms of ability– to learn, once and for all, the proper way to hold a knife, dice an onion, cook fish, and make a sauce, just to name a few things.

It got me thinking about all of the other ways that I’m finding my own way as a parent and homemaker. What about a “Kitchen Counter Cooking School” but for basic household budgeting? For cleaning and maintaining a home and belongings? For how to do laundry the right way, for goodness’ sake?

It occurred to me that the kind of class that would have imparted information like this to eager young women was Home Ec. But by the time I was taking classes in high school, home ec was out of vogue, and girls like me were encouraged to more practical electives such as typing and a “business” class where I learned how to make spreadsheets and play Tetris. What a tragedy!

If a personal tutoring opportunity were to come up in any of these subjects, I’d totally take it. But meanwhile, I’m reminded that I do have resources ALREADY ON MY BOOKSHELF that can give me some of the knowledge that I crave.

Introducing……..book pairings for the ultimate text-based homemaking education:

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith: refreshingly unfussy and accessible advice on making a house Your Home. Her style doesn’t have to be yours; her practical tips and can-do attitude is easy to transfer to whatever look brings you joy and peace.

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson (yes, THAT Cheryl Mendelson): At almost 9oo pages, this is a pretty exhaustive manual on everything that happens within your four walls. Chapter titles illustrate how Mendelson’s approach to home keeping is both practical (“The Chemistry of Household Cleaning,” “Common Laundry Mishaps and Problems,” “Cleaning Man-made Solid Surfaces and Other Plastics,”) and poetic (“The Air in Your Castle,” Th Cave of Nakedness,” “Kindly Light”).

Caves of Nakedness aside, you might think this sounds like the most boring tome ever to prop a door open, but somehow Mendelson speaks on every topic with a pleasant, efficient manner, much like Mary Poppins come to help you clean up the nursery once and for all.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book is as polarizing to the world of clutter-management as the election of 2016 has turned out to be to the general population. But I’ll cast a vote for the KonMari method any day– it’s simple and effective, and if you can get past all the woo-woo stuff about thanking your shoes for their service, your reward will be a more peaceful, manageable home environment.

(Of course, a zillion-point-five blogs and websites exist to teach on all of these topics as well, and some of them do so quite effectively. But there’s nothing like having a nice reference book to hold in your hand, don’t you think?)

What practical guides have been helpful to you?

Commonplace: The Quotidian Mysteries

The subtitle to this tiny but thoughtful volume is “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.'” How is that for provocative?

This book, about a worshipful posture toward everyday living, was a timely read for me as I gear back up for a new school year and a plate full of quotidian opportunities!


Here were some of my favorite nuggets:

On being too busy for daily worship:

“Workaholism is the opposite of humility…when evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greedy, and too foolish, to surrender it to God…

“I have come to believe that ween we despair of praise, when the owner of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it’s often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures–we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sigh too God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.”

On the connection between liturgy and housework:

“Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically called ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.”

On holiness in everyday life:

“I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…

“If they are wise, [the busy saint] will treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.”

In summary:

“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down…

“Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means ‘to get through with,’ and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry, and what has traditionally been conceived as ‘women’s work’ can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany of the motions of vacuuming a floor. What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

July Recap

Summer is my favorite (and best) time for reading, and in July I had some nice time by the pool to read a couple of fun books!

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  1. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn (Nonfiction)

As I’ve already said before, I LOVED this book. I still haven’t taken it out of my kitchen because I need to reference it so often. I love the concept of the book (turning normal people into confident home cooks), and I thought the writing was thoughtful and interesting.

Best application: I’m still regularly making homemade bread and impressing all of my friends.

2. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (Fiction-Bookclub)

The Red Tent was my book club’s July pick, and honestly, I don’t think I would have made it to the end if I hadn’t been reading it for book club. Diamant takes the characters from the Genesis story of Dinah (daughter of Jacob, sister of Joseph and his 11 brothers) and creates a (very) fictionalized narrative of the story, focusing primarily on the roles and emotions of the women. The “Red Tent” is place for the women to *ahem* gather each month, and it also serves as the central hub of female activities and bonding. I think I could have enjoyed the book more if it wasn’t spinning off of true story from the Bible, but as it was, many of the more…intimate…details seemed way too cringe-worthy for my taste. As a book club choice, it was actually very good–there were lots of things to discuss and lots of feelings about the book all around. As a regular book choice, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one; it was definitely not a favorite.

Take away: Interesting if you’ll be discussing for a book club, not so great for regular reading.

3. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Willis (Nonfiction/Memoir)

The Glass Castle is an interesting memoir about a girl who grows up very poor with very dysfunctional parents. Willis recounts her childhood of adventures and hardships in a way that is really compelling. I am always fascinated by the way people relate to and feel about parents who are (seemingly) crazy, and this was no exception. Willis’s mom and dad were both pretty bizarre and probably negligent parents, but she and her siblings grew up with complicated, but often positive, views of both of them. As she matured, Willis realized some of the damage she had to work through as a result of her childhood, but she also turned out very resilient and accomplished. The Glass Castle is definitely not a light-hearted book, but if you enjoy heart-wrenching true stories, this could be a good choice for you!

My favorite part: One of Jeanette Willis’s favorite books as a child was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which also features a crazy father-daughter relationship. I read that one in March and really liked it as well!

4. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Fiction-Thriller)

Before the Fall was on my radar because of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading guide and also several mentions of it on her podcast, so when the kindle version went on sale, I snatched it up! This book starts with a terrible event: a private jet crashes into the ocean, and there are only two survivors: an undiscovered painter with some serious swimming skills and the 4 year old son of a very wealthy family. The book alternates between the present unfolding drama after the accident and the lives of each of the people on the plane ‘before the fall’. As you get to know different characters, it soon becomes clear that perhaps the crash was not an accident after all. I really enjoyed watching the mystery of the plane crash unfold as well as the commentary on human nature. A few of the characters are a little rougher around the edges, so several chapters have some language and rough content, but I still thought it was a good option for a novel that was gripping without being too graphic or scary.

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (Fiction-Classic)

This was a great summer read: it was fun and lighthearted and short enough to finish in just a few afternoons at the pool. Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged, poor, recently-fired governess finds herself spending the day with a young, spontaneous, aspiring actress. She decides to say “yes” to all sorts of adventures, and it is so fun to read. She is adorable.

Best takeaway: some lettering inspiration!

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6. Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave (Audio-Fiction)

This is another one I saw on MMD Summer Reading list, so I found it on audiobook and listened to it as I drove. It was a good summer read–nothing too heavy or crazy, just a cute story about a family who owns a vineyard. The narrator had a little bit of an annoying voice (she sounded like Tammy 2 from Parks and Rec), but I still enjoyed the story.

Thing I learned: Apparently it takes 800 grapes to make a single bottle of wine. Also, after reading this book I was inspired to drink fancy wine, but then I remembered that all wine tastes the same to me.

7. Kiki Srike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller (Fiction-Young Adult)

I got this one as a loan from my homegroup leader/YA fiction enthusiast a few months ago, and I’m glad I finally picked it up! This was a cute YA book about a group of 12 year old girls who discover and explore The Shadow City, a secret underground world below New York City. Evil princesses, stolen royal jewels, quirky characters, and innocent adventures made this a great YA read. No language or violence–just fun!

8. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (Audio-Fiction)

Last time I was browsing the audiobooks at my local library I saw this Rainbow Rowell novel, so I grabbed it since I have enjoyed her other books so much. This one was fun! There was some language, which is always more noticeable in an audiobook, but overall I thought it was an interesting story. The book is half email conversation between two best friends at work and half narration by Lincoln, the IT guy who monitors the company emails. Lincoln gets borderline stalker-ish, but it turns out in a sweet way, so I guess it was a good thing. Another fun Rainbow Rowell title to add to my list!

What did YOU read in July?