Category Archives: Humor

Books About Life – and Cats

As far as books go, it is always the year of the cat. Just take a look at any bookstore and you can find more than a few books about cats (Cat Daddy, Cat Sense, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, I Could Pee on This –poems allegedly by a cat; The Cat Who Went to Heaven – the story of Buddha and his cat, etc. etc). And as a cat lover, that is just fine with me. IMG_7737

Even if I were not the willing slave of two cats, a trio of cat books – two out in the last year and one coming this November – would receive my rave reviews. Because even more than being about cats, the books – The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Wendy McNaughton, and the upcoming The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs are about connection, and all the attendant consequences of taking up with another living being. Along with the feelings of happiness and contentment, there are the darker emotions of possessiveness, jealousy, suspicion, and the deeper ties of responsibility, empathy, and always, always, the promise of growth and change.

The Guest Cat tells the story of what happens when a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guesthouse. The affection the couple feels for the cat and the reliance they come to have on her presence in their lives sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of connection, in the moment and of the moment. Some relationships are fleeting, as the one the narrator enjoys with a passing dragonfly, and some are longer but still finite, as the one he treasures with the little cat. But all connections are enriching, as this lovely book so fully illustrates.

The Lost Cat goes further down the road of cat/human relationship examination. When a beloved house cat disappears for six weeks and then saunters back in, well fed and looking good, his previously undisputed owner goes into a tailspin of self-recrimination, paranoia, jealousy, and suspicion. Who has been feeding her cat? And why oh why didn’t he come home when she called? UnknownRelying on modern technology (GPS and spy cameras), the befuddled owner tries to make sense of her cat’s behavior. The life lessons she learns alternate between hilarity and sweetness, and their application to all relationships is spot on: “You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want…But that’s okay, love is better.”

The Story of Fester Cat is enchanting, a gorgeous memoir about how family is created, not the one we’re born with but the one we choose – or the ones who choose us. When a feisty, opinionated, and very observant cat adopts two men, a lovely symbiosis occurs; love, compassion, and care flourish. We readers are fortunate enough to be invited into the family circle and it is a warm and beautiful place to be. This book will take its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Unknown-1

Whether it is a tie of affection and respect between humans or between a human and a beloved pet, a connection is a connection. To quote Nile Rodgers totally out of context, from his bestselling memoir Le Freak, “A great hook is a great hook, whether its for Le Freak or Halo.” And a good friendship is a good friendship, whether it is between two-legged friends or two-legged and four-legged, as so wonderfully examined and celebrated in The Guest Cat by Tikashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul, and The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs.

Summer Reading: Good Times

Summer loving is good but summer reading can be even better! I won’t waste your time with long explanations — I want to give you plenty of hours to spend reading! Add in a little loving when you can, and you will have a great summer.

New Books
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende — a wonderful new novel from the great Isabel Allende, this book will have you crying buckets and laughing plenty, and thinking all the time: how could I survive something like this? what is the purpose of memory? what influences can I bring to bear on the young people in my life? how can I respect and learn from the old people in my life? So many great lines, descriptions, and characters, this is a book to underline and return to, and enjoy down to the very last page.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen — yes, Hiassen is back, as raunchy and wild and incisive and topical as ever. Applying his journalistic eye for detail and his humanistic sense of outrage when things of the planet go way wrong, Hiassen takes on corruption in the Florida Keys and beyond. Never a dull moment and always a great ride.

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan — I won’t guess his true weight but Dad is hilarious. For me, this book was a trip down memory lane, when life among the savages (young children) made me crazy, crazy in love and crazy in every other way. Peanut butter crackers for dinner, anyone? With baby carrots on the side, of course.

Letter to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson — everything I ever wanted to know about ants and more. Inspiring in his enthusiasm, impressive in his intelligence, and engaging in his writing, this book is just the right length (short) and just the right tone (life is amazing), for a weekend spent in a lawn chair watching the grass grow and wondering about the lives teeming within its wildness.

Classics
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins — best book ever. Enough said?
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – decay and ruin, love and food, Sicily and need I say more?

Nature
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating — everything I ever wanted to know about snails and life, and I promise you: this book will inspire and enthrall.

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – Don’t hate the deer munching on your garden this summer, try to understand them. Thomas will take you to a new place of appreciation of this omnivorous (don’t believe what the nursery workers tell you – if hungry enough, there is nothing a deer won’t eat) creature populating gardens, parks, and woods everywhere.

Romance
The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras – a woman in search of her lost lover, a man in search of meaning in his life (and love), the Mediterranean and heat and sex. Perfect for beach or bath.

My House in Umbria by William Trevor – a woman who writes romances must face reality to save people she loves, and those whom she has just met. Umbria, great food, beautiful old house, heat, love.

Mysteries
Anything by Louise Penny – and a new one coming out this summer! How the Light Gets In comes out in time for Labor Day. In the meantime, read everything else she’s ever written!

Anything by Andrea Camilleri – back to Italy, Sicily this time, with a grouchy detective and a beautiful backdrop and crimes to curl your brain around.

Travel
Fancy a trip to Istanbul but worried about the uprising? Go via any mysteries by Jason Goodwin — you’ll get plenty of the history and the sites to see (the cisterns, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia). Have I taken you back to mysteries? Yes, they are my weakness and if I can combine them with travel….perfection.

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman — this book has aged well; it is never dated, although the politics by now are a bit historical. Never mind, the settings (and the conflicts?) are eternal.

In the Shadow of the Sun by Ryzard Kapucinski – another book by a journalist, the politics are fascinating but the people and the landscapes steal the book – a visit to Africa, up, down, and all around, that you will never forget.

Friendkeeping: a Primer

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam is the book you will want to give all your bestest friends, not as a nudge-nudge, hint-hint reminder of what it takes to be a good friend, but rather as a celebration of just how great friends can be. And if they (or you) pick up a few hints on how to be a better friend, so much the better for everyone. We all need reminding once in awhile that connection takes more than just showing up for drinks or a walk — and Klam offers the reminders with her usual big heart, goofy humor, and open admissions.

Klam tackles the big issues of friendship in Friendkeeping, including jealousy within the relationship (likening it to Kuato from the movie Total Recall – an ugly little creature that lives in her belly and rears his schadenfreude head from time to time); what happens when you love a friend but hate his/her partner (we have all been there); sharing (despite being a memoirist Klam admits that for years she couldn’t talk about her troubles with friends, either in her own life or with them. Now she understands the two-way street of sharing is vital to a good friendship — but even then, she also understand there are situations when you are there just to listen); and how to let go of friends that just are not right for you (for Julie, the deal breaker was taking a dog out for a walk without a leash — IN NYC!).

Klam also takes on, with wit and grace, the even bigger ordeals of illness, depression, and distance: those moments (or years) in friendship when more effort, understanding, and love is required. You can do it, Klam urges us all, and with her coaching, she is right: we can.

Wonderful Week of Reading

I was on vacation last week and as usual for a beach vacation, I read a lot. Two mysteries, two novels, one epistolary volume, and one non-fiction, all so very different one from the other, and all good.

I started the week with Penelope’s Way by Blanche Howard. A seventy-year old woman decides it is time to figure out the meaning of life, both metaphysically and physically. A memory of a sudden dizziness followed by illumination, experienced during a long ago trip to France, sets Penelope off in search of corresponding experiences — a worldwide wave of heightened consciousness, fertility, and vision — and what she finds affirms both the wonder and the unknowability of life, and the myriad possibilities of its meanings. What matters is what connects us, the bridges between “our lonely, disparate, personal universes.” Penelope is influenced inevitably by circumstances (illness, death, ebbs and flows of friendship) but, relying heavily on her own intuition and memories, stays more or less on course in her quest to find meaning.

Contrasting with Penelope Way‘s exaltation of intuition and self-determination, is the last book I read during my week of vacation, the non-fiction Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman exposes both human intuition and rational thinking (and financial traders) as less prevalent and reliable than we’d like them to be, intuition being a gut reaction derived from evolutionary requirements of survival but too often influenced by our own prejudices and predilections, rational thinking being influenced by the same — and financial wizardry more a game of luck than expertise.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating and flowing exploration of the two systems at work in our brain (and body), the first-phase of gut reaction (System 1) and the second-phase of more applied thinking (System 2). Meant to provide a stimulus for discussion at the work place and at home (we’ve already had a number of great dinner table conversations on the topics covered by Kahneman), provoking conversations about rational thinking and motivation and planning, I fear Kahneman’s insights, gleaned from decades of research, will be used in this season of politics to manipulate System 1 and blunt System 2 as much as possible! Rational thinking, after all, has little to do with voting. As Kahneman notes, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

I also read The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, another fascinating exploration of human motivation, self-knowledge, and manipulation of others for personal gain (and satisfaction).

I loved the story and the characters of this novel but James is not easy to read, and if you have never read him, The Wings of the Dove might not be the best work with which to become acquainted with his writing. I recommend starting with novellas, including The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, then moving on to the novel The Portrait of a Lady, and then coming to other novels, including The Wings of the Dove. It might be a great project for a year — a year of Henry James!

I read two mysteries on vacation. Don’t Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xiaolong provides a unique window into modern China, with its lead character a vacationing police detective who also writes poetry. Inspector Chen not only writes poetry (including a beautiful poem that is delivered in sections throughout the novel) but also quotes extensively from different periods of Chinese literature, using his vast stores of ancient sayings and poems to support his present-day reflections on life.

Inspector Chen becomes fascinated by a young woman, an environmentalist and activist, who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Has she murdered to punish a polluter? Chen must use all his wits, and quotations, to solve the crime and save the girl, and perhaps even nudge the power-wielding cadres to care about the pollution threatening China’s natural resources.

China plays a role in the other mystery I read, The Shanghai Moon, another great Lydia Chin/Bill Smith novel by S.J. Rozan.
I love Rozan’s mysteries (see my review of Ghost Hero) and The Shanghai Moon is another well-crafted, factually fascinating (the exodus of over 60,000 Jewish refugees to Shanghair during World War II), thoroughly entertaining, and thrilling novel.

And finally, I read a collection of letters (of course). The Yage Letters by William Burroughs is a mix of fact and fiction, the amalgamation of letters Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg during his 1953 journey to South America in search of the Yage, famed hallucinogenic of the Amazon. Burroughs is a strange mix (no surprise there) of experimental risk taker, critical traveler, and genuine humorist.

The letters are fun — and sometimes horrifying — to read, and the addition at the end of Allen Ginsberg’s own letters documenting his travels in search of hallucinogenic enlightenment add to the atmosphere of search and (mental health) seizure.

Great Fun and Good Feelings in Chihuahua Karma

Chihuahua Karma by Debby Rice is a great feel-good read that made me laugh out loud, tugged at my heart-strings, and left me smiling. Available only as an E-book, Rice’s lively, incisive, and addictive writing makes buying an E-reader a good idea (alongside previously reviewed E-books like Minks Rises by Eric Almeida and The View From Here by Rachel Howzell — I’m looking forward to reading Howzell’s latest, No One Knows You’re Here, just downloaded!).

Cherry Paget is young, beautiful, and rich — but all that changes one lovely summer day, when Cherry takes a fall and ends up as a dog. The possibility of reincarnation has been entertained for centuries (as demonstrated by the quotes that begin every chapter, by everyone from Ben Franklin to Paul Gauguin to Voltaire to Leonardo da Vinci) but rarely has it been as entertaining as in Chihuahua Karma. Cherry didn’t make the best choices as a woman (she is not entirely to blame, given the advice she got from her mom: “Don’t waste all that time in law school. Take the modeling job. That underwear catalogue is a stepping stone…”) but as a dog, she matures into a caring human being, more concerned with how she can help a little girl escape the clutches of deranged adults than her previous concerns of couture and vodka and “nails manicured to the buff and shine of a newborn Porsche”. Cherry-as-dog has to battle not only living adults in her quest to help those in need but dead souls waiting for their new bodies and willing to wreak havoc until the next incarnation.

All’s well that ends well, and the passage — spiritual and physical — trip to ending well is twisted, unpredictable, and hilarious. Align yourself with Chihuahua Karma and find greater meaning in the dogs — and humans — in your life.

Comfort and Joy: Bring on the Christmas Pudding

Comfort and Joy by India Knight is a thoroughly delightful foray into one woman’s celebration of Christmas, secular and loving it! Londoner Clara Dunphy is wacky about Christmas and love and sex but when it comes to her children, her family, and her food, she is completely and sanely and inspirationally committed to giving the best she can give and making memories that last forever (even if her marriages don’t).

I read this giddy, funny, and at times even surprisingly touching novel right after reading Alexander McCall’s latest, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, starring Isabel Dalhousie. I found myself thinking how much more I like Clara, compared to Isabel. Isabel has become a bit of a bore, rather certain and set in her ideas, while Clara, who happens to be just about the same age as Isabel, is engagingly uncertain about so much in her life, including where passion fits in her marriage and where a father she’s never seen fits into her life and where an ex-mother-in-law fits in with her Christmas — and the answers she comes up with are huge-hearted and hilarious.

I would much rather party in the Christmas season with Clara’s clan and their red baubles and carefully-wrapped Truffle than spend a summer month with Dalhousie and her mushroom-sensitive tummy (and BTW, if a niece sells you a dodgy mushroom, you do NOT turn her into the government).

If you’re looking for a read to get you in the holiday mood, go with India Knight and Clara. Comfort and Joy is a piece of flaming Christmas pudding, not very deep but certainly sweet and hot and satisfying.

Another Lesson from Tolstoy

Tolstoy Lied. That is the name of a book a good friend lent to me: “You might be interested in this one,” she noted wryly. Despite its irksome title, Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish is a lovely, witty, and insightful novel of manners. If, that is, manners are even possible within the cutthroat atmosphere of an English department in a major university. The narrator, Tracy Farber, is a professor of American lit and a great believer in the possibility of happiness. Hence, her disgruntlement with Tolstoy, who implied with his oh-so-famous first line from Anna Karenina,”happy families are all alike’ every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” that happy people are boring people, and that to be different, i.e. interesting, is to be unhappy. Tracy wants to be interesting and engaged with life, she wants happiness, love, and tenure at her university and she will not compromise her principles — or her devotion to truth — to get all that she wants. Unfortunately, the result may be that she does not get what she wants after all. Is happiness really so elusive?

I fell for this book from the page when Tracy described her love affair with books, describing the smell of them and something new, the sound of them: “turn their pages for enough hours and years and you start to rely on it, just as people who live by the shore assimilate the rhythm of the waves: the sweep and ripple making the end of a page, a sound that seems to be made by the turning of your thoughts rather than the movement of your hand.” No e-reader for Tracy: she loves the real thing, books with pages and histories, and even a few lessons or two. Happiness indeed.

And btw, Tolstoy did not lie.

G.K. Chesterton and his Unstoppable Father Brown

Yes, I finally finished reading the complete collection of Father Brown Mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton over a period of twenty-five years.  I downloaded the collection onto my Kindle and over the past two months have been dipping in and out of the stories.  Certainly the collection has its high points (The Blue Cross is the first story and a great way to start) and its low points but throughout the collection I found deliciously pithy humor, intelligent observations, and uncanny detective work, all coming from the same source: the quiet, nondescript Father Brown.  The man gets around, and gets his man, every time.

My favorites were the Flambeau mysteries, where Father Brown matches wits against the charming and gifted burglar, Flambeau.  Tricky and sly Flambeau may  be (in one story he invites a policeman to am English pantomime, fully intending to use the show as a ruse for beating the poor copper silly and fleeing the scene of his latest jewel thievery) but he is no match for Father Brown.  No stray hair or broken plate or dust-binned cruet set escapes Father Brown’s eagle eye and the bad guy always gets named, if not necessarily caught.  Justice is not the point here: protecting the innocent, preserving the jewels, and being RIGHT are what counts.

Chesterton was a great writer and a prolific one.  He wrote over one hundred books, hundreds of poems and short stories, five plays, and thousands of newspaper essays.  There is a very active society — the American Chesterton Society — devoted to promoting the reading of his works and the adoration of his personae: as their website states in no uncertain terms:

G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century. He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else. But he was no mere wordsmith. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century.

I’m not willing to sign onto the “best writer of the 20th century” proclamation but I will say that Chesterton provides great reading, always witty and smart and big-hearted.  He was a contemporary of both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and his ability to turn out funny and accurate aphorisms is every bit as wondrous and wide-ranging as theirs. In writing his fiction, Chesterton placed his nugggets of wisdom and wit in the mouths of his characters, sprinkling the bits liberally amidst all the players.  Not only is Father Brown wise but other characters are allowed their moments in the sun as well.

I enjoyed having the Father Brown mysteries on my Kindle, which I carry with me.  Stuck at the doctor’s office or waiting in the car, I could easily turn to Chesterton for a little relief and escape.  During my year of reading a book a day, I read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a classic that I also highly recommend as Chesterton 101.

A Shortcut to Paradise: Laughing All the Way

A Shortcut to Paradise is a hysterically funny murder mystery that also serves as an inviting travelogue to hip and fun Barcelona.  Written by Teresa Solana and translated by Peter Bush, the novel is the second in Solana’s series starring non-identical twins Eduard and Borja Martinez. Eduard is a family man, devoted to wife and kids, while Borja juggles two girlfriends and is intent on living the life of the rich — as he says, “Life is only easy for the rich“.

Eduard works to support his family and Borja works to support his image as a financially-ruined but genetically impeccable aristocrat.  More through luck and a strange combination of pride (unfounded belief they can solve any puzzle) and  humility (they are willing to grovel for information as needed), the twins do solve murder mysteries, unfolding Catalan history, culture, and idiosyncracies along the way.

In A Shortcut to Paradise, a bestselling writer  of purple prose has been murdered and the entirety of the Catalan literary world — from critics to agents to novelists to poets — are possible perpetrators.  When the police nab the hapless but egocentric Amadeu Cabestany (such a great writer that he is unintelligible on paper), Cabestany’s agent calls the twins in to find the real murderer.  There the fun begins.  What a strange coincidence that a translator of literary texts — the subject of a recent posting of mine, in which I express my regard for all the wonderful translators who labor in obscurity — will turn out to play such a crucial role in revealing the truth behind purple prose lady’s murder.  But it will be the twins themselves who point the finger at the perpetrator and then proceed to recast the murdered writer from bestselling sellout to a writer of “transcendental ontic reflection”, worthy of entering “the literary canon alongside the great masters…”  A final funny twist in a novel of many wonderful and laugh-inducing contortions.

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