It’s rather ironic and a bit sad that I would dislike any biography of Maggie Smith, because I admire her acting so much. In my opinion, her ability tIt’s rather ironic and a bit sad that I would dislike any biography of Maggie Smith, because I admire her acting so much. In my opinion, her ability to portray nuances of a character with slightest of eye or body movements or intone humor and irony in the simplest of lines is unsurpassed by any actor living or dead. The breadth of her work is impressive. She seems like a proper—but fun—British lady with sensibilities from a grander era of theater. And yet, her biography bored me. How can this be?
Michael Coveney is a theatrical critic, and presents the entire roster of Ms. Smith’s roles and productions in chronological order. In doing so, he examines each in such great detail that he gives away the entire plot and best moments of each project, leaving nothing for the reader to discover later. This approach works well for old theatrical roles that Smith will never recreate. However, should the reader want to view Smith’s movies or TV productions after reading about them, the author has ruined all of the surprises. More information than what is needed for a reader to decide whether or not to see the film is too much.
Other reviewers have pointed out that there isn’t much about Smith’s personal life in the book. What bothers me even more is the unsupported speculation about her personal life as reflected in her acting history. The author writes off Smith’s first marriage to actor Robert Stephens, despite the couple having two children together. He infers that it was doomed from the beginning and was practically arranged by Smith’s second husband, producer Beverley Cross, to kill time before Cross’s divorce. The caption on one photo says that Maggie is keeping an eye on Robert’s drinking, but in the photo I see two actors relaxing backstage after a show. She’s smoking a cigarette and looking amused, and he’s drinking a small glass of wine, hardly the drink of a theatre boozehound.
If the book were better edited, I might have liked it better. The prose is not well worded, nor does it tell a very interesting story. It seems more like a laundry list of activities pursued during a lifetime than a story with a unifying theme and satisfying plot line. Since no other biography has been written, it seems that Maggie Smith is not forthcoming about the story of her life. That’s all the more reason to keep what is said about her short and simple. ...more
Stella Gibbons’ sly twist on early 20th century British rural novels provokes many a laugh. Even the surnames, like Hawk-Monitor (upper class) and DooStella Gibbons’ sly twist on early 20th century British rural novels provokes many a laugh. Even the surnames, like Hawk-Monitor (upper class) and Doom (lower class) are snicker-worthy. Written in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm makes use of the classic plot in which a newly orphaned young city woman who is used to the finer things must take up residence with poor, slovenly rural relatives. And though the relatives resent their obligation to her at first, each comes to view her as a shining light as she helps them, one by one, with practical advice and actions to improve their lives. Does this sound melodramatic yet overly simplistic? Absolutely! Yet Gibbons’ satirical and sometimes ludicrous edge makes the book a delightful read.
Flora Poste, the heroine, encounters many strange characters on the farm. Cousin Judith, ever heaving with remorse over unknown past events, is ostensibly in charge of everyday farm operations. Her husband Amos spends his time preaching hellfire and eternal damnation, both to his congregation and at home. Son Reuben exhibits second generational nonspecific despair, while son Seth splits his time between the visiting the cinema and seducing local maidens. Cousin Elfine is a wild nature girl who writes poetry but secretly longs to settle down into a conventional marriage. Hired hand Adam looks after the sorry livestock and “cletters the dishes,” a time-consuming task, since he uses just an old thorn twig. Old Aunt Ada Doom rules the roost. Despite seldom leaving her bedroom, she has the entire family under her thumb, afraid to make decisions about their own lives, especially if it means leaving the farm—until Flora Poste arrives. Flora also must solve problems of her own, as she is pursued by the oily and lustful would-be writer Mr. Mybug.
The movie based upon this book is also unusually good. Because it eliminates a few children who are extraneous to the plot, and condenses the conclusion, the movie moves the plot along a bit better—though the un-condensed conclusion is more true to the satirized genre. The characters are perfectly cast, and the spirit of the novel is maintained throughout, and the staging conveys the contrasting city and rural societies and environments convincingly.
Anyone with a sense of humor and a fondness for Victorian rural literature will enjoy this book. Conversely, anyone who was forced to read Victorian literature in school and hated it will get many a laugh from this perfect parody of the genre. ...more
As the title suggests, The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared tells an unlikely and humorous tall tale. Readers who can embraAs the title suggests, The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared tells an unlikely and humorous tall tale. Readers who can embrace the absurd and suspend statistical analysis and preconceived ideas about old age will enjoy many a laugh. The book is particularly entertaining for readers with knowledge of 20th century politics—leaders and politics of various nations are heavily, and rightfully, satirized. This feel-good black comedy about how one man influences the entire world’s history without desire for fame or compensation is particularly funny when enjoyed as an audiobook, since pronunciation of the various surnames and towns throughout Europe and Asia are more easily heard than read.
Allan Karlsson, the 100-year old man who climbs out the window to escape his dreary birthday celebration at the old folks’ home—choosing instead to find some vodka to celebrate—doesn’t plan or overanalyze his escape. His laissez faire, go-with-the-flow attitude starts him on an adventure with criminals, large sums of money, new friends, and plenty of vodka. In fact, as revealed in a series of backstories, his calm and unsuspecting attitude had previously involved him in numerous world events from the creation of the first atomic bomb to the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite his refusal to participate in or discuss politics. His adventures lead him from his native Sweden to Germany, Russia, France, Indonesia, China, and Korea, and he interacts with several US presidents.
Might an easy-going apolitical Swede with a knack for making explosives and a penchant for vodka become employed by world leaders, make friends in many countries, survive impossible physical and political conditions, and change the course of history many times over by maintaining a good attitude? If this idea brings a smile to your face, you will enjoy reading this book. ...more
What’s not to like about stories and advice from an 89-year old comedian—especially one who is healthy and optimistic? Dick Van Dyke is a powerhouse,What’s not to like about stories and advice from an 89-year old comedian—especially one who is healthy and optimistic? Dick Van Dyke is a powerhouse, having outlived two wives, overcome alcoholism, and continued singing and dancing every day despite a severe arthritis diagnosis at age 40. Keep Moving kept me smiling throughout, from Dick’s bantering with brother Jerry to his singing old tunes with young people in the Vantastix, to the low-key courting of his third wife Arlene, to his dog Rocky’s antics, to his description of a not-so-romantic cruise, to his conversation with long-time friend (age 96) Carl Reiner. The tales are light hearted and the advice is of the “it works for me” variety.
The audiobook, read by the author himself, shows Van Dyke’s mastery of comic timing. For maximum laughs, I recommend listening to the audiobook edition. The text edition has a number of color photos that are worth perusing if you’re curious about Dick’s youngish wife. The photos of Van Dyke with Carl Reiner are also fun, two funny old guys mugging for the camera.
Van Dyke’s reading of the book was perfect, and he gave me lots of laughs from start to finish. He’s had an interesting life, has always considered himself lucky from humble beginnings to Hollywood contracts, and values his friends and family. He still has joie de vivre despite his age, and is an inspiration to aging boomers.
Fans of Dick Van Dyke and the Dick Van Dyke show, in continuous syndication since its cancellation back in the 1960s, will enjoy this read. People who liked Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as kids will want to read it. Commuters who like audiobooks will find this one friendly, intriguing, and humorous. ...more
Bill Bryson was a young man when he first visited Great Britain. He married an English woman and lived for periods of time in both the US and England.Bill Bryson was a young man when he first visited Great Britain. He married an English woman and lived for periods of time in both the US and England. Now, in his 60s, he returns to Britain as a tourist, revisiting places that he traveled and lived, and other places that appeal to him for personal and often humorous reasons. “Little Dribbling” is not a destination, but a parody of the odd and cute names that Brits have assigned to small towns over the years. Readers who appreciate this play on words will likely enjoy Bryson’s humor.
The travelogue begins as Bryson applies for dual citizenship and must take a test. Many of the answers that are expected are not 100% accurate, most notably the longest distance between two points in Britain, generally thought to be between Lands End in Cornwall and John O’Groats in Scotland. Bryson points out that this transect crosses various oceans and bays, so cannot be considered “in Britain.” He proposes the “Bryson Line,” between Bognor Regis in West Sussex, and Cape Wrath in Scotland, which runs strictly overland, and proceeds on his journey roughly between these two points.
Although I enjoyed the many historical facts and personal observations of the ways that Britain has changed over the years, I grew tired of Bryson’s kvetching throughout the book. In particular, his discourses on the stupidity of people and the poorness of service simply weren’t funny after awhile. Oddly enough, I can’t remember a single similar incident on my extended tour of Britain a couple of years ago. In my opinion, “Little Dribbling” would have been more enjoyable at about 300 pages, with the complaining edited down considerably.
Fans of Bill Bryson’s writing will enjoy this book. Anyone who plans to tour Britain will pick up some tips on what to see and not-so-worthwhile destinations—for example he enjoyed Wales as much as I did, and I no longer regret eliminating Tintagel from our itinerary. Bryson’s conclusions about what he likes most about Britain, in the final chapter, are heartwarming, and will ring true for any American who has spent time touring across the pond. ...more
If you suffer from insomnia, The Insomnia Solution is a worthwhile read. A practicing sleep therapist, author Michael Krugman applies Feldenkrais methIf you suffer from insomnia, The Insomnia Solution is a worthwhile read. A practicing sleep therapist, author Michael Krugman applies Feldenkrais methods—targeted small, slow movements—to address different types of insomnia. First, he has readers assess whether their main sleep difficulty is physical stress, mental stress, or simple inability to lull themselves to sleep. Subsequent chapters suggest five or six exercises targeted at each type of insomnia, but it isn’t necessary to practice every exercise. The reader can choose the movements that seem most natural and relaxing.
Krugman’s premise that insomnia begins during daily activity rather than at night is reflected in his method. The reader first practices the movements during the day. Once the movements become easy to do without thinking, the reader starts performing the movements before sleep. This progression avoids the stress of learning an exercise and how to perform it correctly while simultaneously trying to relax and sleep. The exercises are small, easy so-called “mini-moves,” in some cases simply breathing in a natural and unrestricted way.
The author explains each exercise and the reasoning behind it in great detail, including photographs of people performing each phase of each exercise. While this seems like over-explaining to some of us (I skimmed a lot), it also makes the movements and their purpose accessible to any reader, regardless of their level of activity and understanding of bodily movement. The mini-moves are easy for readers of any physical ability to perform. The author’s tone is upbeat and encouraging. He gives instructions about how to apply the exercises, for example what to do if one wakes up suddenly and can’t get back to sleep. The last chapter, “Mini-moves in Brief,” is a condensed overview of each exercise and a handy reference to remind would-be sleepers of the steps of each exercise after they have learned how to perform them.
Which are my favorite mini-moves? Since physical tension is often an issue for me, the Pelvic Rock (for lower back), Hanging Loose (shoulders and neck), and Painting the Air (arms and shoulders) are particularly helpful. Though I meditate and don’t usually have mental issues at night, the Secret Handshake is a valuable tool during the day if I don’t have time or space to meditate and am anxious, for example, about making a public presentation. It could also be a useful under-the-table movement at a job interview. Touching Your Heart is soothing if I awaken abruptly and can’t get back to sleep. As far as the lulling movements, I can easily perform the Ziggurat in my typical pre-sleep position. Welcoming Sleep with Open Arms is also appealing, and engages my arms and shoulders, often a source of pre-sleep tension.
Just about anyone who has occasional or ongoing difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep could benefit from checking out The Insomnia Solution. As a safe and natural alternative to harsh drugs that incur side effects and force changes in the body’s normal sleeping/waking cycles, it is certainly worth a try. ...more
Armageddon is no joking matter—or is it? In the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, the two sides never collaborate—or do they? If the antichristArmageddon is no joking matter—or is it? In the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, the two sides never collaborate—or do they? If the antichrist is born, he will inevitably destroy the world—or will he? Of the many detailed predictions about the end of the world, none are completely accurate—or are they? Good Omens explores these and other philosophical questions in droll and witty vignettes with a cast of both mortals and immortals. It’s jolly good fun for those who enjoy British satire and who can appreciate the lighter side of religion.
The story begins as a well-meaning but bumbling Satanic nun misplaces the antichrist child in a botched attempt to pair him with evil (politician) parents. Meanwhile, both fussy bookshop-owning angel-on-earth Aziraphale and Bentley-driving, sunglasses-wearing demon-on-earth Crowley have become quite comfortable during their 6000 years on earth. They’re rather fond of mankind and of one another, and haven’t much interest in acting out the roles that their bosses insist that they play in Armageddon. Also, in a small cottage, not too far from the adolescent antichrist, lives the descendant of Agnes Nutter, Witch. She possesses the only copy of the true prophesies of the end of the world—until it goes missing after an unlikely accident. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive later—they’re not what one would expect, but their characters neatly reflect the foibles and strange obsessions of modern culture.
Actor and radio personality Martin Jarvis reads the audiobook with great finesse. Because of the many characters and the action occurring in several places simultaneously, the listener might become confused if the audiobook weren’t voiced well. Jarvis is not only the master of a wide variety of English dialects, but also puts the personalities into his voicing of the myriad of male and female characters so it’s easy to tell them apart. He voices many characters with amusing phrasing and intonation, precisely capturing the humor that the authors intended.
Although Good Omens isn’t exactly great English literature, it’s a rollicking good time and a funny reflection on the absurdity of human nature. Anyone who appreciates British humor with well-defined and believably eccentric characters will enjoy reading or listening to this story....more
Although The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was written to reflect dating patterns among young women circa 2000, the stories are familiar to womeAlthough The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was written to reflect dating patterns among young women circa 2000, the stories are familiar to women who started dating as long ago as the 1970s. Not much has changed during those years for young women like protagonist Jane Rosenal. A tomboyish and observant smartass as a child, Jane becomes an “artistic type” adult who uses her wittiness and humor to mask her insecurities. Because she is this type of female, she faces particular challenges in both work and dating relationships. Key to whether the reader will enjoy this book is whether s/he can relate to this type of personality. For me, the protagonist’s patterns, described by her in first person, were all too familiar.
In a series of short stories, author Melissa Bank takes us from Jane’s youthful commentary on her older brother’s interactions with his many girlfriends, through relationships with a series of men that the reader senses aren’t right for her, and to a budding relationship that the reader hopes she won’t screw up. Throughout, she gets lots of dubious dating advice from family, friends, and published experts. Her attempts to “act normal” are inevitably foiled when her outspoken personality bubbles up and asserts who she really is. During the short story series, Jane learns more about how much to give and take in relationships both personal and professional, and starts down the path of self-acceptance.
Other reviewers have pointed out that one story isn’t about Jane, and is written in second rather than first person. Perhaps because I listened to the audiobook rather than reading the text, it seemed to me that a later-life Jane was being described. I thought it a clever device to depict middle aged Jane with three children in the midst of stories about her as a young woman. Throughout the rest of the stories, I wondered, with each new date, whether this man would eventually become the father of Jane’s children. So although I didn’t care for the change from first person to second, I didn’t find the story out of context, although I’d hoped some details would be revisited and resolved in the final story.
Audiobook narrator Lorelei King is a veteran of stage and radio, and her experience shows in her reading. She adds the perfect touch of humor and irony to situations and commentary without being snarky. This approach is appropriate to the protagonist, whose ironical observations are honest and direct rather than mean spirited. King reveals the personality of both male and female characters in her voicing.
Women who have been told that they aren’t feminine enough, laugh too loud, tell too many jokes that others don’t get, or are too smart or too independent to attract men will like this book. Those who have kissed a few—or more—frogs before overcoming their insecurities and accepting themselves will be able to relate to it, whether or not they ultimately have chosen to find Mr. Right. ...more
Viewing Alexander Calder’s colorful, dynamic, and often whimsical art always gives me a lift. Though Calder’s art can only be fully appreciated when vViewing Alexander Calder’s colorful, dynamic, and often whimsical art always gives me a lift. Though Calder’s art can only be fully appreciated when viewed personally, Baal-Teshuva does a good job of illustrating the work, especially in such a small book. The artwork is photographed in situ, mostly in full color. A varied selection of mobiles, stabiles, paintings, wire sculpture, jewelry, kinetic art, and even custom-painted airplanes is portrayed. The photos, for the most part, don’t seem too small, even though they often depict huge objects. Most photos are provided by museums. The small size of the book is refreshing for those used to reading heavy and unwieldy art books.
The text is a short overview of Calder’s life in the art world, including a bit about his sculptor father and grandfather, but just a short mention of his painter mother. Sandy, as he is known to friends and family, is depicted as lighthearted and lovable, in fact the darling of this art contemporaries. Even Dadaists and Surrealists who don’t particularly appreciate mobiles like him.
To me the text misses two important points about Sandy Calder. First, he was a family man, who enjoyed the company of his wife and children. Second, and most important, he was completely committed to his art, and his time in the studio was inviolable. He spent extended time every day creating art, not to be disturbed by family or the many friends to which this book refers. While the reader might draw the conclusion that any artist as prolific as Calder would have to be committed, I think that the author does a disservice to Calder's serious side by not describing clearly the depth of his commitment to his work. Depicting Calder as a just a good-time guy oversimplifies his character.
Anyone who loves Calder’s art will enjoy flipping through this book. Readers who have seen some of Calder’s large stabiles or mobiles, whether in a public space or a museum, might be amazed at the breadth of Calder’s portfolio, including his bold paintings and whimsical (and fully operational) wire circus. Those who like this book might also want to read Calder’s Universe by Jean Lipman. ...more
Since turquoise is my favorite color, the cover of The Anthropology of Turquoise caught my eye. I’m also fond of visiting deserts and oceans and revelSince turquoise is my favorite color, the cover of The Anthropology of Turquoise caught my eye. I’m also fond of visiting deserts and oceans and reveling in nature, and a collection of short stories centered around a “desert, sea, stone, and sky” theme appealed to me. Meloy’s writing speaks to me on a visceral level. Her descriptions are full of color, texture, and wonder—and often humor. Her stories, each located in its own part of the world and with its own theme, add up to a non-chronological memoir that touches upon pivotal life events while revealing what is important to her: the natural world, self sufficiency, freedom, and a sense of belonging. Although not all of us can or want to be the extreme outdoorswoman that Meloy was, many nature lovers, especially women, will be able to relate to her ideas and desires.
Meloy’s lived in Utah, and several stories take place on rivers in the Colorado Plateau. One of my favorites, “The Angry Lunch Café,” starts off placidly on the last night of a solo river voyage. But the sudden silence of the soothing cricket sounds portends a huge storm and bad dreams, followed by a rude ending to her adventure the next morning. While packing up, she encounters an all-male group with several off-road vehicles, “hulky, fat-tire machines that looked like the offspring of coitus between a Volkswagen bug and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.” Seeing their many rifles, handguns, and binoculars, Meloy asks if they’re with law enforcement on a search and rescue mission. They change the subject, and soon she finds out that their mission is quite different, and it’s frightening yet also hilarious. That evening, Meloy visits a restaurateur friend, at his invitation. She still feels hungry after she’s eaten and drunk everything in sight, much to her friend’s amusement. “In my worry over land wars I’d nearly eaten the tablecloth,” she says.
Another favorite story, “Heron Bay,” is about Meloy’s search for her roots in the Bahamas, a journey that she takes with her husband. After a lifetime of believing that her mother’s family lived in Great Britain, her cousin’s foray into genealogy had revealed that certain family members were plantation owners in the Bahamas. The quest takes her from the ocean’s “chromatic bands of serenity” to overgrown mountainside ruins, from peaceful bike rides to raucous reggae clubs, from filial curiosity to pondering the concept of slave ownership. Meanwhile, she acknowledges that in genealogy, “interest lies in the eye of the gene holder,” and checks to see whether listeners are “fighting the imminent coma of listening to someone else’s family history.” Alternating her family’s history with the immediacy of the island and her adventures there, she tells her story without allowing the reader’s eyes to glaze over.
My other favorites include “Red Dust,” about a Native American rodeo and powwow, where Meloy is welcome to participate, but humorously rebuffed when she wants to understand the topic of serious discussion by Navaho elders in their native tongue. “Swimming the Mojave” speaks to parents’ quirks and the strange effects they can have on children. With playful irony, avid swimmer Meloy bemoans childhood trips to the desert where her father would only let the family stay in motels without a pool. He claimed they couldn’t afford accommodations with pools, though he never actually compared costs and sometimes drove long distances to find a Mojave motel without a pool. As an adult, Meloy drives the same route, but stays only in motels with pools, and takes adequate time to enjoy them. Many readers like “A Field Guide to Brazen Harlotry,” where the potential sexiness of flowers and their relationship with bees is explored with appealing humor. “Azul Maya” is about Meloy’s personal eco-tour of the Yucatan with husband Mark, whose encounters with barracudas indicate that he’s even more adventuresome than she is. “Tilano’s Jeans” begins, “I have just stapled my hair to the roof,” and leads to contemplation of the lives of women throughout history who have felt compelled to homestead in the desert.
Readers who love nature and have environmentalist leanings will enjoy this book. Because of its personal nature, more women than men will be able to relate to it. Anyone who loves the color turquoise will be amazed at the number of contexts in which it can be explored and discussed....more
Aging backwards is an intriguing concept for those of us over 50, but I’m not convinced that the book Aging Backwards is going to get me there. WritteAging backwards is an intriguing concept for those of us over 50, but I’m not convinced that the book Aging Backwards is going to get me there. Written by a dancer who has seen her body change in midlife, the method involves stretching each of our 620 muscles every day. So far, so good. Author Esmonde-White further states that proper stretching is dynamic—we should never “hold” our stretches, but move through a range of motion while stretching. That seems appealing compared with many exercise programs. However, in the supporting text the author makes statements that aren’t validated by current scientific research, nor are references cited. The analogies used in describing muscles and other parts of the body seem inappropriate and geared towards not-very-intelligent readers. In fact, her skeletal muscle count, generally estimated at 640-650, seems a bit off. Though the exercises seem straightforward and even somewhat fun, they are not presented in a user-friendly format.
The premise of the exercises is to use each of our 620 [sic] muscles in every session. The exercises are well-illustrated, with a photo of each step, and in some cases what not to do. There are 8 workouts: straighten posture, lose weight, soothe joints, increase energy, relieve pain, enhance balance, improve mobility, and protect bones. Each section contains 4-12 exercises, and could be fine performed as is. But perhaps one might want to relieve pain and increase energy. Or, if an exercise seems impossible or uncomfortable, one might want to replace it with a similar exercise from another section. There is no guidance about substituting exercises while still working all of the muscles.
A list of muscles used in each exercise would have been useful. Then one could be sure that the goal of exercising all of the muscles is realized when mix-and-matching exercises from different sections. Of course, one can sort through, perform the various exercises, and see which muscles feel used, or try to understand from context which muscles would be used in each exercise. If one is really motivated to exercise, this could be fun. But for most people who are reading an exercise book, it’s just another reason to delay exercising. ...more