Vacationland – John Hodgman

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live.

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

Catching up: Midsummer edition

Well, well, well. Summer school has started and is now halfway over, so that’s why there’s been a drop in posts the last fortnight or so. It’s very fun to teach but I must admit that it definitely eats into my day, what with grading, prepping PPTs, and general admin, so reading seems to have fallen off the last few days. It’ll pick up in two weeks (when summer school’s over). Phew. 

Thought that this would be a good time to catch up with some of the more notable summer reading titles that I haven’t yet blogged about, so here you go. These haven’t been the only books I’ve read, but they are the books that have left an impression on me over the last few weeks or so. 

I am becoming pretty interested in autobios and biographies, so as I was strolling through the library shelves, I was drawn to a short biography of children’s author, Richard Scarry. My twin was very interested in Scarry’s books when we were growing up and so I picked this version up. It wasn’t a heavy-duty serious solid biography, but more of a conversation or dialogue with some of the people who knew him so it ended up a pretty lightweight read which was fine, since I was a bit brain-dead at the end of the semester when I read it. 

Then, I wanted to read from my TBR pile, so pulled a fairly recent buy for me called The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor, mainly because of two things: it was about a (fictional) music group from the eighties and the book was partly set in Luton, which is a fairly nondescript quite industrial town near to where I grew up. It’s not a town that leaps to mind for many authors and so when I saw that O’Connor had chosen it, it immediately went on to the list. 

It was a fun read that I gobbled down in just a few days and covers the life and evolution of a small group of friends who make up a band in their teenaged years and what happens to it (the band) and them as it evolves over time. Sad, funny – lots of great pop culture refs for those of us who came of age in that decade PLUS it kept mentioning landmarks that I had heard of. Well written story which kept me turning the pages. I’m on the lookout for more O’Connor (who’s actually a big Irish author so not sure why the attraction to Luton!) 

That was followed with a rather ponderous effort at reading Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers on my kindle. I’m about halfway through it right now, but it’s been put down for a week or two so I’m hoping that I haven’t lost the impetus to finish that title before I forget all the characters and what they’re doing!

Since it was summer and my brain was on holiday for a bit, I wanted a quick read that was also well written, so picked up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground which was an enjoyable romp and also gave me lots of examples of good grammar examples to show in class. (I know. Strange but true.) Features more of Tom Ripley’s adventures and was just a good read overall.

Then I soldiered through a nonfiction by Jonathon Raban called Hunting for Mister Heartbreak. I’d really appreciated one of Raban’s other reads (called Badlands [no blog post] about North Dakota, I think), so was rather hoping to replicate that level of read. I’d also enjoyed a book by Raban called Coasting (when he sails in a small boat around the coast of UK)…

Hunting for Mister Heartbreak was set to be a good read, going by the narrative arc: English man travels around America trying to find the essence of American-ness is various places, from the Florida Keys to the Deep South and in between. 

This book didn’t reach the same level of greatness that Badlands and Coasting did, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe this was an earlier volume and he hadn’t got his swing yet? There was quite a lot of him philosophizing about things in a rather superior way, and I think I just got tired of him judging the places and people who surrounded him. It just didn’t really come together and seemed more of a patchwork quilt just thrown together to create a bigger work. So-so, if you ask me, but another off the TBR pile, so that’s good. (I might be done with Raban now though.) 

Then summer school prep and the semester actually beginning which has meant more time prepping for class and grading work. I have a really good bunch of students this semester – summer school students seem to be a different breed than the long-semester ones and I’m enjoying the experience – but it’s definitely crazy-fast-paced for us to fit all the material in. Then, when summer school finishes in a couple of weeks, I get another couple of weeks off to recover and plan for the fall semester and then the school year begins again. I just adore teaching! (I hope the students enjoy it as well. :-}

Reading Review: May 2019

The reads for May 2019 included:

So — to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in May 2019: 10. (Hooray for summer break.)
  • Total number of pages read 3,330 pages (av. 333). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 4+ books by women. (The + is because I read an anthology which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for June include continuing the POC author/topic focus and my focus on my own TBR.  And a trip to Vancouver… 🙂

A Silver-Plated Spoon – John, Duke of Bedford (1959)

I seem to be rather enamored with biographies and autobiographies at the moment, and so, as part of my goal of reading more from my own TBR, I pulled this title down from the shelf. I had found this volume at one of the FoL book sales, and bought it as I was intrigued by (a) the fact that I remember being taken for several visits to this guy’s family (and stately) home as a child, and (b) I was also curious about the reason why it had shown up in West Texas, 5,500 miles away from the place it described. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, and it turned out in the end, I was actually pretty impressed with how proficiently it was written and the author’s witty sense of humor. (Very dry.) 

I grew up in Bedford, a middle-sized market English town that has a history of hundreds of years. Despite many years being educated there, I was still pretty ignorant about some of its local historical figures (this family being one). However, I’d wondered about this family title (Duke of Bedford), and since they also lived in the same county (I think), what their connection was to the town of Bedford. This read clarified all that for me.

John, the Duke of Bedford author, writes a fairly straightforward recounting of his family’s long history. His family records can take his descendants back for hundreds of years with a fairly constant peripheral relationship with the royalty of the time. (A few queens and kings even stayed the night in their ancestral home, Woburn Abbey, which fascinated me. How on earth would you prepare your house for an overnight stay of the Queen?) 

So, there’s a lot of family and local history retold in this book – interesting for me, but perhaps not so interesting for others with no connection to the area. I was impressed with the fact that the Russell family (who make up the Duke connection) had kept accurate records of their ancestors for so many years and, having watched my father labor for years over our own (slightly more modest) family tree, was well aware of how much work tracing such a personal history can be for someone dedicated to the cause. 

John’s (the Duke in question) childhood had been isolated and he had had a lonely upbringing with a very distant father (personally speaking). However, John doesn’t seem to hold a huge grudge towards his parent (although he certainly doesn’t give him much slack), and so the majority of the book puts a lot of focus on how much he (and his wife) have worked on turning his stately home into a profitable concern instead of the partly ruinous mound of bricks that his earlier relatives had left to molder. I really appreciated how this Duke had seen the value in renovating the large house whilst also keeping it historically accurate. (It was very sweet actually.) 

So, this was an interesting interlude going back in time for an important local family from the area where I grew up. (Curiously, their family’s link to Bedford is not with my nearby market town of the same name. It’s to do with some real estate in Bedford Square in the City of London.) 

This was actually a far better read than I had anticipated, and I’m glad that the title had somehow made it onto the TBR (and now it’s off!). 

The question now remains: what title to read next? 

Woburn Abbey.

New Books…

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The FoL summer book sale was held the other day, and although I tried to not go, I did end up spending some time there. (Well, to not go would have been so rude, don’t you think?)

And so this is what I ended up with in my shopping bag, all ready for a future summer’s day. Uncertain which summer it will be, but I’m ready!  🙂

Top to bottom:

  • Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (usually good fiction writer)
  • The Last Picture Show – Larry McMurtry (fiction set in Texas. I first read this in my first semester at American university and hadn’t been in Texas long enough to get the references. I think now that I’ve been here a while, I will appreciate it more.)
  • The Best American Short Stories (1999) – edited by Amy Tan (F) (current slight craze on short stories)
  • Tinkerbelle – Robert Manry (NF travel – guy has never sailed before, but buys a boat and sails across the Atlantic with many adventures…)
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F and African-American classic which I haven’t read but with the new focus on reading more POC will do so soon)
  • Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (F) (see above about the focus on reading more POC authors)
  • Advertising in America – (NF) big coffee book with some lovely color plates of old advertising from across the USA

And going against my usual grain of not-reading-things-I’ve-just-bought, I’ve just finished a good read of the Naylor fiction. Loved it so expect more to come about that.

So hmm…. What’s next?

My Life in France – Julia Child (2006)

Julia Child has to have been one of the most energetic and upbeat people who has ever lived. Being that she is tall and gangly (six foot two inches tall), she really gives her all in living life to the fullest and living her passions. She met and married Paul Child during their service in the OSS, and as his wife, they move around the world (mostly France but there are other postings), and it is there in France that Julia becomes her own person and larger than life.

Her first meal in Paris is described as an epiphany for her and cracks open the door to learning (and becoming an expat expert) on the art of French cooking. She attends and graduates from Le Cordon Bleu (not without difficulty being the only woman among eleven GIs), and then uses that foundation as a spring board to even higher heights of gastronomical cooking.

Working with two French partners with French cooking experience, Julia leads the charge on a huge encyclopedic recipe book (but so much more than that). Julia is obsessive about the ingredients, which ones work best at what point and the science of cooking. Her writing partners are more laidback in this area which is ok at first, but then leads to some issues for all.

And yet this autobiography is so much more than about writing a cookery book (albeit a cookery book that changed how America cooked, so it is said). This is really a paean of adoration to the country of France, its people, its geography, its culture and, bien sur, its food. The Childs travel widely across France to taste different dishes and when Paul retires from the diplomatic corps, they end up building a small home near Provence. What an idealistic place this must have seemed, because from the descriptions, most of their life was cooking and eating (and drinking).

I say that, and then I remember that quite a bit of the book covers the actual writing and publishing process of “The Art of French Cooking”.  It took the collaboration of authors a long time (Seven? Eight years?) to compile and write the info and even then it wasn’t what the original publishers wanted. (It’s puzzling to me that the authors and the pub didn’t communicate during that time to make sure they were both on the same page, topic speaking.) So back to the drawing board for everyone. A long and arduous process, but one that concluded in a classic recipe (and more) book for Americans.

And then there were the TV shows…  (See this link for more of the original shows. )

(And here is the Dan Ackroyd/SNL version for you…

I really enjoyed this read. Julia is/was a good writer and raconteur, and her nephew has done a good job organizing what I’m sure was a lot of mixed-up information into a logical format. The last paragraph in the book really sums up how Julia saw the world:

“In all the years since that [first] succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!”

Well said, I say.