CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Neil Patrick Harris


Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography, Choose Your Own Autobiography, is a funny and interesting chronicle of the multi-talented entertainer’s first 40 years. Harris used a unique format to tell his story – the old “choose your own adventure” style, where you are presented with two options at the end of every chapter and get to choose which one you want to pursue. However, I listened to this book on audio, so it was a more linear read for me.

Wow, what a life Neil Patrick Harris has led. He was born in New Mexico to kind, loving parents who cultivated his love for theater and performing from an early age. After some school productions, he was discovered by Hollywood and cast in a few movies. But his big break came as a teenager when he won the role of Doogie Howser, MD. That show – which ran for 5 years – made Harris a household name and really set the rest of his life in motion.

Doogie, coming out, How I Met Your Mother, the Tonys, the Emmys, Hedwig And The Angry Inch... anyone who has followed Harris’ career knows about these highlights and achievements. But hearing it all from his perspective is a lot of fun. Harris is engaging, funny, smart, and often humble, and he makes for a great narrator. He is appreciative of his great fortune in life, and he expresses gratitude for the people he has worked with and the projects he was involved with, but he’s not above a little celebrity dishing and calling out bad behavior when he sees it.

I learned a lot about how things worked behind-the-scenes on his TV series and awards show specials, and what it was like being a child actor and later a closeted gay man starting out as an actor.

There were a few things I didn’t love about the book. First, if you listen to it on audio, it can feel a little choppy and out of order  – and also redundant – because of  its unique format. I felt like he was jumping around and/or doubling back sometimes, because he was. The Choose Your Own Adventure books are meant to throw the reader off and send them on a bit of a ride; picking one up and reading it straight through is not the goal. The book was clearly reoriented for the audio version, but it’s not perfect.

Second, there is a lot of sex in here. It didn’t bother me, but I wouldn’t recommend listening to it with your 10 year-olds unless you have good reflexes and can sit close to the pause button. I got a lot of questions like, “Mommy, what’s he talking about?”

In all, Choose Your Own Autobiography was a very entertaining read. Neil Patrick Harris is a lucky guy (his husband ALONE sounds amazing), but he’s also extremely talented, so you feel good reading about the guy and all of his accolades and successes. He’s also a skilled narrator, and I highly recommend the audio version.

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Q&A with Jane Smiley, SOME LUCK

I attended a Q&A with Jane Smiley at Politics & Prose earlier this fall, and since I just reviewed her new book Some Luck, I thought I’d post the Q&A now.

Smiley calls Some Luck an “old person’s way of writing a novel” – with the years progressing evenly, as “happy and tragic events came and went”.

Q: A lot has happened since you started writing. Has it affected your writing or could you have written the same book 20 years ago?

A: I think so. I came up with this idea 5 years ago, decided on a setting, settled on Walter and Rosanna, gave the kids personalities, and set them on their way. The book is mostly made up of history and gossip.

Q: A lot of your books have an agricultural motif. Have you lived on a farm?

A: No, but I lived in Ames – what’s the difference? I moved to Iowa City at age 22. I was interested in farming, the ecology of farming in our lifetime. If I had gone to UVA, I would have gone down another path.

Q: You used to teach. When you taught, did it affect your writing, and did your writing affect your teaching?

A: Yes. Once I was writing a story, and teaching undergrads, and I was giving tips for storywriting and in the process came up with how to move on in the story.

Q: Do you write thinking about how the book will sound out loud? Do you ever wish you’d changed a word?

A: Yes, in fact I did tonight during my reading.

Q: A Thousand Acres had King Lear as its background. Did anything inspire Some Luck?

A: No, I just wanted to fill this title: A Hundred Years. This was much more free form. I knew where I was headed. I knew Frank would go to war and the farm would change and someone would stay on the farm. It had boundaries, but not structure like King Lear.

Q: Some Luck is the first of a trilogy. Are the other two books finished?

A: Yes. I need to fiddle with the last 5 years.

Q: Which books influenced you as a girl? Little House on the Prairie?

A: That series was read to me as a kid. The books that had the most influence on me were the ones I read as a 13-14 year old: Giants in the Earth, David Copperfield, The Web of Life.

Here is a video of the reading.

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SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley


This fall, Jane Smiley released Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a midwestern family, the Langdons. Smiley will ultimately publish three books about the family covering the years 1920-2020, with each chapter dedicated to one year. This first installment – Some Luck – covers the years 1920-1953.

The Langdons are made up of a couple – Walter and Rosanna – and their five children Frank, Joey, Lilian, Henry and Claire. They live on a farm in a rural town in Iowa called Denby. When the book opens, Walter and Rosanna are young parents, and Walter is trying to make a living as a farmer. Some Luck follows the family through the births of the five children, the Depression, World War II, and the 50s, as the kids grow up and start to have their own lives. Frank spends four years in the Army in Europe, where he escapes death many times and sees the horror of the war up close. Joey stays close to home, learning how to farm and introducing his own ideas about seeds, harvests, and machinery. Lillian marries and moves away to Washington DC, opening up the scope of the book beyond Iowa and the war.

In Some Luck, Smiley creates a memorable, diverse family, exploring each member’s inward feelings, disappointments, and hopes.    Just like in life, some years are more momentous (births, deaths, marriages) than others (Fourth of July parties, snowstorms). But each contributes important details and texture about the Langdons and their extended family. Some of the quieter and more domestic passages proved to be the ones I remembered best. I also enjoyed the historical details that gave a glimpse into daily life on a farm 100 years ago.

As it should, with 2/3 still to go, Some Luck feels unfinished. The first book covers the life arc of the family patriarch, so the closure of his story at the end is natural, but there are still many characters with many life stages ahead. The book had a slow start for me (lots of farming) but I gradually found myself getting more and more engrossed. I am looking forward to the release of books 2 and 3 so that I can pick up where I left off with the Langdons. I miss them already.

I listened to Some Luck on audio for the most part, and the performance was just OK for me. The narrator had a very particular way of talking, and it was sort of simplistic, the way you’d talk to a child. That narration was OK for the early chapters about little kids, but it felt out of sync with the more serious parts of the book. I also didn’t like some of the different tones she took on for different characters – I’d rather she had just read all the voices the same. I think I enjoyed the parts of the book that I read more than those I listened to.

Overall – strong start to what promises to be a rewarding trilogy. Tomorrow, I will post my notes from a Q&A I attended with Jane Smiley this fall.

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THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

Our November Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I had never read it when I was my girls’ age, so this one was new to me.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens when Kit Tyler, a 16 year-old who has grown up in Barbados, arrives in Connecticut after taking a five-week boat trip from her home. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, has passed away, and her only remaining family is an aunt living in the American colonies.

From the moment she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is aware of how different she is from her Puritan family. Her rich, colorful dresses are a stark contrast to the grey, simple muslins worn by her cousins. Kit grew up swimming and reading secular books, both of which are unheard of in her uncle’s strict household, and her lack of interest in the church sermons and readings to which she is subjected provide a constant source of tension with those around her.

After her arrival, Kit is terribly homesick until she discovers the Meadows on the outskirts of town, and an old woman named Hannah who lives in a modest house there. Hannah is wise, patient and kind, but she has been run out of town because she is a Quaker and people believe she is a witch. Kit comes to care deeply for Hannah, but she has to keep their friendship a secret because she has been prohibited by her uncle from visiting the Meadows and seeing her. When their friendship is exposed, Kit must decide how much she will risk to protect Hannah, and she has to face the consequences of her actions when the town turns on her too.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about leadership, fundamentalism, standing up for one’s beliefs, adherence to social norms, and religious freedom. (There are also some love stories threaded through the book). It kept my daughters’ attention and provided lots of fodder for discussion. The girls found several characters to admire (and a few to hate), and everyone agreed that Kit was more brave than they would have been in her shoes. I liked that most of the characters were multi-dimensional, even if they seemed closed-minded and rigid at first. There is also a lot of detail about life in Colonial America and some exploration of how the colonists broke free of England and the Royalists.

I highly recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond for middle grade readers. It is a palatable dose of history and ethics that goes down very smoothly and provides a great springboard for conversation.

 

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A Q&A About Reading

I was recently asked to answer a bunch of questions about my reading habits and recent books I’ve read. Since I am so behind on posts on the blog (that’s what happens when I pick up a 480 page book), I thought I’d post my answers here.

What book/books are on your nightstand right now? I have about 100 books on my nightstand. They are stacked in convoluted ways and jammed in. That is only one of many locations where I have TBR books – there are hundreds on shelves in my attic, three large stacks in my den, and a box of BEA 2014 books in my living room. The nightstand is supposedly where the TOP of the TBR list resides. Right now, in pole position, I have The Art of Fielding (reading now), Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe, and It’s A Mad World, which is a band-by-band, song-by-song exploration of 80s new wave music.

What is the last truly great book you read? Truly great? Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and The Blessings by Elise Juska.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Loved to read. I had a wider range then than I do now – more fantasy, historical fiction. Now I am a stubborn realist.

If you had to name one book who made you what you are today, what book would it be? I don’t think any one book has made me who I am today. I am the cumulative result of lots of reading.

What is the last book you put down without finishing? Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whitmore. I’ve picked up a lot of books and put them back down lately, but this was the last one I actually read any real part of and then put down.

What book did you feel you were supposed to like but you didn’t? Little Bee. Awful.

Who would you choose to write your life story? Carol Shields (sadly no longer alive) or Curtis Sittenfeld.

You are hosting a literary dinner party – what three writers would you invite? Lionel Shriver, Ian McEwan and Jennifer Haigh.

What do you plan to read next? The Witch of Blackbird Pond, for my Mother-Daughter Book Club.

What are you listening to these days – in the car/ at work/ at home? Audiobooks!! Right now Some Luck by Jane Smiley.

What are you watching these days on TV/DVD/streaming? Just started a new miniseries last night called The Missing. It was so painful that I found it physically hard to watch. But really well-acted. And The Comeback is back – YAY!

Who do you love to follow on Twitter/FB? Social media people and book bloggers.

More reviews soon, I promise!

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THE COMFORT OF LIES by Randy Susan Meyers

The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers is about three unhappy Boston women whose lives are intertwined. Juliette is married to Nathan, with two sons. Five years before the book opens, Nathan had a year-long affair with Tia, a twentysomething who fell desperately in love with him and ended up pregnant with his baby. Nathan broke up with her as soon as she told him she was pregnant, and never knew that she had the baby and gave her up for adoption. The baby was adopted by a couple – Caroline and Peter – who live in a huge, beautiful house but don’t spend much time with their adopted daughter.

So why are these women so unhappy? Juliette can’t get past her husband’s affair and the nagging feeling of mistrust that is eroding her love for him. Caroline doesn’t enjoy being a mother and resents her husband’s suggestions that she scale back her work to spend time with her daughter. And Tia regrets giving up her daughter and can’t get over Nathan, despite her anger at his abandoning her.

Tia sets the book’s triangle in motion by sending photos of her daughter (which Caroline has sent to her over the years) to Nathan, letting him know in a letter that the girl exists. Juliette intercepts the letter, learns about her husband’s daughter, and, rather than confront him, manages to meet with Caroline without letting her know the connection. Ultimately, Caroline contacts Tia, Juliette confronts Nathan, and they are all forced to deal with the consequences of how they are connected.

Meyers explores each character’s actions and motivations in great detail – so much so that it felt like the actions were unfolding in real time. She is quite adept at analyzing the often inconsistent feelings the women experienced about their predicaments, and she clearly feels compassion toward each one. But I didn’t love The Comfort of Lies. There no joy to be found anywhere in this book. Each of the characters is desperately unhappy and seems to experience nothing that comes close to enjoyment or fulfillment (other than through work). They are selfish and unlikeable, and the redemption Meyers permits them at the end of the book is rushed and implausible. I also didn’t buy that they all formed some sort of a family by the close of the book. Given the awkwardness of the origin of their relationships, I found the ending unlikely.

It was a bit of a slog to get through The Comfort of Lies. I think I was looking for a palate cleanser when I picked it up – something to remove the taste of the last read and prepare me for future courses – but instead, it has only perpetuated my curmudgeonly streak. The book has gotten many good reviews, so this may again just be me being grumpy. Hopefully I will snap out of the reading doldrums soon.

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LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

While I was reading Amy Bloom’s new novel, Lucky Us, I had a few questions: How did a book like Lucky Us get published, as is? Did someone read it – really read it – before it got published? If you’re Amy Bloom, with a few great successes under your belt, does that mean that you get to bypass the editing process?

I really didn’t like Lucky Us much at all. It is supposed to be a jazzy novel set in the 40s about how an unconventional family finds each other and survives the ups and downs of a turbulent America. Eva and Iris, half-sisters with deeply flawed parents, leave their home in Ohio and head to Hollywood, only to head back East when Iris has an affair with a young actress and is then shunned by all of show business. They return to New York and make their living as a governess and a tarot card reader, and their irresponsible but charming father re-enters their lives, and some other people come in and out of it, and honestly I don’t even have the heart to summarize the rest of it.

The relationships in this book were implausible and the plot was meandering and improbable. Characters came and went with no introduction or future relevance. Terrible things happened – a main character died in a fire, a boy was separated from his brother in an orphanage, a German-American is extradited during WWII – but there was barely any emotion expressed about any of it. Iris and Eva become estranged about halfway through – but why? Eva’s anger at Iris makes no sense. Nor does her pining away for a man she believes to be dead.

Lucky Us was a chore to get through. I didn’t care about the characters at all and I was relieved when it was over. There were a few poignant moments throughout the book which were touching and showed Bloom’s potential, but they were so few and far between that I can’t recommend it. I listened to Lucky Us on audio, which I do not think made much of an impact on my enjoyment of the novel. The narration was a bit too perky and cutesy for me, especially during the more serious parts of the book.

Judging by Goodreads, a lot of readers agree with me that there was not much to like about Lucky Us. But some people loved it, so if you’re a diehard Amy Bloom fan, give it a read and then come back and tell me if you liked it. Maybe I am just cranky these days.

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