Hamilton read-along

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
3 words: enthusiastic, light, informative
Like 60% of the free world, I’ve been sucked into the Hamilton vortex, and each day a different song from the soundtrack accompanies me in my brain. (Here’s the one that makes me laugh every time I listen to it.)

But let’s listen to a Lafayette song, because we’re focusing on that guy here today.
(photo credit: By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21104068)

He’s a big old important secondary character in the Hamilton story, but in Vowell’s book, he’s at center stage.

And… Dude.
The dude was only 19 years old when he sailed over here from France to take on the British at Washington’s side.
And this is how we know the story’s true, because it’s too unbelievable to be fiction.
Sarah Vowell is a confirmed history nerd, and she’s one of my favorite writers of popular history.  
The woman is enthusiastic, and I’m all about that.
And she’s also hilarious.
Besides filling in the Lafayette story with a great deal of her own panache, Vowell gives us the most perfect vignettes of his allies and foes.
Take this:
“A patchwork of amateur militias made up of barely trained farmers, lawyers, shopkeepers, and artisans who, thanks to a hometown book nerd’s folkloric stunt, drove some of earth’s most experienced professional warriors out of a long-suffering city.
So, the moral of that story, other than never underestimate an independent bookseller, was that the Continental Army and its commander in chief had a soft spot for Chief Artillery Officer Henry Knox.” (pp. 84-86)
That line about independent booksellers full-on delighted me.
The whole book carries on this way, with fascinating anecdotes that bring historical figures to life, and it’s the most fun way (short of a musical) to catch up on the history we either didn’t learn or completely forgot. 

OK. All you Hamilton freaks… I know you’re out there. What’re you reading to go along with the soundtrack?

Laughing while driving

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach
3 words: hilarious, warm, smart
Over the past few days, I’ve been wildly grateful to Book Bingo because it’s the reason I’ve been driving around in a state of utter hilarity. (Thank you, “LOL” square!)
While listening to Mary Roach’s version of an automated phone system, I was laughing so hard I thought I might have to pull over the car.
“For payment information, say Payment. If you have calls and charges you don’t understand, say Pinhead. To hear these options again, say Attention Span of a Gnat.” (p. 8)
Ever since reading Packing for Mars, I’ve wanted to read something else by Roach. Her sense of humor is completely delightful, and her writing is crisp, and she’s smart. 
But some of her books (Stiff and Gulp come to mind) are a bit too roughly biological for this squeamish person.
So when I ran across My Planet* and saw that it was a collection of personal essays, I was all super happy.
Many of the essays are about the quirks of everyday life, and I love that kind of humor. She pokes fun at herself and at her husband (the man she calls Ed) and their differences. (It sounds like they have a rather entertaining household. Some of their exchanges cracked me up.)
There’s lots of warmth in this collection, which I truly appreciate. So often, humor is delivered with a sharp edge–and really, do we need more snarkiness in this world?
She’s no pushover, but her humor is kind-spirited.
I adored this book, and it made me wonder why I don’t read more books from the humor section. 
(Actually, I know why: it’s that snarkiness thing I just mentioned).
This is the good stuff, guys.

*I make it sound like this was a serendipitous discovery, when actually I librarianed it up and did a browse search of the call number 818.6 (humor) in the library catalog, saw Mary Roach’s name, and scurried to the shelf to retrieve the audiobook during lunch

Unspooling a story

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler 

3 words: homey, storytelling, heartfelt 

Just when I think I’ve experienced enough Anne Tyler and I could spend time with some other author’s work instead, she goes and ups her game. 

And now I’m seriously aching for someone I know to read this book so we can talk about the scene where the word “dashiki” made me burst out sobbing. 

Yeah, that was kinda weird. 

But also rather wonderful. 

Tyler has some serious storytelling powers, and she ain’t afraid to wield them.
This family story is fairly quiet, but it runs deep. 

The Whitshanks are a fairly ordinary family, but Tyler’s writing elevates them. And her unmatched ability to weave a story makes their family fascinating. 

Just when I thought the book would focus on the parent/child relationship of a prodigal son with his parents, it veered into the past and picked up the long-hidden, rather scandalous, very sad story of his grandparents. 

Another aspect of the book that had me from the start: the beloved family home is nearly a character itself. 

 At times, the dryly humorous, realistic depiction of family dynamics made me actually laugh out loud. 

And then there was that sob storm. 

Dang, people. This is some seriously good fiction action.

Mennonite memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

3 words: funny, frank, cheerful

When life hits you with a one-two punch (try: her husband of 15 years left her for a man he met online, then she was severely injured in a car accident), it’s not the worst plan to head home to Mom and Dad.

And if you have Rhoda Janzen’s parents… even better.

This memoir is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, and occasionally somberly self-reflective. (Why did she spend all those years with that less-than-wonderful husband, anyway?)

But mostly it’s a hilarious, warm-hearted account of life with her Mennonite family—a lifestyle she had fled.

But returning to a world in which the ladies whip up large batches of food at the drop of a hat (hot fruit soup—a specialty) proves comforting, and it’s easy to see why.


life-changing cookies at 2:00

(An aside about Mennonite food: Last fall we bought the world’s most amazing molasses cookies at a Mennonite bakery. Dang, people! Literally the best molasses cookies on Earth. [I don’t even usually like molasses cookies!] I should’ve taken a photo, but I was too busy devouring the things. We’re making do here with a stunt photo I found on the Interwebs. Back to the book…)



Janzen’s account of her family’s foibles is downright funny and wonderfully realistic and still kind-spirited.

And some of her sentences made me laugh out loud. For example, this one, which appeared toward the end of a chapter in which she outlined a variety of Mennonite customs…

“Perhaps you have been wondering, How can I join this attractive religious group?” (p. 239)

This book is pure delight.




That’s where the tall corn grows

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

OK, so audiobooks have many fine attributes: someone’s reading you a story just like when you were little; you can listen while driving/gardening/cleaning the house/exercising; and when it’s done right, the reader’s intonations add a whole new layer to the reading experience.

My quarrel with audiobooks has everything to do with blogging. When I’m reading a book-book (as I like to refer to those archaic things with hard or soft covers and actual pages), I jot down on the bookmark (a measly scrap of paper) the page numbers where there’s something I really liked. With an audiobook, this just ain’t feasible, people.

So if I want to capture a perfect quote, I’m reduced to checking out the book-book of the audiobook and flipping pages in a rather agitated and annoyed fashion, searching for the something I heard that completely cracked me up or pleased me beyond measure.

So, to a great extent, I’m here reduced to speaking vaguely about why this audiobook is truly entertaining.

Well, first off: It’s written (and read aloud) by Bill Bryson, so if you’re Brysonite, you’ll be happy.

And the guy grew up in Des Moines, about which he writes with such fondness that I like him even more than I did before—because poor Iowa doesn’t get much respect generally, and certainly not in the printed word.

But here’s Bryson:

“Iowa’s main preoccupations have always been farming and being friendly, both of which we do better than almost anyone else, if I say so myself.”  (p. 172)

Amen, brother.

And this true statement:

“Iowa has always been proudly middling in all its affairs… We were slightly wealthier, a whole lot more law-abiding, and more literate and better educated than the national average, and ate more Jell-O (a lot more—in fact, to be completely honest, we ate all of it), but otherwise have never been too showy at all.” (p. 171)

actual Jell-O recipe from the 1974 church cookbook my very own mom edited; only one of *many* such recipes


Bryson grew up in the weird and wonderful 1950s, and he skewers postwar American society, even as he gazes warmly upon it. He had a paper route, where he was terrorized by neighbors’ dogs; he also was terrorized by neighborhood bullies; he  skipped school with shocking regularity; his dad would eat his midnight snack in the
buff; and his mom once sent him to school in Capri pants.

This is one of those childhood memoirs that’s funny and entertaining and not at all horrid (we’re looking at you, A Child Called “It”). Bryson’s childhood was refreshingly normal, and the only reason it’s book-worthy is that Bryson’s the one writing the book. And this fact alone makes it beyond worthy.

If you like Bryson the way I do, give these a whirl, too…

In a Sunburned Country

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

So smart. So funny.




Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron

Oh, Nora Ephron. What is this ridiculous world going to do without you?

Here’s the strange thing: I’d already prescribed some Nora Ephron
essays for myself, and this book was sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me
to pick it up, when I heard her name at the beginning of a news update on NPR (never a good sign: the name being mentioned first), and I thought, “Please don’t let her have died.” And damn it.
I’m feeling dreadfully cross that she’s gone, because I think this world needs more of her humor and more of her humanity.
Y’all, we’re just gonna have to step up and try our darndest to disburse humor and humanity, because this world needs it. And we can kickstart our systems by reading Ephron’s wry, funny, occasionally scathing, always smart writing. 


This collection of short essays, which begins with one about bras,
is freaking hilarious. The woman had a way with words, and it was unusual for 10 pages to go by without my laughing out loud. 

The book was published in the ’70s, and lots of the essays have that First Wave Feminism thing going on—and it’s the positive kind of feminism that needn’t be scaring the menfolk.

Seriously. In that essay about bras, she wasn’t wanting to burn hers—she was writing about her agony in wanting to actually need one as a teenager.
She also writes about some notable Watergate personalities: Rose Mary Woods (subject of my most favorite political cartoon ever) in an essay called “Rose Mary Woods—The Lady or the Tiger?” and Martha Mitchell (“Crazy Ladies: II”). And there’s a remarkable little thing about Julie Nixon Eisenhower being the perfect political daughter. (See: scathing, mentioned above.)
But truly, the most delightful thing in her writing is Ephron’s own voice. That lady was funny. And smart. And funny. 


The Book of
Awesome: Snow Days, Bakery Air, Finding Money in Your Pocket, and Other Simple,
Brilliant Things
by Neil Pasricha
blogs become books, and sometimes that’s not really necessary. This book’s an
example of that. While I liked it just fine, it was clearly A Blog (1000 Awesome Things).
I like to read blogs online, and I like to read books that are books. Call me
finicky, but that’s how I roll.
that having been said… There are some things here that completely delighted me.
Here they are:
– Fixing
electronics by smacking them. I do this. Sometimes it even works. Other times,
it just satisfies my need to let off steam. But when you think about it as a
concept: funny.

20+ year old Tupperware. This stuff is indeed awesome.

– Really,
really old Tupperware   (green, yellow, orange)

– When someone unjams the photocopier for you. This is true. It is. From the
book: “A jammed photocopier at the office is a terrible scene.” (p.
124 of the eBook) 
This line completely cracked me up, even though the jammed copier
situation usually makes me have a serious inner scowl when it’s actually
happening (which is always at the most inconvenient possible time). Now
thinking “a terrible scene” is going
to make me instead have…

– “The Laugh Echo,” which is: “when you laugh out loud after suddenly
remembering something funny that happened a while ago.”  (p. 340
of the eBook) 
I do this kind of often. Sometimes about things that happened
over a decade ago. Sometimes at wildly inappropriate times. (There are examples I could mention, but some of them truly are just Wrong.) Usually, though,
it’s a darn good thing.
my recommendation is to check out the blog and skip the book. (The
author probably ain’t gonna like that
advice, and I shall be declared Non-Awesome.)

Surprisingly sympathetic

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
When a midlife crisis hits a man with 4 wives… Watch Out.
This is gonna be messy.
And yes, my friends, it certainly is.
While I felt rather sorry for poor Golden Richards (he of the 4 wives), this book was entertaining beyond all possible expectation, which made me almost grateful that he was having such a difficult time of it. Because, man, what a story.
There’s even a diaper-wearing dog. And a hearse that’s the family car.
Several times I laughed out loud, right as I was driving and listening to the audiobook. And once I got a bit teary. It’s a wonderful mix of the terrors (and comforts) of family life, the lies people live, their secret longings, the people who help us through the day (and some of the dumb little things that help a person through the day), and the ridiculousness that sometimes shapes a person’s life.
So Golden, husband to 4, falls in love with a woman not his wife. A bit of a complication, eh? Meanwhile, his wives are fomenting discontent, which causes the umpteen zillion children to get testy with each other, and then Golden—who wants only to avoid conflict—has to try to deal with the whole mess, which he attempts to do by dodging it. (When he hides in the children’s closed-up playhouse, sipping mescal, that’s when you know things have really hit the skids.)
We get to see Golden’s point of view, as well as those of his 4th wife (“Mother #4”) and one of his sons (Rusty, the “bad” one, who’s always in trouble, whose viewpoint made me laugh more than anything). And then there’s an omniscient view that pops in occasionally to give a wider perspective.
These people just come to life.
Who’d’a thunk I’d have sympathy for an adulterous polygamist? Brady Udall, you literary wonder, you’ve done this amazing thing.
(Additional note: This was one of those audiobooks that’s so good, it spoils other audiobooks for a person for a while. I had to test-drive two of them before I could settle on my next audiobook.)
The audiobook: 23.25 hours, read by David Aaron Baker

The word “pants” is funny. It just is.*

Bossypants by Tina Fey
It’s practically indecent to love an audiobook this much. This is a 6-star audiobook on a 5-star scale.
It’s by Tina Fey.
Enough said, right?
Yet I go on…
The audiobook version of this book is so fabulous I really can’t imagine reading the (printed) book instead. Because hearing Tina Fey read her own book (with great style, people) infuses the whole darn thing with even more humor than the words on the page would carry. She knows how to deliver a sentence. She delivers a whole book full of them.
The book is a bunch of stories about her life—from tales about her uber-cool dad Don Fey (and a particularly memorable childhood trip when he left her—on purpose—at the store) to her Second City days to SNL and on to 30 Rock. Plus, her early life as a geek girl, her somewhat calamitous honeymoon (there are lifeboats in this story), the challenges of breastfeeding, and her Sarah Palin impression (which emerged out of relatively little preparation and is enormously fun to hear about).

Perhaps my favorite line from the book: “I proceeded with the blithe confidence of a moron.” (disc 4, track 2) Here she’s describing the lead-up to launching 30 Rock, and she compares herself to a baby happily crawling down a busy street with a complete lack of awareness of the myriad perils. It tickles me. It really does.
So I’m superglad this is turning out to be one of those books people are excited about and that’s displayed in airport bookstores. (Usually most of those airport bookstore books really make me happy I’m hauling around my own weight in my own books when I travel.)
The audiobook: 5.5 hours; read by the author

* Witness: Worldwide Pants, Inc.; Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; Spongebob SquarepantsI rest my case.

I need my space

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Evidence of a benevolent universe: I picked this book for the Read-a-Thon. First book of the day, and it just plain blissed me out.
Yes, I’m a confirmed space geek.
But I’m here to tell you, you don’t gotta be that wild about space to really like this book. It’s got those intangibles that make a nonfiction book loveable even for people who don’t care about the subject matter. I’ll name one of those intangibles: intelligent good humor. There are authors out there, people, who lack this variety of Right Stuff. But Roach has it in spades.
Speaking of the Right Stuff, Roach describes the way that Stuff has changed over the years. She writes that, “America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma” (p. 28), but these days they gotta be sensitive team players who ooze empathy.
These two sentences had me busting a gut: “Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger. They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe.” (p. 32)
This probably explains why I get all swept away by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, but feel pretty darn iggis about the astronauts of today. I like some swagger in my astronauts. I just do.
There’s also entertaining stuff here about what the astronauts eat, and also about what happens once they’re done digesting it.
And Roach got to ride on the Vomit Comet!
Which brings us to other gross biological stuff, like nausea in space and BO. But… it almost sounds like boredom, isolation, and confined spaces are more insidious enemies to today’s astronauts. It ain’t very glamorous up there.
But it sure as hell is entertaining to read about.