Friday Book Whimsy: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

I’m not a big fan of memoirs. I almost always wonder why the authors think they have a life interesting or important enough to document. Give me an objective biography anytime.

Occasionally, however, a memoir will capture my attention. As a Baby Boomer reader, an opportunity to learn more about the incredibly handsome, charismatic, and frankly, sexy actor Paul Newman was intriguing. I read the book. I was glad I did.

The idea for this memoir originated way back in 1986. Newman convinced a friend — screenwriter Stewart Stern — to work with him to create an oral history of his life. He convinced all manner of people from throughout his life to contribute stories and memories of the actor. His only provision was that they tell the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He committed to do the same.

He and his friends worked on the project for five years, but the book wasn’t published until years after his death, at the insistence of his children. The result is a candid story of a very interesting life that included not only acting, but film directing, car racing, philanthropy, and politics. His marriage to actress Joanne Woodward is a love story of a lifetime. But it, like much of the actor’s life, wasn’t smooth sailing.

Newman was born to a wealthy Ohio family where he lived in a small, well-to-do community. His father owned a very successful hardware store, and spent much of his time working. His mother was more concerned about appearances than in taking any kind of immersive role in his life.

He served in the military, and his accounts of his time served display his candor about his drinking and carousing. I found his honesty to be refreshing, and a realistic picture of growing up in white upper-class America in the period between the two world wars.

I found myself researching his stories and watching his streaming his movies. While he apparently never considered himself to be a great actor — at least not as good as his wife — I certainly disagree. I think he was an outstanding actor, and the movies that I watched were tremendous. But what do I know.

If you enjoy memoirs that are honest and funny and self-deprecating, you will enjoy The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Mr. Dickens and His Carol

One Christmas movie I’m always committed to seeing is A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott. The ghosts are just scary enough, and I love the change in Mr. Scrooge after he decides to change his life. This novel is the story of how the story came to be written, at least from the perspective of author Samantha Silva.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the much-loved story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghosts. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, defines much that we know about Christmas. But apparently Charles Dickens’ life wasn’t a bed of roses when he reluctantly wrote A Christmas Carol.

Samantha Silva’s debut novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, provides readers with a glimpse — in novel form — of what the famous author’s life was like around the time that he wrote the famous story of Scrooge and his ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Though he and his family had been living a very comfortable life, his most recent novel had been a flat-out bust. Money was tight, and the family members who had long lived by Dickens’ handouts, and the charities he had supported, are coming out of the woodwork asking for more funds. His wife is unaware of their dire straits, and is moving forward with their annual Christmas soiree despite its immense cost. Dickens is getting more and more frantic about his finances and his family responsibilities.

His publishers come to the rescue by suggesting, well, ordering really, him to write a Christmas story for the masses, something Dickens is loathe to do. He thinks Christmas stories are silly, and his lack of holiday spirit prevent him from writing the story that his publishers are seek Oh, if he only had a muse.

And then a muse appears in the form of an actress named Eleanor Lovejoy, who encourages Dickens to write a story with London as its background, and the Christmas spirit as its driving force. After much angst and many tries, the story Dickens writes changes Christmas forever.

Silva takes great liberties with Dickens’ story, and she admits as much in her Afterword. Her writing style reminds me of the style of Dickens himself. That, I’m sure was no accident. Dickens’ whining and moaning goes on a bit longer than necessary, but the ending, which has a surprise twist, makes up for the redundancy.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol was a wonderful Christmas story, making me want to reread A Christmas Carol.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Redbird Christmas

I read this book every year because it’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. Enjoy this repeat review..

No one writes the South like author Fannie Flagg, and nobody can beat her when it comes to cozy stories as well. A Redbird Christmas is one of my favorite Christmas books, and I rarely miss a year of reading it. It doesn’t take long, as it’s more of a novella than a novel, but it’s well worth the couple of hours you will spend in Lost River, Alabama, with the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society and a redbird named Jack.

Oswald T. Campbell makes his annual visit to the doctor. There he receives a startling and depressing diagnosis: his emphysema has worsened to the point that he now only has a few months — at the most — to live. His doctor suggests he can perhaps lengthen his lifespan a bit if he doesn’t spend a winter in his hometown of Chicago. The doctor recommends a spa that his own father used to recommend to his patients. It is located in the southernmost point of Alabama in a town called Lost River.

Oswald isn’t very interested in spending his remaining time alone in Chicago, and so he telephones the spa, only to learn that it no longer exists. Still, the woman who answers the phone tells Oswald to come down anyway, and he can stay with her. He agrees.

What happens next is simply magical. Oswald’s life changes when he discovers a hidden talent, makes many friends, and comes face-to-face (or maybe face-to-beak) with Jack, a cardinal that the local shopkeeper rescued several years ago. Jack is the heart and soul of the small community, and has enhanced the life of many of the townspeople. One of Jack’s biggest admirers is a young girl, crippled from abuse, who comes to live in Lost River, and is saved as well.

A Redbird Christmas is, in a word, charming. The characters are quirky but loveable in the way that only Flagg can make her characters.

You haven’t really had Christmas until you have spent it with the people of Lost River, and, of course, Jack.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Carrie Soto is Back

In the summer of 1978, I took tennis lessons. The lessons lasted six weeks. I’m pretty sure that was the last time that I held a tennis racket in my hands. It should come as no surprise that I don’t know anything about tennis. I don’t know how to score. I don’t know the difference between playing on hard courts, clay courts, grass courts, or carpet courts. In fact, I had to look up the types of tennis court surfaces to write that last sentence.

Because of my lack of knowledge or even interest in tennis, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been written by one of my favorite authors. Taylor Jenkins Reid has written two of my all-time favorite novels: Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Because of my high regard for these novels, I was willing to give this book a try.

I’m very glad I did.

Carrie Soto retired from tennis a highly successful professional player. She was well regarded, but not particularly popular given the intensity in which she approached the game. Her mother died young, and her father — a well-regarded tennis player himself — became her coach. He taught her the ins and outs, the correct way to hold her racket, the tricks of playing exceptional competitive tennis. Carrie brought a dedication to being the best, letting no one get in her way,

But when she saw one of the newer players seemingly filling her retired shoes, she elected to come out of retirement to see if she could finish the season as the number one tennis player in the world once again.

While there is a lot of detail about tennis in the novel, the story is really about the relationship between Carrie and her father, and the importance of having people who love you in your life. Having said that, I will tell you that I LOVED learning about the game of tennis. Reid made the game interesting even to a tried-and-true non-tennis player such as me.

What I like best about Reid’s novels is that the writing style is always unique, and the characters are always unforgettable. Carrie Soto is Back is no exception. This will be one of my favorite books of 2022.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Ashton Hall

What could be better as we near Halloween than a story about an old English country mansion with secrets? And dead bodies? I present Ashton Hall, by Lauren Belfer.

Hannah Larson and her son Nicky leaves the states to come to Cambridge, England, where a much-loved relative is reaching the final stages of his life in his family home of Ashton Hall. Hannah recently was betrayed by her husband, and needs to get away. She has left her job as a historic researcher to raise Nicky, is not a typical child. He is extraordinarily bright and precocious, but has severe anger issues. Though the author never says, he is probably on the spectrum.

One day Nicky arises early and begins exploring Ashton House, even so far as going in an area that had been walled off and unused for many years. There, Nicky discovers the remains of what turns out to be a woman dead for many centuries.

Hannah, along with her intelligent and likable son, undertake efforts to learn the story of the woman in the mysterious room. As her marriage continues to crumble, Hannah begins to piece together the story of the woman, and of Ashton Hall itself.

I loved this book. It was atmospheric without being gory or scary. Hannah’s efforts to raise her oh-so-lovable but oh-so-difficult son opened this reader’s eye to what it’s like to have a child with exceptional abilities. There is a romantic element that is neither sappy or unbelievable.

I highly recommend Ashton Hall.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Hotel Nantucket.

Author Elin Hilderbrand is a prolific author, known for what is termed her “beach reads.” As much as I read, and as much as I enjoy a summer read, I have never read a book by this author. It won’t be the last one, because I enjoyed The Hotel Nantucket very much.

The Hotel Nantucket was once a well-respected hotel, known for entertaining the well-to-doers who habitat Nantucket Island in the summer. Unfortunately, the hotel suffered a serious fire in 1922 that killed a housekeeper, whose restless spirit wanders the hotel waiting for someone to discover the truth about the fire and putting her at peace.

Much like the hotel, Lizbeth Keaton has also suffered a setback, breaking up with her long-time fiance, with whom she ran a successful restaurant, after learning that he was involved with another woman. She leaves him and the restaurant behind. Lizbeth is delighted to be hired by billionaire Xavier Darling to run the completely remodeled Hotel Nantucket. Darling purchased the old hotel and spent millions bringing the it back to life. Everything about the hotel is perfect. The restaurant is run by a famous chef. The spa is magnificent. The rooms are sheer perfection with not a wrinkle or spot of dust to be found. The question is, can Lizbeth and her staff — all who have complicated histories and secrets — meet Darling’s goal: to receive a perfect score from the hotel critic who can make or break hotels? Thus far, no one has ever received a perfect score.

The hotel occupants have as many secrets as the staff. Shortly after the hotel opens, a mysterious woman and her two adorable children arrive, asking for a room for an unknown period of time. What’s more, she will pay cash, and money is no object.

The story is told from different vantage points, but it isn’t confusing at all. And the ghost of Grace, the housekeeper who died in the fire, isn’t a bit offputting. She’s merely an observer, and, while she plays a strong role in the story, it isn’t in any way a ghost story.

The Hotel Nantucket is a luscious novel that leaves the reading wishing they were rich enough to afford the thousand dollar rooms.

I loved this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Out of the Easy

There’s scarcely a better location for a gritty novel than New Orleans, and that makes the already-very-good novel Out of the Easy, by author Ruta Sepetys, even better.

It’s 1950. Teenaged Josie Moraine is the daughter of a prostitute. Her mother isn’t the kindly sex worker who does what she needs to help her daughter. Instead, she is a selfish, greedy, completely dishonest woman who cares little for Josie and doesn’t mind using her for her own selfish needs.

But Josie isn’t alone. The successful female brothel owner Willie Woodley has taken Josie under her wing since she was a small girl. She, along with the other prostitutes and Willie’s faithful staff love Josie and take care of her as if she was their own family. In a way, that’s exactly what they are.

Josie works at a bookstore owned by a friend, and is saving her money to leave New Orleans and attend her dream college, Smith. But an unexpected murder places Josie right in the middle, and her mother is all part of the game.

I loved the characters in this novel. But I mostly loved the picture of this textured city, especially in the 1950s. The contrast between the rich families who lived in the wealthy Garden District and the poor families who lived in the French Quarter gave the novel a heavy dose of reality. Still, the characters were not stereotypical, at least not all of them.

The story moves at a quick pace, and the ending was satisfactory, if somewhat predictable.

I really enjoyed this novel.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Run Rose, Run

Ok. Sometimes we’re not in need of great literature. Sometimes we just want a story with likeable characters and a plot line that isn’t too ridiculous and moves along at a brisk pace. Sometimes, when everything in life seems so complicated, you need a little Dolly Parton.

Run Rose, Run, a novel co-written by the world’s most prolific author James Patterson and the world’s most famed (and perhaps the nicest and most generous) singer and songwriter Dolly Parton, fits that description to a T. I don’t know how much James Patterson wrote or how much Dolly Parton wrote. She, of course, is a phenomenal songwriter and lyricist, so there’s reason to think she contributed a fair amount. All I know is that it was a briskly-paced novel that kept me reading.

AnnieLynn Keyes has escaped her difficult past and hitchhiked her way to Nashville. She knows she has talent, but everyone who moves to Nashville thinks they have talent. AnnieLynn is quickly discovered by country music queen Ruthanna Ryder in an offbeat bar where her last-minute performance is overheard by the right people. Despite the fact that Ruthanna Ryder has quit the music business for good — or so she says — she still is a well-respected voice in the country music world.

While AnnieLynn seems to be moving quickly towards a career as a singer/songwriter, her past begins to catch up with her. Will she make it in the world of country music, or will she fail to outrun her past.

The story is loaded with lots of kick-ass music lyrics, likely contributed by Ms. Parton. There are a fair amount of holes in the story line, but I will not hesitate to recommend the book to lovers of country music and fairly nonviolent thrillers.

God bless you Dolly Parton!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Paris Apartment

Lucy Foley was the author of a book — The Guest List about which I was somewhat ambiguous. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t like it. I recall that one of my biggest problems with that book was that I really didn’t like any of the characters. I have learned over my 60-some years of reading that it really helps me to enjoy a book if I like the characters.

I had somewhat of the same reaction to The Paris Apartment, a book by the same author.

The protagonist Jess is running from a crime she committed. She contacts her half brother Ben, a journalist who lives in a fancy apartment in Paris. He reluctantly agrees to let her stay with him for awhile. However, when she arrives, Ben is no where to be found. There are signs of a struggle, but no clues as to where he could be.

Jess begins trying to find her brother. The house in which the apartment is located is divided up into several apartments on different levels. Sophie and her husband Jacque are very wealthy, having made money from a wine empire. Nick lives on another floor, and has secrets of his own, including that he is gay. Antoine is an abusive husband whose wife leaves him early in the book. Mimi is quiet and mousy, and very much in love with Ben.

Jess suspects from the get go that each of these people have their own secrets, and the secrets are not good. Though they say they are willing to help her find her brother, it seems as though they all make finding him more difficult.

The storyline had flaws and inconsistencies, but the plot kept me reading. I tried very hard to figure out what happened to Ben and who among the group of shady characters was responsible for his disappearance. Some of the plot twists were predictable, but I will admit that the ending caught me by surprise.

I liked the book, but disliked the characters.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Under the Bayou Moon

Sometimes all you need is a lovely book with an interesting story, a few villains, and a whole bunch of romance. Given the difficult times we face, sitting down with characters with whom you want to spend time is a blessing. Under the Bayou Moon, by Valorie Fraser Luesse provided such a delightful break from reality.

It’s 1949, and America is slowly recovering from the difficult years of war and poverty. Ellie Fields, a young teacher who has spent her life in small-town Alabama, feels like it’s time to shake it up a bit. She accepts a teaching position in a small town in the bayou country of Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. Though this move seems insignificant, for Ellie, it is the first time living away from her home. The Cajun culture of the new town in which she now resides is as different from her past experience as you can get.

The townspeople look suspiciously on outsiders, and the new schoolteacher is no exception. It takes some time, but before long, she has made some new friends. She also becomes aware that the Bayou community is running into its own cultural roadblocks. Politicians are pushing to make it illegal to speak the native Patois French language.

Before long, she is teaching some of the community elders whose English is very limited how to speak the language. At the same time, they are teaching her to speak French.

Toss a rare white alligator into the mix, an alligator that is not only naturally endangered, but is being hunted by people trying to do away with what many people think is nothing more than a myth.

The characters were kind and likable and a wonderful part of the entire sweet story. As for the setting, I’m not kidding when I say that you can practically smell the gumbo cooking and the corn bread coming out of the oven. You can hear the cicadas sing and clearly envision the alligators’ eyes peeking out of the water.

Under the Bayou Moon was a refreshing change of pace, and a wonderful story. I highly recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.