12 June 2024

Review: Happy Go Lucky by David Sedaris

Happy Go Lucky by David Sedaris audiobook cover

Hard to believe, but Happy-Go-Lucky is my sixth book by David Sedaris. I've listened to all of them on audiobook and I just love his sing song rhythm of reflection and storytelling. After a while, I find myself yearning to hear more of his stories and this time - thankfully - I wasn't disappointed.

I've acknowledged in previous reviews that David's white privilege is on full display but it doesn't get under my skin in the same way it does - or has - for other readers. We already know he's white and wealthy and gay, so taking offence with his privilege isn't quite fair. What other lived experience can he offer?

My key takeaway from listening to Happy-Go-Lucky was a chapter called A Speech to the Graduates which comprised a commencement address Sedaris gave to graduates at Oberlin College. Recorded in 2018, you can watch it for free here. I found the speech so entertaining I listened to it twice and asked my husband to listen to it with me. If asked to choose between Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman (a renowned speech to graduates if there ever was one) and this one, I'd be hard pressed to choose between them. They're completely dissimilar in style, but what they share in common is an ability to inspire young listeners to take risks, make mistakes and make the most of life.

The chapter entitled Active Shooter documents the author's experience going to a firing range for the first time with his sister Lisa.
"This was a niche market I knew nothing about until I returned to Lisa's house later that day and went online. There I found websites selling gun concealment vests, t-shirts, jackets you name it. One company makes boxer briefs with a holster in the back which they call compression concealment shorts, but which I would call gunderpants." Chapter: Active Shooter
Definitely more entertaining than David Thorne's reminiscences about hunting in the USA for the first time in That's Not How You Wash a Squirrel.

As he mentions in his speech to the graduates, Sedaris recommends the practice of having a few jokes up your sleeve at any given time. In a chapter entitled Themes and Variations, the author proceeds to tell some of the best jokes he's heard from fans on book signing tours which had me laughing out loud and often. The two most memorable included a snail's reaction and two priests in a car, while the anecdote offered regarding two rolling pins and falling down the stairs had me laughing so hard I was red-faced with tears streaming down my face.

Sedaris always manages to deliver both light and dark and in Happy-Go-Lucky he bravely discloses his father's declining health, surprising personality changes and eventual death:
"... our natures, I have just recently learned from my father, can change. Or maybe they're simply revealed, and the dear cheerful man I saw that afternoon at Springmore was there all along, smothered in layers of rage and impatience that burned away as he blazed into the home stretch." Chapter: Happy-Go-Lucky
Sedaris has previously written about living in France and learning the language, and in this offering published in 2022, he remembers what it was like during his first few visits, smiling and pretending to know what was going on.
"It was so humbling being robbed of my personality like that. I was never the smartest guy in the room but I could usually hold my own. In Normandy though, I was considered an idiot. Worse still, I couldn't get a laugh to save my life. In America, that was my thing, my identity." Chapter: Bruised
Books that can make me laugh until I cry usually earn an automatic 5 stars from me, but two chapters bothered me a little. The first was about a young male and the second was a chapter entitled Lady Marmalade where the author shared a controversial view about his sister Tiffany's accusations of abuse by their father. While these views were shared by other family members, it's not a topic I was comfortable hearing about or thought was appropriate to share with the public. Nevertheless, I'm not surprised Sedaris chose to work through these questions in the way he knows best, writing.

My Rating:

10 June 2024

Review: The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey book cover

The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey is a cute little pint sized hardback packed with bibliophilic facts and fictions. Quirky chapter titles include: Movies That Started Life As Books, Identifying a First Edition, The Twenty Most Influential Academic Books of All Time, Oddest Title of the Year, Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, Famous Last Lines and more.

Some of the chapters are short and snappy at just a few paragraphs while others are in listicle format making this perfect for dipping in and out of. If you're a traditionalist like me who wouldn't dream of 'dipping in and out' of a book and insists on reading a book 'properly' - front to back - then you'll find a mix/combination of topics that didn't seem united by chronology or subject matter.

The content in The Book Lovers' Miscellany is definitely of a miscellaneous nature, which even extended to bookish gossip in the form of a supposedly well-known estrangement between A.S. Byatt and her sister Margaret Drabble.
"According to newspaper reports, the sisters have apparently been estranged since childhood due to their intense sibling rivalry and are said not to read each other's books due to the autobiographical elements in their work." Page 31
I didn't even know these talented and accomplished authors were sisters, so learning that they don't share their literary success together as they should was sad.

Reading the chapter on Most Prolific Writers, I was shocked to learn Enid Blyton wrote more than 800 books, and while I was aware of Barbara Cartland's prolific writing career, seeing in print that she produced 723 novels in her lifetime was seriously impressive.

I love stationery, but in a chapter about Quills I found this astonishing:
"John of Tilbury, a scholar in the household of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, described how a scribe taking a full day of dictation would need between sixty and a hundred quills sharpened and readied." Page 41
Wow! I'm presuming you'd need a trunk or sack for the quills. And what did they do for the assizes during that period? The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey is full of facts and trivia, much of which I've read about elsewhere*, yet still managed to be entertained by again.

Recommended for trivia junkies and readers who love books about books. You know who you are!

*You may also enjoy these books for booklovers:
The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski
The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching

My Rating:

04 June 2024

Review: Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor

Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor book cover

* Courtesy of Harper Collins *

Growing up and living in Victorian era London, Tatiana Caldwell is unexpectedly orphaned after losing both her parents in quick succession. It's 1864, and at the age of just seventeen and with very little to her name, Tatty (as she calls herself) emigrates to Australia for a fresh start. Driven to acquire and operate her own business one day, Tatty is hard working and far from squeamish when she begins working for Titus Crowe at Crowe Funeral Services.

I've always been deeply interested in Victorian funeral and mourning etiquette* and I loved reading about any and all aspects of Crowe Funeral Services in Sydney.
"Henry and Robert prepared the hearse - a very beautiful vehicle with four glass sides embellished with gold accents and otherwise painted a gleaming black - and the two magnificent horses pulling it. Their names were Spirit and Phantom, which Tatty thought were splendid names for funeral horses, and they were cloaked in black velvet drapes and wore tall head-dresses of thick black ostrich plumes. They were Belgian Blacks and had, according to Henry, cost Titus an absolute fortune to import to New South Wales from England." Page 44
It's disturbing to imagine Belgian Black horses being transported and confined below decks for the gruelling passage to London but they must have been an incredible sight to see on the streets of Sydney at the time.

Titus Crowe is a terrific character who came across as very Dickensian to me and I can easily see him on screen in a TV adaptation. (Miss Scarlet & The Duke comes to mind here, love that show!)

Here's an excerpt about mourning jewellery from Black Silk and Sympathy:
'Here you have your rings,' Mr Coverdale said. 'For ladies and men, black enamel on eighteen-karat gold, inlaid with In Memoriam perhaps, or we can add the deceased's name and date of passing. Alternatively, those details can be engraved on the inside of the band. We also have black enamel and seed pearl rings - they're considered very fashionable at the moment.' Page 68
Tatty attends funerals in the newly created cemetery and it was exciting to be reminded of Sydney's history when it comes to cemeteries, mortuary trains and mortuary train stations. In 2020 I started listening to the Grave Tales Australia podcast, and it was so engaging I went on to read and review their book Grave Tales: Melbourne Vol.1 by Helen Goltz and Chris Adams. 

Back to the book and my favourite section by far was Tatty's visit to the draper and haberdasher Mr Rodney Burton. Tatty discovers his store is three times bigger than the other stores, all the better to house his huge range of fabrics and notions including buttons, trims, nets, ribbons, beads, lace, artificial flowers and more. Tatty is thrilled to discover that at least a third of the well-stocked emporium is dedicated to selling materials associated with mourning the dead.
"As well as the ubiquitous black crape there was also bombazine, parramatta silk, merino, delaine and velvet, and for half-mourning a head-spinning range of fabrics with a little more lustre and life in black, grey, purple-mauve, lavender, violet and white. Burton's also sold a huge selection of handkerchiefs edged with black lace, black gloves, umbrellas and sunshades, black lace fans, black shoes and boots, and a good selection of shawls." Page 73
I'd love to browse that store, wouldn't you? In spite of the funereal backdrop of Crowe Funeral Services, the author has given us an engaging main character in Tatty to cheer for and a relatively light narrative that skips along at a leisurely pace in an early Sydney streetscape.

I haven't read any of Challinor's extensive backlist but I was pleasantly surprised - given the Sydney setting - to discover the author is a Kiwi residing in New Zealand. Better still, Black Silk and Sympathy is just the first in a series and I'm looking forward to some terrific funereal adventures with Tatty at the head of the funeral procession.

If you love Victorian or Edwardian era London and become excited when a mortsafe is mentioned, or you're seeking a light and enjoyable read that happens to be set in the colonial funeral industry this is for you. You can read the prologue and first chapter of Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor here.

My Rating:

*For books on London cemeteries and death, check out my reviews for:
- Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
- This Mortal Coil: A History of Death by Andrew Doig

The following books about Victorian mourning are on my TBR:
- Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing, and Customs by Mary Brett
- Mourning Art & Jewelry by Maureen Delorme
- Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland