Jayne’s Reading List for late spring
Dear County Agent Guy by Jerry Nelson
In the tradition of Mark Twain and Jean Shepherd, Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor, Jerry Nelson is a humorist whose beat is the American heartland, a small-town world of pickup trucks and Sunday night pancake dinners, dropping in on neighbors and complaining about the county agent.
His depictions of daily life, from the point of view of an ex-dairy farmer and taciturn husband with a twinkle in his eye, are read by 250,000 people a week—and occasionally woven into Prairie Home Companion scripts. These are stories of courtship; childbirth—he offers the delivery room doctor the use of his calf puller; family; neighbors; chores; and the duties of a father—why is it that a man who spends his days in cow manure can’t change a baby’s diaper? Knee-slappingly funny one moment, poignant the next, it’s a very special look at a distinctly American way of life.
I was lured by cover. Who could resist that cow? Since Romance books have so many ranchers – who are usually billionaires, former SEALs or billionaire former SEALs, it seemed a good fit. Okay, yes it’s about dairy farming instead of ranching but it’s got cows! Pieced together from a newspaper column, each short chapter hits highlights of farming, cows, dogs, children, lutefisk and life. But it’s much more. It’s about being connected to the land which your great-grandparents farmed, of getting a glimpse – through letters home during WWII – of your father’s homesickness for his family, of remembering the life lessons he taught and then passing them along to your own children, of discovering that no, your wife wasn’t crazy about the idea of helping herd loose cows back into the pasture on her wedding night while still wearing her wedding dress and that women’s olfactory powers are greater than a man’s – unless that is, it involves an offspring’s dirty diaper. There’s a lot about winters – specifically South Dakota winters. I think I’ll pass but it’s good to know that Southerners aren’t only ones to head for the grocery stores in herds muttering “bread and milk.” It’s about hard work and satisfying work and how sometimes the two are the same thing. It’s about a way of life and the tough, hardy people who live it. It’s also hilarious. B+
The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood
As WWI drew to a close, change reverberated through the halls of England’s country homes. As the sun set slowly on the British Empire, the shadows lengthened on the lawns of a thousand stately homes.
In The Long Weekend, historian Adrian Tinniswood introduces us to the tumultuous, scandalous and glamourous history of English country houses during the years between World Wars. As estate taxes and other challenges forced many of these venerable houses onto the market, new sectors of British and American society were seduced by the dream of owning a home in the English countryside. Drawing on thousands of memoirs, letters, and diaries, as well as the eye-witness testimonies of belted earls and bibulous butlers, Tinniswood brings the stately homes of England to life as never before, opening the door to a world by turns opulent and ordinary, noble and vicious, and forever wrapped in myth. We are drawn into the intrigues of legendary families such as the Astors, the Churchills and the Devonshires as they hosted hunting parties and balls that attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, T.E. Lawrence, and royals such as Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. We waltz through aristocratic soirées, and watch as the upper crust struggle to fend off rising taxes and underbred outsiders, property speculators and poultry farmers. We gain insight into the guilt and the gingerbread, and see how the image of the country house was carefully protected by its occupants above and below stairs.
Through the glitz of estate parties, the social tensions between old money and new, the hunting parties, illicit trysts, and grand feasts, Tinniswood offers a glimpse behind the veil of these great estates—and reveals a reality much more riveting than the dream.
Need I say fans of Downton Abbey or those who enjoy reading books set in this world will want to check this one out? Starting with that venerable tradition – the Saturday through Monday country house party (the term “weekend” is so vulgar and working class) the book quickly delves much deeper. The deaths of so many heirs during the Great War and the doubly whammy of death and inheritance taxes began to signal the sale or decay of so many stately homes. But just as quickly nouveau riche money lead to the wildly eclectic restoration of other castles and homes which had already been allowed to fall into ruin over the centuries. Not content with that, in some cases old looking new homes were built as well as fantastic clashing modern monstrosities. The rise of the interior decorator helped old and new owners achieve that perfect country house look, including HRH the Prince of Wales who got Fort Belvedere kitted up just in time to renounce his throne and never see it again.
The loss of the massive servant population needed to keep things spic and span after the end of the war lead to labor saving devices until the Depression lead to the working class entering service again. Time honored shooting parties and riding to hounds gave way to the new desirable feature of proximity to golf courses. Slowly houses were wired for the newfangled – at least in the country – electricity while bathrooms began to be installed so as not to be dependent on housemaids with cans of hot water. Despite the fact that the Royal Family had access to gobs of places to live, all of King George’s children ended up casting around before finding their own country homes either through marriage, inheritance or purchase. Cross ocean marriages lead to the influx of massive amounts of American cash and actually lead to a few happy marriages as well. Several closeted or flamboyantly LGBTQIA country house owners were either known for their camp parties or kept a low profile in an era where threats could still be levied against them. And finally, World War II saw out the end of this era and the dampening of this lifestyle. Parts are a little dull here and there but overall, this is a fascinating glimpse of a bygone era. B
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“We returned to our loved ones, but we were never the same again. Most were markedly changed. Young boys had become mature older men, aged beyond their years. All because of those days in the sea.”
For five days near the end of the Second World War, the USS Indianapolis was effectively wiped off the map. After being hit by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, the warship sunk within twelve minutes. 900 men out of a crew of 1200 managed to jump free. But by the time they were found, survivors had plummeted to just 316 men.
The story of how that happened, and how the few that remained of her crew were eventually rescued from the mid-Pacific, have become one of the most enduring — and notorious — of wartime sea stories. But the meaning of the Indianapolis goes beyond a simple sinking. What makes the story of this American warship so compelling is that it was important in so many ways.
It was the flagship of the fighting admiral Raymond Spruance, in 1943-44, during the crucial battles to control the central Pacific. It delivered the key components of the first atomic bomb dropped in anger, in this case on Hiroshima. It was the greatest single loss of life at sea in an American naval disaster at war. It goes down in history as the biggest attack by sharks on human beings ever recorded. It also became a huge scandal as naval authorities tried to cover-up what had gone wrong, and why the crew had been inadvertently left to die.
This book is designed to interweave all these themes to provide a short and informative, and above all, readable, guide to the Indianapolis story, and to also tell the intertwined tales of the two men at the heart of the story: Captain Charles McVay and the man who sank the ship, Mochitsura Hashimoto.
My first knowledge of the story of the USS Indianapolis was from “Jaws.” Quint’s famous speech about why he’d never wear a life jacket again is still chilling to listen to 40 years later, even with its historical inaccuracies. When I saw this book listed at Netgalley and read the blurb, I decided to check it out. It’s fairly short but for all that manages to cover a lot of information giving a brief overview of not only the lead up to the war in the Pacific, Japanese service rivalries and misuse of their sub fleet, the miscommunications and misjudgments that plagued both sides, the history of the Indianapolis and use of cruisers in the US Navy, the horrific loss of life in the island battles towards Japan, and the miscues and lack of information that put the Indianapolis and the Japanese submarine I-58 on a collision path that fateful night.
Then came the torpedo spread that put 900 + men in the water and the mistakes that kept them there for days until the pilot of a lone plane flying overhead realized the 100+ men he could see bobbing in the ocean must be Americans. The rescue, cover up and trial followed. It might have been the end of the public story except for the dogged determination of one high school boy determined to see justice done 50 years later. If you want the quick and concise balanced story, this book by British author Boyle is a good place to start. B
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Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica
According to The Waiter, eighty percent of customers are nice people just looking for something to eat. The remaining twenty percent, however, are socially maladjusted psychopaths. Waiter Rant offers the server’s unique point of view, replete with tales of customer stupidity, arrogant misbehavior, and unseen bits of human grace transpiring in the most unlikely places. Through outrageous stories, The Waiter reveals the secrets to getting good service, proper tipping etiquette, and how to keep him from spitting in your food. The Waiter also shares his ongoing struggle, at age thirty-eight, to figure out if he can finally leave the first job at which he’s truly thrived.
Okay I’ve read “The Stained Apron” website, I’ve listened to Anthony Bourdain pontificate preciously, I’ve talked with people who’ve worked in restaurants and know most of the things do avoid doing so as not to get my food adulterated but this is a “holy shit” education in a waiter’s daily trials and tribulations. Always one to say “please” and “thank you” when I dine out, I will be doubly sure to show proper appreciation. Of course if someone’s an ass, the tip will reflect that.
But this also illuminates how much backstabbing, infighting and terror waiters and other restaurant employees have to deal with from owners, crazed chefs and their minions. B
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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit takes on the conversations between men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t. The ultimate problem, she shows in her comic, scathing essay, is female self-doubt and the silencing of women.
I know we’ve discussed this topic here at DA and that Robin has posted lots of things about it in the Daily News posts, so when I saw this book title I thought “well, alright then. Could be interesting and something DA readers might enjoy.” I read the first chapter and yes, the blurb is dead on accurate. It’s wryly funny and, unfortunately, a situation I’m sure a lot of us have experienced ourselves. Then the tone began to change completely and I could see where the “scathing” part of the blurb came from. Suddenly it’s a dark book.
Six years ago, when I sat down and wrote the essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example of being patronized by a man, I ended with rapes and murders. We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I was saying is: it’s a slippery slope.
Well the book just slid right down into the depths of hell. I’m not saying the book didn’t need to be written. It did. I’m not saying the message isn’t important. It is. But it is not what I was expecting and that’s a pet peeve of mine. Solnit also has a decided liberal viewpoint which comes through loud and clear about which YMMV. And for such a short book, she manages to repeat herself quite a bit. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to help feminism advance if I finish a book wanting to go out and punch the first man I see in the throat. The book should also be read with clear warning knowledge of the many triggers it will pull. Seriously, do not read this if you think anything in the quote will trigger you. B-
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The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly by Matt McCarthy
In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor–the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients. This funny, candid memoir of McCarthy’s intern year at a New York hospital provides a scorchingly frank look at how doctors are made, taking readers into patients’ rooms and doctors’ conferences to witness a physician’s journey from ineptitude to competence. McCarthy’s one stroke of luck paired him with a brilliant second-year adviser he called “Baio” (owing to his resemblance to the Charles in Charge star), who proved to be a remarkable teacher with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy would learn even more from the people he cared for, including a man named Benny, who was living in the hospital for months at a time awaiting a heart transplant. But no teacher could help McCarthy when an accident put his own health at risk, and showed him all too painfully the thin line between doctor and patient. The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly offers a window on to hospital life that dispenses with sanctimony and self-seriousness while emphasizing the black-comic paradox of becoming a doctor: How do you learn to save lives in a job where there is no practice?
I’ve already fessed up to being a closet Trauma: Life and Death in the ER junkie so this book called my name. I wanted to see how intern training had changed since I read “Something for the Pain.” Answer is some yet not that much. The hours are slightly less insane, more sleep is still the overriding desire, there are more female residents and interns and HIV is something you don’t want your patient to have if you accidentally stick yourself after drawing their blood. Yeah, ugh. Knowledgeable residents who can pass on their wisdom to struggling, wet-behind-the stethoscope newbies are a must and McCarthy was lucky to snag several he says got him headed in the right direction on his road to being a real doctor. By the end of the year, he had lost that frantic deer-in-the-headlights look and could actually run a code. Some patients broke his heart, some kept him going and in the end, he survived. B
I am always amazed at how widely you read Jayne . Thank you ! I want “Lost at sea”.
@Sirius: A lot of the books that will show up on my reading lists are what I call romance genre palate cleansers – they’re what I read after an especially good or bad romance book when I need a bit of a break.
Fascinating list Jayne! Dear County Agent Guy sounds like my childhood (or my brothers life now since he stayed on the farm) – including herding loose cattle while dressed up for some occasion. (It’s like they knew we were getting dressed up to leave so they escaped their enclosures then!)
The Long Weekend also sounds great. Anyone missing Downton Abbey should read The Shooting Party by Isabel Colgate. Weekend party set right before WWI, interesting look at the times and the hunting culture.
Good list. _The Men Explain Things to Me_ did not make me want to go out and punch a man though because it’s not an anti-male read. It’s anti sexism and that is such an important distinction and one I thought the book made very clearly and well. It is though an important book as you state, Jayne, and it makes feminism accessible in crucial ways.
I hated Waiter Rant with a burning passion. Unless I accidentally fumble the mental math, I’m a great tipper, so that isn’t an issue for me. I’m also polite to service industry workers (hey, I’ve been there, too). But that guy sounded like the biggest entitled jerk ever who shouldn’t ever be allowed near paying customers, or even other human beings in general. The only thing I actually learned was that you’re supposed to tip furniture delivery people which, TBH, I’ve never done the very few times I’ve had furniture delivered (I assumed they were paid an adequate base salary by their company or the store–my bad). I was glad I got the book on sale, but even then I resented paying a penny for it.
I already had The Long Weekend on my wish list, Men Explain Things to Me on my TBR list, and I bought Lost at Sea. The other two might end up on my wish list, too. :-) Thanks for covering all of them.
Jayne I don’t think that the timing when you read all these books takes away from your awesomeness :-). And this is from somebody who reads pretty widely across the genres too ( yes one day my reviews will reflect that. Maybe .). But you are in the whole different league :).
@Joanna: His wife – a town girl – was not thrilled. She also didn’t like the smell of lutefisk but then she’s from German stock while Nelson’s ancestors were Norwegian. ;) After reading this, my hat is off to dairy farmers.
@Susan: I agree with you that he does come off as entitled but the behind the scenes glimpse of restaurant life is fascinating. It might have helped my grade that I read it as a library book rather than paying anything for the privilege.
@Sharon: I calmed back down shortly after finishing the book to my standard “most men would never do these horrible things” baseline but while reading the book? yeah I was boiling mad at what women the world over have to deal with on a daily basis.
If Solnit’s book does not seem like your cup of tea, try Laura Bates “Everyday Sexism” – she used her site/social media to gather stories from women around the world to record incidents, attitudes, etc., they witnessed or experienced. It is powerful and she makes it clear that the damage from casual sexism impacts women AND men – and she includes children and the elderly, making it clear how deep and pervasive attitudes towards females impact them their entire lives. I think it is a great book to leave out for people to pick up and read and be surprised.
@Les: Thanks! I have not heard of _Everyday Sexism_ but I’ll check it out!
Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Nelson is a short, excellent account of the USS Indianapolis as well; written with the young man referenced in Jayne’s comments. It blew me away when I reviewed it for my middle school library a decade ago. Also, I’ve heard good things about Everyday Sexism but its still on my TBR pile. Sounds like Men Explain Things needs to be added!