- Recipes for a Beautiful Life (nonfiction), by Rebecca Barry
- Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (nonfiction), by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (fiction), by Katarina Bivald
I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration for me to claim that my reading in general is catholic. Catholic: “broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Fully Revised and Updated, 1996). A tiny exaggeration, maybe, that “all” part. You’d have to look through several years of my lists of books read to find much if any science fiction or fantasy, and a lot of bestsellers never make it to my nightstand, either. But “wide-ranging” seems a fair claim.
What the three books I’m putting together in this post have in common is that all are (1) light reading and (2) written by women. (Clive Cussler fans, be forewarned!) One was sent to me as an Advance Reading Copies (ARC), another the final published version, and the third (not in the order they are listed above) I initially opened only to see where to shelve it in my bookstore.
Here’s how I’ll refer to them: Recipes; Encyclopedia; Broken Wheel.
(1) Recipes confounded me. The author and her husband decide to move their family from New York City to a small town upstate. With a much smaller income, they become owners of an old building that needs major repair and renovation. The “simple life” is never simple except when looked at from the outside. The author’s proposal for a novel is accepted, however, and if she can get it written in a year they’ll have enough to live on until the money starts rolling in.
This is an entertaining book. The children, as children will, say lots of funny things. (Very funny. I was reminded of Jean Kerr's The Snake Has All the Lines.) Rebecca and her sisters have that sister thing going on, and I relate to that, of course. Friends share meals and wine and worries and laughs. The writer tries to find time to write and struggles to find inspiration, while children and small town life keep catching her up in a giddy swirl.
Some of the “recipes” in the title are things to fix for meals, but most are fixes of a different kind: “Recipe: How to Heal Your Heart,” for example, or “Recipe: Get Kids to Listen to You.” Like most of us, the writer of this books “learns” a few lessons, passes them along to us – then forgets them and has to re-learn them a few days and a few pages later.
Most baffling to me, though, is that this book is basically a book about how the author did not get her book written. The novel proposal? Advance spent, but author and editor agree the draft of the novel is, in the author’s own (unspoken) words, “unpublishable.” So Simon & Schuster published this story from her real life instead? From diary, blog, whatever? Well, clearly she had to work to give it a shape, but all I could think was that writers who spend their advances and fail to meet their deadlines are very seldom so fortunate! I didn’t know what to think, in the end. I still don’t.
(Am I simply blinded by envy? Not completely, I don’t think. I want to get my novel written!)
(2) Encyclopedia is the book I picked up to figure out where to shelve it. Glancing at a few pages, I was slightly annoyed at first. Is a collection of slightly quirky lists worthy of being a book? I was dubious, resistant, but the book pulled me in. Finally I sat down with it and kept reading. Soon I was smiling – and then laughing out loud, to the alarm of a few silent browsers in the stacks.
We are warned on the cover that the author of this memoir has “not survived against all odds” or “witnessed the extraordinary.” This is an ordinary life. Here, under H, is a typical entry:
I’m turning left. Look, everyone, my blinker is on, and I’m turning left. I am so happy to be alive, driving along, making a left turn. I’m serious. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing at this moment: existing on a Tuesday, going about my business, on my way somewhere, turning left. There is nothing disconcerting or unpleasant or unfortunate about this moment. It is exceptionally nice, plain, and perfect.
Not everything is perfect, even in an ordinary life. There are ordinary annoyances and ordinary worries. But Amy has a way of dealing with those, too:
RETURNING TO LIFE AFTER BEING DEAD
When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look—the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello, cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that used to bother me? It’s so . . . endearing.
This is a charming book! Well, I found it so, anyway. I finished the last page wishing the author would walk in my bookstore door so we could meet. But then -- quite honestly, I am nowhere near as light-hearted and fun as she is. No, I’m sure it’s best to keep our friendship one-sided, within the covers of her book.
(3) Finally, the ARC of Broken Wheel. How can a bookseller resist a book about a bookstore? How can a bookseller in a small town in the northern Midwest resist a story about a bookstore in a dying town in the cornbelt? Can a bookstore “save” the town?
Despite the hope and excitement I felt when opening to the first page, it took me a long time to enter fully the world of Broken Wheel. I kept turning back to the author’s name on the cover, wondering if English might be her second language and why, even so, no one in the publishing house had corrected sentence moods that so obviously should have been in the subjective, e.g.,
There were only two other customers in the entire bar. One looked as though he was sleeping....
Well, was he sleeping, or did he simply look as though [counterfactual] he were? I did not keep track of how many times this error found its way into the book – and I know it is a small nit to pick – but it happened over and over again, and every time it distracted me, my inner editor pulling me out of the story where I wanted to lose myself, so I was halfway through the book before being finally able to stop obsessing over was/were. I hate when that happens! I don't want my inner editor springing into action when all I want to do is immerse myself in a story.
Back to the novel --
A stranger comes to town. It’s a classic setup. In this case, the stranger is Sara, come from Sweden to visit Amy, who has just died. The town itself seems very near a final death gasp. So....
Will Sara get together in the end with Tom, the character so obviously meant for her? That’s one question we ask as we read this novel, though we’re pretty sure what the answer will be, given the kind of book it clearly is. Will the townspeople ever go in the bookstore? Will they ever buy books? Will they read books? Most importantly, for all concerned, will people’s lives change because Sara came to Broken Wheel and opened a bookstore? You can pretty much guess the answers, but that doesn’t take away the pleasure of the story. This book is one Sara herself would have shelved under “Happy Ending Guaranteed.”
Hot, humid, busy summer days call out for the relief of light reading. Chick-lit fiction and humorous memoir can be very healthy choices for the sun- or work-addled summer brain. The perfect prescription, however, must be tailored to the individual, so the final choice, as always, is up to you.