A List of Fluff to Feel Better

Although heavy tomes can be thought provoking and force analytic thinking in our dusty brains, sometimes a book needs to be a mindless diversion.  When we need an escape from reality, award winning books forcing us to acknowledge the dire consequences of the greenhouse effect or the misery of our fellow man can only drop us deeper into the abyss.  Every now and then, a happy, fluffy, even ridiculous, book is the needed antidote.

images   In the spirit of the list giving season, here are a few authors I turn to for solace, smiles, and silliness:

  • Maria Semple (Today Will Be Different)
  • Sophie Kinsella (Remember Me?)
  • Alan Bradley (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)
  • Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells)
  • Jojo Moyes (One Plus One)
  • Mitch Albom (The Time Keeper)
  • Louise Miller (A City Baker’s Guide to Country Living)

What books can you recommend to brighten a day?


The Red Car


In reviewing The Red Car for the New York Times – Fast and Furious –  Daniel Handler noted “There is, now, a literary term for a book you can’t stop reading that makes you stop to think.  It is “The Red Car.”  And that’s just what happened to me when I read it.


After finishing The Red Car, I felt like Leah, the main character, riding in a car with its own mind – taking me on its own journey – for my own good.  My first thoughts were not to review but to remember.  You might want to skip this “aside” and go straight to the review below – but like Leah riding in the red car, I just had to write it.

I remember waking up one day and noticing I was not wearing earrings.  When had I stopped?   Then I remembered; it was when my baby took to pulling them off my ears and I worried about her swallowing them.  Now she was grown and had pierced ears, but I still forgot to look at my own ears.

It was a wake-up call, as though I had been someone else all those years, dreaming through life, pretending to have it all together and rushing around trying to keep everyone happy – my daughter, my husband, my dissertation committee, my students, my mother.  It never occurred to me to keep myself happy.

Much later, it happened again.  This time I was older and about to enter another decade – without the responsibilities of parenthood and career.  I decided to get my ears pierced – a tribute to five decades of meeting expectations.  For a while, I was happy, until once again I fell into the mode of responsibility.  It still seems difficult to make decisions only for myself.  I could blame my Catholic schooling or my strict Italian father.  I could wonder what if, as we all do periodically, especially when life seems unbearable.  I should just be grateful – so many have a much poorer life.

Maybe someday someone will leave me a red car to jolt me.


9781631492334_p0_v8_s192x300   Marcy Dermansky’s short novel – The Red Car – will lead you on a wild ride, but possibly leave you with an urging to reexamine your life.  When her former boss dies and leaves her red sports car and some money to Leah, a budding novelist, Leah revisits her old life, discovers strands of unfinished business and the courage to find her own happiness.  A quick read, The Red Car offers a philosophic look to sleepwalking through life,  with the same quirky, humorous, yet disarming grounding as Where’d You Go Bernadette?  It’s no wonder Maria Semple highly recommended this new book.  Read it in a sitting, but be prepared to think about it longer.

A Sample List from Semple

Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette and Today Will Be Different, revealed her reading habits in a Boston Globe interview on her way to the Boston Book Festival this year.  Sample tries to read three books a week –

“I can’t think of anything I am more afraid of having missed out on in life than reading important works of literature.”

Always looking for another book, I was delighted to discover her recommendations, thanks to my friend who faithfully sends me Boston Globe clippings.  I was also encouraged by Semple’s attitude on not finishing books:

“I’ve heard some people say they will give a book fifty pages.  That is too much…if a book is too obtuse on the first page I feel as if the writer doesn’t have my best interests at heart…I’m pathological about how quickly I put a book aside….”

I’ll probably stay by my rule of reading the number of pages of one hundred minus my age before giving up on a book; it gets closer to Semple’s formula every year.  Do you finish every book you start?

unknownBooks Semple is Reading Now     (of course, I immediately went to the library to find them):

  • The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

Leah inherits a red sports car from an old friend and mentor who died in a car accident.  As she journeys to San Francisco to claim the car,  Leah revisits past lives and loves.

  • Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (Nobel prize winner)

Personal accounts of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history  which contaminated three quarters of Europe.

  • Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Told from the perspective of the child in the mother’s womb, McEwan respins Shakespeare’s Hamlet, turning the tale into a modern tragedy of betrayal and murder.

  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Read my review here.

  • A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

In 1765, Sterne, facing death, travelled through France and Italy as far south as Naples, and after returning, described his travels from a sentimental point of view through the adventures of his alter ego, Rev. Mr. Yorick.  First published in 1768.


imagesSemple’s  Favorite Classics:

  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys


Today Will Be Different

9780316467063_p0_v2_s192x300    No matter how miserable or crazy your life might be, Maria Semple manages to make her characters’ problems worse, and in Today Will Be Different – more poignant.  Eleanor Flood, a quirky graphic artist married to a serious hand surgeon, battles her past and struggles with her present. Of course, she wins, as do all Semple’s idiosyncratic heroines.

The story unfolds in one day, packed with more trouble and good intentions than most of us have in a year. The theme, however rings true: how many of us wake up each morning determined to turn over a new leaf and reform our ways. Despite the one day format, Semple delivers Eleanor’s backstory and reveals her past demons through her interaction with other characters. As she tracks down her husband who is missing from his office, Eleanor has a series of missteps.  She sabotages the opening of an art exhibit, steals a set of keys from a parent at her son’s school, loses her contract for an unfinished graphic novel based on her childhood, and more.  Sample was the screenwriter for several successful television series, and she packs a season’s episodes in this book.

For fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, this story is also set in Seattle.  Those blackberry bushes reappear, Eleanor’s son Timby attends the infamous Galer Street School, and Semple can’t resist a few disparaging remarks about Amazon “squids.”

Although the plot jumps around and takes a while to get settled into the story,  this latest Semple offering will have you laughing, nodding in agreement at her pithy views on life, and hopeful – maybe life will be different – tomorrow.

Need Help? Hire a Virtual Assistant

Unknown-1When I read Amy Palanjian’s article in the May issue of Real Simple magazine – “Need Help?  Hire a Virtual Assistant” –  I couldn’t help thinking of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?   Feeling overwhelmed and alone, Bernadette hires an online service and befriends her virtual assistant.  Bernadette’s experience is funny but still a caution.

Despite her savvy as an architect, Bernadette falls into a relationship with a stranger she should not trust.  Her online personal assistant, Manjula Kapoor, her “virtual assistant from India,” happily completes tasks for Bernadette and helps her minimize personal interaction with others – at only 75 cents an hour.  Manjula manages Bernadette’s life from buying her new clothes, having them delivered to Bernadette’s house – even  arranging flight tickets and making restaurant reservations.

Manjula manages to sound polite and friendly when faced with Bernadette’s ramblings or rudeness.  She is the ideal assistant – never seen – and, in fact she does not really exist. The whole connection to a virtual assistant has been a scam, a front for a Russian crime syndicate who are now in possession of the family’s financial details – noone is really from India.   Ah – only in the movies, or, in this case, in fiction.

In her article, Palanjian suggests making “a list of everything you would like to get off your plate” and offers suggestions making hiring someone safer than Bernadette’s experience.  Palanjian notes “a personal referral is always best” – advice Bernadette would probably never have considered.  But, then, Bernadette’s antisocial behavior is one of the reasons the book is so funny.

Nevertheless, Manjula Kapoor was the perfect assistant. Her name may not have really been Manjula Kapoor, but someone has been reading and replying to Bernadette’s emails, making dentist’s appointments and booking flight tickets and restaurant tables.  Manjula is kind to Bernadette and offers compassion when she needs it – albeit, at a price higher than she thought she was paying.

Would you hire a virtual assistant?  I still have some qualms.

9780316204262_p0_v2_s192x300   My review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  


Semple’s next book will be published in 2017 – one to anticipate.