La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is known for his series, such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the 44 Scotland Street books, and the Sunday Philosophy Club Series.  I’ve picked up one or two from the others, but my mother and I particularly enjoy and share the 44 Scotland Street series with each other, which I first started reading when I was on maternity leave with my first child.  For the most part I enjoy McCall Smith, his books offering little slice of life vignettes, and providing light, pleasurable and easy reading.  I especially appreciate the way that he can sketch out a character with just a few lines, using just a brief spotlight on their activity or thoughts to provide an insight into who they are and allowing you to fully appreciate the person.  An author who is skilled with characters is a treat to read, and can often tell a whole story within a paragraph.

Unfortunately, I don’t think La’s Orchestra Saves the World, a rare stand alone piece from McCall Smith, plays to his strengths.  In the story, Lavender (La) goes to college in the years before World War II, where she is pursued by and quickly marries a man who soon runs off with another woman.  His family, embarrassed, takes care of La and sets her up in their country home, where she lives throughout the War helping with a local farm, meeting a Polish refugee, and creating an amateur orchestra from the community that brings people together and saves the world.  Near the end of the book, the Cuban missile crisis has recently ended and, with the Cold War in full swing and the threat of nuclear war hanging over everything, she reconvenes the orchestra with a concert for peace.

My mom loved this book and recommended it to me since I play violin and piano and am generally in favor of concerts for peace and other corny things like that.  However, this book just didn’t work for me.  I rather enjoyed the beginning of it, which was mostly painting a picture of La as a smart woman who wants to accomplish things but is not particularly driven to break from the mold in the 30s, which I found a rather poignant portrait indeed.  However, once she moves to the country, once the war breaks out and the story begins, it rather drifted away from me.

For one thing, the book felt slight.  McCall Smith’s books are, to a great extent, slight, little appetizers that you might read before digging in to a meatier novel.  But while that is suitable in something like a 44 Scotland Street novel, it didn’t seem to work in a book about war and peace and love where we never get below those surface sketches of the characters.  On a similar line, there really wasn’t much of a story.  The orchestra takes its time in getting there, and then doesn’t do much.  The number of characters in the book is low, and then there are suddenly these many, many people who play in the orchestra and turn up for its reunion concert when nothing has really been done to show how this has impacted the community before.  There are people referencing the orchestra throughout the book, for sure, but the old maxim of show don’t tell holds here as well as in most story telling endeavors.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is pleasant enough, but I felt like it was floating above the surface of a story without ever settling in.  I never understood how the orchestra saved the world, or even just the small corner of it that it was meant to affect, and i just never felt the there there.  I suppose I’ll stick with the series from here on out.

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

  I must admit, it feels a little silly to write a review for Hyperbole and a Half, since if you’re online you’re probably familiar with Brosh’s fantastic weblog/comics.  And it’s not as if the world is lacking for reviews of this book.  But I have to write reviews of all the books I’ve read this year as a bit of mental discipline, and so write them I shall!  I am a woman of my word, even if no one but me knows I have made this pledge.  Also, I’ve been stuck on this review for several months and it’s led to a bit of a backlog.  So, allons-y!

Hyperbole and a Half is brilliant and hilarious and you should go and read it immediately.  That’s really all you need to know, but I suppose I”ll flesh this out a bit.  Her stories, illustrated with comics done in MS Paint, are funny and insightful and capture eternal truths about childhood, procrastination and dogs, but are so crazy that they barely seem like they can be true.  It’s difficult to explain why they are so funny–they just are.  To paraphrase something said before about John Hodgman, Brosh’s words and pictures are funnier than they have any right to be.

 

The book overall was a big hit with my family.  I had gotten it for my brother, for Christmas, and it quickly made it’s way around the family.  I read half of it there, but my brother selfishly wanted to keep his present, and so I had to purchase an entirely new copy when I got back.  My husband thought this was a poor investment since I read it so quickly, but it is almost infinitely re-readable.  Plus, it’s necessarily to have the book on hand to share the best stories with others, so they’ll know to buy the book, too.

In addition to the humorous–which seems an understatement–stories, are intensely personal stories about depression and anxiety.  Others online, including those who suffer from depression, have repeatedly said that Brosh’s accounts are some of the most accurate descriptions of depression they’ve ever seen.  I don’t suffer from depression, and fortunate in my mental health, so I can’t speak to that.  I can say, though, that more than almost anything else I’ve seen, this comic made me feel like I could understand what depression actually was.  It was a truly eye-opening account.

The fact is, Allie Brosh is an incredibly gifted storyteller and communicator, and one of the funniest people on the planet.  This review, and every other you’ll find online, are just ways to pad out the only review you really need, what I started out with: Hyperbole and a Half is brilliant and hilarious.  You should go read it.  Immediately.

Dad is Fat

Dad is Fat, Jim Gaffigan
Dad is Fat Book CoverI noticed that I got a few followers from my review of Queen Leona.  Thank you!  This will be a slightly less intellectual review.

My thoughts when starting to blog again this year were that it would make me start to write again, which I very much want to do, and would be good practice in starting–and finishing–small pieces.  My other thought was to catalog and review the books I’ve read this year.  This is a project I’ve considered for the past few years, but have never quite been able to follow up on.  I blame the kids.  I have a few from this year already to get through, and will continue to write reviews as I read throughout the year.  Many of these will be pretentious tomes like philosophy classics, and books by Eco.  But some not.  This one is not.

I’m a very big fan of Jim Gaffigan.  Although, really, who isn’t?  His “Hot Pockets” bit is the stuff of legend after all.  If you haven’t seen it, you should watch.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Anyway, it’s funny, right?  And that’s why my husband got me this book for Christmas

This is a perfectly cromulant book as these things go.  It pulls heavily from his most recent comedy special, Mr. Universe, and focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising five (!!) kids in Manhattan.  The title of the book comes from the first sentence that one of his children wrote.  The book has some parts that made me chuckle out loud, but mostly it just passed the time.  It’s a very easy read, so it’s not as if it’s a major commitment to finish the book, it’s just not particularly engaging.

The problem with it is something I’ve noticed in other books by stand-up comedians, such as Lewis Black.  They’re just used to writing for a different medium.  The brief essays in the book would have been better being turned into stand up bits and jokes, and in fact the book is much funnier if you are familiar enough with Gaffigan to pretend he’s saying all of this instead of having it written.  The bits are very short, which does make the book convenient to read a few pages of at a time while you’re nursing a baby, which is mostly how I read it.  But it’s nothing too special.  The time would probably be better spent watching Gaffigan on netflix or youtube instead.