Monday, January 18, 2021

Lessons from Lucy by Dave Barry


Reviewed by Jeanne

Dave Barry is a Florida based humorist probably best known for his newspaper columns, collections of which have hit the best-seller lists.  He also won a Pulitzer for Commentary.  His most recent book was entitled Lessons from Lucy:  The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog which humorously describes what things give Lucy joy and what we (and Dave) can learn from her. He distills these down to seven lessons, illustrating each with stories about both Lucy and his own behavior.

For example, the first lesson is about how Lucy loves to meet new people as well as engage with her friends (i.e., almost everybody, human or dog).  Dave, not so much—especially the meeting new people part—but he does vow to try, though he may draw the line at sticking his snout into someone’s groin the way Lucy does.

As Barry admits at the end, these lessons for self-improvement and happiness aren’t original and aren’t particularly profound:  they are pretty much common sense which is why people tend to ignore them.  Besides, while he does have a point to make, it’s really the way he relates the lessons that makes this book stand out.  Dave Barry is one funny guy.  I found myself smiling a lot (though not at the parts about cats, as he makes no secret that he is not a fan) and during the essay about the family’s travails during Hurricane Irma, I even laughed out loud in recognition. When Perky Weatherperson reports that a hurricane is on the way, Floridians flock to the stores to buy all sorts of things, from batteries to bleach whether they need them or not.  Anyone with the courage to go to a local store after a prediction of snow knows the feeling—and knows not to get between anyone and the shelves of milk or bread. 

All of the lessons are true and entertaining, from fun with the Lawn Rangers and the Rock Bottom Remainders, until one reaches the post book section.  This wasn’t supposed to be a part of the book, but just prior to publication a family member suffered a potentially life changing illness which became another lesson in living. It's moving and heart-felt, and gives the book more of an urgent feel.

I listened to this on audio and enjoyed it.  Barry reads his own material and while there are times when the delivery is a bit stilted, he makes up for it with enthusiasm at appropriate points.  My intent was to get a copy as a gift for a dog loving friend but I may have to rethink that.  No, Lucy the dog is fine!  It’s just that Barry says several times that he is 70 and hasn’t that much longer to live.  By coincidence, that is the exact age of my friend and while I think he would enjoy the bulk of the book, I am not sure about a gift which reminds someone they are about to die.  It’s one thing to contemplate one’s own mortality and a different thing to make someone else think about theirs.  So I may pass on the gift, but I’m glad I listened to the book.

Friday, January 15, 2021

A Cat on the Case by Clea Simon


Reviewed by Jeanne


Becca Corwin, aspiring witch, has a day job at the Charm and Cherish, a New Age shop in Cambridge.  Becca has offered her services as a detective, but so far there have been no takers even though she has had some success in the past. 

But, unbeknownst to Becca, those successes were actually due to her three cats who—unlike Becca—actually do have powers.  In fact, it was due to fluffy orange Harriet that Becca came to believe she had power after the luxury-loving feline conjured a pillow. Haughty Siamese Laurel believes that Becca should just spend her days looking after her cats, and possibly find a boyfriend.  Our protagonist, loving calico Clara, is the one who worries about her person and tries to help out despite the snippy comments from her sisters. Clara has taken to surreptitiously following Becca to work, using her power to (mostly) hide her presence.

This day, a young woman comes into the shop asking about a “witch detective.” She leaves before Becca can get the full story out of her, but leaves behind a violin in a case.  It seems like an old instrument, possibly valuable, so Becca is determined to find the owner.  Along the way, she encounters theft, lies, and murder—and maybe a case too big for Clara’s paws to handle. But Becca is determined to solve the mysteries and Clara is just as determined that Becca isn’t going to tackle a murderer alone.

This is the third in the Witch Cats of Cambridge series which started with A Spell of Murder and An Incantation of Cats.  You don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy this one, though I have to say I prefer to read in order because I like to see how the characters develop.  In this one, Clara learns more about her heritage and the mystic charge laid on her from ancient times.  Clara is a sweet, caring soul who loves Becca with all of her heart.  She is very young, though, and not as worldly as her sisters—as they keep reminding her.  The dynamics between the feline sisters is entertaining; each is a strong personality and, just as in human families, there’s a certain amount of competition and bossiness between the siblings.

Becca is oblivious to all of this, believing her cats are just her pets.  She has her own human circle of friends and a few foes to contend with, from the wise and sympathetic Elizabeth to a new, irate neighbor.  She also has concerns that the cats can’t comprehend:  earning money, for one thing, and the lease on her apartment for another.

Simon is no stranger to series work, having four previous ones to her credit including the Pru Marlow books which featured a pet psychic as the lead character (well, human character as I expect Wallis the crabby tabby would believe she deserved top billing) and the Dulcie Schwartz series in which a grad student solves mysteries with the help of her ghostly cat, Mr. Grey. Simon well knows the ways of cats and one thing I have appreciated in all her series is that the felines—actually, any animals—who appear are distinct personalities in their own right, not just furry props. 

I also love that Simon likes to pull in history along with her stories, though I will admit I sometimes get more caught up in the history part than the current case! That’s just me—and probably why I like reading series in order so much.  I get invested in the characters and am as avid to discover backstory as I am to go forward with the current action.  It’s not just character and plot; there’s a bit of world-building going on as well.

So if 2020 has left you feeling a bit burned out, put a little magic back into your life with a visit with the Witch Cats of Cambridge. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Children's book author?


Ian Fleming was best known as the creator of Bond—James Bond, the quintessential sophisticated spy who was also known as Agent 007 and who had a license to kill. Fleming debuted his creation in Casino Royale, and then followed it up with eleven more Bond novels and two collections of short stories. His final two books were published after his death in 1964 from a heart attack. The name James Bond was the name of an American ornithologist who had written a book on birds in the Caribbean:  Fleming was an avid birdwatcher and he thought the author’s name was the dullest he had ever heard.  Perfect for a spy.


And Fleming should know, because he served in British Naval Intelligence during World War II.  He based the Bond character on several real life spies he knew, including his brother Peter. Fleming himself suggested some ingenious operations, including one detailed in Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre in which a body was dumped in order to mislead the Germans. 

Fleming was encouraged to write down the bedtime stories he told his son Caspar which involved a flying car.  These stories became the best-selling children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which was published after Fleming’s death.  It became a Disney film starring Dick Van Dyke; and one of the co-writers of the screenplay would find fame as a children’s book author:  Roald Dahl.


Fun fact:  Fleming described Bond as looking like Hoagy Carmichael.