Book report: What will the neighbors say?

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Fannie Flagg never fails to find humor and wisdom in everyday life and I am never disappointed when I pick up one of her books. The Whole Town’s Talking is no exception.

The book begins quietly with Swedish immigrant, Lordor Nordstrom advertising for a bride to join him on his dairy farm in Missouri. Katrina Olson, recently arrived from Sweden herself, reads the ad in Chicago and comes for a visit. Lordor is smitten, but wisely awaits the verdict of the women of the community.

 

“It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as it she was gazing past him, far into the future.”

Lordor and Katrina marry and build a community that eventually becomes the town of Elmwood Springs. Their story reminded me of my own Swedish and German immigrant ancestors who settled in Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri. They relied on one another and their neighbors when they first arrived here.

“You depended on them for your very survival. It didn’t matter if you liked some more than others. They were your neighbors.”

And the neighbors do talk. And talk. We soon discover that the conversations go on beyond death, as we listen in on residents of Still Meadows Cemetery reconnecting and chatting amongst themselves. They enjoy visits from loved ones they left behind and they remark on some hard-won life lessons.

“I think most people are confused about life, because it’s not just one thing going on… It’s many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time.”

But every once in a while, one of the voices at Still Meadows goes silent and is never heard again. Where do they go? It’s a mystery.

The book also tracks the growth and eventual demise of small-town America, from 1889 through 2020 with references to wars, music, technology, and the arrival of Wal-Mart. The changing times have some residents of Elmwood Springs worried.

“Macky was glad he and Norma had grown up when they had. They had come of age in such an innocent time, when people wanted to work and better themselves… Each generation had become a weaker version of the last, until we were fast becoming a nation of whiners and people looking for a free ride—even expecting it.”

Of course, the young people feel differently.

“… people are so much more tolerant and accepting of everything now: different races, different religions, different lifestyles… Life is so much easier that when you were growing up, and women are just doing everything, and now with the Internet, well…the whole world has changed. Honestly, I have to say I grew up in the very best time possible.”

I was also charmed when Flagg mentioned Elmwood Spring’s connection the WASPS, the fine female pilots she wrote about in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.

The takeaway lesson here is “It takes time and lot of suffering, but sometimes, when you least expect it, life has a strange way of working out.” Readers can count on Flagg for a happy ending, even when it happens in the most unlikely of ways. You just never know…

“It may take a while, but everybody gets what they deserve, eventually.”

Fannie Flagg
Author, Fannie Flagg
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Book review: Missing your “Daily” fix?

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests

Chris Smith

If you love and still miss your nightly fix of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, you will probably want to read this compendium of how Jon and his staff rebuilt “a little nothing cable show.” The format of the book is unusual. Author Chris Smith conducted interviews and presents those with only a smattering of context and connective tissue written by him. He also includes clips from the show. It’s a bit like reading a Ken Burns documentary.

Jon wasn’t the most likely person to replace Craig Kilborn. He’d had a few failures, a few attempts to find himself comedically. And when he took over, there were some ruffled feathers among some of Kilborn’s staff. You see, Jon had ideas of his own about the tone and direction of the show. Under Jon’s leadership, writers would refocus their attention from silly people on the fringes, to the people with power–namely politicians and the media.

“The tone of The Daily Show could be sarcastic and adversarial, but it generally wasn’t cynical or snarky…The humor was always from a point of view that held out a hope that the world could be improved, and I think that tone was essential to its success.” ~James Poniewozik, televison critic

Readers are also reminded of what was happening back then, culturally. “The anchors of the real news were still a trio of white male eminences… But the network news hegemony had been rattled by the arrival of CNN, especially its coverage of the 1990 Gulf War. Now Fox News and MSNBC—both launched, coincidentally within months of the Daily Show’s 1996 debut…And a wised-up, postmodern generation of viewers was hungry for what the Daily Show would soon deliver.”

In addition to the behind the scenes “how the sausage gets made” details, readers are also reminded of the personalities, tragedies, disasters, and political fights that Jon and his team of writers, producers, and correspondents helped viewers see more clearly through satire. Indecisions 2000 -08. 9/11. W. Mess O’Potamia. Sarah Palin. WMDs. The financial meltdown. Anthony Weiner.

In Jon’s words:

“We were serious people doing a very stupid thing, and they were unserious people doing a very serious thing, and that juxtaposition really landed.” 

 “…the show always did best when it existed in the space between what was presented as public policy and the strategizing that went into creating it. That was the defining thread of the show, that sense that we were being sold something.”

“If your world does not include enough access to different people, and their world does not include enough access to you, you are speaking from ignorance.”

Correspondents conducting field pieces interviewed real people who really believed the things they were saying. Interviewers confronted them with the contrary view in a humorous way, and then let the tape roll, giving full voice their (contradictory, hypocritical, sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious) perspective. Daily Show alums include Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Steve Carell, Nancy Walls Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Assif Mandvi, Olivia Munn, John Oliver, Rob Riggle, Mo Rocca, Kristen Schaal, and Larry Wilmore. All of them give credit to Stewart for his mentorship in building their careers.

“I found out…that I had a political point of view…I don’t think I would have done that if Jon hadn’t shown me a way to do it and still by joyful and inventive about it, rather than being finger-waggy.” ~Stephen Colbert

“…because now all I want is to part of something that’s smart, silly, and has heart at the same time. Why can’t everything have all three?” ~Al Madrigal

Sure, this is a book for fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, but it’s also a tutorial in how to build a team to do important work while having fun. It’s a bit long, but I never once thought of giving up. Recommend.

“He started out to be a working comedian, and he ended up an invaluable patriot. He wants his county to be better, more decent, and to think harder.” ~David Remnick. Editor in chief, the New Yorker

 

The names have been changed…

screaming coverScreaming in Paris by Brian Lageose

“Once upon a time, an extremely dysfunctional family decided that it would be a splendid idea to take a trip to Paris. In past adventures, this family has been unsuccessful in simply visiting their local grocery store without potential incarceration, so the prospect of descending upon another country should have sounded alarm bells. It did not.”

So begins this book about international travel with a particularly dysfunctional entourage consisting of eight related or nearly-related people: Brian’s mother and two sisters; one brother-in-law; one close friend; and Brian’s partner and said partner’s sister. Five women.Three men. And to add just a bit to the scale-of-difficulty, one of his sisters is confined to wheelchair. “Unwieldy” seems a bit of an understatement. Furthermore, because this is his actual family, and to keep lawsuits and restraining orders to a minimum, he gave them all French pseudonyms. Yeah, it’s that kind of tell-all.

First you need to know that Brian blogs over at Bonnywood Manor and that he was put in charge of this tour because he’d been to Paris before and spoke a little high school French. He could also read a map and tell time. What’s that old adage? “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Brian took the job seriously, perhaps a little too seriously. Whether he liked it or not (many times not) the gang looked to him for guidance. Or a decision. So, he’s the one looking at maps and schedules while trying to keep folks safe, together, and moving along.

Brian puts readers into each uncomfortable situation with great skill. He crowds us into to cramped restaurants and cajoles us into eating unfamiliar foods. Intestines? Sure. Why not?! He gives us an up close and personal view of the sights (and smells!) of our fellow humans. We get quite drunk.

Of course, the challenges created the opportunities for humor:  An evil concierge who gives them inaccurate directions resulting in an epic journey through much of France in a rented van as they set off to visit a castle in a nearby city. Certain people (you know who you are, Tatum) dawdling and pawing through every souvenir shop. Walking. Standing outside numerous restaurants trying to get eight people to agree on where to eat. Riding the crowded Metro with unfamiliar crotches and backsides pressed against faces and other crotches. Walking uphill. Making transfers on the Metro. Dawdling. Walking. Waiting in line for tours of churches. Walking. Dawdling. Climbing the Eiffel Tower with not one, but two acrophobics. And did I mention the walking and dawdling?

Two things that they could always agree on were the hotel’s divine breakfast buffet and drinking beer on the hotel’s patio. Food and drink are consistent themes, with inherent humorous or embarrassing side effects. And hey, as bad as it gets, guess what? They’re still in Paris!

Brian’s genuine love and affection for his family shines through the humor, though. In spite of his rants, he writes…

“It had been a hell of a week, being responsible for getting these people everywhere they needed to be, and making sure that nobody got lost or was arrested or ate things they shouldn’t.”

In conclusion, if you like your travelogues funny, with dose of sarcasm and snark (think David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day or J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals) you might enjoy this little tome as well. Or perhaps you’re planning a trip to Paris. Or maybe you simply want to affirm your belief that all families are just a little crazy. In that case, spending a vicarious week in Paris with Brian’s  family will show you just how right you are. As a bonus, you’ll probably come away grateful for your own family’s special brand of crazy.

While he does go on (and on), the only thing that truly bothered me was the lack of photographic evidence.

Brian also reminded me that in the most aggravating and embarrassing of situations, with the most aggravating and embarrassing of people–one’s own family–it’s best not to follow our own possibly criminal instincts. We should take a breath and see the humor. And if we’re going to write about them, for godsake, change their names.