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Is it possible to be happy all the time? Maybe it depends on the books we read. This week we've also got three books that have been huge hits in Australia but aren't so well-known here, and the books Laura and I are currently reading.

Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin

Happy All The Time  came highly recommended by two friends-of-the-pod, Chrissy Ryan of North London's Bookbar, and Elizabeth Morris – both women I trust wholeheartedly for a good read. 'I need something fun for our summer reading show', I said, and they unerringly pointed me to this book.

Reader, they were not wrong. As Katherine Heiny, who writes the Introduction, notes, 'seriously wise, seriously wonderful, seriously comic – your life will be richer for it.' Before you've even got to the novel you get this delightful little intro from Heiny (author of enjoyable comedies Early Morning Riser and Standard Deviation, among others) about how she discovered Laurie Colwin thorough one of her short stories, and soon had read everything there was to read. 'I discovered', she writes, 'that Colwin wrote almost exclusively about love, sex and food, and in the thirty years since them, these are still the only subjects I have found worth reading or writing about.'

And so to the plot – the novels follows third-cousins Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, two well-to-do young men with secure jobs who don't need to wonder about their futures and so instead wonder who they will marry. In short order Guido meets Holly Sturgis and falls in love with her elegance, precision and sleek, Japanese hair. Holly meanwhile 'had no ambitions to speak of, except to live nicely from day to day.' She 'could cook, do needlework, play tennis and fish. She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule, and the restoration of paintings and china. She could balance her check book to forty-five cents, make a perfect piecrust, and bandage simple wounds. She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps, and knew the collections of most major museums. Guido had once recited this list to Vincent, including the fact that Holly spoke French and Italian. "Does she fly on commercial airlines?" Vincent had asked. "Of course she does. Why?" "Anything short of a transport carrier would crash under the weight of those accomplishments," Vincent had said.'

Vincent in turn works at the Board of City Planning and meets Misty Berkowitz. 'He found her sitting in her office, slumped over her old-fashioned calculator stirring her coffee with a fountain pen. She had amber-coloured hair that fell into her eyes and small gold spectacles that slipped down her nose. She looked bored and misanthropic. The sight of her caused Vincent's heart to leap in an unexpected manner. He poked his head into her doorway and said good morning in a cheery fashion. Misty Berkowitz looked up. "Get the hell away from me," she growled.

One criticism you might level at Colwin is that her characters are drawn from the affluent upper-class, where you might suppose people who don't have to worry about wealth and or job-security might well find it easy to be happy. It's a fair point, but somehow Colwin manages to write about her characters in a way that seems somehow generous, open-hearted and inclusive, so that it feels churlish to grumble. Anyway, Heiny asks, 'what's wrong with writing about the upper class? Are they immune to sorrow? Do people who like roast chicken not feel heartache? Are asparagus-eaters not warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer Aren't we all, every single one of us, seeking love constantly in some form or another.' This is a glass-half-full sort of a book, full of characters who are the best kind of people, the kind that like to try to make life a little nicer for everyone around them. You might have friends like that, or be such a person yourself. Me, I grumble my way through most of my days reading books with dark plots whilst secretly wishing to be in bed asleep (probably some therapy needed there) but I was happy to have my thoughts diverted with a book that suprised and delighted me in equal measure.

Further reading: Early Morning Riser is my favourite of the Katherine Heiny novels that I've read and I reviewed it in newsletter 5. Happy All the Time also made me think of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, a book that has something of the same quality of celebrating kindness and viewing the world thorough a positive lens (and which I remember more fondly the further I get from the experience of actually reading it). It's a shame that Woody Allen is such a pariah these days (although interesting article about that here), but in the interests of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater my favourite of his films is Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which a couple and their two friends try to solve a crime that may have been committed in their apartment building. It's a film I love not so much for the absurd plot as for the relationships – now I've read her, I think the tone is quite Colwin-esque. See what you think.

Three to Try

Katharine Grant is chair of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and reminded me, with this article for the excellent Five Books website of three books from Australian writers I very much want to read. 

The Dictionary of Lost Worlds by Pip Williams

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world. 

I was chatting to a literary editor at a garden party a while back and asked her to tell me a book she loved. This was the one she recommended. 'It's been a bestseller almost everywhere else,' she said, 'I can't understand why it hasn't taken off here in the same way.' I think it's because books are a slow burn, it takes a while for enough people to read it for that word-of-mouth effect to start to happen – but the lovely thing about prizes is the way they spotlight books and the Walter Scott Prize nomination may help it reach more readers. Katherine Grant writes 'Pip Williams writes with such love. The Dictionary of Lost Words is the kindest book you’re ever likely to read. But don’t mistake me. Pip Williams’ kindness isn’t of the sweetly insipid variety. Rigorous, full of insights and honesty, always avoiding the stereotype and the obvious ploy, we’re with a writer whose gentle authority touches places that flashier novels never quite reach (to coin a phrase).

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte
In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana - the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer's hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel... 

Grant writes 'This novel is also a love story and, with most of the action taking place at Yasnaya Polyana, the former estate of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, it’s also a love-through-literature story.' It's rare to find a book not listed on Amazon, particularly one that has been nominated for a major prize and sold well in Australia. I wonder if it's waiting for release with a UK and US publisher. With a little keyboard work, however, you can track down a copy. It feels like good back-to-school reading in September to me.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

What if Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of the notorious 18th-century wool-baron John Macarthur, had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? In her introduction Kate Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of discovering a long-hidden box containing that memoir. What follows is a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented. Grant writes: 'what a compelling tale [Grenville has] woven, of a canny, resourceful woman, not perfect by any means, but who, through her own efforts and ingenuity, is transformed from reluctant Australian immigrant, a victim of sorts, into a vigorous and successful matriarch. 

What to Listen To

If you haven't yet there's always time to catch up with our latest episode, our 100th in which Laura and I get personal and answer bookish questions from our listeners. We had a lot of fun making it – I confess to have listened to it three time since I published it, mainly because I miss Laura and our chat always makes me smile, particularly the bit where she doesn't hesitate to weigh in over how much she disliked a book that is one of my all-time favourite reads. But which book was it? Listen in to find out.

If, like me, you read Happy All the Time and want to know more about Laurie Colwin there is a lovely short excerpt from NPR's Fresh Air programme here. It looks like her 1982 novel Family Happiness might be my next read. Instagram friends also tell me her cookery writing is a delight (thanks @charliebooksandcoffee) so you might also try Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen.

I've been listening to a podcast called What You Will Learn quite a bit of late, as I'm interviewing the two hosts on Tuesday. They have read an epic number of motivational books and distill the essence into their regular show – it's well-produced and entertaining and I'm very much looking forward to finding out how much they have learned. I particularly enjoyed their interview with Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, which I haven't read (tried, too densely written for me!) but I did read and absolutely love Michael Lewis's book The Undoing Project, about Kahneman and his friend and fellow psychologist Amos Tversky. It was a delight to hear Kahneman talk about his new book Noise.

If you only have time to scroll

I enjoyed reading this new short story from Colson Whitehead from The New Yorker.

What Kate is reading:

I'm currently reading The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun, a slightly genre-defyling eco thriller horror comedy. Next up for me is The Stranding by Kate Sawyer, which sits just outside of arm's reach by my computer; every so often I reach out, open it and read a few pages, enjoying it very much, so it's time it got some undivided attention.

What Laura is reading

Laura delighted in Michael Faber’s D (A Tale of Two Worlds) this week. An old-fashioned adventure story in the tradition of Narnia, D tells the story of Dhikilo who enters another world through a magic door in pursuit of the letter D. Someone has stolen it for reasons unknown, altering not just how people speak, read, and write but reality itself. In her quest, Dhikilo will overcome obstacle after obstacle as she and a companion Sphinx (naturally) travel through a frozen world to set things right. A wonderful read.

Browse our bookshop. We've had fun putting together a shop window of this week's recommendations. If you're thinking of investing in any of them, buying through supports independent bookshops and you'll also be supporting us at the pod.

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of 100 episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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