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on June 13, 2006
As an aging rock star named "Bruce" once sang (famously in his ode to a "Pink Cadillac") -- "Love is bigger than a Honda . . . it's bigger than a Subaru." How much bigger is captured perfectly by Barbara Holland. (Please see end of this review.) Ms Holland is miles ahead of anyone else in reminding us what "true love" once meant.

This book, "Wasn't the Grass Greener? - 33 reasons why life isn't as good as it used to be," provides (I believe) the finest essay ever written on the subject of "Falling in Love." Deservedly, it is twice the length of any other chapter here (14 pages) -- and parked, like a stretch limo, between a little Subaru-of-a-chapter called "Radiators" and a sort of `Civic' titled "Election Night."

Honestly, I can't remember the last time I read a book of essays where each is funnier (and simultaneously more poignant) than the last. My favorites so far (I'm only midway through the book!) include "Suntans," "Old Things," and "Clotheslines." The latter two, read aloud to my wife, left me laughing and crying simultaneously.

After scanning the contents page, I opened the book to "Suntans" (I'm trying to get one, for the same reasons Barbara sings their praises,) Then, I skipped ahead to "Taverns," "Pianos," "Poetry," and "Porches" (not the car -- the house feature that Barbara's grandmother's Washington home had three of).

Moments ago, I read "Falling in Love" -- and I simply couldn't wait to finish the book before writing a review. I believe if Mark Twain were still with us, he would declare Barbara Holland his favorite writer - and agree she is the best "iconoclastic essayist" of the last hundred years.

As an incentive . . . to your purchasing this book (and I'll buy your copy if you don't enjoy it, and give to a loved one for Christmas) . . . some snippets from "Falling in Love."

----

"Last spring the Washington Post sent a reporter to cover the prom of my old high school. They found that tuxedos are still rented, dresses agonized over, bow ties still assembled, and expensive products applied to the hair and skin for the grand occasion, just as in the olden days.

"The news was that fully half of the celebrants came with friends and groups of friends of their own gender. Those with dates were offhand about them; they'd been chosen at the last minute from a pool of classmate possibilities.

"One girl had asked a boy who said yes then changed his mind, claiming that he wanted to be fresh and rested for his SATs the next day. Another girl said she was relieved to have no date because, `You don't have any pressure with friends' . . .

"I graduated from that school. I went to the prom with orchids pinned to my chest, little cream-colored orchids with purple edging. My date was madly, helplessly, desperately in love with me. I too was in love, though with someone else, who loved another. We were all in love.

"The whole school. In love or in recovery, bruised but brave, still carrying a torch, still writing terrible poetry, and poking coins into the jukebox to endlessly replay the ballad we danced to last summer.

"The intensity of our passion was the measure of our worth, and he or she who loved but reasonably was a wingless soul, a poor spiritless clod. . . .

"Male and female alike, we dissected the nature of true love. It was understood that what we called `The Real Thing' would strike only once in a lifetime, and if it misfired or came to grief, the rest of our days would be hardly worth living . . .

"Today I drive past as the local high school is letting out and hundreds of students clot the lawns and sidewalks, some alone, some with a friend, most in chatting groups. Nobody walks with his arm around another; nobody is holding hands . . . and the songs blasting from their car radios don't mention love . . .

"Love improved sex. Even the most unadorned and standardized sex, combined with love, produced a jolt. Currently, to judge from the Internet and specialty shops . . . plain sex is no longer worth doing - and needs a lot of seasoning . . .

(I remember) "T" and I after a sleepless night of love, staggered blearily forth and caught a bus toward our respective offices. The bus was crowded and we were jostled apart in the aisle. Over the shoulders of strangers our eyes briefly connected, and I would have fallen down if I hadn't been wedged in the crowd.

"Various writers have tried to describe this moment, usually by comparing it to a massive jolt of electricity, but that sounds painful. Others mention an explosion of interior light so intense that nothing ever quite looks the same afterwards, but that sounds too passive.

"I have no description to offer. Except that it lasted for perhaps a full second, and in the decades since, I haven't come across anything worth trading it for."
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on May 18, 2015
How can a curmudgeon be so much fun? A female Mark Twain for modern times. If you think you have a complaint, then you better get this book. The great thing about Barbara Holland is you can read several of her books at the same time to vary the essay and never miss a beat. I am currently reading through 3. Good way to relax at night before bed and get in a better humor especially after a stressful day. And doesn't your memory always remember how much better things were, when in reality they really were not? Just ask Barbara....
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on August 31, 2006
WASN'T THE GRASS GREENER? by Barbara Holland is a ruefully nostalgic lament on the passing of things, activities, and states of mind that older generations grew up with during a period that can now perhaps be perceived as a simpler time: things such as pianos, liquor cabinets, sneakers, porches, desks (as opposed to computer stations), clotheslines, windows (that actually open), radiators, grand urban department stores, playing cards, and telegrams; activities such as ice-skating, election night, idleness, pranks, picnics, and star-gazing; and states of mind such as childhood, worries, and falling in love.

I can't find a birth date for the author on the Internet. At 57, I suspect I'm 10-15 years younger than she. Certainly anyone younger than, say, 45, won't find this book relevant and may wonder what Barbara is grumbling about.

The volume itself, published in 1999, is dated, as revealed in the chapter entitled "War", in which Holland misses the good vs. evil simplicity of the Second World War and, to a lesser degree, the Cold War. According to her, what with the demise of the Evil Empire, there's nothing to provide a rousing martial diversion other than a spirited soccer match or grueling computer game. One wonders what she thinks post-9/11 about the current us vs. them confrontation likely to last decades, i.e. Western culture vs. the kamikaze acolytes of jihadist mullahs. It doesn't have the drama of D-Day, but it's all we've got, and could conceivably result in the nuclear holocaust avoided with the Soviets.

My favorite chapter, because it's so deliciously politically incorrect, is "Homogeneity", in which Holland takes a swipe at our society's cultural diversity, otherwise so hailed by liberals, in which the various ethnic and national elements, if they had their druthers, would just as soon live in their own isolated enclaves. As Holland (facetiously?) points out, the "American" traditions stemming from the country's Anglo-Western European roots will soon only be found in the towns and small cities of places like Idaho and Montana.

Holland writes with a wry humor that I, at least, found appealing. In her chapter on "Worries", she bemoans the loss of those less anxiety-prone times that've given way to an angst-laden society subject to legislative and regulatory nanny-ism. The following is illustrative of both the author's humor in general and this chapter's point in particular:

"Lighting a candle the other day, I considered the box of kitchen matches. In the usual large red capitals it warned me, 'CAUTION! DO NOT DROP.' Satan tempted me, and I fell. Looking around to make sure I was unobserved, I let go of the box. The matches rattled slightly and lay still. I had called their bluff."

Anybody who reads WASN'T THE GRASS GREENER? with an appreciative nodding of the head could perhaps add to Barbara's list. Several that come to mind include: glamorous stewardesses that serve full-course in-flight meals instead of pretzels, ice-cold Coca-Cola in glass bottles from the vending machine at the corner gas station, drive-in movie theaters, athletic heroes that aren't otherwise greedy boors, and kindly General Practitioners that still make house calls.

Oh well, one can still find reruns of "I Love Lucy" (1951-57) on the telly, be assured of a broadcast of "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) on Christmas Eve, and buy a burger from Carl's, Jr. (established 1956) or a Frisbee (as Pluto Platter, 1955) to toss with the dog.
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on January 29, 2011
I love the way Barbara Holland can conjure up memories and capture the essence of everyday life. Her books are fun to read and she has a great, wonderful wit and this book is no exception.
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on May 31, 2016
This review is for: Wasn't the Grass Greener?: Thirty-three Reasons Why Life Isn't as Good as It Used to Be ) by Barbara Holland

I read my (signed/autographed) copy of "One's Company" in 1992 and loved it, so recently I thought I'd try this one from 1999, a first edition that sat on my shelf for a very long time. I was not disappointed.

Barbara Holland's DNA is inside all the writing found here. The words are from her body's sinews as well as from her mind. You learn about the woman's personal life, her mother, her siblings, and her past as you take in a sociological analysis of life in America from the time of the Depression to the modern era with its computers, air-conditioning, and "hook-ups."

Her survey of America's sociological decline is done conversationally and through specific subjects such as desks or suntans or pianos or porches. These objects seem inconsequential, but Barbara Holland is able to see, like Blake, a world in a grain of sand.

I agree with other Amazon reviewers that a most amazing essay is "Falling In Love."

There are others that make a great second-place to it: "Desks," "Doctors," "Department Stores," "Homogeneity," "Psychiatry," "Poetry," "Porches" and "Taverns."

For me, Barbara Holland really does answer the question the title of the book poses -- in the affirmative -- with every essay, and the reader will not only agree but feel the reasons why as well.

The reason I gave the book four stars instead of five is somewhat selfish. There were just too many essays on these small subjects to read, and although I did finally manage to read all of them, I felt already well familar with their certain, even rightful nostalgic bitterness after randomly reading slightly more than half of the collection. These essays are worth reading to the last bitter drop in that they are professional and well-written, but the excitement and the fortification some of her best writing here gave me wasn't increased by having done so.
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on May 20, 2001
"Wasn't The Grass Greener?" (aka "A Curmudgeon's Fond Memories") is Barbara Holland's evocative, wistful essay collection enjoyable for its lack of pretense, emphasizing effect over cause. She assembles 33 missing social puzzle pieces, enjoyable independently, into a picture of how society now views personal comfort, leisure time, and social interaction.
Holland drew her vignettes for "Wasn't The Grass Greener?" living everywhere from Washington, DC (where she grew up and from which she writes a disturbing glorification of national wartime attitude) to Denmark (where she lived as a young adult, developing a fondness for homogeneity that mirrors Pat Buchanan's similar views on multiculturalism) to Philadelphia (where she raised her family and fondly remembers frozen ponds for skating and the old John Wanamaker department store).
She recalls the decline of such mundane activities as card playing ("just another of those things...that caused us to visit our neighbors and invite them into our houses") and ice skating ("nobody won or lost, which is not the American way and probably a bad influence on the young"). She writes of home furnishings plain as a liquor cabinet or radiator (It was clean and it smoked not...(they) moderately (were) dispensing their measured flow of comfort, like grandmothers"). She eventually rises to abstracts like worrying, idleness ("Work stole our days, but entertainment took everything left over")or falling in love. As she does, you realize Ms. Holland misses how things felt, not always how they were. The telegram's tangibility bests e-mail's cold type. The tavern's social jape and comfort, songs from parlor pianos, even old clothes hung from clotheslines show natural, tactile interaction American life now lacks.
Her essays prefer older, more personal entertainments to those from passive, antiseptic, solitary electronics. She prefers organic, commodious warmth over the constant chase for mechanized, articifically magnetized fads and fashions. She trusts people ("When I was young, the doctor was God") over machines. She misses what united us, decries the cynicism and nihilism that divided and partially conquered us.
Holland frets about our needing protection from fear (of lawsuit and loss), at all costs from seen, unseen, and manufactured dangers. This insulation became isolation keeping temperatures steady, freeing us from harmless pranks, suntans and bugs at picnics. It kept children organized and supervised rather than left to their creative endeavors (this chapter, too, appears to advocate irresponsibility). It even kept our most intimate communications, love and sex, at virtual (reality) arm's length rather than forward to vulnerably falling in love.
Holland writes in refreshing, near-diary style, neither persuading nor entertaining objection. But fond memories, however curmudgeonly and well-written, do not excuse facts. Her otherwise humorous chapter on pianos hits a sour note when she writes, "Imagine the Beatles carrying one around...nobody could wring a drop of juice out of rock on the piano." Huh? Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Leon Russell, Elton John, Billy Joel? When rock was greener (pre-British Invasion), piano dominated the new style and remains prominent. (And yes, Paul McCartney played mean piano on the Beatles' rockers and Elvis allegedly played better piano than guitar).
Pink Floyd, who I doubt was heard much on Holland's parlor piano, once asked the musical question, "Would you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" They answered years later, "I have become comfortably numb." Leo Buscaglia once said he would choose feeling pain over nothing; his views were parodied unforgettably in the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (the bohemian Bueller could be Ms. Holland's hero) and restated 33 different ways here. Her nostalgic book (true to her code, unavailable on audio cassette) is worthwhile, educating reading worth following with your own sequel.
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on May 30, 1999
Surely Barbara Holland is a national treasure. WASN'T THE GRASS GREENER?, subtitled "A Curmudgeon's Fond Memories", is a marvelous collection of essays on subjects ranging from Doctors to Poetry to Radiators and thirty others of varying stripes, all encased in a book bright with wisdom, wryness, nostalgia, irony - gentle and not-so - and an enchanting sense of humor. For the last mentioned, see "Art" and "Sneakers" for starters. Surely neither of these subjects, disparate as they are, will ever be the same again. I've been a Holland fan for years and never has her intelligence and style been more in evidence than in this truly stunning collection.
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on December 3, 2000
The late musician Frank Zappa intoned that nuclear holocaust was not the only--and perhaps not the worst--form of ultimate destruction; there were, he said (and I'm surely paraphrasing) at least two others: paperwork and nostalgia.
With this book, Barbara Holland has erected a lovely 235-page altar to the latter of Mr. Zappa's nightmares. Why someone with her obvious writing talent (see her 'Endangered Pleasures' as an example) and keen eye should have written such a sour collection of "oh, but how things were so much better when *I* was a kid" essays is a bit beyond me. If your eyes start to roll when an older relative launches into his "well, y'know, in *my* day ..." talk, well, you'll appreciate this book even less. It's that same talk, repeated 33 times--even the title warns you.
So what's wrong with a little wistful looking back? One of Ms. Holland's strengths (again, shown better elsewhere) is her rock-solid certainty, which veers just close enough to sarcasm that you can't help but get the point. That is, even if you don't agree with her jabs, you know that *she's* sure--and will tolerate no argument because, well, none is warranted. Alas, that sure voice is rarely found here. We're not told that radiators are *definitively* better than forced-air heat, or that clotheslines should just make you *forget* about clothes dryers. In most cases, the author simply wants to tell us little ditties about why these artifacts appeal to her personally, often washed down with a sepia-toned childhood anecdote. She saves her venom for what has replaced her cherished icons, and here we find the usual suspects: TV, computers, technology in general.
Without wondering whether Ms. Holland wrote out 'Wasn't the Grass Greener' in longhand (avoiding those demonic PCs), one could read only her essay on 'Art' to tease out the defects in the rest of this book. The piece is not exactly why art "isn't as good as it used to be." Instead its two pages are devoted to quotes from intellectuals trying (admittedly, to somewhat hilarious effect) to define what art is. Yes, we can rather easily see this is a mess, but where's the cure? And, for that matter, what's exactly wrong? Was "art" better at some point in our glorious past? When? Why?
You can read the other 32 essays with much the same reaction. Psychiatrists (the Freudian variety) are so much better mere "therapists!" E-mail is so pale compared to the visceral thrill of receiving a ... telegram! So what are we to do? Go back? And how, exactly, would we revive such lovely things as suntans, taverns, or liquor cabinets? Without remedies--or even much depth beyond anecdotes--the writing comes off as no small amount of whining.
Barbara Holland was on much surer ground when attacking our present phobias; I'm hoping she doesn't continue the case for returning to some older ones.
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