Tina Fey’s Bossypants

I have been a long time fan of Tina Fey. I binge-watched 30 Rock when I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and Liz Lemon’s eccentricity helped me feel okay about myself. I am also interested in the art of improvisation and its various implications in real life. (This is just one example.) That being said, I am not a fan of biographical, non-fictional books. Especially comedic writing is hard to be a hit with me. I still decided to give Bossypants a try.

There was little to not like about this book. The length is average, most of the chapters are short. Fey is self-deprecating and her humor is underhanded yet likable. If I were the editor, I would have strongly advised her against including the chapter where she replies to rude comments about her on the internet. It was one chapter in a book full of light-hearted, jovial anecdotes that rang mean  and below Fey’s dignity. Or maybe there was a purpose to it that was lost on me.

Fey shares a lot of personal and professional background in the book. There is a lot to her that makes one want her to be your sarcastic and smart best friend. While details about her humble beginnings are nice, the insights into the inner workings of an improv show like SNL are even more interesting and absurd. Fey must have done something right to not just survive, but flourish in the male-dominated world of comedy. It was also a pleasure to go back to the time of the historical 2008 presidential elections, when Fey’s likeness to Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin proved to be a clincher not just in the world of comedy, but also in the results for that year’s election.

All in all, this would make for a great airplane read. Pick it up before your next flight!

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Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Reading wise, the beginning of 2015 has been rough. I gave up on almost every book I
picked up. The only book I did manage to finish reading was Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, simply because it was so trashy. It was such a pointless read that I didn’t even have the heart to review it here. After many unsuccessful attempts at finding a book that would sustain my attention, I thought of reading Neil Gaiman again. I enjoyed his American Gods last year; but his new book of short stories wasn’t available at the college libraries, so I decided to get The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This short, fairy-tale-sque book was what I needed to end my bad run!

Ocean is about a nameless narrator growing up in the English countryside, with a fairly idyllic, if lonely life. The narrator is young, only seven, and has no friends except his books. He doesn’t even get along with his own sister. An unlikely death introduces him to Lettie Hempstock, a neighboring girl, a few years older than him, who befriends him and takes him under her wing. Lettie lives with her mother and grandmother in a farmhouse that is always warm and has an abundance of food. The farm has a pond that Lettie calls her ocean. And that’s the least strange thing about Lettie and the other Hempstock women. Because Lettie takes such a liking for the narrator, she takes him on an errand with her, and due to his inexperience, he ends up bringing back something with him that’s unwanted and dangerous.

The short novel reads like a modern day fairy-tale. The lines between reality and imagination are so blurry that you can choose to believe whatever fits your personality. While the narrator is from a world like our own, Lettie and her family are from someplace else, and yet, they triumph as the nicest, kindest people in the story. Gaiman’s text is poetic and reminiscent of a time we all miss – our days of innocence and faith. Surprisingly, the descriptions of homes, places we think are safe, and foods (even British foods!) are the ones that will transport you to a different world. (I had to make myself a cheese and tomato sandwich just before writing this post!)

For those who haven’t read anything by Gaiman before, this book might be the best way to go.

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Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike Series and Goodbye 2014

Five years ago, if you had asked my opinion on J. K. Rowling I would have scoffed and said I don’t read over-hyped children’s fiction about witches and wizards. Fast-forward a few years, I have eaten my humble pie, and read everything fictional written by Rowling. The credit goes to the writer: her constant ability to reinvent herself, and her unusual (and perhaps not deliberate) manner of creating interest in the reader’s mind about what she puts out. While The Casual Vacancy is probably my favorite of all her written works, I am happy that Rowling is going back to her roots as a series writer. She is incredibly talented at weaving stories together that span over a few years while the books hold well individually also.

Cormoran Strike is no Harry Potter, though. The man is in his 30’s and battles real demons that cannot be done away with a spell. Instead of a magic wand, Strike has a prosthesis for the leg he lost in war. When we are introduced to Strike in the first novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, he has just ended a sixteen year relationship and is desperately trying to make ends meet with his struggling detective business. A mistake from the temping agency brings Robin to his office as an assistant and like a good omen, Strike also gets the case of a model who allegedly jumped to her death from her balcony. Lula Landry’s brother, however, thinks this was not a suicide and hires Strike to find the killer. Eager to get a client that will pay him well, Strike agrees to find the killer of a case that has already been shut down by the police as a suicide. The novel unravels into the world of fashion and the rich, and Lula’s own ghosts and struggles that drove her to her death. While there’s a proper mystery at the heart of the novel, there’s also enough of a human touch with Strike’s engaging, haunted, and lonely central character, and the lovable Robin.

The Silkworm is a more gripping and convoluted follow-up in the series. This time, Strike is hired by the wife of writer Owen Quine, who is missing. While tracking the writer down, Strike finds Quine brutally murdered and his purpose changes to finding the killer. Rowling dives into the world of publishing and literature – filled with obnoxious writers, dominating agents, and calculating publishers. Everyone is a suspect! Robin, in this novel, gets more of a spotlight, much to my delight. While parts of the mystery unravel at a snail’s pace, Rowling is still successful in keeping the readers on the edge of their seats. The payoff with the mystery is much better, in my opinion, than the first book.

I like Rowling as a writer, but I do see her flaws as well (which are minor irritants more than anything else!). Her success, for me, lies in creating characters that you identify with. Even her minor characters are thoughtfully created. The writing in itself may not be a trailblazer, but she is a master at making memorable characters. Eventually, I hope she breaks away from using alliterative names for many of them. And I also hope that her editors begin to use the Oxford comma. But, in spite of this, I look forward to the next adventure of Cameron Strick.

On a completely different note – I am so pleased with all the reading I managed to squeeze in this year! I am a freaking slow reader, but I did well, if I may say so myself. Here’s hoping 2015 will bring more of the same! Happy New Year, everyone!

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Andy Weir’s The Martian

I have been on a little bit of a space kick lately – having enjoyed Gravity and loved Interstellar. So when I read that a new movie called The Martian was in the making, which was based on a book, I didn’t think twice before ordering it online. I should have, because in that brief moment of excitement (propelled by the knowledge that Matt Damon would be playing the titular role), I forgot that I don’t do science. Just like I don’t do non-fiction.

Science-wise, the novel starts out pretty easy. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars. The rest of his crew, the Ares 3, left in a rush in the wake of a dust storm, and thought Watney was dead. Watney wakes up, injured, but very much alive, and realizes that he’s the only man on Mars, presumed dead, and no rescue until the next mission is set to arrive, several years later. He only has a limited supply of food, no communication with Earth, and no one even knows he’s alive. But Watney is resourceful; he’s a botanist and isn’t ready to give up. This makes for the premise of The Martian. But, of course, things get more and more complicated as the book progresses – some interesting complications, and some (for me) complicated complications.

Watney is a lovable protagonist. He has a do-or-die, never-give-up attitude that is admirable and worthy of a central character. He has an amazing sense of humor that aids his ability to stay alive, and keeps his readers chuckling. But I had a hard time believing that Watney does not get hit even once by a debilitating depression. Being alone in a hostile environment on earth would do that to you, let alone being on Mars, under the conditions that he’s found himself. In many ways, The Martian is a great example of the human spirit, of how humans are capable of banding together in dire times; but, for me, it is this extreme of positivity that makes the book weak and flawed.

I’ll admit it – I skimmed through the last several pages of the book. It just got very jargon-y for me and I didn’t not want to finish it. So I did what a bad reader does – I skipped. A lot. I liked the end, and for a first book, Weir does amazingly well. It’s just not a book for those who are not scientifically inclined.

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John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

Early in 2011, I made the best decision as a newly single person – I began volunteering at Bo’s Place – Houston’s only free-of-charge grief support center. My three years at Bo’s Place have been filled with meeting some truly awesome kids, making new friends, and finding a new found appreciation for life. Bo’s Place has a teeny-tiny library of donated books, where I found The Fault in Our Stars, a book about cancer and death.

For the longest time, I had no idea that The Fault in Our Stars was a YA fiction book. I kept seeing it on the best books list and thought it was a regular, adult book. My interest in it waned when I found this out, and also when the movie came out. It was also mostly unavailable in the public libraries, so I didn’t seek it out too much. When I saw that Bo’s Place had a few copies in their library, I picked it up for my weekend reading.

As I review the book, I must remember that this is a book for a younger audience, and I must go easy on it. It has the typical hallmarks of lovable YA fiction – Hazel, a cute, but cancer-ridden heroine who is witty, sharp, and full of self-doubt; Augustus, a handsome, funny, recovering cancer patient with a lofty name who falls in love with her; a mysterious, quirky hero-figure they both think the world of; kind, devoted parents; circumstances that result in the two main characters becoming star-crossed lovers. Heck, the plot would work even for adults, but yet it may best be suited for younger minds that can find catharsis in the story.

While Green is an inventive and good writer, I had a hard time believing that his central characters were teenagers. Who talks in real life like they are reciting lines from a textbook? I have met enough teenagers to know that it is hard to find one teenager with a strong vocabulary – let alone three of them (Augustus’s friend Isaac included). Nothing kills realism faster than teenagers waxing eloquent on  the flightiness of life.  I also thought the quirkiness aspect was pushed a little too much. Almost as if, if the central characters weren’t eccentric, they wouldn’t be enough teenage-y or acceptable. Also, apparently, Random Capitalizations are the new “random quotes.”

The book may have been essentially written to be a tearjerker – but I hope that it may also provide solace to those who have lost someone they loved to cancer. If nothing else, the best thing to take away from this book is to remember that those suffering from cancer are in no way different from anyone else. They have the same dreams, the same fears, and they can throw the same temper tantrums. As a story about cancer, the book works. The love story part is there to make you weep.

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The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

I like a good challenge. So when everyone around me was expressly telling me to stop stressing and to take a break from my worries, I ordered J K Rowling’s mindfuck of a book, The Casual Vacancy. (I can be very cruel – especially to myself.) Right from the start, Rowling’s first book since she wrapped up the Harry Potter series in 2007, The Casual Vacancy keeps you on the edge of dread. With every turn of the page, you hope for something good, something relieving to happen, but, it does not come. Instead, you are drawn deeper and deeper into an insane world. Like staring at a train-wreck, you cannot move away from these characters, despicable as they are. And Rowling has a motley crew of some of the most hateful people you can ever think of. While in many novels, you look for realism with a hint of a fault in the goody-two-shoes central characters, Rowling’s characters are chock-full of deplorable qualities. You can easily play the game of “Who do I hate the most?” and lose to yourself.

The novel opens with Barry Fairbrother’s death. Barry, probably the nicest guy in the town of Pagford, held the coveted Parish Council seat and his death leaves a “casual vacancy” that one too many of the townsfolk have an eye on. So, like I said, Barry’s the nicest guy. He dies in chapter one. You are then left with the muck of the town. One after the other, Rowling pulls from her bag, the people that inhabit the town of Pagford. Old, young, good-looking, ugly, timid, violent, hopeful, or hopeless – they are all flawed. Many are unlikable and pitiable. But truly, they are also real. Rowling is clearly done with writing fantastical stories here. She seems to be on a mission to reflect some of the worst traits we muggles can have. And she succeeds at it. For a change, it was nice to not fall in love with a character, but wish the worst for him or her. It was nice to deplore someone and feel good about not having these vicious qualities or thoughts in my own mind. Rowling is in great form here too. While her characters are flawed, her writing is flawless. There are many storylines and personalities and she weaves in and out of them with ease. Every character is explored in a profound manner and Rowling is fair in her distribution of awfulness.

The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy read and will weigh on your mind. And if you cannot be bothered with that, you may not want to read the book. But if you can chew and savor the taste of depravity in fiction and leave it there, you will thoroughly enjoy it.

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The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

The story of Helen Keller is nothing if not remarkable. All of us know about her, but we may not know all the details of how Helen Keller came to become so well known. William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker is a wonderful gateway into knowing a little more about how Helen was before she learned sign language, and more importantly, it is the story of her teacher Anne Sullivan, who gave her the gift of language.

Keller and Bell

Helen was a feral child, being made deaf and blind due to an early illness, before her parents decided to hire Anne Sullivan to tame her. Because Helen couldn’t hear or see, she had been coddled by her parents, who pitied her. This made Anne’s job all the more difficult because Helen, despite her handicaps, had learned to take advantage of others around her. Gibson, who has based his play on Keller’s autobiography, deftly shows the family’s crisis and Anne’s hardheaded attempts to make a breakthrough in Helen’s world. More of a play to see rather than read, it is still quite engaging and allows you to imagine the setting and characters in your own head, and on your own time. There is quite a lot to take in, and the incidents in the play leave you a little exhausted. As a teacher, Anne Sullivan’s patience and innovation were particularly impressive to me. The story is so unbelievable, that sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is not fiction!

Anne Sullivan and Helen had a long relationship till the former’s death. Helen Keller’s life should be an inspiration to all of us. Not only did she overcome her deafness and blindness, but she went on to write and become politically active. She was friends with Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain!

Here’s a video of Keller with her later companion and interpreter Polly Thomson:

 

 

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