Category Archives: Nonfiction

To Siri With Love

Finished To Siri With Love by Judith Newman. I received a copy for review. 

Judith has twin boys (now teenagers). One, Gus, has autism. He’s high-functioning and quirky; exhibit A: he’s friends with Siri. Yes, the one in the phone. 

This is such a cool story! I recently watched Life Animated (which is briefly referenced in this book) and I love how random things (in that case, Disney movies; in this case, an app) can help people make sense of the world. 

My favorite part, though, is that while obviously we know Gus is autistic, it doesn’t take long for that to become his least interesting label. He’s a music-lover who can identify basically any song immediately. He’s able to help anyone get anywhere (the next time I’m in New York, I hope to maybe get some help with the subway system; maybe he can make a few bucks helping a clueless tourist with a horrible sense of direction). He is my imaginary friend (he’s real, obviously, but as we have never met…). 

In short, you need this book. Recommended. 

The Girl in the Show

Read The Girl in the Show by Anna Fields.  I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“I’m not funny at all. What I am is brave.” —Lucille Ball

With powerhouses like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Amy Schumer dominating the entertainment landscape and memoirs from today’s most vocal feminist comediennes shooting up the bestseller lists, women in comedy have never been more influential.

Marking this cultural shift, The Girl in the Show provides an in-depth exploration of how comedy and feminism have grown hand in hand to give women a stronger voice in the ongoing fight for equality. From I Love Lucy to SNL to today’s rising cable and web-series stars, Anna Fields’ entertaining retrospective combines amusing and honest personal narratives with the historical, political, and cultural contexts of the feminist movement.

With interview subjects like Abbi Jacobson, Molly Shannon, Mo Collins, and Lizz Winstead among others—as well as actresses, stand-up comics, writers, producers, and female comedy troupes—Fields shares true stories of wit and heroism from some of our most treasured (and under-represented) artists. At its heart, The Girl in the Show captures the urgency of our continued struggle towards equality, allowing the reader to both revel in—and rebel against—our collective ideas of “women’s comedy.”

I can’t even imagine the extent of the research that Anna Fields did for this novel.  It’s smart and funny and so interesting.  I never really thought about the…we’ll say sociology of comedy, especially female comics (or the way that I gender comedians, like I JUST DID).

Like Anna (and a lot of the women mentioned here), I absolutely love Gilda Radner.  Part of it (on my end) has nothing to do with how funny she is (although she is hilarious), it’s because I have hair that’s a lot like hers and it’s the first time I saw someone who looks like me be funny and get to do things. It meant a lot.  And I know women younger than me probably feel the exact same way about Molly Shannon and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling.

What I didn’t understand before reading this book was the sort of throughline connecting Gilda to the women after her and how all of that really began with Lucille Ball, who was the first woman to be a really powerful comedian.  She created and wrote a show, and she was protective of her character.  She set rules for what Lucy would and wouldn’t do, but also made rules like, “Lucy can make fun of Ricky’s accent; nobody else can.” There was no way any earlier lady could’ve even made a rule like that, let alone have it be listened to.

This book is smart and important (and relevant) but it’s also really fun.  If you like to laugh, read this book.  Highly recommended.

Morningstar

Finished Morningstar by Ann Hood.  I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A memoir about the magic and inspiration of books from a beloved and best-selling author.

In her admired works of fiction, including the recent The Book that Matters Most, Ann Hood explores the transformative power of literature. Now, with warmth and honesty, Hood reveals the personal story behind these works of fiction.

Growing up in a mill town in Rhode Island, in a household that didn’t foster the love of literature, Hood nonetheless learned to channel her imagination and curiosity by devouring The Bell Jar, Marjorie Morningstar, The Harrad Experiment, and other works. These titles introduced her to topics that could not be discussed at home: desire, fear, sexuality, and madness. Later, Johnny Got His Gun and The Grapes of Wrath influenced her political thinking as the Vietnam War became news; Dr. Zhivago and Les Miserables stoked her ambition to travel the world. With characteristic insight and charm, Hood showcases the ways in which books gave her life and can transform—even save—our own.”

One of the genres I love the most is books about books, and this is a great example.  Ann Hood’s family, for the most part, weren’t readers.  She and an older cousin traded Nancy Drew novels, but in general, she was the family oddball.  One of her first book-related memories involved reading Little Women and being so consumed with the story and Beth dying that she missed some school activities. Most of the books she mentioned here I haven’t read (I did read Little Women, of course, but I’m a lot more familiar with the Winona Ryder version of the movie), but I definitely still have similar stories of being late or almost late because of random books (I stayed up literally all night to read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon).

Ann Hood is also one of my favorite authors, and her books are always all these stunningly well-written things. This is especially true in this one—it’s so clearly a topic she’s passionate about, and it comes through in every word and page here.

Recommended.

A Stone of Hope

Finished A Stone of Hope by Jim St. Germain. I received a copy for review. 

Jim and his family left Haiti and moved to Brooklyn when he was a child. By the time he was a teenager, he was dealing drugs and had already been arrested multiple times. Before he could legally drive, he had been convicted of a felony. Generally speaking, we know how this story ends: life in prison or dead at a young age, right?

But instead, Jim was put in Boys Town (a group home that works as rehab, almost) and surrounded by people who expected him to succeed, get his GED and go to college. And he did all those things. 

This memoir shows how Jim’s life was turned around, yes, but also shows how the system is largely failing us. For the most part, young men (and specifically young black men) aren’t helped. More money is spent on prisons than schools, and people are being almost set up to keep going from the street to prison, over and over. 

This is an inspiring read and, more than that, an easy to follow blueprint of how the system can improve. 

Recommended. 

Off the Cliff

Finished Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge by Becky Aikman.  I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“You’ve always been crazy, – says Louise to Thelma, having just outrun the police in a car chase and locked an officer in the trunk of his own car. “This is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.”

In 1991, Thelma and Louise, the story of two outlaw women on the run from their disenchanted lives, was a revelation. Suddenly, for the first time, here was a film in which women were, in every sense, behind the wheel. It turned the tables on Hollywood, instantly becoming a classic, and continues today to electrify audiences as a cultural statement of defiance. But if the film’s place in history now seems certain, at the time its creation was a long shot.

Before Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, and a young up-and-coming actor named Brad Pitt got involved, Thelma and Louise was just an idea in the head of Callie Khouri, a thirty-year-old music video production manager, who was fed up with working behind the scenes on sleazy sets. At four a.m. one night, sitting in her car outside the ramshackle bungalow in Santa Monica that she shared with two friends, she had a vision: two women on a crime spree, fleeing their dull and tedious lives–lives like hers–in search of a freedom they had never before been able to realize. She knew in that moment that she had to be the one to write it.

But in the late 1980s, Hollywood was dominated by men, both on the screen and behind the scenes. The likelihood of a script by an unheard-of screenwriter starring two women in lead roles actually getting made was remote. But Callie had one thing going for her–she had no idea she was attempting the almost impossible. And she pulled it off, by dint of sheer hard work and some good luck when she was able to get the script into the hands of the brilliant English filmmaker Ridley Scott, who saw its huge potential. With Scott on board, a team willing to challenge the odds came together–including not only the stars Davis and Sarandon, but also legends like actor Harvey Keitel, composer Hans Zimmer, and old-school studio chief Alan Ladd Jr.–to create one of the most controversial movies of all time.

In Off the Cliff, Becky Aikman tells the full extraordinary story behind this feminist sensation, which crashed through barricades and upended convention. Drawing on 130 exclusive interviews with the key players from this remarkable cast of actors, writers, and filmmakers, Aikman tells an inspiring and important underdog story about creativity, the magic of cinema, and the unjust obstacles that women in Hollywood continue to face to this day.”

I first saw Thelma & Louise when I was 12 or so.  I remember renting it the first weekend it was available (at my local Blockbuster–this was back in the days when one did such things), and I didn’t know much about it.  But I liked Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (I had already seen The Fly and Bull Durham; my parents were very liberal about what I watched), and I loved the movie immediately.

I don’t think I could have articulated why then, but now I realize that I love the fact that–while there are guys in the movie and some of them are good or great guys and some of them are complete jerks–the movie is about their friendship.  It was probably the first movie I had ever seen (and there haven’t been that many since, either) where the guys were in the background and the women were centerstage.  It felt like a bit of a revelation, and it still does.

I like to think of myself as a Louise (in fact, one of my mantras was stolen from her—the unsympathetic but no less true “You get what you settle for”) but I’m probably slightly more of a Thelma.  I can be scattered and I may not be the best person around in a crisis.  Honestly, though, I’d be incredibly proud to be either of them.

But that all doesn’t matter.  If you love Thelma & Louise (or movies in general), you need this book.  It’s so well-written and thorough and I feel like I love the movie even more now.  And, of course, it’s always great when people are passionate about the same things I’m passionate about–and people were so passionate about this, and still are–even decades later.

Highly recommended.

What is the Bible?

Finished What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. I received a copy for review. 

Like basically every Rob Bell book ever, this one is controversial. I’m not entirely sure why, since “People wrote the Bible, and you have to (a) view it as a whole instead of as separate parcels and (b) consider the context of the time” is not exactly a revelation. 

I think most would agree that the wording of the Bible is deliberate (repeated phrases, for example, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of earlier prophecies and parts of the Bible). 

Odds are, a lot of conservatives have decided that everything he says is heresy…but when you have someone encouraging people to read the Bible and then actually THINK ABOUT IT, I’m pretty sure that’s only a good thing. 

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Finished Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

This book is actually a letter that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote to a friend after the friend had a daughter and asked for advice on how to raise the girl to be a feminist. 

I read this for book club and what struck me is how, even though this was written for an African woman, many of this still applies for basically every woman I know. We all struggle with being thought of as nice. And most women I know (even feminists) took their husband’s name when they married. (Note: the advice was “do it if you want to, not because you feel you have to.”)

This is a short but incredibly thought-provoking volume. Highly recommended. 

Extreme You

Finished Extreme You by Sarah Robb O’Hagen. I received a copy for review. 

To oversimplify, this is a how to succeed guide. It’ll help you advance your career or find courage to start over. 

The most valuable thing for me are the success stories from ordinary people who created their own niches and did extraordinary things. 

Everyone has something that they are (what I call) creepy passionate about. Or maybe there’s an area you’re an expert in. Or maybe you are the person with the big ideas. What Sarah Robb O’Hagen does is show you how to harness that and become an extreme version of you. 

This book is basically the best pep talk ever. Recommended. 

Hallelujah Anyway

Finished Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott. I received a copy for review. 

Every time Anne Lamott releases a book, it is somehow just what I needed to read. 

I definitely struggle with forgiving people, and I do fully grasp that the only one hurt by this is me. (People should never be allowed to keep hurting you, and one of the ways they can do that is if you keep dwelling on it, and them.)

One of the things I love most about Anne Lamott is that she seems to struggle with this, too, and she’ll have these amazingly witty one-liners, things that are so me and I will totally agree and keep reading and the next thing I know, she nails me with absolute truth and I never see it coming. Very tricky!

Highly recommended. 

Big Mushy Happy Lump

Finished Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen. It’s hard to describe–it’s a collection of cartoons and sort of nonfiction? 

I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t identify with the cartoons in this book and I am equally sure that those are people I do not want to be friends with. 
If you are quiet and awkward and happier at home, you have found your patronus. 
Highly recommended.