#CBR6 Review #104: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

First things first: 2014 has been a crazy year. Amidst writing my dissertation, teaching, facing health issues that (thankfully) have been resolved, and unexpectedly having to buy a new car, it’s been hard to believe that I could fit in 52 books this year. And yet I have managed to double that number. I credit pretending that Netflix does not exist in order to spend more time reading in bed, as well as discovering that I *do* like audiobooks on my 90-mile drive to work/school. I am deeply grateful to this community for pushing me to read and to write about reading. You all are so very, very kind.

Now: let’s talk about what you all came to read. Ever since I read Bossypants and Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me?, I’ve been waiting eagerly for Amy Poehler’s memoir. And then I waited on a list while my library cycled through everyone ahead of me. And then I got the magical email on Monday. I forced myself not to tear into the book right away and read all night, because I wanted to savor it.

And savor it I did. Every word. Amy Poehler is not as fluid a writer as Tina Fey, but there’s something so real about her, that it feels as if she’s actually talking to you. Much as I love Fey, I get the sense that Bossypants presents a very carefully-selected side of her. Yes Please, however, feels like Amy is telling you about her, warts and all. I give her credit for discussing the SNL skit that made fun of cognitively disabled individuals and the guilt and shame that prevented her from apologizing for five years. You can tell that she found catharsis and grace in sharing this story. Plus, her anecdotes of growing up, improv, SNL, and beyond have shown what a rich and fortunate life she has created for herself.

I give this five stars, because I enjoyed it so much. It’s not as cohesive as Bossypants, but it’s a great time, and it makes me love Amy Poehler as a celebrity and a person. I think the anecdotes work, because her writerly voice is engaged and energetic. May she carry off Parks and Recreation into a glorious sunset and bring us something equally wonderful.

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#CBR6 Review #103: Middlemarch by George Eliot

It took me two months to listen to Middlemarch via audiobook, but I did it! It’s one of my all-time favorite novels, and it’s been years since I read it. Spoiler: it did not disappoint.

Since it’s a classic novel and probably read widely, I thought it might be fun to do something kind of different. So, without further ado: what if the Middlemarchers went to Hogwarts? Here is how the Sorting Hat would sort some of the major characters:

Tertius Lydgate:

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Tertius is a Gryffindor. Duh. This man has a Cause and a Mission and he is going to Change the World. Etiquette be damned. Propriety be damned. He is a passionate and ardent believer in doing good. Unfortunately, Tertius is also a major misogynist. He believes in the prettiness of submissive ladies, and he likes the empty-headed mind he can mold to his own temperament and thinking. This piggish attitude makes his own marital mishap all the more hilarious and unfortunate, because the magical vagina he stakes his claims on turns out to be anything but a pretty face. Which brings us to…

Rosamund Vincy Lydgate:

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Girl, please. Rosamund is a Slytherin. Homegirl is playing a long game, and make no mistake about it. Rosamund LOOKS pretty and sweet, and she is completely aware of the feminine powers she possesses. That swan-like neck makes her seem vulnerable, so she flashes it when she needs attention or consideration. She plays the part Tertius desires of her until his will crosses hers. And then the tables turn. Rosamund knows exactly what she wants, and she will do what it takes to get it.

Rosamund suffers no fools. Much like another blond queen who would arrive decades later:

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This brings us to Dorothea Brooke:

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Considered to be a counterpart (but not a match) for Lydgate, Dorothea is a Gryffindor. Like her house companions, Dorothea is passionate, ardent and cause-oriented. Of course, this desire to change the world and do good leads her to marry a dried-up prune who turns out to be a really despicable creature. And of course, when he conveniently dies and leaves Dorothea an immense fortune (with the caveat that she never marry his young, talented, and extremely hot cousin), she still wears her widow’s weeds for far longer than is necessary. Because she is FEELING all the THINGS. Gryffindors [eyeroll]. In all seriousness, I love Dorothea, I really do. I think that Eliot’s plotting is so clever, because it shows the kinds of limitations imposed on women, and how marriage was seen as this driving force to change the world, when it often just meant you married the wrong man.

So, let’s talk about that wrong man, shall we? Edward Causabon, one of the worst men in literary history:

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That haircut. [Shudder] It’s perfect. Mr. Causabon is, in my opinion, a Hufflepuff. Given the choice between ardent scholarship and discussion of his field or stubbornly sticking to HIS idea, Mr. Causabon chooses to stay the same course, even though a Key to All Mythologies is Simply.Not.Possible. He’s happy to stay in his musty books without his new wife or other scholarly companions. In the end, he wants to fulfill the same rote responsibilities and stay in his same surroundings. I realize you could make the interpretation of Ravenclaw, but a true Ravenclaw pursues intellectual knowledge and are often smart enough to change courses when they realize the scholarship is headed another direction. Hufflepuffs are stubborn, yo. Which Causabon is. Also: he sounds like an extremely cold fish in the sack. Poor Dorothea. [Shudder]

Let’s move on to Fred Vincy, shall we?

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I think Fred is also a Hufflepuff. He wants to be loved, and he just wants to find some useful work. He’s not terribly ambitious, nor is he remarkable in many ways. He’s nice and earnest and pretty, but he’s kind of foolish. Poor Fred. He does improve by the novel’s end, I am happy to report, mainly because of my deep affection for…

Mary Garth:

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Mary is a Ravenclaw. She is witty and bitter and acerbic, fighting off disappointment with humor and sarcasm. She’s also determined to maintain a sense of integrity to her morals, which she does, even if it means denying Fred’s love, which she honestly wants for herself. Mary is always seeking the truth, which keeps her free from being tainted by Peter Featherstone’s mindgames. I love me some Mary Garth.

Now, for one of my favorite literary men of all time: Will Ladislaw.

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Yum.

Will is, I also argue, a Ravenclaw. He’s an artist, but he’s not cause-oriented. Nor is he stubborn in the same way that Causabon is. He tries art, politics, writing, and eventually becomes an activist, determined to do good, but because he finds his talent there. Unlike Dorothea, he is not driven by a hazy notion of altruism, but by a sense of purpose based on his talents and artistic vision. He’s not a fighter, but a mind and artist (much like my lover, Peeta Mellark).

I find this interesting, because Eliot is, herself, a Ravenclaw. She is an observer of human nature, but she is not cause-oriented. Nor does she harbor an idealistic vision of life. Rather, she reported as she saw. And that’s why she’s one of my favorite authors. If there is anyone who Gets It, it’s George Eliot.

 

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#CBR6 Review #102: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

For some reason, I never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe it was the reports of bathos, hand-wringing, and tear-filled emotions, or maybe it was when I convinced myself that I didn’t like nineteenth-century American fiction (spoiler: I do. I just don’t like Emerson all that much), but somehow, that part of my education got skipped. I’ve read several nonfiction accounts of slavery as experienced by the enslaved, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs (who initially published as Linda Brent), and Solomon Northup. My students and I read excerpts from several accounts this semester as examples of persuasion through rhetoric. Now, I really, really wish I’d read Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, because we so would have included a chapter.

Let’s get the stereotypes out of the way, shall we? Yes, it is pathos-driven. Yes, it is emotionally wrought. But it’s so DAMNED EFFECTIVE. Slavery is awful. It tears you apart, body and soul. It breaks families, and it turns people into animals. All of them. And what’s most powerful is how Harriet Beecher Stowe pulls apart Bible-based arguments supporting slavery through her use of rhetoric. It’s some awesome mic-dropping that shows this kind of selective literalism is crazy and unethical and unbiblical.

In fact, if you read it now and substitute “gay” for “black,” you will find a highly uncomfortable similarity. The people who use the Bible to support a narrow and limited position are missing the point of the Bible entirely. And I’m saying this as an ardent church-going Christian. Stowe wrote a highly emotional book to drive a point home. And I was crying by the end. Is it heavy-handed? Sure. But it’s unforgettable for its explicit depiction of families torn apart, escaping from bounty hunters, and the kind of abuse men and women endured for the sake of their skin color. I highly recommend you reading a nonfiction account first (especially Northup’s) and then read this book.

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#CBR6 Review #101: The Circle by Dave Eggers

It was my friend A’s turn to pick our month’s Book Club selection, and she went with The Circle. I’d never read Dave Eggers before (though A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has been languishing on my shelf for a few years now), but I was highly curious about the premise. After reading it, I can only say: WOW. Our digital world is scary.

Mae is naive, impressionable, and eager to please. She gets a job at The Circle, a social media networking corporation, through her best college friend Annie. Mae quickly rises in the ranks and discovers the depths to which The Circle invests itself in our daily lives. Social interactions change through thumbs up, hearts, zinging, and even “ranking” as a prolific user. Mae does not realize to what extent she has been sucked into the cyberworld enveloped by The Circle until she’s been fully submerged.

I try to be judicious about my involvement in social media. I am careful about my privacy settings on Facebook, I am not on Twitter, I don’t really do Tumblr or Reddit, and my blog is not linked to my real-life name. Still: the way social media tracks and consumes us is frightening. I remember once looking up a bridesmaid dress on David’s Bridal website to show The Chancellor what I will be wearing in an upcoming wedding. The next time I logged into Facebook, I was “suggested” to like David’s Bridal. Creepy. Though nothing compares to the time I was “suggested” an egg-freezing cocktail hour in the major city near me. Um, no. 29 I may be, career-oriented I may be, but desperate to freeze my eggs? No. My point is: social media is trying to “get to know” us, but it’s starting to invade our privacy. The Circle made me think about my choices online, and wonder how I can try to preserve some bit of myself from the impersonal world wide web.

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#CBR6 Review #100: The Death Cure

Think of the cheapest-tasting candy you have ever eaten. It will differ for all of us, but for me, it’s Tootsie Rolls. They’re not bad, per se, but they’re just not great as far as candy is concerned. Think about it: when you’re cruising the candy aisles at Target, there are great bags of Reese’s or Hershey candies or even Wonka Candy varieties for $9, but the Tootsie Roll bag is always $3 or $4, and there’s a ton there, because no one wants to buy them and eat them over the next year.

But let’s say you get curious, because the last time you had a Tootsie Roll, it wasn’t that bad. You remember it tasting kind of good, in fact. And so, you take the plunge and pop a Tootsie Roll into your mouth. It tastes sweet at first, and it’s kind of fun to roll around in your mouth.

But after about 5 minutes, you really wish the candy would get right to it and melt, so you can enjoy something else. Your mouth is getting bored. Your teeth are getting stuck to the candy, and you can’t eat anything else. By now, you are just DYING to get this stupid Tootsie Roll out of your mouth, but you can’t even spit it out, because you’re committed, dammit. You don’t quit three-quarters of the way through!

But the candy is still in your mouth, and it just won’t be done. By the time it FINALLY melts into nothing on your tongue, you are so relieved to be done that you can’t even begin to think of another Tootsie Roll. Your hatred has been worn down to something even worse: indifference. This one-star candy gets an upgrade, because your indifference won’t even let you hate it properly.

And that is how I feel about The Death Cure. Nothing else needs to be said.

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#CBR6 Review #99: Son by Lois Lowry

Having got a late start on The Giver, I decided to make up for lost time by reading the entire quartet. How beautifully wonderful it was! I don’t know what critics or readers think of it, but I thought it was the perfect ending to an original and piercing series.

The story begins with a girl named Claire. A disappointing student, she is assigned the role of Birthmother. And then it all goes wrong. She feels things she cannot explain, things that no one else is feeling. And she misses the child that was ripped from her body. So she leaves. And she tries desperately to find the child that was lost to her. But of course, as with all journeys, there are many obstacles in her way. And she encounters evil in its worst, rawest form.

Lowry weaves all the threads of her stories together: The Giver, Gathering Blue,¬†and Messenger all culminate into a finale that brought tears to my eyes. It’s masterfully woven, and I won’t say a thing more, because I don’t want to ruin the story for you. But I will say this: it’s a worthwhile end to a series that questions the nature of society and how we interact with one another. What are fame and riches and glory next to the simple power of human kindness? The characters are rich, and we see a few familiar faces that made me glad. If you have questions about how certain things end (and again, I’ll be purposefully vague), then you will be pleased to know that they get answered.

 

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#CBR6 Review #98: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Paging Jane Austen enthusiasts! Paging Jane Austen enthusiasts! Here’s an enjoyable and delightful read that merges Austen’s Regency-era novel of manners with fantasy and science fiction. It’s delightful and entertaining and innovative at once. My sister recommended this book to me–and since I recommend so many books to her, it seemed only fair to read one of her choices. So glad that I did!

Jane Ellsworth is a single woman in her late twenties, part of a respectable family and a skilled glamourist. While her sister Melody is known for her great beauty, she is known for her intelligence and glamour abilities (loosely defined in the book as working folds of energy to create illusions, beauty, and great artistic simulacra). She meets the great glamourist, Mr. Vincent, just as Melody is trying to finagle a match for herself, and that’s where the novel takes off. Jane must keep secrets for other young women of her acquaintance, uphold her family’s honor, and learn to move her art beyond technique to passion in order to become the heroine of this tale.

Kowal’s writing voice is deliciously droll and relies on several Austen-like phrases (“la!” is just one delightful example) to recreate a Regency-era fantasy text. This text is written in the vein of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, another Regency-like favorite, and it works just as well.

If you like Jane Austen, read it. If you like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, read it. If you like historical fantasy, read it. Seriously, it’s quite a delight.

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