Saturday, November 30, 2013

Melissa Explains It All (Melissa Joan Hart)

I feel like this is a big, guilty embarrassment. But I must press onward. I READ MELISSA JOAN HART'S MEMOIR. There, I said it. And what a poor choice I made.

I don't need to explain much about the book--it's written by Melissa Joan Hart, child star of Sabrina and Clarissa Explains It All, whom I fondly remember from my childhood days as a spunky, cool girl. It seemed like a great idea to read her memoir and hear about how great it must have been to work on those shows (robot cat puppets and Caroline Rhea? YESSSS).

So I was very shocked  by what I actually got. The book is slim (288 pages), but this little book manages to be bloated, and that's one of its biggest problems. In fact, I'll start there. Now, the reason that MJH is famous? Those two TV shows I mentioned earlier. You would think those would get the majority of the text devoted to them (or, in the very least, two significant sections) because they're really the reason we care enough to buy her memoir.

But what do we get? Two very short chapters that whiz through her experiences (which lasted a combined 12 or 13 yearsof her life), providing few interesting details or anecdotes from either show's production. What we're left with is a general statement along the lines of "oh, I had a good time and people were nice". That's the best you can do for the two career-creating/defining moments of your life?

Hyperbole and a Half (Allie Brosh)

It's fitting that the back of this book features a blurb from Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess--who wrote last year's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which happens to be one of my favorite books of last year and also the funniest book I've ever read--because I was reminded of Lawson's book in all the best ways.

I don't mean to make a comparison between the two, just as a way to compliment the work of Allie Brosh. She, like Lawson, is a humor blogger whose comedy varies from serious and dark stuff to light-hearted, hilarious stories about her dog. The format is slightly different; most of the book's content come in the form of essays lifted from her site, which I am embarrassed to admit I wasn't a regular reader of.

These essays come with pictures, drawn in a style that Brosh is known for, which is to say crudely simplistic and violently hilarious. Those are often the best parts of her essays--the dramatic facial expressions and odd sentential constructions without fail made me at the very least giggle but more often laugh full-heartedly. Using my handy "how-to-judge-humor-books" system, this book is a great success because I laughed at least once in every section; generally, I laughed more than once, in fact.

And perhaps the highlight of all the essays was the most sobering. I saw a lot of praise before the book came out for her essays on depression (which are on the Hyperbole and a Half website), so I was excited to read them and nervous they would disappoint me. But they didn't. They manage to capture perfectly the way depression can capture you and crush you for evidently no reason at all, and despite how heavy that sounds, it managed to make me laugh!

Brosh is truly a master of comedic balance. The book is light and funny but meaty and emotionally penetrating. I hate when people talk about a book or a movie "getting" them (as in, "Twilight just gets me"), but I got the feeling that the author really does get people. It's startling how anecdotes about herself feel like they're about you. "IS THIS LADY WATCHING ME?" I asked myself, terrified how accurately she described me (that is, herself). Her humor is universal.

Even if you've never encountered her work, pick the book up for you and for your friends because it's a hard book not to love. I don't even like dogs but she's just so funny that I laughed in spite of myself.

My rating: 4.5/5
Hyperbole and a Half on Goodreads
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation (Tim Manley)

I have enjoyed the website Fairy Tales for 20-Somethings for some time, so jumped at the chance to buy a book form. The original concept was to update fairy tale characters into the life of struggling 20-somethings and everything that entails.

I was very surprised to see so much of the book with new content (it's my general understanding that blog-to-book often adds very little new material, but almost all of this was new to me). So that's definitely a plus for any fan of the website.

One of the best parts of the original site was how precise Manley's understanding of this age group is, the social media anxiety and the floating adrift in the jobless world. I don't want to make the mistake of saying that this generation's problems are so different and unique, because statements like that frustrate me. But the manner which in classic problems manifest are different, and Manley can capture these things perfectly--it's not always laugh-inducing, but I'm not sure that it's always supposed to be. I had more moments of "wow, I KNOW this character in real life" than "hahaha", and that was, for me, better than light chuckles.

The original concept is a little different in Alice in Tumblr-land: the stories of different characters--Alice, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, for example--are now continuous and stretched out over the course of the book. So you visit a little anecdote about Peter Pan and his blog, then jump to the Ugly Duckling pondering her Instagram selfie, and on and on until you revisit. The website demonstrated no continuity from one post to another, but I certainly enjoyed the way Manley restructured his idea for the novel.

It allows the characters happy endings, despite their pre-30s despair. It's uplifting without being treacly and nauseating. It's fascinating to see these archetypal, template characters being locked into our modernity and still come out with happy endings, and it's ultimately this redemptive quality of every story line that made me love the book so much.

My rating: 5/5
Alice in Tumblr-land on Goodreads
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Allegiant (Veronica Roth)

I have never really understood the Divergent series hype. The first book was written excitingly, sure, but I found Tris as a character to be incredibly annoying and, to be honest, boring. Book two didn't do much to improve on the first. So it was out of a sense of duty that I finished the series, which I didn't want to do. I honestly was not worried about how Allegiant would end. Everyone who read this book--even the superfans--have been attacking it for the ending. I, too, really did not like Allegiant, and the ending is not at the top of my list.

It's difficult to talk about this book without spoiling what are supposed to be the plot twists about the book. I'll try, but no promises. Read at your own risk.

One of the big things on my list of reasons not to enjoy Allegiant is the narration. Unlike Divergent and Insurgent, which are narrated only from Tris' point of view, book 3 takes turns between Tris and Four. I was at first excited for the change of pace because I am very tired of Tris' personality, but Four is not any better. He is lovesick and whiny and "internally conflicted" in very tiresome ways. How am I supposed to deal with not one, but two aggravating narrators?

Next, the plot. We finally find out what the reason for the factions is and how it connects to the video from the end of book two, and boy is it dumb. I'm just going to say it since I'm not sure it's an actual spoiler, or at least not a very fun one--there is some weird genetics/behavioral stuff going on where the Divergent are genetically pure and the non-Divergent are genetically damaged. Or something. I never actually understood what any of it meant; what I did understand was that Chicago was turned into a government experiment and people were segregated.