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Review: One More Time

carolburnettRecap: Carol Burnett is one of the truly great comedic icons and badass females of her generation and of our time. I was first introduced to her as Miss Hannigan from the original movie version of “Annie,” one of my favorite movies to watch growing up. She was perfect as Miss Hannigan — a villain who was more pathetic than evil, who was hilarious in her awkward gawkiness and who I was glad to see have a happy ending because you knew she wasn’t really a bad person at heart, just a desperate one. Having finally gotten around to reading her memoir from the 1980’s, I’ve come to learn that Carol Burnett was really not that different from the character she played in “Annie.”

She grew up under pretty horrible circumstances, though she didn’t realize as much until she was older. Her parents divorced at a young age and she lived with her grandma since her mother couldn’t properly take care of herself, let alone another person. When her grandmother and she finally moved to Hollywood from Texas, where her parents were already living separately, Carol started to standout as the tall, funny girl with the imaginative mind. When her illegitimate half-sister was born, she took her under her wing as though she were her own. She cared for her while focusing on her schoolwork and a potential career in journalism.

But as we all well know, things changed, and one taste on the stage had her itching to act forever. Her drive, devotion and ambition led her to UCLA and acting troups across California. A performance, a nice man and a lot of luck helped her earn enough money to go to New York and embark on the career she always wanted. But even that wasn’t as easy as she dreamed.

Analysis: Carol Burnett is a living, breathing rags-to-riches story. Yes, some of her story involved some extremely generous business men who were able to help her financially or give her references. But Burnett defined making her own luck. If not for her whipping personality, spunk and obvious natural talent and work ethic, she wouldn’t have had guts to ask for help or to keep in touch with the right people who would help her along the way.

It was amazing to read about her childhood and realize the hardship she had to overcome. Lots of “mommy issues” and lots of “daddy issues” could have been enough to break anyone. Not Carol. The entertainment industry itself is enough to break people. Not Carol. Her positivity and determination are to be admired, let alone her comedic chops. While she often talks about her many fears, it’s obvious that she’s also fearless.

Her story is more unbelievable than I could have imagined, and her writing exquisite. That’s not always the case with “celebrity” memoirs. But the truth is she was always a storyteller of some kind — acting out scenes, telling stories. Writing is another way to do that, and she’s obviously very good at it. (It’s no surprise she initially wanted to be a journalist — she has the chops.)

The updated version of her memoir, which I eventually read after accidentally leaving my first copy on a plane (whoops!) was even better because of the epilogue it includes at the end. The epilogue was added years later and tells the story of some of the additional tragedy she dealt with in her adult life. While sad, it’s an important section of the book that makes a point of showing no matter how successful you are, no matter how hard you’ve worked or where you’ve come from, we’re all people and we’re all going to have hard time to work through. Like Carol, we’ve got no choice but to keep going. One more time.

Get One More Time in paperback now for $14.53.

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Review: Notorious R.B.G.

RBGRecap: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is only the second woman to ever rule on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she made it to the top with good reason. As a hardworking Jewish girl from New York, she grew up in a time when women weren’t expected to have careers, but she decided she wanted more out of life than a husband.

Notorious R.B.G. started as a Tumblr page  whose creators then turned it into a book. The near coffee table-sized book details RBG’s rise to the Supreme Court — including her years in college and law school — as well as the feminist qualities that allowed her to build a career and a family simultaneously when women didn’t typically do that. The book includes photos, doodles and annotated Supreme Court decisions, more or less mixing biography with history book. It’s an interesting read for anyone who may want to learn more about law, the Supreme Court or just feminist badassery. For all those reasons, Notorious RBG totally worked for me.

Analysis: Okay, so maybe this book was given to me as a gift with me not having very much care for the Notorious RBG. And maybe this book was given to me even though I was clueless about the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had famously became an internet sensation several years ago. But I was still intrigued, if for no other reason than RBG and I share two letters in our monogram (I was LBG before I got married) and she was a small, Jewish woman — like me. So I read it and was naively astounded to learn how truly prolific this feminist woman is. What she has done for our country’s judicial system, people fighting for their rights and women around the country and world is incredible. She is a true force to be reckoned with.

The writing style itself was nothing special. Some of the sections — though cleverly sectioned and titled based on Notorious B.I.G. lyrics — skipped around with the timeline of her life, and at points I found that confusing. A more linear timeline may have worked a bit better. Some of the explanations of the court cases also could have been simplified — though to be fair, details of court cases sometimes make my head spin, so maybe that’s just a personal issue? But mostly, it was funny, inspiring, easy to follow and transforming.

As women, we could all use someone like RBG to look up to. Now with my understanding and knowledge of her life and work, I can’t wait to read and follow the rest of her court decisions, dissents, and career.

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Review: Strangers

strangersRecap: In the epistolary novel that takes place in the late 1980’s, a man named Adrian and woman named Harri write to each other about a brief night of lovemaking they once had and how that affects them and doesn’t affect now 15 years later. For Adrian, it was a memorable night in the ocean with a beautiful woman. For Harri, it was a one-night-stand that served as nothing but a way to get back at her boyfriend with whom she was fighting. More than a decade has passed, but when they run into each other in the airport, it’s all Adrian needs to feel empowered to reach out to Harri and start a real relationship.

But what is this relationship? Are they friends? Lovers? The title may be Strangers, and once it begins, it may feel that way, but as time goes on, “strangers” doesn’t feel quite like the right word.

Their letters to each other are often aggressive — aggressively honest. They talk about their kids and stepkids, their spouses, what makes them happy and what doesn’t. They talk about their past and their future, their regrets and dreams, their childhood and death. Will they meet again? The story seems to build to that in several moments until major twists throw the story off course and take it in a new, dark direction.

Analysis: When I first started reading this story and realized that these pen pal letters stemmed from a chance run-in in the airport from a former one-night-stand, all I could think was who’s crazy enough to do this? And Adrian is a little nuts, but the way his relationship with Harri develops over the course of these months of writing letters is beautiful. They begin to form so much love between, even while there’s still so much angst. They are both wounded. Because misery loves company, those wounds bring them closer. After a while, is it fair to call them strangers? Maybe not. But in the end, everyone is a stranger who’s not him or herself.

I think this may have been the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read, and I wasn’t sure how it would work. But it was extremely compelling with so much depth in their stream of consciousness writing.

MVP: Harri. Though her letters were to Adrian were often mean, it was clear that she really did have feelings for him. More importantly, she was very self-assured and knew what she liked and didn’t like. She had been through a lot, and despite some serious anxiety and depression, she was strong.

Get Strangers on your Kindle for $7.99. 

Or get it in paperback for $22.99.

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Review: How to Love the Empty Air

two books.jpgRecap: Like many women, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has a special relationship with her mother. Her mother is a her best friend, her support system, and her biggest fan. So when her mom passes away, it throws her into an unexpected spiral. She is overwhelmed with grief, and when you are a writer, there’s nowhere to channel that grief but the page.

So tells the story of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s collection of poetry, weaving us through the close bond she has with her mother, the death of her mother and the grieving process, all as she herself gets married. It’s a time in her life that includes the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, resulting in some altogether beautiful poetry and imagery — though much of it is sad.

Analysis: I’m not one to typically read poetry, nor do I consider myself necessarily good at analyzing, interpreting or understanding it. But because the poetry was about a woman who lost her mother around the time she got married, I knew I’d be able to relate. I lost my dad shortly after getting married. So much of her poetry so deeply resonated with me. It moved me to tears. It brought me chills. I was able to relate in every aspect of her mother’s illness, her mother’s passing, the months she spent mourning the loss, the comfort of her husband. But it wasn’t just that.

I was also able to connect with her professional ambition and desire to do good work and succeed. One of her poems brought me to tears when I read part of it to my husband:

“New York City, I want to return to you a better woman,/a better writer. Return to you so clean, you won’t even/recognize me, so glorious, you’ll dim your lights, so damn/grown that maybe, just maybe, I can look you in the eye.”

It’s a feeling most any woman can relate to — the need to succeed, to prove yourself, to better yourself, to shine.

It also helped that the poetry  Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz writes is free-form. Much of it feels less like poetry and more like storytelling. The book overall tells a complete story even though it’s several dozen poems. I was so impressed, and the book so changed my thoughts on poetry that I now want to reach much more of it, particularly O’Keefe Aptowicz’s works.

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Review: The Last Dropout

last dropoutRecap: Whatever you think the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s probably worse. Whatever you’ve read the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s likely worse. The truth is we don’t have very accurate data on it since most high schools try to highlight the more positive statistics and shuffle the bad stats underneath. Some schools don’t even include ninth grade dropouts in their numbers, even though ninth grade is clearly part of high school.

This undeniable crisis is highlighted in The Last Dropout. The book focuses on the national nonprofit organization Communities in Schools (CIS), which was developed to help school-aged children and ensure they don’t drop out of school. CIS primarily works in urban areas where dropout rates are typically worse and resources typically less available. Rather than acting as a resource in and of itself, CIS acts as an intermediary party that connects school districts with outside resources that could benefit students. For instance, it connects school with local doctors and dentists to ensure students are getting proper healthcare and dental care; that would allow them to better focus on schoolwork because they wouldn’t have to stress about their health. It also connects students with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters to ensure students have mentors who can guide them if they don’t receive that attention at home.

The Last Dropout documents the history of CIS, how it works and its successes.

Analysis: I received this book from a viewer (I’m a local TV anchor) a while ago and never read it. I was never sure why they felt compelled to send it to me, and there was no note included in the package. I let it sit on my shelf for a long time, thinking I’ll get to it eventually because it seems interesting. But by the time I finally picked it up, I thought I’d just have to power through this.

I was wrong! The book hooked me from the beginning with anecdotes about the children who have been helped by the CIS mission. The book is written by one of the co-founders of CIS, who is so passionate about the mission, it reels you in. The story of how he developed the nonprofit is fascinating. Latter sections of the book were a little meatier. Parts of it lost me with lots of education jargon, and the author’s sometimes repetitive explanation of CIS’s mission. But of course, he’s proud of his work and the organization, and based on what I’ve learned from the book, I can’t blame him.

The book is now 10 years old, and I’d love to know how CIS has grown over the years and how many more children have succeeded because of it. The Last Dropout opened my eyes to a systemic problem I was never really aware of before, and I’ve already recommended it to some of my teacher friends.

Get The Last Dropout in paperback now for $8.35. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $1.99.

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Review: Ann M. Martin: The Story of the Author of the Baby-Sitters Club

IMG_3463Recap: Ann M. Martin is the brilliant creator and writer of The Baby-Sitters Club series that I binged ferociously throughout elementary school. I wanted friends like the girls in the club, and I wanted a side job like they had so I could make money to shop at Claire’s. Ann M. Martin was J.K. Rowling before J.K. Rowling. She was a badass woman who created an entire world of people and problems to which every kid could relate. Finally learning a little more about her as a person was exciting and interesting.

The book is a true biography of her life and climb to the top as a children’s author. It includes details of her family, her childhood, the fall that caused her to deal with lifelong pain and illness and how she started writing professionally. When you read her biography, it becomes clear why she wrote about what she wrote about. She always loved children, writing and babysitting. For most of her young life, she thought she would be a teacher, but things ultimately changed direction as they so often do.

It was also interesting, maybe not so surprising, and a little disappointing to learn that once the series became so popular, she wasn’t necessarily the author writing all The Baby-Sitters Club books.

Analysis: A little backstory on this: I received this book in the mail as a response to a fan letter I wrote to Ann M. Martin probably when I was about eight years old. Clearly, author meant for me to read it then, but I didn’t and it fell into the abyss of my childhood bedroom. I rediscovered the book several years ago when my family moved out of that house, so I finally decided to read it.

It was extremely thoroughly and painted a beautiful, wholesome picture of the woman who will always remain wholesome in my pain.

That said, I wish I’d read it when I was eight. Though her story was interesting, it was clearly written for kids. The writing is extremely basic, especially when compared to some of the other adult memoirs and biographies out there. (I mean hell, I read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton a few years ago.) But it is the perfect biography for children who probably love Ann M. Martin as much as they love her books.

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Movie vs. Book: Ready Player One

readyplayerone

 

 

Contributed by Harrison Cole

The year is 2045. Due to climate change, misuse of resources, and an ineffective government, the Earth has become an energy-deficient wasteland. The only respite from this decaying world is the OASIS, an online virtual universe. It originally started as a game, but it’s grown to be much more—the OASIS is where you read the news, watch TV, conduct business, attend school, and hang out with friends. After the creator of the OASIS died, he left his entire fortune and controlling stake in the simulation up for grabs with a contest: the first avatar to find his “Easter Egg” hidden in the OASIS wins it all.

The novel is a gripping story that follows high school senior Wade Watts on his quest to find the Egg. I was obsessed from page one and have been preaching the gospel on this one ever since. It’s an easy read that’s got something for almost everyone: it’s fast-paced, full of 80s pop culture references—many of which I wasn’t familiar with before (how great is DEVO?!)—it has a cringe-worthy teen romance, and best of all, it transports you into the vast, exciting digital world of the OASIS with its endless possibilities. Check out Lara’s book review for more. Read the book. READ IT.

The movie is terrible. Spielberg and co. changed quite a bit from the book, but I actually didn’t mind that. I did mind the internal inconsistencies, the references to the book without any context, and the lack of meaningful interaction or development between characters. If you’ll forgive me a minor spoiler, I’ll give you an example of the movie’s sloppiness: at one point there was a reference to “clearing the first gate.” This is a concept unique to the book, and it felt like that line was an artifact from an earlier draft of the script. Also, the movie never explained the reason for the title: when a user logs in, before gaining access to the simulation, the text “READY PLAYER ONE” flashes in front of her. I thought that was an odd omission from the movie since there’s a point-of-view shot when Wade first dons his goggles. I’ve got plenty more but the rest would ruin it for sure, and just because I hated it, that doesn’t mean you will too. But you probably will.

The movie did have some redeeming qualities: the effects were well done, TJ Miller was hilarious, and there were tons of enjoyable pop culture references. Despite only including one song that was referenced in the book, the soundtrack definitely captured the feel of the story. I also dug the scenes depicting what people look like in real life while engaged in the simulation. Funny stuff.

But it wasn’t enough to redeem the movie. Bottom line: wait for streaming. Or better yet, wait until someone develops an OASIS-like simulation and watch it there.

Get Ready Player One in paperback for $8.79.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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