Book chat: ‘Why Not Me?’ by Mindy Kaling

Why Not MeActress and writer Mindy Kaling is my vision of a talented Everywoman.

Confident but approachable, warm and vivacious, Mindy is someone I aspire to be more like. I love her sass, her wit, her style . . . and also love that she “doesn’t look like most women on TV,” a statement Mindy herself ponders in Why Not Me?, her second memoir.

I went into this book hoping the Mindy I know and love — wise, funny, a little quirky — would shine through, and she absolutely does. Her memoir is a collection of short stories about many topics, including her days on “The Office”; the hard work and long hours behind “The Mindy Project,” her (awesome) TV show recently picked up by Hulu; and many anecdotes about friendship, college, growing up, looking for love, self-confidence and more.

Though the only uniting thread seems to be Mindy’s insistence that we should be ourselves regardless of what anyone thinks and work hard for what we want, that was enough. That totally worked for me. This 240-page book left me feeling motivated and renewed, like I’d just had a cleansing cryfest with an old friend.

Plus? It’s funny, but in a warmhearted way. Mindy is hilarious. I especially appreciated that, while she is grateful women see her as a realistic role model, she’s not afraid to admit that, at times, she does wish she were thinner, bolder, more confident or [insert societal standard or adjective here]. That vulnerability is appealing — and also comforting. It’s more than okay to love and accept ourselves while still striving to improve.

If you’re a fan of Kaling, Why Not Me? is a book you’ll likely savor. Having not read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (I know: way behind), I can’t compare the two — but this short, easily digestible and enjoyable series of stories definitely feels like you’ve invited Mindy over to give you advice on being a bad boss lady while she still owns up to some of her foibles. I totally dug it.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages

Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love — and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library

Review: ‘Good Chinese Wife’ by Susan Blumberg-Kason

Good Chinese WifeGoing into Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife, I’ll confess to wanting to do a little armchair traveling. During a busy summer in which I’ve rarely crossed state lines, the idea of visiting exotic Hong Kong, lovely San Francisco and bustling China was too alluring to deny.

Nevermind that this is, of course, a memoir of a difficult intercultural marriage . . . not exactly light reading.

But powerful reading? Absolutely.

When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai — and his culture — were not what she thought.

In her riveting memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own values and needs to save her relationship and protect her newborn son, Jake. But when Cai threatens to take Jake back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.

Moving between rural China and the bustling cities of Hong Kong and San Francisco, Good Chinese Wife is an eye-opening look at marriage and family in contemporary China and America and an inspiring testament to the resilience of a mother’s love — across any border.

(Summary from Goodreads)

When first we meet Susan, a young American woman studying in Hong Kong, we see her as eager and inexperienced — a lover of Chinese culture who is quickly romanced by fellow student Cai, so handsome and sure. Through innocent, intellectual evening chats and patience, Cai courts Susan — and proposes very quickly. Susan, entranced and bewitched by him, agrees.

From there, it unravels.

Questionable relationships. Porn addiction. Extramarital issues. Abandonment, “peep shows,” detachment. Coldness. Threats. Unemployment. Fear.

Here’s what really works about Good Chinese Wife: Susan gets it. She gets that we may be reading her deeply personal story of a trouble marriage with a critical eye. She knows we may judge, we may disagree, we may shake our hands and wag our fingers. Maybe we’ll say “you should have known.” Susan understands we will not accept all of her choices. Why does she stay when it’s obvious she should run, run, run?

But this Susan — our narrator — is older, wiser, accepting. She’s gazing back at her tumultuous first marriage with a new understanding, and she’s not apologetic about her past. In a matter-of-fact but warm tone, Susan recounts her time with Cai in a way that isn’t truly detached — but makes it clear she’s moved beyond their pain and differences.

At its core, Good Chinese Wife is about a woman who loves a man — one who doesn’t respect or support her. Though she is Jewish-American and he is Chinese, the fault lines in their marriage aren’t entirely due to “cultural differences,” as she once rationalizes. Yes, they hail from separate nations . . . and have entirely different traditions, different values. But as a new wife, Susan works hard to empathize and learn from her husband, accepting his quirks (if you could call a porn addiction a “quirk” . . .) and chooses to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Cai can’t say the same.

Good Chinese Wife is riveting. As outsiders, it may be easy to wonder Why? why? why? Susan would choose to stay with a man who repeatedly and blatantly disrespects her, both through his questionable relationships with others — male and female — and his verbal abuse at home. Cold, silent and brooding, Cai comes across as a dangerously unpleasant man . . . one subject to wild mood swings and threats.

But I got it. I got it. For better or worse, Susan fell in love with him — this tempestuous, mysterious person — and tried to make a life with him, but Cai proved to be someone on whom she could not depend. As they welcomed a son, I cringed at the stunts Cai would pull . . . and the detached, harmful way in which he interacted with his child.

For all the sad, angry moments, this isn’t a negative story — and there were times Good Chinese Wife really sparkled. Susan is incredibly endearing, and I loved the electricity in her voice when she talks about her beloved Hong Kong. Her love for her family is very clear, and she’s incredibly kind — and treated very kindly — by Cai’s parents in Hidden River, who love her and their grandchild as well.

Is Good Chinese Wife about an interracial, intercultural marriage? Yes . . . and no. Though some of Susan and Cai’s issues stem from cultural misunderstandings, of course, it’s far deeper than that. And this isn’t a cautionary tale. By the close, we know Susan bears no malice toward Cai — and having found happiness herself (not a spoiler — in the author bio!), she reflects on their time together in the 1990s very differently these days.

Absorbing, calm and wise, Good Chinese Wife was a memoir I devoured in just a few hours. I felt Susan’s all-encompassing love for her family — and often wanted to simultaneously hug and shake her. Though readers may question her decisions (sometimes I did, too), Susan bravely shares her story in the hope, I think, of inspiring others to stand up for themselves and their families. It’s a thought-provoking memoir, and one I recommend.

4 out of 5!

Pub: July 29, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘My Beloved World’ by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldThings I knew about Sonia Sotomayor before beginning My Beloved World, a memoir of her youth in the Bronx and formative years as she tirelessly pursued knowledge and opportunity:

1. She’s an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
2. She’s the first Hispanic woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
3. She seems nice and no-nonsense.

And . . . well, that was about it. So what prompted me to pick this one up? Meg’s review, for one, but something else — something intangible — called to me from the library shelf. I listened to this work on audio and, though Sotomayor does not narrate it herself (she is rather busy, after all), I became so engrossed in her tale. Riveted, in fact.

I’ve come to the decision that approaching a biography or memoir blind is actually a really great idea. The best idea. No preconceived notions or prejudices, you know? And nothing is dull, boring, uninteresting. Everything is fresh and new. If you know little about the person in question, nothing blocks you from really getting to know them. You just jump in.

So it was with My Beloved World, which chronicles Sotomayor’s childhood, teen and early adult years as she grows up in the Bronx, attends college and ultimately begins her law career. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Sonia’s only escape in childhood is at the home of her abuelita — but not even her grandmother can save she and Junior, her younger brother, from the effects of their father’s alcoholism. Their beautiful mother, though loving and hardworking, remains emotionally distant . . . both before and after the death of her husband. When Papi eventually dies, the family must surge forward to build something new.

Woven throughout the narrative is the story of Sonia’s own illness, too — and her attempts to understand and live fruitfully in the face of it. Diagnosed at age 7 with type 1 diabetes, Sotomayor learns to give herself the crucial shots needed daily as a young child. One of the most moving passages in My Beloved World comes early on: when Sonia recounts how she learned to inject herself with insulin as a form of autonomy. Her mother is despondent at Sonia’s diagnosis; in the 1950s, when so little was understood about the disease, they took it to be a death sentence.

It wasn’t.

From a young age, Sotomayor feels called to the law — something rare in her working-class neighborhood. She grows up in the projects with aspirations of more . . . but no clear idea of how to get there. Through books and education, however, Sotomayor continues to widen her circles and is never afraid to reach out for guidance. Even after she is selected to attend Princeton University on full scholarship and, later, to Yale Law School, she remains down-to-earth, gracious and determined.

I think she’s awesome, basically.

It would be impossible to emerge from My Beloved World without wanting to grab a drink with this woman. She is powerful, assertive and incredibly wise, but also completely able to give credit where credit is due and comes across as genuinely humble. Though some readers may feel disappointed the book ends just as Sotomayor’s career as a judge is getting started, I saw this memoir as a way to pay homage to the many people who reached out their hands, hearts and minds to guide her on an incredibly impressive path — and really loved it for that.

Sotomayor’s deep, abiding love for her family is the lynchpin holding this book together. I loved the stories of going to her grandmother’s house for big dinners and dancing the night away with the adults in the living room, basking in the warmth and love of having so much family close together. As her father’s health deteriorates when she is still a young child, that pain was palpable to me, too. Though Sonia loves her mother deeply, of course, I respected the honest way in which she recounted some of the difficulties of her youth . . . and how they’ve carried over into adulthood.

Fans of memoirs and biographies will find much to enjoy in My Beloved World. It speaks to the experience of first-generation Americans as well as the ubiquitous American Dream, and I found it incredibly well-written, quick-paced and inspirational. Women, especially, will appreciate Sotomayor’s rise in a male-dominated world — and she makes the best of everything.

After reading her story, Sonia is no longer a face I see and simply pass over on the evening news; she feels like a friend. A very powerful, kick-rump friend.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonOfficial Biography
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the audio: Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno does a fantastic job capturing the nuances of Sotomayor’s serious, sometimes-gritty but ultimately beautiful prose. Her Spanish and accent are impeccable, and if I didn’t know better? Well, I would assume she was Sotomayor herself. Loved her pacing, her cadence, everything.

Book review: ‘My Korean Deli’ by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean DeliWhen Ben Ryder Howe’s Korean-American wife suggests purchasing a deli as an investment — and means of employment — for her hardworking immigrant parents, he’s not as horrified at the idea of plopping his savings into the Brooklyn establishment as you might think.

An editor at The Paris Review by day and exhausted store clerk by night, Howe sets about making his wife and in-laws happy — which translates to long hours with oddball characters at their family business. The store flounders from the very beginning, creating tension as Gab and Ben move into her parents’ basement, but they must come together to find a way through.

My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store was just the sort of random story I love discovering at the library. What I found was this memoir that was, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking and maybe a little condescending — sometimes many things at once. But what it definitely was? Fun. And insightful.

Depending on the type of reader you are (and the humor you enjoy), I could see how Ben’s attitude and general demeanor could come across as holier-than-thou and annoying. As a well-to-do white man who marries a first-generation Korean-American, there are stark differences between his culture and that of his extended family. Much of the humor stems from misunderstandings between Ben and his mother-in-law, a woman who barely sits still, and just the idea of a condescending editor slicing deli meat after work is pretty hilarious.

In fact, most of the humor came from picturing uptight, sophisticated Ben doing the tasks associated with running a convenience store: getting yelled at by drunk customers; unloading heavy shipments of merchandise; trying to figure out the fearful lottery machine. He just comes across as such a well-meaning snob — but a snob all the same — that you can’t help but laugh at his antics . . . and that’s what I liked about My Korean Deli: I don’t think Ben takes himself that seriously.

I mean, he likes his job at the Review — most of the time. And he prides himself on his literary bent and knowledge. But does he think he’s “too good” to work at the store? Too important to mop floors or befriend his coworkers, especially the always-hilarious Dwayne? Absolutely not. And that’s what made this such a fun read.

Nothing major happens in My Korean Deli . . . the Pak family buys the store, they pour themselves into its upkeep, they ultimately face great struggles. But it’s as entertaining as a tale of running a family business as it is a glimpse into the life of a literary magazine, too: Paris Review editor George Plimpton plays a major role in the narrative as Ben’s boss and friend, and those behind-the-scenes looks were interesting to a book nerd like me.

Overall, it was just a story I really enjoyed . . . for no reason other than it was enjoyable. You know what I mean? It didn’t change my life, but it was memorable and rather touching, actually. If you’re a fan of memoirs, non-fiction or tales of the American Dream, My Korean Deli is a good time.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 1, 2011 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Bio
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

The books I hadn’t read

Book I have not readOne of the best parts of blogging — and blogging books, especially — has been expanding my reading horizons to include all sorts of stories I wouldn’t “normally” read. Once subsisting on a diet of only chick lit and young adult, friends’ reviews of all sorts of books have really pushed me to grow as a reader . . . and a person.

As Kim enjoys a well-deserved vacation, I’m guest-posting today over at Sophisticated Dorkiness on female-driven memoirs that make really great stories. Once upon a time, wrinkled-nose Meg was afraid to branch into non-fiction because so much of what I’d been exposed to could be easily classified as mind-numbingly boring. Giving memoirs a chance as an adult has changed all that.

Pop over and check out the post — and happy Monday!