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


Advertisements

Books on Oliver’s shelves

Oliver and books

Last Christmas, shortly after announcing my pregnancy, I received a gift for Baby J that made me cry — and it wasn’t just the hormones: two sweet board books from Magan at Rather Be Reading, favorites of her daughter’s. The official beginning of our little one’s library.

In April, Baby J became Oliver, and our son’s book collection has grown exponentially. Like many excited readers and parents-to-be, I’ve been quietly building his stash for years. I wrote about my “secret” book-buying back when he was the proverbial twinkle in my eye, and I’m finally able to share many of the books I’ve been collecting with him.

At nearly 6 months old, Ollie is starting to show an interest in “reading.” I prop him up in my lap with a book in front of us, then try to be patient as we’re inevitably interrupted by baby hands slapping the pages or a hunger cry breaking the momentum.

I love reading aloud. Not to, you know, toot my own horn or anything, but I was pretty much the designated class reader in fourth and fifth grade. So.

Since my reading talents have been dormant for the better part of two decades, I’m really livin’ it up now. The whole reading-to-my-belly thing never felt natural, but reading to an actual infant is an entirely different experience.

Ollie is too little to have obvious preferences, but he does kick his little feet crazily to a few “favorite” books. Here’s what we have stacked in the nursery right now.

(And P.S.: taking a page out of Steph’s book, I created a Goodreads shelf to catalog Ollie’s reading adventures. I plan to keep up with them there!)


Children's books


The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen
Illustrated by Dan Hanna
This unique, adorable story — with very clever rhyming — chronicles the Pout-Pout Fish’s excuses to friends as to why he’s a total downer. A shot at love turns that frown upside down. The Pout-Pout Fish is so much fun to read, I find myself thinking of the little rhymes — “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face . . .” — throughout my work day. You know: alone.


On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
If you want an instant parent tearjerker, look no further. A sweet, soothing story describing the uniqueness of each child welcomed into the world.

Nothing we’ve read feels as personal nor has impacted me as deeply as this book, which was a gift from a family friend in New York. We didn’t receive it until Oliver had been home from the NICU for a few weeks, but I read it once and immediately fell in love. I’ve read it with and without Ollie, and have the entire story memorized.

The “night” part is what gets me, I guess. Oliver was born at almost 10 p.m. I remember laying alone in my hospital room after my husband went to see him, the first person in our family to touch his tiny hand. Though I know it’s cliche, we were changed forever. On the Night You Were Born so perfectly summarizes those feelings for me, and how special and unique each tiny baby is. It’s just . . . a beautiful book.


Don Quixote by Jennifer Adams
Illustrated by Alison Oliver
This retelling of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous story is simple, but compelling to little eyes: bold colors and vivid illustrations with both English and Spanish words. Something about this book ignites a fire in Ollie; he kicks his feet like a madman and loves it.


Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
Illustrated by Leslie Staub
A story that packs a powerful punch. Regardless of skin color, nationality or origin, children everywhere are alike, linked and connected. A great primer for teaching about differences, tolerance and friendship.


Firebears, the Rescue Team by Rhonda Gowler Greene
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
If you know a future firefighter (or even if you don’t), Firebears will captivate them. The story of a rescue squad ready to (adorably) protect the community, the Firebears come to the aid of neighbors and cats stuck in trees before fighting home fires.

Given I was a child so paranoid about flames that my parents purchased a fold-up ladder for my second-story bedroom, this might have freaked me out as a tot — but the message about safety is a good one, and I love the vertical images of the bears sliding down the fire pole. Cuteness.


The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
This classic has enchanted me since childhood with its bright colors, beautiful illustrations and evolution of a hungry caterpillar who eats everything, then eventually emerges as a butterfly. This was the very first book I read to Ollie (who slept the whole time, of course): short and truly sweet!


A Halloween Scare In . . . by Eric James
Illustrated by Marina La Ray
Written for each state (we have Maryland), this Halloween story will delight children and parents equally with its local places, clever state connections (the flag on a mailbox!) and cute story about being yourself and facing fears. My hometown is mentioned, which is really icing on the witch-shaped cake. Very adorable!


I’m always seeking new reads for Oliver’s collection. What are some of your favorites? What books do your little ones adore? Please share!


Book chat: ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir

The MartianI must be broken.

While everyone and their book-loving great aunt has been raving about Andy Weir’s The Martian (seriously: look at all these five-star reviews), I was over here listening to the story on audio and trying not to fall asleep on the road.

The story centers on astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars after his colleagues believe he has been killed during a powerful dust storm. They reluctantly depart to save themselves, but no one feels good about it. No man — or woman -– left behind.

After he comes-to in the barren red landscape light years from home, Mark must take stock of his limited resources and find a way to communicate with Earth. He uses his wits, experience and sense of humor to stay alive and fed as NASA scrambles to save him — with the eyes of the world watching.

The premise was definitely intriguing, especially given how obsessed I was with last year’s “Interstellar” and my general love of outer space. Fun fact? Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” defined my early marriage. Spencer and I never missed an episode, often settling down on busy weeknights to re-watch ones we’d already seen. I was all about it.

I married a scientist, so my interest in science-y stuff does come in handy . . . but, you know, I was an English major. Despite my love of the subject, I don’t know much about space — or survival.

Maybe that’s partially what hurt me here?

Along with high expectations, of course. The Martian is everywhere right now, with a high-profile film starring Matt Damon due to release this fall. Everyone I know who has hunkered down with this fast-paced tale has loved it, so I assumed I would love it, too.

But I didn’t. It was . . . missing something. Though initially hard to pin down, I’ll describe it as a lack of emotional investment. As a narrator, Mark is funny, compelling, smart and sarcastic — definitely a great character. I liked him. I felt for him. But did I ever truly worry for his fate? Not so much.

Buddy Trish recently commented that she believes it will make a better movie than book, and I agree. The trailer definitely got me hyped up. All the extremely science-y science may better translate on film. As it stood? I didn’t have the attention span necessary to follow the intricate plan for Mark’s survival, totally zoning out as he described the math needed to ensure he could grow enough potatoes to survive until possible salvation.

And that was just the beginning.

Though I wasn’t emotionally invested in the outcome, I definitely appreciate Weir’s writing. He builds suspense — will he make it, or won’t he? — and deftly brings hostile, lonely Mars to life. Between its storms and desolate landscape, it’s not exactly a place conducive to life. Yet Mark’s ingenuity allows him to tame the red planet, finding a way to subsist despite all reasoning saying he shouldn’t be able to.

Also, it’s fun to see under “settings” in the middle of my 2015 reading log spreadsheet:

New York City, New York, USA
Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA
MARS

The audio narration by R. C. Bray was fantastic. If you’re toying between reading the story or listening to it, I heartily recommend the latter. Bray perfectly nailed the tone of the story and seamlessly shifted between characters, with his portrayal of Mark being the definite highlight.

Though The Martian won’t go down as an all-time favorite, I’m happy I read it — and was impressed to learn that Weir’s science is sound. Plus, it was originally self-published . . . and as a writer, that earns an extremely impressed thumbs-up.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


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: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.

Maybe.

When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Dropping everything to read

You know when I felt we were going to be okay, my little family and me?

When my sister shared that April 12 — the unexpected date of my son’s birth — is Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R.) Day, a national celebration in which families are encouraged to settle down and enjoy books together at home.

Ramona booksThe date is a special one: Oliver shares his birthday with author Beverly Cleary, who wrote so many of books beloved by children, including me. Chief among them are the “Ramona” stories. I remember borrowing Ramona Quimby, Age 8 from the library so much that my parents eventually broke down and got me my own copy.

When it came to Cleary’s famous sisters, I was the quintessential older sister — the Beezus — to my little sister’s Ramona. Cleary’s stories were the first “chapter books” I related to on a personal level, seeing shades of both Katie and myself in her delightful characters. Along with Judy Blume’s Super Fudge, another book I read constantly, the “Ramona” novels were my earliest introduction to reading as pleasure. The more time I spent with those folks? The more I realized characters can become as “real” as your own dear friends, which has added texture to my entire life.

My elementary school was fortunate to have a fabulous librarian — a woman with whom I’m still in contact. I remember her helping us select chapter books and encouraging our zest for reading, even dressing up as the Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat on special occasions. I was such a dutiful little reader that, after finishing a story, I ran excitedly back to her with completed book reports that would earn me paper “reading mice.” They were more valuable than gold.

Though 10-week-old Oliver isn’t exactly ready to “drop everything and read,” I want reading to be a part of his world from the get-go — and already love sharing stories with him. My favorite right now is Nancy Tillman’s On the Night You Were Born, which never fails to make me ugly cry, but picture book versions of Old MacDonald and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also in heavy rotation.

I’ve imagined building my child’s library and reading books together long before this sweet babe was even a twinkle in my eye. When I was pregnant, I often read to my belly — even when it felt a little silly. In fact, when Ollie was in the NICU, one of the saddest moments I had was sitting in our home library surrounded by the children’s stories I’d been “reading” him for months. I thought I was doing okay — until seeing a stack of board books cracked me right in half.

But that was only temporary, of course. Now that he’s home (and feisty!), I’ve tried to get in the habit of sharing a bedtime — or close to bedtime — story with him. I’ll admit that there have been nights I couldn’t muster the strength, but I already look forward to these quiet moments together and hope that, as he grows, he will do the same.

I want to raise a reader. I want my child to find shades of himself in powerful, courageous, brave and wonderful characters — just like his mom. Though I know Oliver will be his own person, his own man, I know we can find stories that will interest him . . . no matter what he’s someday interested in. And I’m so very ready to walk with him down that literary path!

As a lifelong lover of books, it seemed serendipitous that Oliver’s unexpected birth would fall on a day dedicated to reading — and in honor of a favorite childhood author, no less. My sister shared the news of D.E.A.R. Day with me as I recovered in a hospital bed away from my tiny babe, stunned and hurting and sad.

It felt a little like a novel-toting guardian angel tapping on my shoulder, promising that Ollie and I would have many stories to share.

I couldn’t wait to get started.


Reading with Oliver