Fangirl Book Review

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Review:

Oh man, I loved Fangirl so much. A crazy amount. Instant favorite.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not 100% sure that part of that wasn’t the absolute joy of recognition. Cather (Cath) Avery, the titular fangirl, is a fan of “Simon Snow,” a blatant stand-in for Harry Potter, and I was certifiably obsessed with Harry Potter for years, including – yes – both reading and writing fanfiction. (Cath’s favorite ship, Simon/Baz, seems to represent Harry/Draco, and I was more of a Remus/Sirius girl, but still.) Rainbow Rowell has written about her experience in the Harry Potter fandom and she nails a lot of things about being in fandom and the appeal of fanfiction, how it feels to love a world so much you just want moremoremore forever. Infinite variations.

Of course, everybody’s experience of fandom is different and Cath’s is not representative of all fangirls. For example, Cath is curiously shut away from the social and communal aspects of fandom – she takes her own fanfiction so seriously that she doesn’t read other people’s fanfiction in order to avoid being influenced by it too much, and that’s very, very different from the experience of most fans I know, who thrive on the conversation that takes place in the course of storytelling in such a collaborative community. However, I’ve noticed that my own real-life social anxiety is reflected in my fannish life by my tendency to lurk, and Cath’s anxiety is much worse than mine, so I didn’t regard her behavior as unrealistic or an inaccurate representation of fandom life, just a reflection of her own personality. Again, everybody’s experience of fandom is different, and I don’t think Rowell intended for Fangirl to represent fannish life in general, just the life of one fan in particular.

In addition to the fandom aspect, Fangirl is set in Nebraska, and the Nebraska that I know. (Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is also set in Nebraska – North Omaha, specifically – but a neighborhood I’m not as familiar with.) Although I didn’t go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my mother did, and I’ve been going to campus for my entire life (literally – my mom was still a student there when I was born.) The Dairy Store on East Campus does make really good ice cream. Morrill Hall really does have the largest mammoth fossil ever found. (Nebraska is much better for fossils than most people would guess – see also Agate Fossil Beds and Ashfall Fossil Beds. Yours truly found a pretty awesome fossil turtle shell along the Niobrara River as a kid.) Cath’s South Omaha neighborhood is also much more familiar to me than Eleanor and Park’s North Omaha one – I’ve been to Jacobo’s, for example, and while I personally prefer El Alamo to the taco trucks, I know what Cath’s talking about. Jim Flowers is my favorite weatherman, too. The Bookworm is one of my favorite indie bookstores. Like Levi and Reagan, I grew up in rural Nebraska (though a totally different part of the state than Arnold) and I share Levi’s obsession with bison – “Cows good, buffalo better” is an actual line of his dialogue and I may or may not have cheered (totally did) – and interest in sustainable range management. The only thing I did notice that the book got wrong was that it describes the winter of 2012 as being extremely cold and snowy, when it was actually one of the warmest and least snowy in Nebraska history. (Freakishly so, in fact.)

So reading Fangirl was so fun for me. These are my people, you know? On multiple fronts. It took no effort whatsoever to identify with them.

On top of that, I genuinely enjoyed the romance and was grinning like a total sap by the end. Although not as intensely emotional as Eleanor & Park, you could definitely see Rowell’s fandom influences in the book’s excellent UST. I also enjoyed the positive depiction of female friendship and the great (often witty) dialogue.

The only real complaint I have is that the excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s fanfiction didn’t really seem to connect in any way to Cath’s story. They were interesting, but they were just there, and I did find myself skimming them more often than not as the book progressed. I would have liked to see Cath’s coming-of-age journey as she gained more confidence and came to terms with her various family members, friends, and romantic interests reflected through the themes in her writing.

As you might guess, I recommend this book especially strongly for people with experience in fandom (or who are at least sympathetic to the existence of fanfiction), and to people who like books with strong local flavor. It’s also a great choice for anyone who’s simply looking for a sweet college romance.

In short, a fantastic read and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

(By the way, although I haven’t read any of it, there is totally Fangirl fanfiction. There’s even Simon Snow fanfiction. If that isn’t fitting, I don’t know what is.)

Update: Rainbow Rowell has written a book about Simon Snow’s adventures! Carry On will be released October 6, 2015.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Pride and Prejudice Book Review

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Review:

It’s probably safe to call Pride and Prejudice my favorite novel. It comes down to Pride and Prejudice vs Middlemarch, but while I consider Middlemarch to be the slightly better novel, I’ve read P&P a lot more times. And watched the BBC adaptation a lot more times, as well as most of the other film adaptations, including the modern AU, the weird black & white one with the 1840s fashion and the totally OOC Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the Bollywood version.

I get that it’s a totally predictable and boring choice for favorite book, but it really is just that good. And I don’t just mean the romance, although the romance is obviously wonderful. Jane Austen was freaking hilarious and an extremely astute observer of life, so even if you don’t like romance in general, you should give this book a try for the satire.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Middlemarch Book Review

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Review:

Middlemarch gets my vote for the best English language novel ever written, and possibly my favorite as well. It comes down to Middlemarch vs Pride and Prejudice and I can never choose. Middlemarch is longer and more challenging than Pride and Prejudice, so I haven’t read it as many times, but although not openly satirical or as sharp-tongued as Austen, Eliot shares both Austen’s wit and her deep and nuanced understanding of the foibles of human nature. At the same time, Eliot’s novel is much further-reaching than Austen’s. Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and unlike Austen, who confines her pen largely to provincial gentry and their romantic and financial entanglements, Eliot lays out the whole life of a small English town in the 1830s, from gentry to vagrants and everyone in between. The psychological realism she achieved is remarkable, especially considering the field of psychology barely existed at the time the book was published, and despite the very different world her characters inhabit, you will recognize them as well as if they were your next-door neighbors (indeed, it’s quite possible that some of them are), and grow to care deeply about them.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Book Review

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Review:

I have social anxiety. Not terrible social anxiety, but bad enough that it’s definitely had a negative impact on my life. I also have periodic issues with depression, mostly of the chronic low-grade variety, although I’ve had a few episodes that were worse. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, was recommended to me by a psychologist friend when I asked for help after I started getting panic attacks after certain social situations, and I can honestly say it’s changed my life. Alas, it hasn’t cured me. I doubt there is a true cure, though a therapist might be able to make additional progress. But – and this is still a significant benefit and improvement in my quality of life – I haven’t had a panic attack since first reading the book in 2011, nor have I had one of my deeper depressive episodes. I still feel awkward in many social situations, but I’ve caught myself being braver, and less avoidant of them, and I beat myself up less afterwards for perceived mistakes. Again, not cured, but noticeably better.

Burns is one of the developers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychotherapy that’s well supported by clinical trials for its effectiveness in treating, anxiety disorders, depression, and a number of other conditions. As someone with an internal voice that tends to be self-deprecating and sarcastic at best and cruel and unreasonable at worst, I found the concept of cognitive distortions especially helpful as a kind of mental structure to help me recognize when I was undermining good feelings and exaggerating mistakes. Even simply being able to recognize and label negative thought patterns has been really helpful in reducing both their frequency and their effect on my mental state.

I re-read it periodically as a sort of inoculation against trouble. If you suffer from anxiety or depression like me, I highly recommend it. It may not be an adequate substitute for seeing a therapist in person, but it’s a big step in the right direction if you need help.

IMPORTANT!

If you’ve stumbled on this review and you need urgent help, skip the book and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255. If you’re not in the US, check out this list of international suicide prevention hotlines.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Baked Ziti With Spinach and Tomatoes Recipe Review

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can diced peeled tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup pesto sauce
  • 10 ounces ziti or penne pasta (about 3 cups), freshly cooked
  • 8 cups spinach leaves
  • 6 ounces mozzarella cheese, cubed
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces)

For directions, visit Epicurious.

Recipe Notes:

I almost always substitute 1 pound of sliced mushrooms (white or baby bella are my favorites) for the sausage and make this into vegetarian dish. Sometimes I make it with both mushrooms and sausage. I’ve also substituted cubed eggplant with delicious results.

I usually use frozen spinach, because I’m more likely to have it around the house.

Recipe Review:

Since stumbling on this recipe on Epicurious years ago, this has become a favorite dinner of my husband and me. It’s delicious, easy to make, and fairly healthy. I especially like the addition of the pesto.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova Book Review

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Review:

Anna Akhmatova has been one of my favorite poets since discovering her in my college Russian classes. She had a wonderful gift for lyric poetry and in her youth, her poems were sheer beauty. Her mature poems, on the other hand, are both beautiful and gut-wrenching, for Akhmatova lived through several of the most dangerous and turbulent periods of Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges. Her ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev (also a poet), was shot in 1921 for suspected anti-Bolshevist activity, her common law husband Nikolai Punin was arrested repeatedly and eventually died in the Gulag, and her son Lev (by Gumilev) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges. Many of her close friends and associates, including Gorky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Esenin, were also killed or committed suicide.

These experiences gave weight to what is, in my opinion, her greatest poem, Requiem. An excerpt:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
innocent lives are ending now…

I gave my copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova to my brother when we moved and kept Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova because Selected Poems is dual-language in Russian and English, while the Complete Poems is English-only. The English translations, by Judith Hemschemeyer in both books, are accurate in meaning and strive valiantly for the beauty and lyricism of Akhmatova’s words, but of course, nothing can compare to the original, so I kept the smaller volume because it has most of my favorite poems anyway (“Poem Without a Hero” is the most notable omission) and I wanted to have both English and Russian versions of her poems together. As a student of Russian, it’s good practice. If you don’t read any Russian, you may prefer the Complete Poems.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

A Walk To Beautiful Movie Review

Review:

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This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful documentary about the work of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. Obstetric fistula occurs during obstructed labor, when the child becomes stuck in the birth canal and presses on the mother’s tissues for too long, leaving a hole between the vaginal wall and the bladder and/or rectum that causes the woman to constantly leak urine and/or feces. Once common, it is now nearly unheard of in the developed world, but still ruins the lives of tens of thousands of women in the developing world every year. Victims are commonly abandoned by their husbands and families and ostracized.

The documentary follows the cases of three women who are able to seek help at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital to reverse their condition and reclaim their lives. Obstetric fistulas are considered a disease of poverty and the documentary touches on the heart-breaking concurrence of factors that make fistulas such a common occurrence in Ethiopia: inadequate nutrition in childhood, resulting in short stature and underdeveloped pelvises, early marriage (teenage mothers are more likely to experience obstructed labor than adults), and lack of adequate access to prenatal care and the services of trained doctors and midwives during birth, among others. It also touches on some cultural factors such as the prevalence of bride kidnapping and forced marriages in rural Ethiopia.

Despite such heartbreaking detail about the hardship of women’s lives in Ethiopia, the film is ultimately life-affirming and inspiring. I cried multiple times watching it, but I smiled, too. I wish we could hear more about how the women are doing today, especially Wubete, whose life has been a nearly unimaginable litany of horror but who ends the film smiling, happy, and finally safe.

Watch the complete documentary:

If you’re inspired to help, you can donate directly to the hospital via Hamlin Fistula USA/Hamlin Fistula UK/Hamlin Fistula Australia, or indirectly via The Fistula Foundation, which works in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as well as many other African countries, and is rated a 4 star charity by Charity Navigator.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Rules For the Dance Book Review

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Review:

I’ve read, well, not tons of poetry, but probably more than most people, and did pretty well in high school and college English classes (I was even thinking about being an English major for awhile), but The Rules for the Dance: A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, by Mary Oliver, really opened my eyes to a LOT of things that I’d been missing in poetry. Some of it now seems blindingly obvious after reading the book – poetry is meant to be recited, so of course the rhythm of the poem would affect the breath of the reciter, and vice versa – and some of it still kind of blows my mind with how many layers of meaning can be fitted into a few short lines. Right off the bat, her analysis of Robert Frost’s Bereft amazed me, for example, and gave me a new appreciation for Frost’s skill (and he was already my favorite poet!)

Copiously demonstrated with examples from famous poems, the book explains the different types of metrical patterns (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest) and how each one affects the mood and tone of the poem, both by themselves and in combination with each other and elements such as line length, rhyme, and more. It may sound boring, but it’s well-written enough (and the example poems are all good enough) to make for quite a fascinating read. The book also includes a short anthology of metrical poems to practice on.

Whether you want to write poetry or simply develop a greater appreciation for reading it, I highly recommend this book!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Tough Guide To Fantasyland Book Review

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Review:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was recommended to me by one of my college friends because of my fondness for the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it is hysterical! Popular fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones has written a fictional “travel guide” for “Fantasyland,” a typical sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy setting, that hilariously eviscerates many of the fantasy genre’s favorite cliches and stock phrases. This book will get funnier the more fantasy novels you’ve read, but even a passing acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings movies or similar should be enough to get a few chuckles of recognition out of you.

If you like this book, I also recommend The Book of Weird, by Barbara Byfield, which is very similar but focuses more on fairy tale cliches (i.e. princesses always come in sets of 1, 3, 7, or 12) than those of the modern fantasy genre, and The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

Hamilton’s Mythology Book Review

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Review:

Although this wasn’t the book that began my love affair with Greek mythology (that was Favorite Greek Myths, by Mary Pope Osborne), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is the one that confirmed it. I first read it about age 10 and it’s been one of my favorite books ever since.

Although Bulfinch’s Mythology is also an excellent and comprehensive choice for someone interested in learning more about the Greek myths, I think Hamilton is the better storyteller of the two. I especially like how she intersperses clips of the great plays and poems the stories have been passed down in, which give you a feel not just for the stories themselves but the beauty of ancient Greek literature.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)