Sketch of a Lady

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Reading challenge: A book that’s at least 100 years older than you.

You guys. You guys. I can’t believe it never occurred to me that there was a Jane Austen out there and I hadn’t read it. I’m actually pretty sure if not for two things this fabulous little nugget would have gone unread. Thing number one: it’s being adapted for the screen and I saw a preview. Thing number two: I needed something to read that would move quickly and be absorbing. I’m trying to read another book right now, but it’s kind of dense and I’m in my last couple of weeks of classes/internship/general craziness. And it turns out Lady Susan is free on the internet! How perfect.

It’s not like one of the full-length novels, but gosh, this was a fun little book. It’s clever and funny and sharply-observed and quite a bit cynical – I want to say “dry run of Mansfield Park” but you know, I’ve only read Mansfield Park once and don’t remember it all that well. It’s got an anti-heroine you want to boo and hiss at, but you can’t help rooting for just a little. It seems modern in some ways, too: if Lady Susan had been a contemporary woman with the same resources she possessed in the novel she might have been a corporate shark, or a lawyer, or some kind of high-powered manager. And given the absolute mania for retellings of Jane Austen (some more successful than others: ask me sometime what I think about The Family Fortune and get an earful), I’m really surprised no one has yet reprised this novel in text message form.

Suggested pairing: I was going to say “tea, you savage” but after finishing the book I realized that spending any time with Lady Susan you’d probably want something a little stronger. So you know what drink I actually like quite a bit? Port. It’s a super-tasty dessert drink. Have some port, and toast Lady Susan, and add a quiet thank-you that you don’t actually know her.

Fangirl Alert

Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals by Mary Jo Pehl

Reading Challenge: A book you can read in a day.

If you have been reading this blog regularly, then you’re probably related to me by birth or marriage, or you’re that one friend who kept reading my blog even after my review of The Selection gave her nightmares. Thanks, Catherine, you’re the best. Anyway, if you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know me, and if you know me, you probably know the following things.

You know when I reviewed Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? I suggested that she writes like everyone’s best friend, while recognizing that she would probably not actually be my best friend. Here is another book that reads like it’s written by somebody who could be your best friend, but the difference is, I actually now want to be Mary Jo Pehl’s friend. We both love books! We both hate shopping! We both have a deadpan humor that could easily be misunderstood!

You also know that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is my favorite TV show. See, in this, my final year of grad school, I have a pretty awful schedule. Three days a week I’m in an internship, the next day is for classes, then the following three days (the weekend, I might add) I work evening shift at what may be one of the more stressful part time jobs out there. Then after a few hours of sleep I roll right back into the internship at 8:30 a.m. I knew in advance that my schedule was going to be awful, and my husband and I agreed that it would help to plan in advance a good relaxing activity, something safe and comforting. So we decided to watch all of Mystery Science Theater 3000 from the beginning. We started in Season 1 in September, and now in April we’re partway into Season 9 of 10. I’m a big fan of MST3K. And being a big fan of Mary Jo Pehl has been part of that.

So what I’m saying is I was probably in this book’s target audience.

Let me say, though, you should no more read this book for MST3K stories than you should read Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking for Star Wars stories. Mary Jo devotes very little of a very little book to that phase of her life. What she offers instead are brief vignettes about growing up, employment, aunt-hood, dating, parents, etc. that range from pretty funny to hysterically funny (and one conversation with her sister that’s not funny, but poignant, and may conceivably make you cry instead). The deadpan humor that makes her amazing on MST3k and Cinematic Titanic is present in written form, and there’s something in the dry, self-deprecating wit that reminds me pretty strongly of Dorothy Parker, albeit a  fairly happy Dorothy Parker. It’s incredibly Midwestern, too, but not in the Garrison Keillor kind of way (in that it makes me want to visit Minneapolis instead of running as far from the Twin Cities as possible). This book is short, funny, and full of life, and I liked it.

Recommended pairing: I read this book so fast I hardly thought about this. It goes so fast I think you would have time for one beer while reading this. I’m not up on the Midwestern beers (at least, none of the good ones), but it’s cold in Minnesota and you know what’s a great cold-weather beer? Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout.

 

And now, a few words from your best friend

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling.

Reading Challenge: A book written by a celebrity

Mindy Kaling is not actually your best friend, but after reading this book, you may feel like maybe she is. She’s your charming, funny, wildly successful,slightly neurotic, very girly best buddy, whom you love constantly even as you find her kind of obnoxious at times. And that’s great, as far as I’m concerned: especially in the comedy world, being confident, occasionally obnoxious and not always likeable has been a staple for men for what feels like forever. Comedy girl power!

I realized right around when she talked about her favorite comedy bits that Mindy Kaling and I would not actually be best friends, even in “this celebrity is my best friend” fantasy world (I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those fantasies, but if I did I think I’d pick someone nerdier, and/or more outspoken on social issues. Mark Ruffalo, maybe). Anyone who loves Will Ferrell to that extent and I are not going to be best friends any time soon. Also, I’m not into shopping. And that’s both the strength and weakness of this book: there’s enough in here that probably everyone can find something to relate to, but you may only really love the parts you can relate to. So here are the things I can relate to, and the parts I particularly loved:

  • Where she takes on John Cougar Mellencamp and touts the advantages of being a quiet, overlooked kid in high school. This struck me as accurate, and then I read the whole thing to my husband, who is the authority as he actually went to high school, which I didn’t, and he confirmed that it struck a chord with him as well.
  • One-night stands and her conversation with her Excited Sexually Liberated Friend. This was the part of the book that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t speak. Partly because it was just so funny, but mostly because it was JUST SO TRUE. I have been that friend. The Mindy friend, not the ESLF.
  • Body image things. As someone who also falls into the “average American woman” size, I do feel it’s a weird place to be, just in general. It’s confusing when you know you’re not actually being discriminated against because of your size but you’ll also never be categorized by society as “hot” because you have body fat. And if you’re in Hollywood, I’m sure it must be a million times worse. Although she says it wasn’t cool of her to do what she did, I actually think Mindy’s shining moment in this book is when she makes the stylist fit the dress to her rather than the other way around.
  • Men vs. boys. I’m married to a man, but I definitely dated boys in the past. I think she’s completely right about where the dividing line is, and I now feel slightly better about the fact that I’ve definitely met “boys” my age, and thought I was the only one who thought there was something slightly wrong there. You’re in your early thirties! Why are you surprised to learn that bureaucracy is a thing that exists? Why are you considering another, only slightly related grad program as you reach the end of your current one?
  • Types of women in romantic comedies. Having also grown up in a household that watched a metric f-ton of romantic comedies (I love you, family, but why? So many of them were so bad), I can confirm the existence of these types. Also, when does this Mindy Kaling low-budget romantic comedy she was pitching in one scene get off the ground? I feel like someone this aware of the tropes who also really loves romantic comedies might make an actually good one.
  • Almost anything childhood-related. And here, can’t we all relate to that in some way? No childhood came without weird humiliations, diving board or not.

So, no, Mindy is not your best friend, but the way she writes, you could be fooled into thinking she was for a little while.

Suggested pairing: This book clearly calls for a Cosmo.

 

Come for the Pirates, Stay for the History

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Reading Challenge: A book that is published in 2016.

First, disclaimer time: I got this book as a free advanced readers copy through a Goodreads giveaway, with expectations of a fair and honest review when I finished reading it. That’s what I’m doing. That’s also why I’m reviewing a book that comes out May 10th in April. Are we all up to speed? Good, on to the review.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: to paraphrase something Dorothy Parker once wrote in a review of a very different author, I will never understand why there isn’t more screaming about Guy Gavriel Kay. He writes sweeping historical fantasy with an eye for both the broad stream of history and the little pebbles that get swept up in it. He writes interesting, nuanced male and female characters. He writes well, in general, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Children of Earth and Sky takes place in the same multi-mooned world that many of his other books take place in, that world that just happens to bear a startling resemblance to medieval and Renaissance Europe. There’s a multitude of powers at work here, but fear not, there’s a list of characters and a map at the front of the book to guide you, which is more than some other epics I could name. This time we’re centered more around the eastern Mediterranean than France or Spain, and we have a whole stable full of interesting characters to follow: politicians, merchants, an artist (probably my favorite), a few warriors who live only for revenge, and maybe a ghost or two. There’s a Renaissance Ted Cruz who gets dealt with in a satisfying manner (that’s Leonora’s dad, although you should be able to spot the resemblance pretty easily). There are “fallen women” all over the place, but you shouldn’t count them out. One thing that I always enjoy about Kay’s women is that while some of them do shake off their assigned gender roles in order to achieve some power over their own lives, there are plenty who find a way to reach similar ends in a more acceptably feminine role. And they don’t have to hate each other: the quick friendship between Danica and Leonora was one of the relationships I most enjoyed.

Like most epic fantasy, there are violent deaths a-plenty and some fairly strange sex scenes that blur the lines of consent. Unlike most epic fantasy, none of this ever feels gratuitous. The sex scenes all have a purpose, in fact, which is kind of amazing. The deaths also have a purpose, and I never have that feeling of “well, you didn’t care about this character, why should I?” that I’ve mentioned before. Actually, I can’t help imagining that this author genuinely mourns some of these characters. And now I’m picturing a little memorial service at the completion of each novel, with the author holding a candle, going down a list, and intoning “I’m sorry I let you get eaten by wolves. I’m sorry your throat was cut for reasons that weren’t your fault. I’m sorry you got that wound infection, but you really were kind of a dick and you probably deserved it.”

Now, this book is not perfect. If you want to read a perfect Kay, you should read Under Heaven or The Lions of al-Rassan, maybe Tigana (I can never tell if Tigana is perfect or I just love it so much because I read it first). The plot arc is…more of a plateau with a sudden drop than an arc. Like River of Stars (which was much less successful in this), it’s as much about the things that don’t happen as it is about the things that do. The biggest climactic, history-changing event is one person’s decision to say a certain thing, which is followed by everyone we care about getting the hell out of the way of the fallout. There’s also the habit Kay has of changing perspectives multiple times in the middle of dramatic scenes. Mostly it works, and it doesn’t feel gimmicky, and it holds my attention. But there were a few times it seemed to go on too long in this one.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is still one of the best books you’ll read all year. If this was the first Kay I’d read I would still be raving about it and running out to read all the others. But some special authors get held to a higher standard with me, and he’s one of them. Not the best, but still really good.

Suggested pairing: They drink so much wine in this one, it kind of has to be wine. A nice red. You know what I really like? Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin. Let’s go with that, and raise a toast to all our favorite fallen literary companions.