What I Read: January Book Reviews

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

If you don’t know anything about Mindy Kaling, or you don’t like her character Kelly Kapoor on The Office, or think she is her character Kelly Kapoor on The Office and are therefore expecting this to be a bunch of TMZ gossip/Hollywood garbage, or (like me, tbh) you just don’t watch The Office anymore.. WHO CARES READ THIS ANYWAY! In Kaling’s own words, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is about “romance, female friendships, unfair situations that now seem funny in retrospect, unfair situations that I still don’t think are funny, Hollywood, heartache, and my childhood. Just that really hard-core, masculine stuff men love to read about.” And in my words: this is an absolute feel-good read that I want to hand out to literally every woman I know. It’s funny for sure, but it’s also wonderfully sweet and refreshingly normal. She’s this perfectly friendly combination of chic, clever, successful and grounded and it’s a pleasure to feel like you’re buddying up next to her reading this.

Stand out essays include Kaling’s thoughts on friendship (Best Friend Rights and Responsibilities), marriage (Married People Need to Step it Up), and body image (Chubby for Life).

I remember being in first grade, in Mrs. Gilmore’s class at Fiske Elementary School, and seeing that Ashley Kemp, the most popular girl in our class, weighed only thirty-seven pounds. We knew this because we weighted her on the industrial postal scale they kept in the teacher’s supply closet. I was so envious. I snuck into the supply closet later that same day to weight myself. I was a whopping sixty-eight pounds.

Some of the first math I understood was that i was closer to twice Ashley’s weight than to her weight.

“Don’t be closer to TWICE a friend’s weight than to her actual weight,” I told myself. This little mantra has helped me stave off obesity for more than two decades.

For fans of Bossypants and Bridget Jones’ Diary alike. Even some dudes. And if none of that has got you sold on this book, check out the childhood photo of Kaling on the back cover:

Tell me you don’t want to own that.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

One of the recently announced Newbery Honor books, Inside Out & Back Again deserves all the praise it’s received. A verse novel that reads almost like a diary, it tells the story of a 10 year old girl who feels silenced and lost when she and her family end up in Alabama after fleeing Saigon as refugees during the Vietnam War. Suddenly they’re not only foreigners, but poor and Ha, once the smartest in her class, is bullied and made to feel stupid in school simply because she hasn’t mastered the English language yet. The word count may be small, but the wallop Ha’s stream of consciousness packs is not.

That said, I didn’t fall instep with Inside Out & Back Again immediately. The writing is abrupt and fragmented. It’s choppy. But the more you read, the better you know Ha, how funny and smart and temperamental she is. The deeper you delve into her family’s immigration story, and experience her struggle to speak English and make friends, the easier it is to understand Lai’s very intentional style of poetry. The speech may not be perfect, or it may just not be what the American ear is used to hearing, but it reminds the reader to ask themselves: what about the content? It’s all too easy to quickly misjudge someone because of a language barrier (especially when, as Ha bemoans, English seems designed to make foreign speakers feel stupid with all of it’s unnecessary articles), to label them dumb or inferior simply because their means of expression are basic. It reminds the reader to focus on content, on intention and meaning rather than superficial imperfections.

This book is a lot of things. It’s an immigration and refugee story. It’s an introduction to the Vietnam War. It’s a glimpse into history and offers both beautiful and heartbreaking experiences most readers will never experience for themselves, from the sway of a mango tree in Saigon to the sensation of starving and the stench of human filth aboard a cramped refugee ship. It puts the reader in the position of being a victim of taunting. It shows how it feels to be so outside you don’t look right, speak right, or even believe right. In short, it’s a crash course in being an outsider.

IO&BA does so much so well, but what it does best and most importantly, is encourage empathy. I know, it’s hard to imagine a book conveying so much story and emotion, and in POETRY no less, without being a drippy over-the-top history lesson cum sob fest. But I kid you not. It’s powerful and moving and feisty as hell. An important book that I hope many children will be introduced to and discuss in their schools.

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

Adam Rex has the creativity and artistic ability of approximately a bajillion talented people smushed together to form a single human being. He’s hands down one of the most talented and versatile picture book makers working today, and he’s an equally talented writer. Plus he’s funny and his ideas are weird and he’s good at responding to whiney overprotective moms and he’s not even ugly! At all! HOW!? Truly, I find myself baffled by the unfairness of it all, but if it means I get to read books as entertaining as Cold Cereal I guess I can deal.

Cold Cereal is the first in a middle grade trilogy about three kids teaming up to take on a huge and evil cereal corporation: The Goodco Cereal Company. Goodco’s slogan — There’s a little bit of magic in every box — aren’t empty words, and through a series of puzzles and strange encounters with real life cereal brand characters and magical beings, Scott figures out something sinister is going on in the neighborhood. An exciting and strange combination of action and adventure, conspiracy theory, secret society, Arthurian legend, mythical monsters, and sugary breakfast food, there’s a lot going on here. Truth be told, the story overextends itself a bit in the end (save a villian or two for the sequel, my man!) and there’s a long-winded “and this is how I fooled you!” speech from a villianess I could have done without… but the journey there is well executed, well written, and extremely fun. Plus there’s this treehouse that Big Foot lives in and it’s really cool, trust me.

As in The True Meaning of Smekday (a definite five star read), Rex’s characters, whether alien, nerdy middle schooler, or movie monsters, are all expertly and uniquely voiced oddballs. Even here, where he’s taken recognizable cereal brand characters like the Trix rabbit and the Lucky Charms leprechaun, he makes them very much his own through his fantastic use of dialect, illustration, and strange behaviors (the rabbit’s a lisping thief, and despite looking like a baby-sized mobster in a track suit, the leprechaun’s a pretty decent fellow). Plus the idea of a cereal conspiracy is just smart. It’s the perfect vehicle for major corporations to manipulate American children and it’s something most kids are pretty passionate about. (I myself was all about Count Chocula)

From his picture book beginnings (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich) to middle grade fiction (this and Smek Day) and somewhat less successful YA (Fat Vampire), I love Rex’s enthusiasm for sharing monsters and general kookiness with kids. I look forward to seeing all of the completed art when this hits shelves in early February, and will definitely continue the series.

Recommended for fans of The Secret series

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a lot like an interior design book. Great style, I’d visit if I could, but nothing very substantial. The love story is that of two equally talented though theoretically opposed magicians, pitted to out-perform one another in a luxurious and unexplainably magical traveling circus. Illusionist Cecilia and undercover assistant/seeming straight man Marco have been slated to duel one another since childhood without knowing they oppose one another or what’s at stake. By the time they meet and start to piece the game together, their love affair reads stiff and melodramatic rather than exciting. The rest of the novel’s large cast are definitely interesting, but too mysterious. I’m sure their foggy backgrounds were intended to be part of their allure, but I found it hard to feel invested in their fates. And maybe I’m very particular in this respect, but when I’m reading fantasy — specifically when I’m reading about ordinary people with magic powers — I want to know what makes it possible. I, ideally, want an almost Tolkien-esque background story. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a great example of how you make magic lessons seem plausible in a real world setting. Here the magic we’re told Celia and Marco trained for intensively, even painfully, since youth comes too easily. Yeah, you’ll find Marco’s desk strewn with symbol-covered paperwork and hair clippings l, but it doesn’t seem like he ever really has to do any work for his magic; the mere thought of something fantastic makes it a reality, and I wasn’t quite buying it. That’s not to say their fantastic ideas weren’t beautiful, though. They made some heavenly scenes.

Many readers will undoubtedly be enchanted by the setting, and that is primarily what Morgenstern has developed here. The circus and it’s many tents are wonderous and richly described. It’s a wholly unique and dazzling setting, to be sure, and I can see being swept up in it’s decadence, the strange beauty of the performers, the very particular fashion, but so much of what’s written felt redundant and I tired of reading about color schemes (Everything is black and white. Everything. There’s no need to keep reminding us.) “I wish I were watching this instead” was a recurring thought I had while reading. There are good ideas here and it has all kinds of potential to make a gorgeous film. And that’s exactly what I hope for this story. To see it instead. But, for now at least, it’s a book, and as a read it’s all context, little content.

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland

“Upon turning the last delicate page” of her first Austen novel, and impassioned by her love of Lucy Maud Montgomery, 12 year old Polly Madassa announces that she will “no longer remain a material girl living in a material world, but [will] grasp on to the skirts of those elegant women before [her] and become at once a young lady of impeccable breeding, diction, and manner”. Alongside her fantasy of living a 19th century lifestyle, Polly idealizes the love lives of heroines Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Shirley to such a degree that the relationships she finds in real life don’t measure up. Wanting life to be as romantic as possible she appoints herself town match-maker and sets about finding appropriately storybook-like better halves for her older sister, best (I mean “bosom”) friend’s father, and two elderly neighbors. Using her summer job delivering goods for her family’s idyllic Jersey Shore bakery turns out to be the perfect means for plotting romantic entanglements (and delivering delicious baked goods from anonymous — ie made up — suitors). While their aren’t too many hitches in her scheme to unite one couple, Polly fails miserably in her efforts to break up and find love for the others. The results are disastrously funny and it makes for a pretty charming story for those that finish.

Polly’s over-the-top voice is one of the best and worst things about Scones and Sensibility. Her best linguistic efforts to sound Victorian and lovely on each of the novel’s 305 pages will either delight or deter readers from the get-go. Chuck full of adjectives, many of which are unnecessary and overused (she is only 12, after all), Polly’s sentences sometimes feel redundant, but more often the effect is pretty funny. Between her feeble attempts at poetic language, her inability to keep her nose out of other people’s business, and her rather prejudiced view of what makes a passable suitor, Polly’s flaws are obvious. Fortunately her older sister is usually around to tell her when to “can it”. One thing that can more universally be appreciated is the spectacularly breezy descriptions of the story’s Shore setting. And who wouldn’t want to eat at the Madassa Bakery?

Scones and Sensibility treads a pretty cute path but it’s not for everyone. A nice Valentine’s read for tweens with a penchant for the classics, or fans of The Mother Daughter Book Club will find it undeniably silly and fun. Not a bad one to read with mom either. And a plate of pastries.


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