Review | Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I started watching the HBO hit series Girls because I needed some hipsterification in my life. I had just watched Juno for the umpteenth time and was craving some fast talking esoteric geek-speak when my friend Dr. Gargamel recommended it to me.

I disliked the pilot because it was awkward and unfunny and had a weird sex scene (taking into consideration that I am weird about sex scenes in general). I didn’t finish watching it and didn’t watch any more episodes.

Not That Kind of Girl makes me regret not sticking it out.

I’m addicted to knowing what other people are doing with their time, so for me the best memoirs are story after story after story with occasional footnotes of introspection. Not That Kind of Girl lives up to my expectations.

In the book Dunham is self-critical and self-congratulatory, often at the same time. She recounts every story with the openly-admitted bias of the self-involved and this ironic honesty had me glued to the page. Here is a girl who is totally confident about herself and determined to kick ass but who also spends most of her time warring with insecurities and waffling about major decisions.

It’s dangerous to consider memoirs (especially those of famous people) as presenting any kind of insight into the lives they are about because there’s nothing stopping the author from glossing over unseemly details or even outright lying. The very basis of a memoir is that it’s founded on fact, but are any of us really reliable narrators? Dunham points that out early on [SPOILER] when she recounts an ambiguous sexual encounter that may or may not have been rape.

Ultimately the only absolute truth a memoir has to offer is a comment on the mind of the person who wrote it. There’s no questioning the truth of the things that happened (not that their truths are unquestionable, just that there’s no point to questioning them). What we should be examining critically is the lens we are looking through and not the view. Why has she drawn the picture this way? What is she holding back? What has she covered in rosy overtones? What does the way this story is told tell us about who wrote it?

Dunham is unflinching when she talks about her youthful experiments with sexuality, nostalgic and wistful when she speaks about school; her tone hardens to an edge when she talks about the sexism of Hollywood and softens to a sweet poignancy when she talks about her family. She talks about sex with clinical detachment and talks about her mental illness (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) like she’s writing from the frontlines of a battlefield, trying to understand the carnage but mostly just trying to survive it. She uses light-hearted lists like palate cleansers in between the heavy stuff and some parts of the book (like What’s in My Bag and My Worst Email Ever) can only be filed under the ever-expanding category of oversharing.

Not That Kind of Girl isn’t life-changing or earth-shattering. It’s not even the first of its kind (the style is reminiscent of Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened). But it feels like a natural extension of Dunham’s work as an artist, her fight to bare [sic] it all. As part of the advance guard in this wave of millennial feminism, she plays her part admirably and Not That Kind of Girl just proves that she’s not the kind of girl who gives up the fight.

Review | Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

First thing, this is Neil Gaiman so my bias is about to get very obvious.

Second thing, does anyone even review anthologies? Google says yes. I plunge ahead.

Gaiman published Fragile Things back in 2006, his third short story collection. (I have only read two and he has written five. Prolific authors are very expensive to be in love with). Most of the stories were printed elsewhere previously and some of them won their fair share of awards.

The introduction explains the background behind every story, their genesis, a theme Gaiman explains in more detail with Inventing Aladdin where he deconstructs the story of Scheherazade. This book took longer than usual to read because I kept flipping back and forth between the introductory explanations all the way at the front and whichever story I was reading at the time.

I’m really stalling until I can write something resembling a coherent review instead of just fangirl oohs and ahhs punctuated by superlatives.

From the introduction and this list on Wikipedia, the book sounds like a motley crew of stories and characters who just never had anywhere else to fit in. Gaiman mentions that he belaboured a bit on the order but I (in my infinite obliviousness) haven’t been able to see an overt movement of themes of structures.

There are scattered poems and outtakes, short short stories and long short stories. There is dark fantasy and light fantasy and children’s books are dealt with with a firm hand.

Hang on, I should probably be writing about the actual stories.

For the record, they were all good. Gaiman has the enviable twin talents of having a story to tell and being able to tell it with panache. But there were a few I didn’t like, and I’ll focus on those because that list is just way shorter. Trust me.

I didn’t like most of the poems – unfortunately. Either they were dealing with subject matter unfamiliar to me and I just couldn’t connect (Going Wodwo), or they just didn’t sit well. I’m picky with my poetry though.

I thought Good Boys Deserve Favours was a bit on the boring side and Strange Little Girls would probably make way more sense with the accompanying CD. The Fairy Reel (poem) fell sort of flat and The Flints of Memory Lane was (in Gaiman’s own words) unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, How Do You Think it Feels, Harlequin Valentine and Other People were shocking and disturbing (in a good way). The Problem of Susan was particularly poignant, Feeders and Eaters creeped me the hell out (again, in a good way) and Sunbird was just about the best birthday present anyone could ever ask for.

I am exceedingly partial to the American Gods novella, The Monarch of the Glen, because I love Shadow and missed him dearly. He definitely needs some lovin’ in real, well fictional, life though.

See how short the list of less-than-awesome was? I could go on forever about the ones I did like.

I really want to mention Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire because (1) WTF is that name and (2) I love the way he plays with Story here.

And I think this is already too long for a simple review so I’ll just stop myself from going on like the sock monkey in My Life. (I don’t even need alcohol).


Review | Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is perhaps most popularly known as Sugar from The where she ran an advice column for a few years. She has also written the novel Torch and the memoir Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In Tiny Beautiful Things she compiles her best responses to the letters she received and the result is a compendium of advice on life and love.

Honestly? I was in a dark place when I read this book. I read this book because I was in a dark place. I was scared and confused and baffled by my twenties because there are things that no one prepares you for and I felt like I was already drowning and this was only the start of it. So I turned to Sugar, whom I had discovered once before in the comment depths at A Practical Wedding (my guilty pleasure). I found her forthright, empathetic and incredibly level-headed and I was eager to dive into her welcoming textual arms.

Foremostly, this is an advice book. Sugar answers all kinds of questions in all kinds of ways, and you’re never sure exactly what kind of response you’re going to get. Sometimes the stories are horrific, sometimes heart-warming, but all are designed to get you to live the life that’s best for you. She doesn’t hesitate to drop the kid gloves either, or wrap you in the soothing embrace of words when you need it.

Being an advice column, of course all the responses are her own opinions. But I thought her opinions were grounded in a sense of principle, the common theme being self-acceptance and doing the right thing. Knowing the right thing to do is easy enough, but Sugar puts emphasis on actually doing it too. A thread I found in many of the letters she published was that people are usually fairly certain about what they need to do. They just need encouragement to do it.

Sugar is simultaneously best friend and older sister, guiding you with the light of her own mistakes and mistakes she’s observed. She comes off as honest and inspiring rather than condescending and boastful, and her writing is, frankly, beautiful. She speaks with a lyricism that soothes battered hearts and which got her a dedicated following on The Rumpus during the years she wrote there.

Cheryl Strayed returned as Sugar last December with a podcast hosted by WBUR and featuring Steve Almond who was the very first Sugar. New episodes will be released weekly.

Review | Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

Long before The Fault in Our Stars had teenagers across the world weeping, John Green collaborated with David Levithan to write Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a novel about two boys with the same name.

The novel remains true to the John Green style of exploring complex adolescent issues that don’t get solved by the final sentence. Instead they play out inside the minds and lives of his readers, much like the intersecting X that he and David Levithan structured the novel around.

Green wrote the odd numbered chapters about Will Grayson while Levithan wrote even numbered ones about will grayson, two teenage boys with struggles that appear different on the surface but which are really just variations on the theme of love.

The exploration of different kinds of love is central to the novel in overt and covert ways. Tiny Cooper’s loud and fabulous musical is declared to be about love. “Bigger than all of us,” Tiny says. But the more subtle and fundamental types of love are at play here too: romantic love, self-love, the love between best friends (which the novel elevates to pedestal heights) and yes, unrequited love.

I tried something new where I dived into the novel without having a read a blurb or any kind of summary – I was totally in the dark. It was exciting to watch the plot unfold and reveal itself. It’s the kind of plot that just meanders along until you get this great big “Oh!” moment when all the previously unconnected factors collide. It was Newtonian in its execution. It was fascinating to watch all the pieces of novel – characters, plot, motives – shift and change after the intersection of what had been two completely separate lines of writing.

The characters were endearing. Tiny Cooper “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay” and “the world’s gayest person who is really, really large” can be argued into the role of protagonist, both Will Graysons being rather more sidekick in personality. Jane Turner, Will Grayson’s love interest, was charmingly adolescent, the alt-girl of your dreams.

And the issues the novel delves into are universal. The struggle of identity is played out on the pages as Will Grayson fights against his self-imposed rules, as Tiny flamboyantly embraces who he is, as will grayson copes with shattering revelations. Issues that lower to middle class white suburban teenagers can relate to. This isn’t a book that deals with problems of race or religion, but I think its principles are still relatable. At heart it remains a truly poignant glimpse into the tumultuously emotional world of the American adolescent.

fangirling | The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

In bullet point format. Because bullet points are cool now.

  • This was my first Sue Monk Kidd book. I had been interested in reading her work since The Secret Life of Bees hit bookshelves. But I can’t remember why.
  • Truth: Ever since high school I’ve had this story floating around in my head of two girls being raised on a plantation, one a slave, the other the owner’s daughter. The story would have been told from both points of view and would follow their life stories: rebellions, heartache and the pains of becoming and understanding one’s self. This novel is that story.
  • I feel a kind of grief? over the story that I never wrote, like losing an unborn child and then seeing her face suddenly one day.
  • The amount of research behind it bleeds through in the compelling realness of the traditions and atmosphere SMK describes.
  • The author’s note confirms that this story is actually based on fact – most of the characters were real people and several of the incidents described in the book actually happened. But it is layered heavily with fiction.
  • The imagery was beautiful and heart-wrenching. The themes of enslavement and freedom went so much deeper than the literal shackles the novel described.
  • I love a book that paints people as they are: with faults and failings, trying to survive the best they can. This book does that.
  • My first book about slavery, and I think I’ll read more.

Image not mine. Obviously.

Hungry? Fire + bird = Suzanne Collins having the odds in her favour

I read The Hunger Games trilogy, you guys.

What took me so long? I really don’t know. Ever since the movie was released, I’ve been meaning to read the books (because everyone knowns you can’t watch the movie without having read the book. This is a universal truth for all Harry Potter fans out there) but I just couldn’t get around to it. One of the many downsides to medical school is having little to no time to read outside of school. But my recent two-week break gave me the time I needed to obsessively leisurely read Suzanne Collins’ work.

And it was worth every late/sleepless night.

You know the premise: post-apocalyptic America tries to stand on its feet by creating a new system of government where 12 districts are ruled almost dictatorially by a central Capitol. Following an uprising against the Capitol some 74 years ago, they enforced a tradition of sacrificing two tributes per district to fight to the death until one victor remained. This trilogy is the story of Panem, its tributes, its victors and the evil Capitol overlord President Snow. But it’s mostly about Katniss Everdeen, her hopeless love life and her unwitting role in a rebel uprising.

Did I mention this would have spoilers?

And, clearly, I have a thing for post-apocalyptic melodramatic love-stories.

There are several things to love about the story. I empathize with Katniss’s emotional incompetence in a way that I have not empathized with a character in a long time. Her total inexperience in dealing with relationships – friendships and romantic relationships – makes me feel less lonely. It’s also a true-blue young adult novel, with the main character being only 16 at the beginning of the story and ageing maybe two years by the end of it, which makes it incredibly appealing to the generation that was a bit too young to fall in love with Harry Potter.

Part of this appeal is, of course, the exciting new world that Collins creates. Depressing would probably be a better word for District 13 and the whole dictatorship of Panem. But she creates a thrilling drama with intense conflict in multiple arenas. Her characters are also realistic and believable. Katniss isn’t the only person I ended up feeling for: Peeta and Gale (okay, maybe not Gale so much) and Cinna (oh Cinna) and her mother and sister all evoked waves of empathy and sympathy and at one point plain old tears as I devoured the pages.

Part of the beauty of the characters is their mystery. I love iceberg characters; you only see a glimpse of who they are above the surface when they interact with the main character but you know there is so much more going on beneath. This is probably the fanfiction writer in me, but those characters are the most intriguing: the ones that leave you wondering what on earth goes on in their heads. Collins’ trilogy is sprinkled liberally with these gems.

This was a hard won point, because I love happy-endings where everybody lives and gets married and has babies in the epilogue (I read to escape the harshness of reality, people), but I actually like how unafraid Collins is to kill characters. She has no qualms about tugging on your heartstrings (mine were completely avulsed) for the sake of a good story. I appreciate authors who don’t sacrifice the integrity of their work just so sappy romantics like myself can feel warm and fuzzy at night.

But while there were definite high points, the Hunger Games was not without its share of lows.

The ending, for example, was rather predictable and unsatisfying. Even with an epilogue, and I love epilogues. It just didn’t suit Katniss. It was not the happy ending I would have imagined for her, and I feel like Collins cheated her own character by forcing her into borrowed robes. I mean, when you consider that this girl spent almost the entire last book being out of her mind (another iffy plot move), you really don’t see her settling down to the two-and-a-half-kids-white-picket-fence kind of life.

Another issue I found is that Collins doesn’t bring anything new to the love triangle arc that Stephenie Meyer certainly didn’t start but perhaps gave the most fame to. I will admit to being shamelessly caught up in Katniss Everdeen’s love life (just like most of Panem) but I will also be the first to admit that it is kind of shallow and played out. On one hand you’ve got the rough and tough edgy badboy with a chip on his shoulder the size of boulder; on the other hand, you’ve got the softer, sweeter yet completely charming and powerful in his own right young man who the lead character doesn’t feel she deserves yet invariably ends up with.

(Author’s Note: OMG, I am just realizing the depth of the similarity while typing this. WTF, YA authors, get some new ideas).

But it could just be that this is what the market wants, and this is what you have to write to be read. I would, however, like to thank J. K. Rowling for being the first to start this two guys-one girl power trio concept (not in that way, you pervs).

Lastly, I think she could have done more with the supporting characters (like Cinna). Collins’s hands were probably tied with the first person narrative, but more interaction would have been much appreciated (with Cinna). It’s not like she was hardpressed to condense the story – I don’t think any of the books is 800 pages – so there was room for more character development (of Cinna).

But overall it was a good read, and quite entertaining. It’s not hard-hitting literature, but I think it hits hard enough to leave its own mark on YA fiction.

credit: tamsin silver on blogspot
Mockingjay review. 100% accurate.


Read.Robin is an unrealistically optimistic reviewer of books. She counts Neil Gaiman and J. K. Rowling as her literary gods, and finds it impossible to say a harsh word about anybody.

Book Reviews | Doctors by Erich Segal

Even though its setting and dialogue are fifty years old, Doctors is a lasting portrait of the mind and soul of the medical practioner – what makes him tick and what makes him explode.

While the rest of the world is busy devouring (and I mean that in the absolute dirtiest sense possible) the controversial 50 Shades of Gray, I have been turning my attention to the works of Last, Netter and Grey. But this is not a post on my feelings about schoolwork drudgery.

Instead, I’d like to introduce the first book on my Physician’s Literature List: Doctors, penned by Erich Segal (of Love Story fame).

Admittedly I had shied away from this particular author because Love Story (his first novel) had me in tears every other page. But I’m very glad I listened to advice and gave Doctors a chance. In what I’ve come to understand as true Segal style, the author fabricates characters who are realistic and emotional and whom the reader immediately empathizes with. He creates a plot that is entirely character-driven, which only serves to multiply our ties with the characters, because it is so easy to identify with them.

Doctors chronicles the lives of four Harvard Medical students in the early 60’s. At the centre of the novel is the relationship between Barney Livingston and Laura Castellano. Through Laura, we are allowed to glimpse the gender discrimination that was only just being fazed out in the era of hippies, and the novel touches on issues of race and identity in the person of Bennett Landsmann, a lone black in a field of whites. For me, his story is particularly poignant – and not just the parts that make me want to beat the crap out of someone. Bennett’s character shows tons of resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments, but I don’t think Mr. Segal finished his story very well, if at all. At the end of the novel, only Seth’s, Barney’s and Laura’s dramas are concluded.

Overall, Mr. Segal’s approach to narration and indeed characterization is above par. He juxtaposes factual events of the 60’s with his fictional revelations so seamlessly that one cannot help but be drawn into the character’s dazzling successes and bitter failures. Unafraid to deal heavily with issues of morality, Mr. Segal paints a picture of man that is comparable to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Like his lead protagonist, Barney, Mr. Segal creates a novel that dissects the heart and soul of our esteemed medical practioners.

As a student of Hippocrates, this novel offers valuable insights into what makes the medical profession tick. Despite entering a task force that is more than fifty years ahead of Mr. Segal’s work, I think a lot of the issues presented by Mr. Segal still carry through. I’m going to hold on to Doctors as a guiding light for my formative years in the wide world of medical careers. I can only say I wish I’d read it sooner.