HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #18: The Group by Mary McCarthy

I watch Girls because I think it’s interesting. I don’t love everything that happens in every episode, or even like the characters very much, but what I do love is that every Monday the previous night’s episode creates conversation. Interesting conversation. I talk to my friends (and my mom) about body image. And race, and privilege. And about the surprising lack of ambition in the four girls trying to make it in NYC. Girls, like all television, owes a lot to what came before it. I picked up Mary McCarthy’s The Group at the library after reading this interview which, among other things, discussed the “reading list” given to the Girls writers.

Published in 1963, The Group is about a set of Vassar graduates who move to NYC upon graduation to pursue…whatever it is that people move to the city to look for. Love, career, escape. The book is set in the late 1930s, and I cannot tell you how modern this book felt.  It was kind of incredible. It makes sense, because these types of conflicts and stories were groundbreaking and unique in the 1930s even though they have become commonplace today, but it really felt timeless.  I also cannot tell you how similar this book felt to Girls. Similar themes, similar boundaries pushing, similar unlikeable but oddly relatable characters.

The opening story is about Kay’s nontraditional wedding, to a man share barely knows, with only her friends but no family present. It’s not quite Jessa’s bohemian wedding, but it could just as well have been. The judgment of everyone else at the wedding is on display, at her lack of compliance with generally accepted social traditions. The way the girls in the group gossiped at the wedding was so fascinating similar to what happens today. Everyone was happy for Kay, truly, and wanted to celebrate. But they wanted to nitpick details, to set a base to compare other weddings to, to evaluate whether they thought the couple would make it. It felt like every wedding I’ve ever been to.

Also, there were two chapters in the book that were basically transcriptions of the mommy blogs today.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #17: Nemesis by Phillip Roth

This was this month’s selection for a local book club, and because I’m making an attempt at reading some traditionally lauded authors like Zadie Smith, I thought I’d give this book a try. Nemesistakes place in the 1940s in Newark, NJ during a polio outbreak. Bucky Cantor, our protagonist, is working at a summer day camp and finds himself watching his campers fall to polio one by one.

Bucky’s story is driven by guilt. Guilt that he can’t help his campers. Guilt that he leaves the inner city camp to work as a counselor out in the Poconos, with his fiance. He leaves his boys to save himself, to get some fresh air, to ensure his life will go on. There’s also guilt that his poor eyesight kept him out of the draft; his friends and colleagues are out serving his country while he’s literally watching his friends and neighbors die at home, of a terrible disease.

It was an interesting character study of Bucky. Because while his country was at war, and his friends and family and campers were dying of polio, his main foe was himself. His guilt. His inability to get over himself, and his potential role in the polio epidemic, and focus on others. His guilt was all consuming, and it ruined him in the end. It wasn’t the war, or polio, or rejection by others. His sad life was a direct result of his actions.

There’s more…

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #16: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was fascinating because it read like a classic novel, except modern. The story focuses on the Belsey family, an interracial family living in a small town centered around a liberal arts college just outside of Boston. Howard, the white, hyper intellectual, almost unfeeling patriarch married his intelligent, political, passionate African American wife Kiki and gave birth to three children, struggling to find their place in the word. The story spirals out to include the Kipps, the family of Howard’s academic rival. As the Belsey increasingly interact with the Kipps, they slowly fall to pieces. Watching them crumble really highlights the pressures and constructs placed on individuals by gender, race and intelligence.

It’s modern because it acknowledges technology exists. Cell phones. Emails. Googling. It’s surprisingly rare to see a novel that squarely fits into the literature category acknowledge that technology is pervasive in our lives. And that it shapes our interactions. It wasn’t fully integrated into the novel, not at all. But it was there, and it struct me as notable because I so rarely read a modern novel that receives this type of literary attention that acknowledges that times have changed.


HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #15: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This book has been reviewed no less than five times already on Cannonball Read V thus far. I kept seeing reviews, most of them were raves, some were neutral, so I figured I’d take a look. Semple was a producer on Arrested DevelopmentMad About You and Suddenly Susan, all shows I loved in my youth, or love now, or both. You can feel some of those sensibilities in the book, and you can really feel how she traditionally writes for the screen.

This is a family drama, at heart. It’s about Bernadette, the reclusive mom who is fiercely protective of her daughter but also fiercely paranoid and losing it a bit. It’s about her husband Elgin, a high level Microsoft executive work-a-holic who realizes too late his family is falling to pieces. And it’s about the mature beyond her years Bee, their daughter, who ends up driving the story, suffering hurt but moving past it with the incredibly resiliency of a teenager and forcing her parents to face their problems.

It’s no surprise that the movie rights have been acquired. Nor is it a surprise that the 500 Days of Summer writers are scripting it, because it’s full of that same type of whimsical quirkiness.Antarctica, eccentric architecture, mud slides (the natural disaster, not the drink), odd homes, prescription drugs, outsourcing your life to India, recluses, etc. If you’re not into that, I’d recommend staying away. But if you can look past the oddball details, there’s a compelling story here. It keeps your attention, it’s funny, and really it makes you think about how people handle themselves when tragedy strikes, or life deals them a hard blow.

More reviews over at my blog!

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #14: Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me by Chelsea Handler & Friends

Chelsea Handler tends to be divisive. People either obsess over her or vigorously hate her for little to no reason. I guess she’s like most comedians that way – you either get them or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re not interested. I like Chelsea Handler, and I like her assorted cast of friends/comedians onChelsea Lately.

This book, written by her friends, with responses from Chelsea, didn’t appeal to me as much as My Horizontal Life, the only other book of her’s that I’ve read. First, it’s actually kind of a weird idea. I have a hard time thinking about asking my friends or colleagues to write a book of stories about me. It feels a little…self involved somehow. Just when you start to get into the story and start feeling like it’s an honest, funny, relatively unbiased account, there’s the obligatory praise of “Chelsea is fabulous!” at the end of each chapter which makes it feel less like a collection of funny stories and more like a sales pitch for Chelsea’s human side. Which could be the point of the book, as her public persona is fairly abrasive and you get a more well rounded picture of her from the book.

Also, the premise got stretched a little thing. I think if each person had free reign to just write what they wanted about Chelsea, and make it funny, it would have been consistently funny. But each chapter was shoehorned into telling a story (or two or three) about an actual lie she told, and it got repetitive. I get it, she plays a lot of lie-based pranks. I think there would have been a lot more humor if some of the writers were allowed to break that mold.

This was not my favorite Chelsea Handler experience, for reasons explained below. What is my favorite Chelsea Handler experience?

Check it out!

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Book Review #13: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

I’m 25, and this is one of those self help books I’ve seen read/recommended to/recommended by my friends. Being in “your twenties” is a relatively new development stage as Americans postpone marriage and children until later and later. There’s this sort of pop culture idea that your twenties should be wild, and free, the best days of your life, and they don’t matter much because once you’re thirty you get your life together. Enter the newly named quarterlife crisis.

Jay’s book really makes the point that your twenties matter. Yes, they are a time for self discovery and exploration and travel and all of that, but if you want to be happy in your thirties and forties and beyond, you should be laying the groundwork in your twenties. That means building “identity capital,” or holding jobs that either interesting, challenging, or unique enough to give you a story that lets you sell yourself in future interviews. It means realizing your career options are not actually unlimited, you can’t do anything. You have a limited set of career options based on your education, skills and interests – so just pick one and get started! If you don’t like it, you can switch careers. But you need to start your career in your twenties so that you have work satisfaction, and feel challenged and accomplished, later in your life.

And it also addresses the very real, but very ignored (at least by my friends and peers) concern of the biological clock. Yes, focusing on your career and ignoring marriage and family when you’re young seems like a good idea, but biology dictates that there’s a relatively small window where having children is easy. Having a child when you’re forty is the exception, not the norm. As easy as it is to ignore that reality, it’s something to consider.

The problem I have with this book is that my friends fall into two camps. I have many friends who this book is geared towards – who have hopped from internship to internship, from romantic partner to romantic partner, without really thinking about what they want out of life and what steps they should be taking to get it. This book is what they need to solve their “quarterlife crisis” – it’s not saying to stop enjoying yourself or experimenting, it’s asks you to think about the life you want and take steps to secure your future happiness.

But I fall into the other camp.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #12: Regret the Error by Craig Silverman

“The absence of corrections yesterday was due to a technical hitch rather than any sudden onset of accuracy. “

The Guardian (UK), February 2, 1999

Regret the Error is Craig Silverman’s nonfiction account of inaccuracy in the media, and is loosely based on his popular website RegretTheError. The book is more than a list of hilarious, or interesting, corrections issued by the news media. It’s a catalog of the most common errors, a discussion on the varied impact of such errors, a critique of the corrections process and an insight into the glaring failure of the news media to adapt fact checking and the corrections process to the high speed internet era. There’s an increasing trend of readers fact checking the news themselves, because the media has become so sloppy in their ability to report news that’s immediate AND accurate.

Just look at the Manti Te’o story back in January. For an entire football season, a stream of news articles about Manti Te’o’s heartbreaking tragedy of losing his grandmother and girlfriend in the same day were everywhere.  It seems that when faced with such a story, at a minimum, the news outlet would confirm both deaths. It’s a common practice when reporting a death, or prior to running an obituary.  And apparently no one bothered to get a source, other than Te’o, or other news outlets, to check the story’s accuracy.  The AP just issued an extensive correction for all the stories they carried before the scandal broke.

This book really made me think about what I read, where I read it, and how accurate those sources are. Some, like Deadline and Gawker update their stories immediately, striking through the inaccurate text and inserting the updated text with a time stamp. And others have never issued a correction. According to a 2005 study, about 50% of local news and feature stories contain objective errors – names wrong, address wrong, etc. It seems highly unlikely that those websites I’m reading are not making errors. They’re either correcting them without admitting there was an error, which is deceptive because it leads the reader to believe the news source never makes errors because they never admit to them. Or worse, they’re not correcting them at all.

A failure to acknowledge and correct errors leads to persistent, inaccurate stories permeating the press.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR4 Review #11: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

*In a recent comment on one of my posts, someone mentioned that many of us read and review the same books on the Cannonball blog. And I’ve been looking to start and/or join a book club for a while. So, if any other Boston-based Cannonballers would like to hang out and chat about books in real life, leave me a comment!

I finished The Secret History in 24 hours, which happened to be the same 24 hours in which Donna Tartt announced she’ll bereleasing a third novel in the upcoming future. The Secret History tells the story of 6 prep school kids studying the classics under an eccentric professor at a small liberal arts school in Vermont, and the secrets, conspiracies and fall out from one fateful night in the woods.

This book is part psychological thriller, part straight suspense novel, and part psychoanalysis of the main characters.  Honestly, I would compare it to Gone Girl in terms of the depth of character analysis, suspense and tone. It’s like a much more literary Gone Girl. I honestly don’t recall ever reading a book in the suspense or thriller genre where I found the prose to be beautiful or worthwhile in it’s own right, but here it was.

The characters in this book are offbeat, but not in an overly quirky, annoying way. There are the too-close twins dressed all at white who overcome their creepy first appearances to make everyone feel warm and welcoming. There’s the reckless Bunny, too smart for his own good and too incapable of reading social situations to save himself. There’s the charismatic, homosexual red head Francis who seems to draw men to him like a magnet.

Read more about my mistrust of the narrator and my thoughts on the ending….


HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Book Review #10: Live from New York by Tom Shales & Andrew James Miller

After reading The Revolution Was Televised, I realized that a whole genre of books about my absolute favorite pastime, television, existed and I was missing out. Live from New York, a 600 page oral history of Saturday Night Live, was published in 2002 and hit exactly the right notes. The book is just the right mix of old school celebrity gossip, logistical industry insight, social context and fond  (and bitter) cast and crew memories. Most importantly, it’s an incredible look at what has gone wrong with SNL periodically, and the various views (writer, cast, Lorne Michaels) on why there were some troubled periods.

Most fascinating were how the relationships between cast members and writers really drive the quality of the show. The first five years were built on the strength of the cast, their devotion to each other in and out of the office, the crazy amount of drugs and alcohol they consumed, and their individual relationships with the writers.  And the Tina Fey years were almost the inverse – they thrived on the respect, professionalism, and clean living that they all prided themselves on. It really pinpoints why transition years are difficult – when you have a group  like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, etc. giving way to youngsters like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and Chris Farley, factions occur, conflicts arise and work gets less productive.

Surprising to me was how the way prior cast members or writers talked about the show could dramatically change my opinion of them.  For example, I’m nowtotally obsessed with Jane Curtain who’s smart, funny, blunt, pithy and amazing and I want to go back to 1975 and be her best friend. I’m a firm believer that you should never trash your former employers – something about that job gave you the skills, experience or wisdom to help you get where you are today. And there were a wide variety of past cast and crew members lobbing some hard hitting criticism at SNL – Julia Louis Dreyfus, Janeane Garofolo, Chris Rock, Victoria Jackson, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, etc. Some of them came off as whiny and unappreciative, while some of them managed to convey what it was about SNL that wasn’t right for them, and critique some of the show’s longstanding perceived faults (particularly re: gender, race) intelligently and graciously. Honestly, I actually loved some of the people who complained about the show more after reading this book (I’m looking at you, Julia Louis Dreyfus).

Is SNL still relevant?

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #9: Watchmen by Alan Moore, Illustrated by David Gibbons

This is my first ever graphic novel! It seemed like a fun, interesting way to branch out from my usual selection of mysteries and airport quality chick lit. On reading a graphic novel, it was extremely challenging for all the reasons I thought it would be. I struggled with reading the words, and looking at the images. Watchmen is dense, you have the read the words to really follow the story, and it took me like 75 pages to get the hang of the reading and looking and feeling the flow of the story. At first I would read, look at the pictures, read, look at the pictures, but it interrupted the flow and I felt like I wasn’t fully appreciating the fantastic imagery.

I selected Watchmen by Googling “graphic novels for beginners” and this was the right choice for me. It was a world of super (nonsuper?) heroes I knew nothing about, so I could build my expectations and the world from the ground up. The story has some of the black and white appeal of a classic good v. evil comic book story, but it’s dark. The characters are far more morally gray. You’re rooting for the vigilantes, the men and women who took up masks to fight crime on their own when the government wasn’t doing enough, who were eventually replaced by actual superheroes. You don’t really fully believe they’re heroes, because their imperfections are out on the line more so than any other heroes I’ve been exposed to.

It makes for excellent character development. First, the types of people drawn to the masked man vigilante lifestyle are unique – they desperately want fame, or justice, or just because they’re slightly unstable. And then they’re replaced, and slightly turned against by their government, and they mostly give up their lifestyle. For each of them – you see why they put on the mask, why they took it off, and how they’ve struggled since. It’s fascinating. Plus, there’s a lot of political maneuvering, and some great commentary on what it means to be famous, and enough family trauma and strife to make them feel real. Like this could happen.

More on Watchmen, including my love of Rorschach.