24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: nonfiction

Abby Reads: The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher

The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece  by John Pfordresher
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 256 pages
Literary Criticism/Biography

In The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher, the Georgetown University professor posits that Jane Eyre is a largely autobiographical work written in response to an affair that wasn’t in Brontë’s life. I came upon The Secret History of Jane Eyre through an event at the Arlington Public Library in Arlington, VA in September 2017. The library would host Pfordresher in his lecture on the book at the Central Library. I read the book in preparation for the event and was gravely disappointed. Reader, it was absurd.

While I no doubt agree that writers inform their work with their personal lives, claiming that Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre are the same is ludicrous. In my years of English classes — including a Bachelor’s degree in English from Hollins University and, too, a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San José State University for which I further examined literature from a scholarly perspective — I likely fell into the trap of comparing the author to the narrator or main character. I can’t recall a particular time I might have done this, but I am certain it was whipped out of me quickly. Ascribing intent, as Pfordresher does here, in a writer’s work is literary criticism suicide. We can, by all means, suggest that a piece of literature can be read in such-in-such a way or that a piece of literature can be interpreted thusly, but to straight out assert that Jane is Charlotte and vice versa is a leap most educators would not find acceptable in a midterm paper, let alone a published work. I happen to agree.

On top of a rather ridiculous premise, Pfordresher fails to really support his ideas. Though the organization of his work is solid — he chronologically exhibits both events from the novel and events from Brontë’s life side-by-side, lending the only credibility to his claims I was able to find — the evidence is weak at best. The majority of Pfordresher’s evidence relies on speculation and emotional projection. For example, he supposes Jane’s low moods, especially reflected in a cold and barren opening scene, are reflective of Brontë’s feelings of entrapment as she tended to her temporarily-blind father after he had eye surgery. Surely, he asserts, Brontë felt sad and cooped up, and so she wrote Jane the same. While letters from Brontë to friends might suggest these feelings, to then assume these emotions were all-consuming and, what’s more, the basis for her novel is, again, a leap. Self-insertion narratives exist, no doubt, but we cannot make that kind of claim here without more evidence, at least. How many letters have I written to friends about how I’m hankering for a sandwich? And later, how often do I mention a sandwich in my own fictional pursuits? Often enough, I suppose, but this does not mean that my characters are me, nor does it mean I am utterly enthralled with sandwiches. We don’t write just about things we obsess over: we write about the everyday, too, and Pfordresher ignores this fact in his points. Pfordresher may suppose Brontë felt sadness at being bound to her father, but how much is he supposing based on how he expects he would feel in the same situation? The language he uses in this particular example seems to indicate, even, that he is projecting his own experiences onto Brontë, who, according to him, is projecting onto Jane.

Other outlandish assertions include Jane’s love interest, Mr. Rochester, being modeled primarily off of Brontë’s brother and father (along with the man from her affair-that-wasn’t); that Brontë was interested in domineering men (though Pfordresher provided contrary evidence in that she referred to her own husband as “my boy”), thus explaining Mr. Rochester’s character to a greater degree; and that St. John Rivers was not modeled after anyone (which, while I might agree with that, it seems a copout to write an entire book stating that Jane and Charlotte are the same without, again, supporting it in every facet). These are only a few of the big jumps Pfordresher makes, always within the frame of intent, as opposed to possible interpretation.

When I confronted Pfordresher about his premise and evidence at the Arlington Public Library event, I simply stated I wasn’t convinced. He agreed that other critics and readers had pointed out his evidence was insufficient for them, but that he stood by his thesis. I asked for further evidence and his primary source of confidence, he said, was a letter Brontë wrote to George Henry Lewes in which she alluded to the combination of nature, truth, and imagination in her writing. Still, without documentation from Brontë herself stating that Jane is truly herself, this letter means nothing more than that Brontë was perhaps influenced and informed by her own life in her writing.

In terms of prose, Pfordresher has a slow and tedious style with little sentence and vocabulary variation to keep things running. Though it’s fairly readable — and he admitted the book had been rewritten after original criticisms that the first go was too academic for a mainstream audience — it is still not exactly pop literary criticism, leaving the book in this odd place between popular and academic writing. Combined with the barely-there evidence, this style renders the book practically useless. (No personal offense to Professor Pfordresher, and I do mean “practically” here in the sense of the word “practice.”) There is no useful application for this material excerpt, I suppose, as an opportunity to publish material that argues against it, and I suspect it could be done very, very successfully.

Though Pfordresher explained the origins of the book came from a woman who heard his interview with Diane Rehm some years back and requested a text on how Charlotte Brontë came to write Jane Eyre, the book ends up feeling like the result of pressure to publish as a working professor. That is a kettle of fish I really know nothing about, though at first glance I worry that this is often the result of arbitrary publication rules around tenure and careers of teaching. Pfordresher, in his lecture, noted that he had not already drawn his conclusion at the time he started his research, perhaps as a way to placate my concerns over his lack of evidence — if he had been swayed throughout his time working on the book, certainly I could be by what he presented. If the evidence is there, Pfordresher does a poor job at selling it — but, frankly, I don’t think the evidence is there to begin with.

The Secret History of Jane Eyre doesn’t add anything new to the canon of literary criticism, relies on outdated and unreliable sources for evidence, and spends a lot of time turning supposition into fact. It’s not something I can imagine any professor I’ve ever had accepting as an idea for a paper, let alone as the paper itself. Unless you’re interested in preparing a rebuttal (I’ll edit!) to this work, it’s not worth the time. Skip it.

❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Free to Make by Dale Dougherty

Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty
North Atlantic Books, 2016, 336 pages
Non-Fiction

Emphasizing the importance of the maker movement in modern society, Dale Dougherty sets out to meet makers, describe makerspaces around the world, and convince his readers that makerspaces are here to stay. The book’s opening chapters imply Dougherty will also explore what makes a good makerspace and an all-around how-to when it comes to implementing a makerspace or maker program at, say, a public library. This was one of my main motivators in reading the book. As someone in the library science field, I’m naturally interested in emerging trends therein.

Unfortunately, Dougherty doesn’t really deliver in that arena. While some digging in the book might bring out some gems as to what makes a good makerspace and how to go about successfully designing a maker program, there was nothing deliberate in the text that got at this concept. Instead, Dougherty focuses on stories of individuals making things independently — often inspired by, but not necessarily directly involved in, makerspaces and making. He describes the origins of Arduino and as sous-vide machine, for example. And, while these kinds of projects are certainly attainable for many makers, the concepts are simply too advanced for most makers. The individuals in these stories essentially dropped their lives to work on their projects, which isn’t a thing that can happen in reality for most people. Although Dougherty discusses how making is a thing of democracy and equity, I wasn’t convinced. It takes a lot of time and often money to develop these projects, which makes them inherently inaccessible to many.

While readers may draw their own conclusions from that path of thought, Dougherty does little to emphasize the implications of the maker movement beyond the first couple of chapters and his conclusion. Instead, the book reads like a lengthy article profiling a handful of makers who, excuse the pun, made it. And while that’s interesting to some folks on its own, it doesn’t make the work especially useful, particularly in the context of its subtitle, “How the Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds.” Another point toward the article-esque feeling of the work is the writing style. Dougherty’s background with Make: magazine means this writing style makes sense, but it doesn’t serve the nature of the thing he’s writing. What is perhaps readable and even interesting in small amounts becomes tedious in a book-length piece.

Dougherty’s focus suffers as he notably emphasizes making that revolves around technology and what you traditionally think of when you think tools. There’s a brief moment in which Dougherty nods to crafters (and we can go on about how “making” is masculine and “crafting” is feminine, but that’s for another time), but despite the fact that crafting is making, its sadly absent from the pages of Free to Make. To be sure, it does not fit neatly within the maker movement. Craft fairs, with pre-made and made-to-order items available for sale have been around for years, taking up booths in high school gymnasiums and boasting the skills of their crafters (read: makers). And yet (and, I’ll return briefly to this, because I do think it’s important, if not strictly relevant — I think this may be because crafting is feminine and making is masculine so we as a society, Dougherty included, place more value on making than we do crafting), crafting is not a thing in Dougherty’s maker universe.

All said, if you’re a librarian, teacher, educator, or maker looking for information on how to go about building a makerspace or even making a case for a makerspace, you likely won’t find much of use here. Free to Make is full of fascinating case studies, but it doesn’t deliver what it advertises. Though easy to read and inspiring in many places, the contents are not what I’d lean on for any research on the topic.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #13, “Read a nonfiction book about technology,” and I leave it behind with three hearts.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins
Broadway Books, 2014, 304 pages
Non-Fiction (History)

Like plenty of other red-blooded Americans, I fell into the hole that is Hamilton: An American Musical in the early months of summer 2016. Also like plenty of the aforementioned Americans, I wanted to get my hands on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton – you know, the biography that inspired the musical. I have a lot of library cards. I put a hold on every single eBook version that I could find in those library systems and bided my time. But it wasn’t enough, so I went in search of more Hamilton lore and came upon Paul Collins’ Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.

Let me start with that title. If I didn’t know any better, I might guess it was the name of a Fall Out Boy song. And not only this, but it’s also incredibly misleading. While Collins does discuss Hamilton and Burr and their strategy for tackling the trial of Levi Weeks, this is but a small fraction of the contents of the book. The sensationalism here got a little out of hand and ends up leading the reader to a book that is not as advertised. Given that anyone who picks up this book is likely to be at least aware of Hamilton and Burr’s tumultuous relationship, Collins spends shockingly little word capital on their relationship outside of this trial, which would have not only been relevant, but useful in understanding the specifics of their interaction during this period.

Collins sets the stage for these events beautifully with specifics that can make the reader feel like they’re reading a novel. He certainly did his research, digging into the diaries of small players in the story or even just of local citizens who had no connection to the trial. But the legal approach and technique of Hamilton and Burr is glossed over, leaving a narrative that is deeply interesting for people looking for a vivid depiction of post-Revolutionary era New York but less so for those seeking only what the face value of the title describes.

The problem with reading nonfiction on an eReader is, you don’t necessarily know what percentage of the book is notes, so you don’t know if the end of the book will actually come at 78% or 94% — and that makes a big difference. The conclusion of the trial occurs about halfway through the book (and really doesn’t begin until at least a quarter or third into it – everything else prior sets the stage with the yellow fever, Burr’s well and his therefore potentially unethical and impartial connections to the defendant, and so on) and each of the following chapters is written like some grand conclusion. So it was with the rest of the book, I read it as if waiting for the other shoe to drop which was pretty dreadful. The content in those sections was certainly interesting and well-written otherwise, but as I kept anticipating a true end to the book, each time I came to the end of a chapter and began my happy sigh of having completed another book, I was robbed when, to be sure that the notes began on the following page, found the beginning of yet another chapter. I imagine this isn’t as much of a problem with the print book, though I maintain that the style of writing lends itself to conclusion for each of the chapters following the end of the trial.

Collins’ work could have been more focused here and certainly advertised in a more accurate fashion. But the tidbits and details throughout the book make it such an interesting read that it moves quickly and paints, at least for me, a new light onto post-Revolutionary America. While I was left wanting for something truer to what the title promised, I was ultimately happy with what I got when I separated the work from its title. Whether you’re a Hamilhead, you’re interested in history, or you’re just looking to step outside the usual novel for something compelling but different, Duel with the Devil will satisfy you.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder
Broadway Books, 2014, 320 pages
Nonfiction (Data Science)

Despite not being terribly old, Dataclysm by Christian Rudder already has two editions with two different subtitles. The eBook edition I read had the subtitle of Love, Sex, Race, and Identity while another version emphasizes with Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Looking). I note this because I think this marketing strategy is interesting, especially as the two subtitles are so different and imply completely different things about the content of the book. I’ll also point out that, while I (and many others) pronounce “data” as “date-uh,” the title demands the pronunciation of “dah-tah” to reap the rewards of the, er, pun.

Christian Rudder, as a founder of OKCupid, has access to an extraordinary amount of data (dahtah, I remind myself). While discussing the habits of OKCupid users, Rudder broadens the implications he finds there to the whole of society – at least in America and sometimes beyond. The problem with this, and Rudder does admit it, is his data is not representative of any actual population aside from the population that uses OKCupid. Despite his acknowledgement (and a brief chapter on users who are not WASP-y men), Rudder often writes as if the information he extrapolates from this population can be applied across any and all spectrums. I may only have a minor in Psychology (and, yeah, I avoided the stats class – oops), but even I know that is poor scholarship.

Admittedly, the book is a work of popular nonfiction, so I suppose some might argue it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s interesting and somewhat informative. But the problem with acting as if your research is comprehensive aside from a few nods otherwise is that people will use that information as such and it can do some serious damage to how society ultimately operates. Insidiously, yes, but impactful nonetheless. There’s also a piece Rudder never really did acknowledge – the fact is, there’s only one kind of person who will use OKCupid/dating sites: people who will use OKCupid/dating sites. Meanwhile, Rudder takes the information from this particular dataset and applies much of it to the American population at large. Surely there are at least sometimes fundamental differences between the people who are willing or choose to use dating sites and those who are not. What, for example, about technophobes?

All this said, if you’re a straight, probably-middle-class, white person living in America, you might find a good deal of this book insightful to not only others but yourself. Rudder has an accessible form of writing that makes even complicated data structures, theories, and concepts, easy to grasp for the layperson. Rudder does a pretty excellent job explaining the various graphs he used, some of which were in formats totally new to me, which was exciting (though I made the mistake of reading this on a black-and-white Kindle, which made some interpretation challenging – get the print, if you can). What’s more, he explains it in an order that makes sense and doesn’t bog the reader down with details. Instead, he explains the essentials, points out a few especially interesting details, and leaves the rest (with some encouragement) for you to coax out yourself with careful examination of the graph.

He’s funny, too, though perhaps overly self-deprecating in some parts. One passage leads him to provide a picture of his adolescent-self with no reining in on the punches. Rudder relishes in his nerdiness, which, as it is, happens to be trendy right now, so more power to him. Regardless of his approach, the humor itself adds another layer of accessibility to an otherwise often-inaccessible, but increasingly in-demand and important, subject.

Ultimately, the content in Dataclysm can’t begin to cover the actual topic at hand. Like many a teacher and professor told me, the subject is too broad; narrow it down. Rudder might have done well with this somewhat-nebulous topic if he’d gone more in-depth and written something lengthier, though that would likely take away from its readability and popular intrigue. Smart readers will recognize there’s a great deal of complexity behind each statement that Rudder chooses to avoid, but I’m again torn between feeling this is at the reader’s detriment and feeling the book wouldn’t have such wide appeal if he did go into greater detail.

Dataclysm is a great introduction to the world of data. As someone who primarily lives outside of the data world, I found myself understanding a great deal more about it than I had previously (despite numerous explanations of various data theories and structures from my ever-patient data scientist boyfriend). The organization, for the most part, makes sense and the concrete examples Rudder offers do well to illustrate his points. If data is something you want to “get into” but don’t know where to start, maybe start here and move onto something a little more challenging and in-depth.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
HarperCollins, 2007, 290 pages
Nonfiction

I vaguely remember being introduced to Annie Dillard in my tenth grade English class. Long after having forgotten her – and Dylan Thomas, who I read around the same time and often wondered was being confused with Dillard (Dylan, Dillard, it was all the same to me) – and her story about snowballs and being one of the boys, I sent in my acceptance form to Hollins University which was, little did I know, Dillard’s alma mater. I walked the same paths as she, sat in the same classrooms, even shared a teacher or two. I have yet, sadly, to become the sensation she has been, but I hold out hope. But I’m digressing.tumblr_nxofghFTcT1qe4vfco1_1280

I finally got around to reading Dillard’s best known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek this past fall. While I had felt guilty about not having read it as a student at Hollins, reading it post-Hollins was probably for the best. Pilgrim’s look at Roanoke, Virginia, though its focus generally sits outside of the Hollins’ campus walls, made me feel as if I was visiting home again. Dillard’s grip on exploring her surroundings in every sensory permutation possible brings the environment to life.

I also want to admit that I went into Pilgrim expecting to dislike it. Also in high school, I’d been introduced to Thoreau and Emerson. Despite the pair’s ties to Louisa May Alcott (who I love), I hadn’t been impressed. In fact, the magnified look at ants one of them described – to be honest, I can’t remember which of the two existentialists wrote about the ants, I hated them both so much at the time – bored me to death. I expected Pilgrim to be much the same, as it had been advertised. The guilt pulled me into it, however, and since I was determined to read collections of essays throughout November, I couldn’t think of a better time to get it over with.

The only word that comes to mind here is, indeed. Indeed, indeed. I savored it. In either the foreword or the afterword, Dillard explains that Pilgrim is not so much a collection of essays as so many critics described it at and since its publication, but a narrative of an environment throughout the seasons. And that much is true, though it’s a winding and unfocused narrative that you may not be aware of until the thing is through and that narrative structure has been explicitly pointed out for you, as it was for me. Dillard works through the metaphysical and philosophical in indirect, meandering ways. It’s not until her inevitable punch that you realize all of the minute description leading up to it had not just been for the aesthetics, but for the thesis that the chapter led up to. With a theme for each chapter, Dillard sprinkles in other poignant lines between comments on squirrels, cicadas, and other creatures of the Roanoke Valley.

I’m often hesitant to read NYT Bestsellers or Pulitzer Prize Winners and whatnot simply because the topic of the book isn’t in my realm of interests. I imagine I’ll dislike it because I’ve read others that appear to be similar and hadn’t liked those. But each time I do, I’m surprised. This was the case with Pilgrim and others I’ve read. Even if natural observance isn’t your thing, give Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a chance – slow in some parts as it may be – and go on a journey of your own.

❤❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race by Sara Barron

The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race by Sara Barron
Three Rivers Press, 2014, 320 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

It’s admittedly been a while since I’ve read The Harm in Asking. I toyed around with the idea of not writing a review for it at all because, frankly, I have few positive things to say about it. In fact, I never even took a picture of the book because I was so sure I wouldn’t review it. However, I’m committed to reviewing as much as I read as possible and, despite being woefully behind in that, I have no real reason to not review Barron’s collection of essays. If you’re interested in the particulars of why I was less-than-impressed by this book, read on.

Barron’s essay collection is very like many other essay collections: she describes her various misadventures as a twenty-something living in New York City while pursuing the seemingly unreachable goal of a profitable career as a holder of a Bachelor’s in English. Barron suffers getting locked out of her apartment multiple times within a day, breaking a leg, and the horror of washing her landlord’s back on a regular basis among other tales. There is, in true white-girl-English-major fashion (yes, I’m aware I’m a white-girl-former-English-major), lots of alcohol involved. Overall, the theme of Barron’s collection can be summed up in two titlewords: privileged irresponsibility.

I get the whole self-deprecating humor thing. In fact, it’s something I love to do (and feel I’m pretty good at, if you don’t mind me saying so) myself. It’s my intimate knowledge of this particular brand of humor that leads me to believe Barron fails at it. While feigning self-loathing, Barron actually turns the hate on everyone around her in each of her stories, managing to blame just about everyone except herself for her problems. To her credit, she does sometimes admit to this and it’s sort-of-kind-of in her subtitle. But I found it to be a bit much. She’s regularly offensive, using long-outdated and consciously-insulting words for “jokes,” and isn’t above any category of slur. I could go on about why Barron’s take on humor is harmful, but I’ll leave the research to you (unless it pops up in the comments, in which case I’m happy to oblige). In any case, Barron’s essays felt condescending while she played the victim and everyone else was a villainous *insert racial/homophobic/ableist/sexist slur here*. It was disheartening. And this isn’t to say that Barron necessarily is condescending and plays the victim and all that — I haven’t met Barron. Her writing may be an act for all I know. This is merely how these set of essays came across.

If you can get past the general offense of Barron’s writing and take a look at the writing style, it’s really nothing remarkable. Overall, it’s not poor writing, but it also doesn’t tickle any particular sense to life. There are no especially clever turns of phrase, no heart-stopping similes, no exciting plays on words. The pace flows quickly enough and doesn’t feel disjointed or anything like it, but you’re not going to hold up this book as a piece of Great Literature.

Of the stories Barron tells, most of them are fairly similar if you take enough steps back. Barron thinks things are going well, she makes a bad decision, she complains about the situation she’s now in, she blames it on those around her, someone else solves the problem or she ignores it until it goes away (or it turns out to not really be a problem after all). With this predictable formula present in each story, it’s easy to become bored, especially as you’re inevitably turned off by one or more of her comments that somehow feel like person attacks even though she’s not saying any of this directly to you. I hate to come back to this issue and I know I’m what people like to call a “sensitive person,” but the ongoing offense became tiresome. Not only was it in poor taste, but it seemed to be a main theme and it just felt old and not funny and unoriginal. Because this was the foundation of so many of Barron’s stories, it’s hard to come away from the book with any sense of joy. If Barron’s collection is supposed to be a book of humor, I think she missed the mark.

I did manage to finish it, if only just, so it gets a heart for that. But nothing more.

❤ out of ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

Abby Reads: Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Three Rivers Press, 2012, 222 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with Mindy Kaling’s work. I mean, I know who she is and I know some of the things she’s been in, but I’ve never seen her in action. I know she was in and wrote for The Office. I know she’s got The Mindy Project going on. But really, that’s it. While I had planned on waiting to read this until I’d become more familiar with her other work, I decided there was really no point and jumped right in. I am now even more curious about her main works. Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? is fun, mostly. Kaling plays around with differDSC_0250ent styles and formats, she includes pictures from her life, her voice is very much her voice. But I was troubled by how cheaply she often pursued jokes, while at the same time berating comedians for going for low forms of humor.

While telling readers a bit about her past, how she got to where she is now, and airing general grievances about the injustices of life (trivial and otherwise), Kaling resorts to making light of sexual assault, mental illness, disabilities, Jews, trans* people, body image, and sexism. As Kaling is a person of a marginalized group (women of color), I was surprised to see all of this. I was disheartened at her use of slurs for people with mental disabilities. I was disappointed at her entire chapter on Jewish stereotypes because, “No, really, all my friends are Jews.” It’s all rather hypocritical, too, as she dedicates an entire chapter to why comedic “roasts” (in which a comedian targets a particular individual with some harsh words about them meant to be humorous — you can imagine many pieces on the Kardashians, for instance, and likely find at least a few roasts there) are inappropriate and pathetic attempts at humor. Okay, Mindy.

Despite my feelings about these issues, I did finish the book and it wasn’t all bad. Kaling has her funny moments and, when she’s not stooping to the likes of what I described above, she’s very good. Moments I wouldn’t expect to translate well in text worked. Small observations of life that, in the right light are hilarious, were riots. Kaling has the tools to do this well. She wouldn’t be where she is without her talent and skill. But the harm she does with jokes about how girls are all about getting their nails done and cupcakes (and much worse) is hugely problematic and severely knocked down my enjoyment of the book.

I found Kaling’s use of footnotes charming, if a little spare. Rather than feeling like an important piece of the way Kaling approaches comedy, they felt like an after-thought gimmick with so few sprinkled throughout the book. I’m also a fan of footnotes, though, as someone who uses too many commas and even more parenthetical asides, so maybe I’m biased.

Personally, I feel Kaling could have done better. The skill is there, the writing is there, the content isn’t.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi

Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 270 pages
Nonfiction Humor Essays

In an effort to make NaNoWriMo to go more smoothly this year, I’ve been trying to read exclusively collections of humorous essays by women. There are a ton of them out there, but they are not all stellar exemplars. Shut Up, You’re Welcome by Annie Choi isn’t, either, but it’s also not bad. Choi writes largely about her family, though also about friends and other personal adventures in her life. Unlike many similar collections, Choi’s book has the relatively unique perspective of growing up Korean American. This in itself isn’t completely unique. There are many Korean Americans living in the DSC_0025United States. However, Choi’s perspective as an author is unique — racism, intended or otherwise, is alive and well in all facets of life, publishing included. Many of the essay collections you’re likely to encounter are written by white women who grew up in middle class families, probably had a publishing internship, and now live in New York. Such is not the (complete) case for Choi, which makes this selection stand out from the others. Combined with Choi’s generally excellent sense of humor and balanced writing style, it makes Shut Up, You’re Welcome an enjoyable read.

After reading a few collections already, one of the things I most appreciated about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, was Choi’s sense of humor. All humor essayists have some sense of humor or they wouldn’t be writing what they do. Choi’s humor, however, generally refrains from much of the problematic “jokes” I’ve read in other books. It’s not completely free of issues, but is far better than some of the others. The Harm in Asking by Sara Barron, Is Everyone Hanging out without Me? by Mindy Kaling, and The Idiot Girl’s Action-Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro (at least what I’ve read so far of that one) fares far worse with “humor” about rape, trans* people, eating disorders, self harm, and various other things that really should not be joked about, some while decrying cheap humor based on “roasting” individuals. Choi, for the most part, avoids this. This does not mean her book is any less funny. In fact, I think the lack of these “jokes” makes the book more hilarious because I’m not constantly stopping to think, “Woah, went too far there. Now I’m going to be uncomfortable for the next five paragraphs.” This also indicates to me that Choi is reaching for higher forms of humor that are not as easy to achieve, but more admirable both in content and effort.

Choi also strikes the delicate balance of making fun of her family and their particular ways without making them totally unlikable or crossing the line after which they’d no longer wish to speak with her. (At least that’s my guess; I don’t know Choi’s family personally.) You grow to love Choi’s family throughout the book and, by the end, they feel like a part of your family. Chances are, you’ll likely find at least one trait from each “character” that mirrors that of someone in your life.

The prose which makes up Choi’s essays is equally well-crafted. Creative nonfiction can be difficult to do well, as employing too much dialogue ensures a lack of realism while too little can make for boring chapters. Choi seems to rely on regular phrases and verbal quirks of the people around her, picking up on pieces that will make her “characters” memorable for the reader. Setting is done similarly well, as Choi gives enough detail to settle the reader into a scene without drowning them in so much that the action of the scene is lost. Essays are fairly good lengths for people who enjoy reading for half-hour increments or so. They’re kind of like the “pick your own size” paper towels. What I really love about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, however, is its gimmick. I love a good gimmick. For Choi, the gimmick is short letters between each essay. The letters serve two purposes: to provide a breather piece between longer pieces and to introduce the following piece in some way. Letters are addressed to anyone or anything, and Choi refuses to hold back on how she really feels.

❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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