Tag: non fiction

Jul 12 2016

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day is a comedic auto-biography.  Well known within the blogging/vlogging community, Day is also something of a minority, as she is a prominent female gamer.  In addition, she has gained acclaim for her web series The Guild and is noted for her accessibility within the fan community.  As part of this, Day launched Geek and Sundry, a fan-oriented community in 2012.

Day begins her book by introducing herself to those who “have no idea who the hell I am.”  She recalls an incident during which she stopped at Build-A-Bear.  Having some time to kill, she is soon recognized by a few girls from the Hot Topic next door.  As they clamor to get pictures, a mother who is also shopping there asks “Are you an actress?”  Day explains she is also a producer and writer and then realizing she is rambling says “Yes, I’m an actress.”

What follows is a surreal moment in which neither the mother, her daughter, or the sales clerk recognize her, raising the defensive ire of the “Hot Topics” as Day has dubbed them.

Extracting herself from the situation as gracefully as possible, Day heads to tour the Virgin Galactic hangar as part of a social media invite.  Such is the surrealness of her life, she reflects.

Based on those two factors, Day makes the assumption that the reader is either extremely excited to read her book (“OMG! FELICIA DAY WROTE A BOOK!”) or extremely confused (“Who the hell is this chick?”)  For those in the former category, she thanks you.  For those in the latter category she hopes you will stick around.

The first chapter, “Why I’m Weird”, details Day’s eccentric childhood.  Having attended regular schools for kindergarten and first grade, Day is sent to a conservative Lutheran school for second grade.  Her parents were not religious, but the school was the best in their Alabama community.  Day reflect that she enjoyed the school except for having to attend chapel everyday.

Due to a chapel illustration involving the burning of money, Day is soon pulled out of the Lutheran school and placed into a school that practices “unschooling.”  Day states that she does not remember much about that place except that they quickly closed, having embezzled the parents’ money.

Soon Day’s father is transferred from Huntsville to Biloxi at which point it is decided that Day and her brother Ryon will be home-schooled.  This goes well for about a week until any semblance of structure in their lives gradually ebbs.

Having just moved and not being on any official government lists, there is no one to supervise their schooling.  Art becomes something along the lines of “Can the doodles in the margins of my geometry chapter count as art?”  “Sure!”, and history becomes driving around the state visiting all the Civil War sites.  The one constant in their education is that they are expected to read constantly.

Eventually Day’s father becomes concerned, and Day and her brother are signed up for an  extensive array of lessons.  Ballet, jazz, martial arts, watercoloring, etc.  If it was available and fit into their schedule, Day and her brother were signed up for it.  Eventually Day makes her way to the end of her education and, during the writing of her book, realizes she has two college degrees but no high school diploma.

Having done some acting and modeling as a child, Day decides to return to Los Angeles after college to pursue an acting career.  Two months after moving, Day wraps up her first real acting stint and is cut a check for 90 dollars which bounces.  On follow up, Day finds out that the production company had shut down and disappeared.  She never got paid.  She does, however, decide to frame the check as a funny story to tell on Actors Studio after she is successful.

In 2005, at the peak of what Day refers to as her “auditioning for burger commercials” career, her brother invites her to play a new game called World of Warcraft.  Through the game, Day is able to connect with her brother and make new friends, but quickly becomes addicted, forgoing auditions, personal relationships, and most outside activities.  Day later draws on her experiences during this time in the creation of her web series The Guild which, in turn, is the work that finally launched her career.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and honest look into the early life and struggles of someone who has managed to make a career out of being socially awkward.  The Guild has won several awards for online series, and in 2009 was labeled “one of the Nets best serial shows” by Rolling Stone.  Geek and Sundry was launched in 2012 as part of YouTube’s 100 million dollar original channel initiative.

Day writes in an easy, conversational voice.  The tone of her writing belies the fact that Day is, in fact, an intense intellectual who started college at the age of 16 and graduated in the top four percent with dual degrees in mathematics and violin performance.  While her insecurities may seem off putting to some readers, Day manages to remain relatable with her comedic self-deprecation.

Readers who enjoyed Just A Geek by Wil Wheaton, or Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson should enjoy You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).  All three books are written by celebrities who exude more of an Everyman persona.  Each of the authors is well known for their approachability and their frequent, personal interactions with fans.  All three authors have also shared intimate details their mutual struggles with anxiety and depression, allowing insight into their treatment, how these issues have impacted their careers and their creative efforts.  Finally, the three authors have developed lasting personal friendships with each other.  This has resulted in overlap in not only their books, but many of their professional endeavors.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a fun and quirky read accessible even to those who have never heard the name Felicia Day.

 

Rating: 

Jun 21 2016

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Over the course of his career, Neil Gaiman has written a number of essays, introductions, and speeches.  The View from the Cheap Seats pulls together over sixty of these pieces in one place for the first time.

For veteran fans of Gaiman, many of these writings will revisit previously seen works.  For newer fans, The View from the Cheap Seats is a rare and quite interesting look into the mind of one of the greatest modern writers.

The book’s preface sets the tone the collection with Gaiman’s personal credo: a very brief summary of the basic tenants by which he lives his life and which influence his writings.

Many of Gaiman’s beliefs seem self-evident: killing or maiming others to suppress ideas doesn’t work.  Neither does attempting to control the ideas or thoughts of others.  Gaiman argues that ideas in and of themselves are neither good nor bad – they simply exist and members of society should be free to express those ideas no matter how vile or reprehensible they seem to others.  Rather, Gaiman states, it is up to each person to counter and persuade those representing the vile and reprehensible over to their side.

From there, Gaiman jumps into a speech on the importance of libraries that he gave in 2013 for the Reading Agency, a U.K. charity whose mission is to help people become more confident readers. Gaiman admits that, as an author, he is biased towards libraries.  He also gives the reader a small insight into how libraries and librarians shaped his path when he was a child.  During the summer months, his parents dropped him at the library on their way to work and picked him up on their way home.  There he worked his way through the card catalogue looking for books on vampires, witches, detectives, and other wonders.  After he had finished with the children’s library, he began on the adult books.  During this process, the librarians nurtured his love of reading by teaching him about interlibrary loans and steering him toward other books he might enjoy.

Touching on his personal credo from the opening of the book, Gaiman later talks about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN literary gala.  Since six tables had pulled out of hosting tables and so Gaiman was asked if he would step in to host one.  He agreed and what follows is a deeply personal and touching moment between him and his wife, Amanda Palmer.  Palmer tells him he is doing the right thing and then asks “Will you wear a bullet proof vest?”  Gaiman argues that security will be tight and tries to assuage her fears by assuring her a vest will not be necessary.

“But you should wear a vest anyway.” Palmer argues.  “Remember, I’m pregnant, and our child will need a father more than a martyr.”  In the end, Gaiman does not wear the vest, but the exchange is a startling reminder of the power of ideas and words.  Comics and cartoons can viscerally offend, Gaiman argues, but that does not mean they should not be defended.  In closing, he quotes the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking.  Being shocked is part of democratic debate.  Being shot is not.”

The View from the Cheap Seats is an odd mixture in both quality and subject matter.  Some of the writings are deeply personal, giving the reader a rare and intimate view into the writer’s childhood, school life, and very early career.  Gaiman shares his personal insecurities in interviewing authors he has long admired and reveals the origins of his friendships with figures such as Tori Amos, and Terry Pratchett.  Included among these is a moving tribute to Douglas Adams.

Other elements of the book are as ungainly as their titles suggest, such as “A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at PROCON, April 1997.”  As a reader and a reviewer that particular entry was a head scratcher.  Even in the seemingly banal, however, Gaiman manages to shine by offering an intriguing look into the publishing industry just before the Internet exploded and changed everything.

Throughout the book are numerous personal anecdotes of people famous and otherwise with whom Gaiman has formed close relationships over the course of his career.  Few though are as touching as the tribute to his wife’s late surrogate father, Anthony.

Intertwining themes of living and dying, Gaiman reveals the path of his relationship with Palmer and by extension, Anthony.  Ironically, Gaiman and Palmer meet as a result of her commissioning Gaiman to write a handful of stories and poems for her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?”  During their first date, she introduces Gaiman to Anthony who proclaims that he thinks Gaiman would make a good boyfriend.  Despite not yet realizing Anthony’s importance to Palmer, Gaiman is nonetheless pleased.  Anthony soon becomes not simply Palmer’s close friend but a trusted confidant and counsel to Gaiman.  Then, approximately six months after Gaiman and Palmer are married, Anthony is diagnosed with leukemia.  In the midst of this, two other of Gaiman and Palmer’s friends die unexpectedly.  Finally, the news is delivered that Anthony is in remission.  Sadly, however, a post-script reveals that Anthony in fact died from leukemia in June of 2015.  What is not revealed in the piece, but is of importance, is that three months later, Palmer gave birth to a son, named Anthony in honor of their dear friend.

Fans of Gaiman’s previous works will find themselves enthralled with The View from the Cheap Seats.  Gaiman has long had a reputation for being open and accessible to fans.  The View from the Cheap Seats, however, offers a deeper, more intimate look at Gaiman’s early life and career.  One can easily imagine from his prose a serious and quiet little Neil Gaiman stuffed into the corner of his local library.

Those previously unfamiliar with Gaiman should enjoy his conversational style and dry humor.  Gaiman is that rare mixture of both famous and unassuming.  It is clear from his writing and the stories he relates that he is exactly as he seems: a somewhat befuddled English bloke who likes to tell stories.

 

Rating: 

Jan 26 2016

Review: Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton is the third in the Humans of New York series.  Preceded by Humans of New York and Little Humans, Humans of New York: Stories was born out of Brandon’s experiences in creating the first book.

The first book in the Humans of New York series is primarily a photographic essay.  Brandon purchased his first camera six months before losing his job as a bond trader.  A weekend trip to New York inspired Brandon with its vast array of eclectic and vibrant residents.  Brandon’s original plan for his blog was to create a map with ten thousand photographs of New Yorkers plotted across it.  Eventually, he begin adding short quotes and captions to the photos.  This new format rapidly increased the site’s popularity and out of this came the first Humans of New York book.

The original book is almost entirely visual.  Stories and captions are sparse, save for a simple location reveal or simple information describing the photo.  This allows the photos to stand on their own giving the reader an opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the scene.

As Brandon collected photos for the first book, he found the camera served as a conduit for people to open up and tell him their stories.  From this, Brandon decided the world would benefit from the sharing of these stories, so he came up with Humans of New York: Stories.

In Humans of New York: Stories the reader is treated to the same concept of the original book, but this time with the something extra.  Instead of spartan captions or mere location tags, the new book is filled with accompanying text.

From small children to the most wizened of adults, no person is deemed as less or more, nor is anyone portrayed as more important than the others.

Many of the stories are whimsical such as the little girl of about three who gleefully exclaims “You’re taking my picture!”  Next there is the small boy, perhaps 5 or 6 in age, who profoundly describes how he wants to build bridges in Wisconsin because he feels as if there are a lot of people in Wisconsin who don’t have bridges.  The wrinkle in his plan?  He’s not entirely certain where Wisconsin is.  A few pages later is the Sikh boy holding his infant brother who says his favorite aspect of his younger sibling is that “he’s cute.”

Some of the stories are more inspirational in tone.  There is the 20 something year old woman in a wheelchair who wants to become a diplomat in order to make life in China easier for people with disabilities.  She reveals that she lived in a Chinese orphanage until she was 10 and was unable to attend school because she couldn’t walk.  At the end of her story the reader discovers that she has begun with first step with an acceptance to the London School of Economics.

The book is also a study of contrasts.  Across the page from the aspiring diplomat is a middle aged man who states that he served ten years in prison.  When questioned why he responds “…Organized crime.  Allegedly.”  In the span of five short sentences, one gets the distinct impression that even though this man is currently anonymous his face will one day be plastered on the news.

In fact, in the original Humans of New York, Brandon reveals that one couple he photographed later became a national headline after a cache of explosives was discovered in their apartment.

Nothing is off limits in Humans of New York: Stories and Brandon delves into a considerable range of topics.

There are the two teenagers who don’t seem to know yet if they are friends or something more.  There is the elderly couple who cannot agree whether this is their 61st or 62nd anniversary.  Sandwiched in the middle of this mini-essay is the young couple whose nervousness is evident as they reveal they are on their first date.

Many of the stories are poignant reminders of the fact that circumstance and life can change practically on a dime.

This is best highlighted with a three page spread of a young man who talks about how he and his wife were at dinner soon before her due date of their first child.  While enjoying their meal they received a phone call that they needed to get to the hospital quickly as Marwa’s (the soon to be mother) platelet count was low.  At the hospital they are assured that things will be fine, but a a few days later the man finds himself a widower with a newborn baby.  While he describes meeting her as evoking a “finally home” feeling, losing her creates an emptiness in him that he cannot imagine ever filling.

The stories continue on from cute and funny to serious and heart breaking.  The common theme throughout is that our stories connect us.

In keeping with that theme, Brandon has used the visibility his blog grants him to promote and fund humanitarian causes.

Recently he travelled to Pakistan and Iran to highlight stories of residents from those countries.  He also did a lengthy feature on the refugee crisis revealing harrowing tales of escape.

Through stories revealed readers of the HONY (Humans of New York) blog have helped numerous people.  From refugees feeling terrorist attack, to a woman in New York who fled an abusive situation with four children and was facing eviction.  Other fundraisers helped a man who lost his tractor in an accident and a Pakistani woman who also had left an abusive relationship with a young daughter and was in need of treatment for Hepatitis C.  Finally, HONY raised over 2 million dollars for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.

There are few books with which to compare Humans of New York: Stories.  While there are a number of photo essay books, none touch on the human experience in the same manner.

Readers might find interest in life. love. beauty. by Keegan Allen.  Like Humans of New York: Stories, Allen intersperses story and caption with his photos.  life. love. beauty. however is more a personal photographic memoir as it centers around his career and the people he encounters within that setting.

Humans of New York: Stories is well deserving of its best seller status.  The stories pull the reader in causing them to love, laugh, and cry.  In short, Humans of New York: Stories strives to make the world a smaller, better place, and succeeds brilliantly.

Jan 13 2015

Review: As You Wish and What If?

Nearly everyone who grew up during the 1980’s has a special fondness for the movie The Princess Bride.  Adults who would have been in their teens when the movie was first released understand the special meaning of the phrase “As You Wish”, are perhaps just a little suspicious of anyone with six fingers, and know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia.

In honor of the movie’s twenty-seventh anniversary, Cary Elwes, best known as Westley, has released a behind the scenes retrospective.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride recalls Elwes’ memories of landing the role (a Bill Cosby impression is involved) and working with director Rob Reiner and writer Bill Goldman.  Elwes also discusses working with actors such as Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Billy Crystal, all of whom he interviewed for the book.  In addition, Elwes recounts the various challenges and setbacks that went into getting the film to the screen.  Since the book’s publication in 1973, a number of big names from Robert Redford to Francis Truffaut had toyed with trying their hand at a film.  The issue was that no one quite knew what to do with a sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes satirical swashbuckling romance.  Finally, Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of Stand By Me was offered a carte blanche choice by Columbia Studios.  By that point, The Princess Bride had earned a reputation as unfilmable and did in fact meet with a mediocre response at best upon opening.  Thanks to the advent of the VCR, however, The Princess Bride found it’s way into the homes of millions and became a sleeper hit.

Elwes’ writes as if he and the reader are two chums recalling old times while sitting in front of a fire.  Each knows all the stories of the other but still can’t resist repeating them just one more time.  His narrative style is casual with a few previously unknown bits of trivia thrown in for good measure.  As a reader, I found myself wanting just a little more, while as an avid fan of the movie I found myself enjoying the sidebar bits from others involved in the movie.

Casual fans of the movie or those looking for a sensationalistic soap opera will be disappointed.  Hard core fans who can recite every line on a whim, will find enjoyment.

Interesting bits of trivia include Elwes detailing the intense training he and Patinkin endured in order to pull off “the sword fight to end all sword fights”, Billy Crystal’s ad-lib “have fun storming the castle”, and Shawn’s constant fear that he would be replaced by Danny DeVito.  One is left with the feeling that perhaps Elwes is holding back even as his praise of his co-stars is ebullient.  Overall, As You Wish makes a nice book for the more earnest of fans, but will fail to impress casual readers.

 

Rating: 


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe does exactly what the title says.  Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, is best known for his webcomic xkcd.  Drawn primarily using basic stick figure characters, xkcd address issues from love and life to scientific or mathematical in-jokes.  Occasionally the strip features intricate landscapes or mathematical patterns.  In July 2012, Munroe launched a secondary website entitled What If? in which he answered reader submitted questions.  This book is compiled from those questions.

Though a math and science book at it’s core, What If? presents its subject matter in a light hearted, easily accessible manner.  Questions range from the reasonably serious “How dangerous is it, really, to be in a pool during a thunderstorm?”  (Answer:  Pretty dangerous) to the more silly such as “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?”  (Answer: you can’t really.)  Interspersed among the explanations, Munroe has inserted xkcd-style illustrations which create a better understanding for the reader.

Sprinkled throughout the book are twelve questions that Munroe decided not to answer or gave very abbreviated answers.  Labeled “weird and worrying questions from the inbox”, these include questions such as “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?”  or “What if I swallow a tick that has Lyme disease?  Would I get Lyme disease from the inside out?”  In some respects I found these more entertaining than the rest of the book, in that they are of a more personal nature.

Non scientific or mathematically inclined readers should not be put off by the subject matter.  Although some of the explanations involve equations and scientific premises with which I was unfamiliar, they are presented in an easily understandable and accessible manner.  In addition, the book presents some interesting real life application to the science fiction or fantasy world.  For example, the Death Star in Star Wars essentially created a 15 magnitude earthquake on Alderaan.  (This segues into an explanation of what it would be like if earthquakes with a negative magnitude hit your house.)

Readers familiar with Munroe’s work will find the same dry humor in longer form.  With more room in which to create his explanations, Munroe is able to stretch the humor and create a better set up for the sketches.

Newcomers or casual acquaintances will find themselves hooked from the disclaimer gracing the first page.  Even the book itself maintains the xkcd style in that the inside cover is actually a full-size infographic of what the Earth would look like if the oceans were drained from the bottom of the Marianas trench.  Instead of the normal praise from other authors, the back of the book is a collection of things the reader might want to know before making their purchase.  For example, “Humans can’t digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories.”

What If? is a highly entertaining book which will make the reader laugh at least as much as it makes them think.

 

Rating: 

 

 

 

Jul 08 2014

Review: Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

As adults, many of us know the detailed history of the American Revolution.  We’ve heard the tale of Paul Revere’s ride, of the Founding Fathers, and of Nathan Hale’s last words.  Not much, however, is told about the role of women in the fight for independence.  With this in mind, I decided to review Cokie Roberts’ book Founding Mothers.   Roberts is the daughter of two prominent former members of Congress and is a well-respected news anchor.  Two versions of her book were created: one for children and a more in-depth one for adults. I have addressed both in this review.

Each book opens with Deborah Reed, the wife of Benjamin Franklin.  In both versions, we discover that Deborah and Franklin met while they were still in their late teens, fell out of touch but reconnected years later.  In the expanded adult version, we discover that Franklin was sent away on business and quickly forgot about Deborah.  As a result, her mother married her off to another man who eventually disappeared in the West Indies.  Later, after Franklin and Reed reconnect, they are unable to legally marry due to the fact that her first husband’s death cannot be proven.  The relationship was well accepted however, so Deborah took the name Franklin and became recognized as his wife.

In the children’s version, we are told that Benjamin was appointed as Postmaster and required to travel extensively, leaving Deborah to run the Post Office in his stead.  Roberts expands on this in the adult version, and we find out that Franklin traveled to England for an extended period, setting up household with another woman while his wife ran a sundry shop and maintained the post office.  In addition, Deborah later kept the books for Benjamin’s print shop and invested in real estate, opening some of the first franchises in the country.

After traveling back and forth, Franklin returned to England promising to be back within seven months.  He did not return until after Deborah’s death more than ten years later.

Both of Roberts’ books give us glimpses into some of the lesser known women of the Revolution.  A brief quote from The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet tells of a Mrs. Pond who fed more than 100 Patriot soldiers the morning after the Battle of Lexington.

Other less famous women include Emily Geiger who carried a message through British territory for General Greene.  She was detained by British soldiers who called in a woman to search her.  During the delay, Emily could memorize the message and swallow the paper evidence.  Finding no justification in keeping her, the British freed her, and she rode on to deliver the message.

Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington, New York.  Afterwards, she took up his artillery position and was wounded three times.  Unable to work after the war, Corbin petitioned Congress for a retired soldier’s pension.  They agreed, making her the first woman in United States history to receive a military pension.  She was re-buried at West Point in 1926 and is one of two Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

One amusing mention in Roberts’ book is of Mary Lindley Murray.  After defeating the Patriots at Kips Bay in 1776, British General Howe and his soldiers stopped at Mary’s house for dinner.  Mary was quite generous with the wine and managed to distract Howe and his men long enough for the American soldiers to escape.

Another notable woman of the Revolution was Deborah Sampson.  In the children’s version of her book, Roberts’ tells us that Deborah made herself a suit of men’s clothing and joined the army as Robert Shurtleff.  After serving for more than three years and being wounded twice, Deborah eventually fell ill and was discovered by the doctor treating her.  She was then forced to leave the army and after the war had ended was granted a soldier’s retirement pay and recognized by Congress for her service.

In the adult version of this tale, Roberts fills in a few more details.  Deborah Sampson did indeed serve as Robert Shurtleff for more than three years.  Ironically, the men she served alongside nicknamed her “Molly” due to her inability to grow a beard, never realizing that “he” was indeed “she”.  The doctor who discovered her secret kept it hidden and sent her on a mission to deliver a letter to General Washington who immediately granted her an honorable discharge and enough money to get home.  Years later, after several petitions to Congress, she was granted a retirement pension of $76.80 per year and some land to live on.

Roberts delves into the histories and services of many other women of the Revolution. The Daughters of Liberty began a boycott of merchants that sold British goods and created “spinning bees” where they spun cloth to provide clothing for the Patriot army.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney at the age of 19 decided to grow indigo for the soldier’s uniforms and eventually created one of the largest agricultural businesses in South Carolina.

Roberts also tells us about the women of whom we all have heard, such as Martha Washington.  Martha is credited as being one of the first people to receive the smallpox inoculation, thus encouraging the soldiers by example.  The inoculation is now considered to have given the American army a major advantage over the British.  In addition, the reader is told about Abigail Adams who ran her husband’s farm while overseeing the education of their young children, wrote letters favoring the abolition of slavery, and spent much of her life advocating women’s equality.

Both books do an excellent job of keeping the subject matter fresh and interesting.  In the children’s version of Founding Mothers, Roberts manages to present the subject matter in a way that is easily accessible but is not dumbed-down.

In the adult version, she gives more detailed anecdotes of the women’s lives and the roles they played in shaping the early days of our country, but does not bore the reader with irrelevant trivia.

I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them to readers interested in learning more about the women of the American Revolution.

 

Rating: 
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