Genre: Nonfiction

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{Review} Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

May 18, 2015 Review 3 ★★★

{Review} Orange is the New Black by Piper KermanOrange Is the New Black: A Memoir by Piper Kerman
Published by Spiegel & Grau on March 8, 2011
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 314
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

I picked up a copy of Orange is the New Black at my library’s spring book sale last month because 1) I like non-fiction, and it seems to be one of the very few things that can still draw me in while I’m in this god-awful book slump and 2) I wanted to see how it faired to the TV show.

When I first heard about the TV show I was slightly curious. My mother said she wanted us to try it out as one of our new shows, but upon further investigation, I discovered it was not really the kind of show I was comfortable watching with my family, haha! Over the next year or so though, I kept hearing how great of a show it was, from the great acting to the complex lives of the female characters, and I was loving what I was seeing on my Tumblr dashboard, so I figured I’d give it a shot in the frigid months of January and February. Tumblr was right (really, has it failed me before on TV shows? Nope), of course, and I’m now anxiously awaiting Season 3!

But back to Kerman’s memoir. I think is the case of the TV adaption being way better than its source material (could it really shine without the amazing presence of Laverne Cox though?), although Orange is the New Black isn’t a bad read, not at all. It held my attention and was informative and funny. I didn’t really learn a whole lot more than I already knew about the prison system though, and I think illustrating statistics among the system via each character’s lived experiences on the TV show works better than having Kerman rattle off information about race, class, sexuality within the prison industrial complex. One thing that I did like compared to the TV series was that Larry was much less annoying, haha!

Overall, a solid read but it doesn’t hold a flame to the TV show!

3 Stars

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{Review} Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

May 12, 2014 Review 0 ★★★★★

{Review} Ex Libris by Anne FadimanEx Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on November 25, 2000
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 162
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.

This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.

COVER TALK

I really like the design choices for this book.  The simplicity of the cover design is really attractive, and I adore the illustration. A girl sitting on a stack of books pretty much defines my childhood (though I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever sat on a stack of books).

EXPECTATIONS

I originally heard about Ex Libris from Tania (who wrote the fashion blog What Would a Nerd Wear from 2009 to 2012, which I love), here and here. Her reviews are glowing, so I was really excited to pick up Ex Libris. It’s a book about loving books, so I couldn’t resist when I accidentally came across it in Chapters one day.

MY THOUGHTS

I loved Ex Libris. As I said, it’s a book about books, but what I like about this one is that Fadiman talks about so many different aspects of reading. Ex Libris is comprised of eighteen essays, each on a different aspect of reading; for example, there are essays on “marrying libraries,” or the process of integrating one’s library with one’s significant other; categorizing and organizing libraries; the joy of words; writing in books; etc. Fadiman writing reveals her as a lifelong, passionate lover of books; she describes growing up surrounded by books, and in doing so, she writes, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.” To me, this sentiment encapsulates so much of what I love about Ex Libris. It’s a book about loving books, but it’s also about how books shape people, and the power they have once they have infiltrated our lives.

One of my favourite essays was the first one, “Marrying Libraries.” I’ve never gone through this process myself, but I’ll be honest – it’s definitely something I’ve thought about before! Fadiman talks about a number of dilemmas readers face when consolidating libraries, like whose copy of the same book to keep, and whose organizational system to use.  I have to share one exchange Fadiman writes about from this process, because I laughed out loud:

     “You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?” he gasped. “But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!”
“Well,” I blustered, “we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I’d like to see that reflected on our shelves.”
George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.

This small example of Fadiman’s dry, wry humour is one of the reasons I love the book so much. We have a similar taste in humour, so I found many parts of the book hilarious. Fadiman’s tales about coming from a well-read family are hilarious. I thought the stories she recounted about reading-related mishaps were so true to life, and the way Fadiman reports them really makes her memories come to life in an entertaining way.

I also loved her essay “The Odd Shelf,” because it introduced an idea to me I’d never considered before. “It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf,” she writes. “On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of bound sets of ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub. Philip Larkin had an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking. Vice Admiral James Stockdale, having heard that Frederick the Great had never embarked on a campaign without his copy of The Encheiridion, brought to Vietnam the complete works of Epictetus, whose Stoic philosophy was to sustain him through eight years as a prisoner of war. My own Odd Shelf holds sixty-four books about polar exploration: expedition narratives, journals, collections of photographs, works of natural history, and naval manuals.” Isn’t it fascinating to think about 1) your own Odd Shelf contains, and 2) what everyone else’s does? I had never thought about my own book collection in this way, and I’m not quite sure yet how I’d characterize my Odd Shelf, but it seems like a really fun way to get to know someone, or to think about other people’s libraries critically as an extension of their person.

I think a lot of readers will empathize with Fadiman’s “Never Do That to a Book,” in one way or another. The essay explores the idea of two types of readers, characterized as lovers: courtly lovers and carnal lovers. Fadiman opens the discussion by recounting a family trip in which the hotel chambermaid left a note on Fadiman’s brother’s book, saying he should never leave a book facedown on a table. Fadiman writes, “I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, there is more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.  Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.” I feel like book lovers can be strictly divided on this subject, and I myself have undergone quite a change in perspective on the matter. Throughout my childhood I was a courtly lover of literature, but after studying English literature at university, I have become more of a carnal lover of literature: I no longer cringe at writing in books, or bending the pages, or the covers fraying. I still hate the thought of dog-earing pages, but I am pretty lax about everything else these days.

One of my other favourite essays was “The P.M.’s Empire of Books,” which is all about how to organize and catalogue one’s personal library. In it Fadiman talks quite extensively about Gladstone’s On Books and the Housing of Them, which presents a really detailed mathematical model for building a library that maximizes space most efficiently. Fadiman writes, “As I contemplate the vista of my own book-choked apartment, I sometimes wonder whether the only thing that could prevent my library from extruding me onto the streets of Manhattan would be a visit from Gladstone and a few rolling shelves.” I think we can all relate to that, no? I have books coming out of my ears in my room.

One thing that is very clear is Fadiman’s extensive literary knowledge. The fact that she is so well-read shines through in her writing, and I love the way she writes: with variety and vivacity. One thing that continually struck me is how exciting her sentence structure is – I realize that may be an odd thing to notice, but I feel like that can often be the mark of a really great writer. Fadiman clearly knows how to write well, and her essays read like sharply edited snippets with relevant recollections and humorous anecdotes thrown in.

Ultimately, I recommend this 100%, to any book lover. In one of Tania’s reviews, she wrote that “my family likes to joke that we are single-handedly keeping food on the Fadiman family table, because we’ve bought this collection of essays for any friend who’s had a birthday in the past ten years.” I can definitely see myself contributing to the sales of this book in a similar way in the future, because it has become an automatic gift idea for every reader in my life!

JOIN THE CONVO!

Do you enjoy reading books about books? Have you ever read Ex Libris, or any of Anne Fadiman’s other work? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts (or any others) in the comments below!

5 Stars

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{Review} The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

January 15, 2014 Review 4

{Review} The Wilder Life by Wendy McClureThe Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
Published by Riverhead on April 14, 2011
Genres: Autobiography, Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Library
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Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder -- a fantastic realm of fiction, history, and places she's never been to, yet somehow knows by heart. She retraces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family -- looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota. She immerses herself in all things Little House, and explores the story from fact to fiction, and from the TV shows to the annual summer pageants in Laura's hometowns. Whether she's churning butter in her apartment or sitting in a replica log cabin, McClure is always in pursuit of "the Laura experience." Along the way she comes to understand how Wilder's life and work have shaped our ideas about girlhood and the American West.

The Wilder Life is a loving, irreverent, spirited tribute to a series of books that have inspired generations of American women. It is also an incredibly funny first-person account of obsessive reading, and a story about what happens when we reconnect with our childhood touchstones -- and find that our old love has only deepened.

// COVER TALK //

I really like this cover. Pretty much any book with a picture of a book on it will win me over. I generally like books with simplistic covers, like this one — I like that the title, subtitle, and author’s name are very clear. Plus, the colour is great; I think books with an eye-catching colour like this can really stand out on bookstore and library shelves.

// EXPECTATIONS //

I had pretty limited expectations going into this book. I didn’t read any reviews or really hear anything about it from other readers beforehand. I originally found it at Chapters, and added it to my to-read list. A couple months later I found it in my library’s ebook collection and decided to go for it!

// MY THOUGHTS //

I loved the premise of this book. I am someone who loves to revisit my old childhood favourites. One of my favourite authors to read as a little girl was L. M. Montgomery and her Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series. My family spent many summers traveling to the maritime provinces, and we visited P.E.I. several times. I loved imagining Anne and Emily wandering the island. So, I could totally relate to McClure’s desire to reimagine Laura Ingalls Wilder and visit her haunts.

While I really liked the concept, some parts of the book did feel repetitive to me. For almost the entire book, McClure pursues a sort of ideal relationship with the Laura books. She wants the trappings of prairie life — the outfits, the butter churning, the cabin in the woods — to make her feel somehow connected to Laura. While I can understand that longing (and have indeed attempted the same thing myself), it was at points tedious for her to continue trying for something that seems impossible to obtain. On the other side of the coin, it is a memoir and for that reason I do like that McClure is honest about her journey with Laura and doesn’t sugarcoat her experience.

McClure’s writing was surprisingly beautiful to me. Because it’s presented as a memoir and travelogue of sorts, I was expecting very factual writing. But I highlighted so many phrases and paragraphs on my ereader with this book, because McClure is able to perfectly capture the childhood impressions that have long passed, the wistful remembrances of adulthood, and that emotional and trying transition from childhood to adolescent to adult. I particularly enjoyed reading McClure’s thoughts about her experiences with the Little House books and literature more generally. For example, the following quote really spoke to me:

“Eventually I would love other books: I’d swoon through my lit classes, major in English, collect thin books of poetry, feel very close to Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth Bishop. But only with the Little House series was I ever truly a fan, with wide swaths of my imagination devoted to the prairies of Laura World.”

McClure is also very smart and very thoughtful. I was often caught off guard by comments that didn’t “fit” within my initial perception of the book — in a good way. The Little House books always seemed very girly and, honestly, a bit “fluffy” in a way. But McClure takes the time to delve much deeper into the books and her insights not only make it clear why she loves them, but also made me love them more. At one point she writes, “what bugs me the most about the tomboy designation is the way it implies that Laura’s grubby antics are somehow beyond the realm of ordinary girl experience.” Observations like this — about gender, education, and literature generally — were really well-placed and were a fantastic addition to the less intellectual parts about McClure’s experiments in the prairie lifestyle and her travels to Laura landmarks.

I really liked this book and would be interested to check out more of McClure’s writing. She had a charm that kept me spellbound for most of this book, and I loved the unique concept and the exploration of the relationship between book and reader.

4 Stars

// Share your thoughts… leave a comment! //

Have you read The Wilder Life? What did you think about McClure’s Little House project? Have you read any of her other books? Do you like to reread your favourite books and series from childhood? If so, what are some of your favourites?

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