Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: This Is Not the Jess Show

This Is Not the Jess Show This Is Not the Jess Show by Anna Carey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Jess is a typical teenage girl in the 90s: she has a younger sister she loves, but who is really sick; she's got her friends, and sometimes they are drama but they are there for each other; there's a boy she's interested in; parents who love her but have busy jobs; and she's watching Titanic and etcetera etcetera.

Just as you are wondering WHY the 90s, you find out.

And so spoilers galore. Jess is actually living in the future, a few decades down the road, but her parents are actors and have gone one step further than a reTV show reality TV show. When Jess was born, they started a TV show that is semi reality (Jess is really their daughter! They are her parents!) and semi scripted: for reasons, they decided not just to set the show in the 90s but also to have Jess believe that the TV show is real.

This leads to some hilarious things, funny at least to the reader. Why is half the town down with a mysterious flu? Because the actors are on strike! Why does something terrible or drastic happen every spring? Sweeps and season ending cliffhangers!

There is also a lot to unpack, such as Jess being a loved daughter and also a product that has been bought and sold and packaged. Or that everyone she has ever met is a paid actor playing a role.

Sometimes when you're reading, you sit back and go "ok, but . . . ." Like, the fact that Jess's life was limited to just the town? I may be misremembering -- much is made of a trip to Disney that never took place, but there may have been summer trips to remote areas the could control. Still, most of her life was confined to just her town.

More spoilers: Jess decides to flee, but because the show is really all about her, her parents and the producers want her back at all costs. I enjoyed this part a lot -- seeing Jess figuring out how to escape, her reactions to the world outside, to realizing just how much a part of the world's pop culture she is.

I'm relieved to see this is marked as book one: because I'll be honest. Given how much of Jess's life had always been secretly managed; how all her choices were illusions; all along, until the end, even after, I had doubts about what was really going on. Let's just say, others help her in her escape. And I have questions.

I look forward to a book two to have either my suspicions confirmed or to learn more.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Review: The Playground

The Playground The Playground by Jane Shemilt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disturbing and more sad than creepy. Or at least, not "horror" creepy, but more "people can be terrible" creepy. But people can also be good. Oh, people.

So: it's about a lot of things. But a mystery. Let's say it's a mystery, a murder mystery, and there are many clues as to what is happening and what is going on.

But it's also a look at the lives and loves of three very different couples, and the hidden and secret lives of children.

So: three couples, one pretty well off where the mother (Eve) has created the type of family and family experience she wanted for herself as a child. Which means that there's a big backyard that is wild and she gives the kids (11, 6, and 2) freedom to go and be themselves. Others would say, Eve isn't careful enough. Isn't watchful enough.

Then there is the dual professional couple, so busy with their professional lives they barely have time for each other but make sure that their daughter Izzy is always the center of their lives.

Lastly is the struggling family: he's a semi famous author, famous enough to impress everyone but not enough to pay the bills. They are kept financially afloat by the wife, but no one acknowledges that; she is also from Zimbabwe, and there's a bunch of stuff to unpack about the relationship that neither quite admits. Their kids are 11 and 9.

They come together because of the kids, and while we know something bad is going to happen, there is much of how "picture perfect" the friendships become: home made meals in that magical backyard of Eve's, the children all getting along, eventually even a joint trip to Greece. Beautiful images.


Images are not the truth.

There are fissures, issues, some of which the reader knows because the story is told from various viewpoints so we can see a forest when all those adults and children and the trees. Let's just say ... their is adult unhappiness and too much drinking and flirting with other people's spouses. There is a belief that children are innocent and so clues are missed about what is and isn't going on with the children.

Do not read this book if dead children is a deal breaker.

By the end: this is disturbing and sad. And you figure out some things before the characters, and others will surprise you. But this is also about surviving and renewal and moving forward for those who are still left.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Review: Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another great biography! I read this story of Louise shortly after I read one of Louisa, and so I thought it a bit interesting to think of the two of them, Louise Fitzhugh and Louisa May Alcott, and how they were similar and so different.

Here's the first thing: so, when I was reading "Marmee and Louisa," I thought of their poverty and how that drove LMA and wondered was it necessary to create the artist?

And then I read about Louise.

This was so fascinating, to read about Louise Fitzhugh. I appreciated that it began with the story of her parents, so this told of a family and a person starting with the jazz age and the ill fated marriage between a rich man and poor women who wanted to dance, and how that shaped their daughter. And then a look at life and growing up well to do in the South, an insider because of money and family, an outsider because of her sexuality and having divorced parents.

And then -- after 20 years in the south -- to New York! And a place where Louise could be herself and not hide her girlfriends and love. And this tells not just about Louise, but about New York City in the 1950s and 1960s.

And about Louise and her art: as an artist, a painter, a writer. And part of the art being Louise herself, as she invented and reinvented herself. And part of that was the stories she told others about herself and her family.

And here is what is interesting, a contrast to LMA. Louise Fitzhugh came from money and was left money, so she was able to pursue her art because of that money. She didn't have to "worry" about money. And yet-- that, too, drove her. Because she wanted to establish herself, do it on her own. Money drove her, like it did LMA, just in different ways. (So to go back to LMA and her awful father, my belief is LMA would have still written just with a less horrible childhood.)

Last bit: I had not realized just how young Louise was when she died. So young; and one wonders, what would have been her next act. What would she have done next. What she would have thought of the world changing, in some ways, catching up with Louise.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Review: Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reading on Alcott continues.

My dislike of Bronson grows. Marmee's life sounds like an even bigger nightmare than I thought.

Here is one of my favorite lines that is about Bronson, but also tries to explain the Marmee and Bronson relationship: "[Abigail] tended to idealize Bronson, as he tended to idealize himself."

ANYWAY. Enough about him. This is a great dual biography, of both Abigail May Alcott and her daughter, Louisa May Alcott. It also shows the time and place so well: Boston, in post-Revolutionary years; the New England world that Louisa grew up in; the details of how women make do. The last bit is especially fascinating: how the world tried to limit what women could do, and yet. And yet they did a lot, against so many odds. There is Louisa and her writing, her sister and her art; they also meet others, teachers and doctors and nurses.

And yet: there is so much they cannot do. Marmee does all the work, all the heavy lifting of supporting and feeding her family, but the ways she does that are limited and constrained. I found it especially interesting how many times taking in boarders was a way of earning money, and on my t0-do list once again is to take a look at the way our homes have changed and evolved.

So read this to learn more about Louisa; and how she was raised, and how she was driven to succeed, and how part of that was just to make enough money because of how poor they were. And how she saw how motherhood and career did not really allow for both and so choices were made. One wonders -- what would have been different if the family was not so poor? What would Louisa have achieved? Would Lizzie have died? Would Marmee have lived longer?

But also read to learn more about how people lived then -- a slice of life that is more than cold statistics.

Back to Bronson: I guess he gets some credit for what he was progressive about. BUT. In reading this, I thought the true progressive was Abigail's brother, Samuel Joseph May, and I have to say -- he is someone who is truly interesting, and did more and created more than Bronson.

Bronson was all talk. But I'll say this -- it does show that what he had charisma, and charm. Two factors that don't make one a great person, but does explain why just so many people liked him. Including, apparently, younger women.

He was just the worst.

I hope Marmee had happiness, despite him.

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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Review: Little Women

Little Women Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say I don't remember when I first read Little Women.

I remember not being sure of their ages, and that both Meg and Jo had to be old because they had jobs. I remember not getting references to things like the Pickwick Papers, but it didn't matter. I remember how real the relationship between the sisters was -- fights, making up, squabbles. I couldn't understand how they could both be poor and have a servant.

And since then, I've seen the various movies and TV series, and so now my memories are jumbled with those images.

So, of course, a reread was in order!

The first section -- the original stand alone -- was great. We are told their ages, I just didn't remember. And I liked the structure, just over a year in the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

And how great that Alcott shows 4 unique characters from the very first sentence each one speaks.

I also loved how imperfect they each are; and how they each have dreams and hopes. And that self-sufficiency is important; and work is good. And that emotions are OK.

And Jo's anger! And her mother admitting anger! But now my first "but." But. Anger is a tricky thing; that Jo's anger and stubbornness, however justified, resulted in Amy getting hurt. Marmee offers help, but of the "how to conquer it" school, and unfortunately, it's also tied into her husband. For the record, my dislike of Bronson Alcott has influenced my feelings towards Mr. March.

Quick aside: yes, Bronson was wonderful in many ways, and progressive, and an intellect. He also did not do enough to support his family, or to keep them well and fed.

Anyway. That Marmee's advice gets into "your father is perfect and without faults so he helped me fight my own" was quite the "ugh" moment.

On to part two: this one covered so many years, that it was a bit jarring and harder to follow how time passed, especially after how tightly constructed the first was. And this was also the one that veered the most from the Alcott's own story.

The good: Jo and Amy both continuing their art, each in their own way, and Jo and her publishing.
Meg's misadventures of keeping house. The interactions between everyone; how realistic the family continues to be.

The not so good, to me; in both books, the veering into lectures got a bit much. The age differences between Meg and John, and then Jo and Bhaer. That Bhaer is so much like Mr. March, in that he is there to "teach" Jo. There is some of that with Meg and John, but at least there John is show to have faults and it's more mutual change.

I also want to eventually read one of the annotated versions of this, because the details that made sense at the time but raise questions now --- Some, like the casual mention of a rat at Orchard House. Others I can kind of guess at, like pins and collars.

Overall? Still holds up, and recommended if you haven't read it before.

I remember Little Men being one of my favorites, so that will be read soon.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A different type of biography -- a biography of a book, Little Women.

This had a quote that really stuck with me: "Our culture prefers girls to stay small, young, and full of potential." I thought of how true it is; and how often I see young girls cheered in the media, then condemned as the move from full of potential to making a choice.


So, of course, there is a short biography of Louisa May Alcott; and her writing; and the publication history of the book. All we "know", that the four girls are Louisa and her sisters. But the fiction is also pointed out: the setting is not when these girls were actually teens, and the family is more stable than the Alcotts, and what happens to the March girls doesn't mirror what happens to the Alcott daughters.

The publication history gets into editions, including how the original was basically a year in the life of the teenaged March sisters; the sequel spanned several years, bringing them into adulthood and marriage and motherhood.

This also dives deep into the adaptations as plays, in radio, on TV, on film. I want to watch them all, now, comparing them -- because it is so fascinating to see how the era when a film is made influences how the book is adapted, what is highlighted, what is omitted, what is added (and how often what is added dives into Alcott's own life.)

Yes, this is for Alcott fans. But, it's also a look at how art is created, and why; and how a story is interpreted and reinterpreted over and over.