Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

Modern RomanceI don’t usually find things funny that normal people do. For example, I like Tina Fey well enough but well before the point of obsessive. Will Ferrell has made maybe two movies I’ll chuckle along to, and I can’t stand Chelsea Handler. Somehow though, Aziz Ansari cracked through my humorless shell and legitimately cracks me up.

In Modern Romance, comedian Ansari and NYC sociologist Eric Klinenberg team up to conduct a massive research study across the United States and spreading to Paris, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires, about the ups and downs of dating nowadays. They analyzed Reddit surveys, interviewed the world’s leading social scientists, and conducted thousands of conversations with men and women of all ages, races, and relationship statuses. With the rise of online dating and the perks/pitfalls of technology, Ansari humorously uncovers how finding a mate has evolved through the years along with providing solid advice on how not to find your soul mate.

I do admire Mindy Kaling, but was utterly unimpressed by her book Why Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which also takes a comedic view of romantic relationships. It felt like a drunken pixie’s verbal vomit – each chapter, even within chapters, leaped hyper-actively from topic to topic. Comparatively, what I love most about Modern Romance is that it’s the exact opposite. It’s generally cohesive and each chapter sticks to a theme to gets its point across. Yes, there are frequent random interjections and footnotes, but they add to the overall picture that Ansari is trying to present.

He effectively uses both data and anecdotes throughout the book, throwing in (easily understandable) graphs and charts alongside stories from his shows and focus groups. Every so often a fact just staggered me, though some of his information is obvious and/or repetitive to anyone involved in the online dating world. Still, it is comforting/hilarious to hear about Ansari and others experiencing the same issues and also fascinating to hear from non-Americans about the different romantic problems their countries face.

I would highly recommend it (and in fact already have!) to any millennial struggling with modern romance. It’s not perfect, but is by far the wittiest, most insightful book I’ve heard of on the topic, and will lend you much needed perspective. Perhaps a bit science-y for some, but it will surprise you into laughing out loud.

4 Stars

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Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl AliveI’m sick of things being labeled “the next Gone Girl.” Maybe because I didn’t love Gone Girl (I know, blasphemy, right?) or maybe because of half of the books with that label are absolutely nothing like it. Like Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

Ani FaNelli seemingly has it all – good looks, a glamorous NYC job, and a filthy rich fiance. But a dark secret from her past haunts her, threatening all she’s worked to achieve. When a documentary crew seeks to reveal the truth behind a terrible incident that occurred when she was a teen at the prestigious Bradley School, will it ruin her perfect life or will it set her free at last?

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to having the worst fictional name ever, (Tif)Ani FaNelli is no Amy Dunne – I admit Amy was creepy brilliant, even if I couldn’t stand reading her voice, but being in Ani’s head is mostly dull. She tries too hard at being bitchy, at being cool, at being anything but the bland needy crazypants she is. I understand that her childhood trauma has screwed her up, but unfortunately I can’t feel that bad for her because she’s so awful to nearly everyone in her life and, until basically the last few pages, has had no character growth over the last 15 years.

The pacing is off throughout the story. It was so slow to get into, especially with chapters shifting between the past and the present, and there’s like 0% twist. Painful hidden past, yes – Ani was drugged and raped as a fourteen year-old, which partially led to a series of incidents that culminated in a school shooting. This is all terrible, but not terribly surprising as it’s heavily foreshadowed. I thought the twist would be that Ani had something to do with the massacre as retribution on her the popular kids who assaulted and bullied her, but she only thought about revenge and didn’t actually do anything wrong except killing her ex-friend (one of the shooters) in self-defense.

With no compelling characters (though snaps to Mr. Larson for mostly not being a pervy teacher!), no shocking plot points, and after all the millennial bride-angst, not even a wedding (!!), I can’t give this book anything but a mediocre rating.

3 Stars

 

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGuys, go out and read Go Set A Watchman.

Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird) arrives back in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City to take care of her aging father Atticus. Amidst civil rights tensions and political turmoil, Jean Louise must question her values and assumptions as she reconciles uncomfortable truths to her childhood experiences.

As I mentioned, it was our August book club pick, but I had pre-ordered it months before and intended to read it anyway. To Kill A Mockingbird, which I read in eighth grade, is one of my favorites and a book that I regularly re-read. Although billed as a sequel, and chronologically so, in some ways Go Set A Watchmen exists as a prequel since it was written first, never to be published because it was revamped to become Mockingbird.

Besides the controversy regarding the author’s intentions about publication, the other major point of conflict for readers was its portrayal of Atticus. All the reviews I read beforehand divulged Atticus’ racism, (rudely) with no spoiler warning I may add. But upon reading the book, I discovered they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, Atticus does join Maycomb’s community council, which I gather is more-talk/less-action version of the KKK, and yes, he does espouse some backward racial beliefs. However, his misguided paternalistic notions are largely a product of his experience and nowhere does he demonstrate an unwillingness to be dissuaded from them by logic.

Unfortunately Scout is unable to be reasonable in this situation. Like many of the readers, she built up Atticus as a God in her head, when he is just a man with a man’s failings. Having been presented with her biased perspective in To Kill A Mockingbird, many of us experience the same loss of innocence and are catapulted into adulthood in parallel with her in Go Set A Watchmen. The primary difference is the former is very black and white, no pun intended, whereas the latter enters into morally grey territory – Scout grows up color blind but can be narrow-minded in other ways.

As her uncle Dr. Finch mentions, the only way to hash out the differences between her understanding and that of the friends and family she loves is to stay, using her conscience to guide them to the morally correct way.  In this climate of racial tension in America, I think its a great book to exemplify how we should be holding our conversations. Even if you disagree with someone, anger and irrationality isn’t going to solve anything anymore than running away is. With humor and wisdom, Lee is brilliantly able to divulge the many facets of a complex situation- she presents a more nuanced portrayal of our racial history than what we get in textbooks or on the news.

Lee’s writing is deeply evocative of the time and place the book was set in as well as the experiences that shaped Scout’s growth. The pacing was slightly off, with the beginning being far too slow and the last hundred pages being crammed with the major plot points, but I think that was partially because it wasn’t intended as a sequel. She had to set up her story without knowing of the reader’s foreknowledge.  Certain passages were repetitive or contradictory from To Kill A Mockingbird, but I forgave that because of the powerfulness of the climax and conclusion – honestly, the last few pages were among the most moving and apt that I’ve ever read.

While perhaps not as classic as the original Lee masterpiece, you won’t regret reading this book. I highly encourage lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird to put aside doubt and experience it, and those who haven’t read Mockingbird to read both now in juxtaposition. Both books are individually vital to the American canon and essential companions in defining an historically-significant era of transition.

5 Stars

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeSo sorry for the lack of updates over the last few weeks! I was taking an extended summer vacay (and reading plenty of new books) so there should be many reviews ahead of us 🙂

I was intrigued by The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee when I first heard about it last year, blogging about it in one of my earlier posts, well before news of Go Set A Watchman erupted. So of course I finally had to get around to reading it since Watchmen was our August book club pick – watch out for my upcoming review!

As author Marja Mills tells it, she befriended the Lee sisters in 2001 after interviewing them for a piece in The Chicago Tribune about the “One Book, One Chicago” program, which encouraged the entire city to read To Kill A Mockingbird. In 2004, on medical leave from her job, she moves in next door to them (apparently with their blessing, despite their previous disregard for journalists) and spends the next eighteen months sharing coffee, friendship, and memories. Among the topics largely off the table was their allegedly mentally-ill mother and the rift with Truman Capote. On the table was conversations about the South, history and literature, and To Kill A Mockingbird and (ironically) Harper Lee’s failure to publish another book.

Unexpectedly, this is Mills’ story as much as it’s about the Lees. I appreciated the framework this provided, but I was undoubtedly not reading this book to hear about her life story so it made for some jarring transitions. For example, the book follows a relatively chronological narrative thread for Mills while jumping around wildly between topics concerning the Lees, leading to redundant moments and off-topic meandering. Mills does do good work in sharing Nelle’s and Alice’s characters with a curious audience, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the past of such inspiring women.

Unfortunately, after the book’s publication, Nelle disavowed it so take its content with a grain of salt. While I enjoyed the collected anecdotes and selfishly appreciated that it put Watchmen into better perspective for me, I feel bad about the abuse of trust perpetuated by both books.  Perhaps its publication should’ve waited until Nelle’s death, but if you want to know more about the genius behind Mockingbird, this is an insightful read.

3 Stars