Review: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

pyongyangLately I’ve been very interested in books about North Korea. It’s a fascinating, secretive, and tragic country, and I’ve sought out books from a variety of perspectives: one by a defector, one by a Korean-American woman who taught high school English there, one by an American journalist.

So when I read about Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, I was excited to hear that it was another unique perspective: a travel memoir by a French filmmaker working on a project in the capital city. And what’s more, it was a graphic novel. A visual peek into North Korea! That’s something the other books couldn’t give me. (And the graphics were great.)

There is not much action in the book, but that comes with the territory. Delisle works in a big building in Pyongyang, lives in a hotel reserved for foreigners, and is escorted almost everywhere by his guide and his translator. He is not free to move about the city as he would like, but he does visit a couple of museums and landmarks (with his guide, of course) dedicated to the glory of North Korea and the Great Leader, and he also socializes at a night club for foreigners. Overall the book feels claustrophobic, because I imagine that’s how Delisle felt.

My issue with this book was really the constant scorn that came across in Delisle’s narration. I don’t mean his frustration with the situation–anyone would be frustrated and grumpy. But to me, Delisle comes across as quite racist, particularly in the passing remarks he makes about Chinese people. He also struck me as a bit misogynistic.

(For those who are interested, the others I’ve read are Under the Same Sky: A Memoir of Survival, Hope, and Faith by Joseph Kim; Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim; and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.)

Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson

blanketsCraig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets caught my eye at the public library a few weeks ago. It was in the Staff Picks section, and it had a yellow, foot-shaped post-it note on the front. On the foot was a glowing handwritten review about how beautiful the story and illustrations of Blankets are. And a plus: the story is set in Wisconsin and Michigan! So I picked it up.

The staff member who wrote the mini-review was right: this book is gorgeous. Thompson’s black-and-white illustrations are lovely, but the most beautiful thing about the book is the author (and main character’s) sensitivity. Thompson’s story is about growing up: as a rural Wisconsinite, an older brother, and a devout (but questioning) Christian. It’s also about falling in love, “broken” families, and heartache. Thompson represents all of his experiences with thoughtfulness and grace. It’s a story of growth and coming to terms with hardships and difficult belief systems.

If you’re a sensitive, observant type, or if you’ve ever been interested in art, or fallen in love, or tried so hard to figure out what you believe and how your belief system has affected you, this book is for you. Craig is a very relatable character and an excellent storyteller.

Review: New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell


love Gail Caldwell.

I first realized this while reading Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, which is about the death of her best friend, fellow memoirist Caroline Knapp. (You can read that review here. Or the review of Caroline’s memoir here.) She just seems so down-to-earth, wise, insightful. She’s overcome her share of hardships. She’s interesting. As I believe I mentioned in my review of Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I feel I have a lot in common with Gail. Both lovers of books, dogs, and solitude, I think in a different life we would have been good friends.

I wasn’t sure what New Life, No Instructions was about; the flap text was very vague and danced around the book’s actual premise without stating it directly. So, I’ll tell you here: this memoir is about Gail’s hip replacement surgery. Which, to be honest, does sound less than exciting when I say it like that. But the story is about much more than that: her childhood polio; her new dog, Tula; her mother; her rowing. It’s a beautiful memoir about support systems, human-canine relationships, physical decline, and healing. It’s about reorienting yourself, your perspective, and your life when things change–when you get a new dog, when you lose a friend or a parent, or when your bum leg is lengthened.

It doesn’t matter if you’re sixty years old and getting your own hip replaced or twenty-five with perfect joints; there’s something in this memoir for everyone.

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell


I wanted to love this book. I expected to love it. I’ve done my fair share of fangirling. Or at least, for a while I considered myself “active” in the Glee fandom. I wrote fanfic (and read tons of it), had a Tumblr, talked to other fans online, etc. It was fun. (It was also terrible, because Glee is terrible, but wonderfully terrible–I can’t explain. If you were unlucky enough to be sucked into the Glee fandom, you know what I mean.)

I’ve also read a lot of fanfiction without considering myself active in the fandom: Wicked, Harry Potter, Frozen, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings. So, yeah. I guess that should be embarrassing, but whatev. I don’t see anything wrong with loving characters/a world so much that you want to keep writing or reading about it in whatever way possible.

From what I’ve heard, some real-life fangirls were offended by the main character in Fangirl. Cath, an introverted college freshman, is obsessed with the Simon Snow book series (which is pretty transparently based on the Harry Potter series). She is the author of a very popular fanfic, Carry On, Simon, which has tens of thousands of followers. She spends much of her time sitting in her dorm room, ignoring the world in favor of the world of Simon Snow. From what I’ve gathered, the real-life fangirls think that Cath perpetuates the “weird, unsocial nerd” stereotype of a fanfic writer. I think it makes her more relatable.

In short, Cath has a twin sister, Wren, who has kind of ditched her to live a party lifestyle; an awesome and manic dad; and a mom who abandoned her and Wren when they were eight years old. Cath has anxiety and abandonment issues, is very shy and awkward, and is falling for her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, Levi. She’s in an upper-level fiction writing course, but she feels unable to write anything that’s not fanfic. She wants to spend all of her time working on Carry On, Simon.

There’s not a whole lot of plot to this book. It is more of a character study–the characters are really well developed, relatable, and complex. But no matter how much I could identify with Cath, she is boring. (Realizing I may have just called myself boring…anyway.) She doesn’t do anything. She is so timid and takes things sooo slowly with Levi that it nearly killed me. Overall, I thought the book was too long. Over 400 pages? For this first-love story? I got bored. And I wanted more Wren. I found their relationship (and all their family dynamics) far more interesting than the relationship that unfolds between Cath and Levi.

There were a couple other little things that bothered me. The short little excerpts from the Simon stories in between chapters added nothing, and obviously I’ve never read the (nonexistent) books, so I wasn’t interested in them. I also hated every time Cath sat down to read long excerpts from her own fanfic aloud to Levi. Again, I don’t know the whole story, so I felt like it was unnecessary. I also had trouble getting over the blatant Harry Potter parallels.

All of this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. I wanted to know what was going to happen (mostly with her family, not so much with Levi). It was a really nice coming-of-age story. I just felt it was too detailed and drawn-out.

I know a lot of people really love it, so I’d never say it’s not worth a try!

Review: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak


Okay, this is my second book in a row by one of the writers of The Office. B. J. Novak’s debut book of short stories was extremely entertaining. (And when I say short, I do mean short. The stories in this collection range from a few lines to several pages.)

I feel kind of strange saying this, but I never knew that Novak was so funny. This seems ridiculous, seeing as I think The Office is hilarious. But his short stories are random, witty, clever, and really original. (One is about a guy who wears only red shirts, another is about the guy who invented the calendar, another is about a mis-titled John Grisham novel…) I’m not a huge fan of short stories. Right when I feel like I’m getting into one, it ends and I have to start all over with a new one. Or I’m bored with what the story is trying to do. I don’t know; pick a reason. I just can’t get into them. But this collection is great. I was entertained the entire time.  There wasn’t a single story that I didn’t find entertaining. There wasn’t even a point in the book where I began to count how many stories I had left.

The best part was that I could hear Novak’s voice reading them in my head the entire time. The voice he used (and, yes, often he used the same voice in many stories) was so casual and sounded so real and not stilted. I loved it. I also loved that, at a few points throughout the book, he connected stories to one another with minor details.

Hands down the most entertaining collection of short stories I’ve ever read.

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

iehowmI am arguably the world’s biggest fan of the U.S. version of The Office. I have every season on DVD and have watched it almost every single day for years now. There is always a disc in my DVD player. I’ve seen each season probably–and I’m not kidding–thirty times. I love it. I think it’s hilarious, but it’s more than that. By this point, it’s become what I’ve dubbed my “comfort show.” No matter how I’m feeling, its familiarity comforts me.

So, obviously I had to read Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns because she is one of the original writers of The Office.

Of course I loved it. It’s pretty much just a bit of fluff writing, which Mindy says so herself in the beginning of the book. (But at the same time it manages to be much more insightful and witty than Lena Dunham’s memoir. See my previous review. I won’t get started here.)

Mindy actually talks about her career in this memoir (unlike Lena! Ahh I can’t stop!)–how she came to love comedy as a child, how she moved to New York and wrote a two-woman show with her college friend, which hit it big and led to her employment with The Office. But her memoir is also about college, and her childhood, and her babysitting job, and how to be a best friend, and how to look good if you’re a guy. It’s just a funny read that I’d recommend to anyone.

Now how do I get Mindy to be my best friend?

Matilda Reviews: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham


As a friend pointed out to me lately, when it comes to Lena Dunham, you either love her or you hate her. I agreed, and then of course immediately after agreeing I realized that I couldn’t decide whether I loved or hated Lena. I’ve seen the first season of her HBO show Girls, and I felt as though I couldn’t distinguish between Hannah Horvath (Lena’s character) and Lena herself, so I read Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” so that I could have an informed love or hate for Lena.

(Note: I realize “hate” is a strong word…)

Recently I’ve experienced a rash of reading celebrity/comedian memoirs, and unfortunately, Lena’s didn’t rise to the top. Here’s the thing: I like memoirs because people who write memoirs usually lead interesting lives, or they’re able to spin their stories into something interesting or at least insightful. I don’t think that Lena succeeded in making her story seem interesting or insightful. She barely acknowledged the fact that she produces, directs, writes, and stars in her own television show–for a twenty-eight-year-old woman, that’s interesting!–and chooses instead to focus on her problems.

What are these problems? you ask. Because problems can be interesting.

And I agree, yes, problems can be interesting. Especially if you’re writing about how you overcame them or learned something from them, or at least if you can talk about them in a funny way.

But Lena doesn’t do that.

In her disjointed book of essays (that’s really what it is), we learn about her years of therapy, read entire pages of her extremely detailed food journal (YAWN. What am I supposed to get out of this? You were obsessed with counting calories like millions of other women?), and hear about almost every single sexual encounter she ever had, including times when she just let men sleep in her bed. We get random lists (what she learned from her father, things she’s afraid will kill her), details about the less-than-great times she had at summer camp as a child, and emails she would send if she had the guts (basically, she wishes she could say these things to these people so badly that she had to print them in her memoir).

Lena comes across as extremely self-absorbed and neurotic, and seems to want to paint herself as some ever-suffering victim.

While I do understand the “everyone has a story that deserves to be told” thing, I don’t understand why Lena, who actually has an interesting story, chose to tell hers in such a verbose, banal way. I think she is a very talented writer and actress, but she should’ve waited about thirty years before penning her memoir. Maybe by then she’ll have gained some self-awareness.

I won’t say I hate Lena Dunham–I still like her show and think she has good things to offer–but I definitely do not love her.

Matilda Reviews: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes please

I had been dying to read Amy Poehler’s new memoir Yes Please because I love Amy Poehler. Have you seen Parks and Recreation yet? If not, you really should, because it’s hilarious, and Poehler’s character Leslie Knope is totes kickass. Amy is just really damn funny. She is one funny woman. And she’s a feminist, too, which I love.

Last year I read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. (Tina and Amy are, according to Amy, “life partners.”) (No, they’re not gay.) In Bossypants, Tina says the following about Amy:

Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and “unladylike.” 
Jimmy Fallon […] turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.
With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

Right then, reading that, is when I fell in love with Amy Poehler. 

(Bossypants is hilarious, by the way. Go listen to the audiobook.)

So with that so-called introduction to Amy, I dove into Yes Please.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love memoirs. Every memoir I’ve ever read has contained at least one little nugget of hard-earned wisdom or insight from the author. It’s like a self-help book, but less pretentious, not quite so holier-than-thou. (Note to self: Make a list of memoir wisdom.) And Amy’s book was no different. She had tons of wisdom & insight nuggets, like this::

You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.

And this:

Telling me to relax or smile when I’m angry is like bringing a birthday cake into an ape sanctuary. You’re just asking to get your nose and genitals bitten off.

And this:

However, if you do start crying in an argument and someone asks why, you can always say, ‘I’m just crying because of how wrong you are.’

Sigh. I love her.

But while I do think that Amy is a beautiful, smart, funny, kind, wise, ridiculously strange woman, I did not love her memoir. 

To be fair, Amy is not a writer. She’s a performer. She’s (obviously) good at improv and comedy. She can think on her feet. Her genius does not, unfortunately, translate well to the printed word. There were parts of Yes Please that were indeed funny, but overall I did not find the book to be nearly as funny as Bossypants. And yes, I realize this is an unfair comparison: Amy and Tina are obviously not the same person. Furthermore, Tina Fey is a writer. So, it’s unfair of me. But still.

The book jumped around a lot. Childhood! Her parents! SNL! A humiliating story! Sex! Her sons! Parks and Rec! ‘Shrooms! Her trip to Haiti! There were entire emails pasted in. There were old poems she’d written as a child. (Okay, they were cute.) Snatches of it were written by her mom, her dad, one of her Parks and Rec coworkers, a fellow actor. She kept talking about how hard it is to write a book. She talked about that too much. She didn’t seem confident enough. I always imagine her as fierce. That’s not how she came across in her book.

It felt pieced together. It felt like it really was hard for her to write, and as a result it didn’t turn out that well. It felt like she really didn’t have the proper time to devote to it. And there were about five million celebrity name-drops. Like, seriously. Name after name after name, many of which I didn’t even recognize. And there wasn’t much story behind the names, either. It was just the names.

The parts I loved were about her childhood (the old, toaster oven-sized message machine, her family’s love of television, playing her grandpa’s organ), and her sons (going out in their pajamas to look at the moon together, the way she said her youngest son smells like a “love cookie”). (What’s a love cookie? I want one!) They were heartfelt and interesting and detailed and had depth and honesty to them. They told me things about Amy I never would have learned through a Google search. They’re the parts I’ll remember about Yes Please.

So, if you’re a diehard Amy fan, then by all means, read her memoir. It’s enjoyable. I love her more after reading it. It even inspired a dream in which she and I met at a Lions game and became best friends. But if you’re just looking to see what she’s all about, then watch her SNL reel instead. Or check out season two and up of Parks and Rec.

Matilda Reviews: House Rules by Jodi Picoult


I picked up Jodi Picoult’s House Rules in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to read on my 24-hour (literally) plane ride home. I didn’t get to it on the plane, so I read it while I was home for Christmas. It was a long read (my edition hit 602 pages), but a fast one, as most Picoults are.

I think I was spoiled by Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper when I first read it at about age 14. I haven’t read it in years, but I loved it so much and read it several times as a teen. After that I picked up Nineteen Minutes, which I liked, although not as much as My Sister’s Keeper. And then it kind of went downhill: I liked Plain Truth less well, and then Sing Me Home even less and finally, I really disliked House Rules. 

House Rules is about Jacob, an eighteen-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome (a diagnosis on the autism spectrum); his single mother Emma, whose life is devoted to caring for Jacob; and his brother Theo, a 15-year-old with a propensity for breaking into houses to steal small items. Jacob likes rules and rituals: he eats and watches Crime Busters at the same time each day without fail, eats only foods of a certain color on certain days, and meets with his social skills tutor, a grad student named Jess, at the same time twice a week. He’s very sensitive to light, sound, and touch, and can be sent into a meltdown at a moment’s notice.

When Jess turns up murdered, Emma realizes that her son may have been involved when she sees one of his quilts at the crime scene on the news. Jacob is promptly arrested and charged with murder, and Emma and Jacob’s lawyer are charged with the task of convincing a jury that Jacob’s quirks—lack of eye contact and emotion, flat affect—are not signs of his guilt. What Jacob doesn’t mention is that his brother Theo had inexplicably been at Jess’s house before Jacob arrived.


Here’s what I didn’t like about this book.

1. Despite knowing—and stating several times both in her narrative and during Jacob’s trial—that Jacob relentlessly tells the truth, Emma fails to question him closely about what happened the day Jess died. She asks him, “Did you do it?” Jacob says, “I did not,” and Emma believes him and leaves it at that. So why in god’s name wouldn’t you ask him a few more questions? Like, “Was she already dead when you got there?” No one thought to ask that?! Everyone just acted as though it was a given that Jacob had killed her during a meltdown. A little faith here, people.

2. Theo never speaks up about being in the house. Here’s a big spoiler: when Jess catches Theo watching her in the shower, she quickly jumps out and begins marching toward him. Give you one guess what happens to her. Yeah, she slips on the wet floor and hits her head. Theo saw her hurrying across the wet floor—he never thought of this possibility? He just assumed his brother had killed her?

3. Despite being told repeatedly (and I do mean repeatedly) that Jacob is extremely literal—tell him to pitch a tent, and he’ll throw it at you—Jacob uses metaphors and similes and other such figurative language in his narrative. It was such a glaring oversight on the author’s part that it drove me crazy.

4. The entire novel was extremely heavy-handed regarding Asperger’s. We were repeatedly given information about the behaviors and traits of individuals with Asperger’s, anecdotes about Jacob’s meltdowns and about how hard it is to be the brother of a kid with Asperger’s, and testimonies that sounded like textbook definitions of AS that it just got old. I get it. Now can we move on to the plot? (Disclaimer: I don’t know much about autism spectrum diagnoses in general, so I can’t speak to how accurate a portrayal it was.)

5. Emma left the house in the middle of the night to sleep with her son’s lawyer? Really?

I don’t think I’ve ever written such a scathing review, and I feel a little guilty about it, but I just really didn’t enjoy this one. If you’ve read it and feel differently about it, please do let me know.


Matilda Reviews: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying guestsI borrowed Sarah Waters’s newest novel The Paying Guests from a coworker of mine who said she hadn’t been able to put it down, and even though I got interrupted while reading it—I spent a month in Asia and couldn’t bring the big hardcover along—I, too, didn’t want to stop reading.

Sarah Waters is an amazing writer. I always call her “lesbian Dickens” because she writes stories that read like super-gay Dickensian novels, full of twists and peculiar characters. So as someone who loves Dickens and all things gay, she’s up there pretty high on my Favorite Authors List. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I highly recommend her Lambda Award-winning novel Fingersmith.)

So, The Paying Guests. It takes place in England soon after the end of World War I. At the center of the novel is Frances Wray, a thirty-something woman scraping by with her mother in their big, old house. They decide to take in boarders to help with their dire financial situation, which is where the novel begins: the arrival of married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber.

Of course, I knew right away that Frances, who to her mother’s dismay used to have a female companion, was going to fall for Lilian—and she does, hard, in the pantry (how scandalous). The two begin conducting a passionate affair in hallways and bedrooms and Lilian’s upstairs living room, all behind old Mrs. Wray’s and dear Leonard’s backs.

As one may expect, as Lilian becomes more attached to Frances, it comes to light that her marriage to Leonard is less than happy. (Why else would you sleep with your landlady?) It turns out that Lilian has a couple secrets, of course. And when Frances grows so bold as to suggest that Lilian leave Leonard and begin a life with her, Lilian agrees–and then it happens.

Obviously, I won’t tell you what “it” is, but “it” is an unexpected twist that throws the plot up on its head and sends it sprinting off in an entirely different direction. I was so shocked that I shouted about it to my girlfriend (to whom I’d been periodically giving plot updates while reading) as soon as it happened. It’s intense. Like Frances and Lilian, I didn’t see it coming.

I loved this book. The characters are rather unlikable, which I actually like, because it makes them more real and makes me question what I don’t like about them. They’re interesting women. They make bad decisions and do the wrong thing. Sarah Waters is so good at writing complex emotions and unsettling human interactions. I felt so anxious while reading that at times I had to put the book down for a few hours. (I really appreciate feeling things—even discomfort—while reading.)

My only negative observation is that the book at times seems too long, too detailed—in my opinion, she could’ve cut 75 pages out of the second half without sacrificing the quality of the story. All in all, though, this is a solid Sarah Waters novel and a wild read.