A few weeks ago I recommended some TV that I thought the Biblio-therapy readers would enjoy, since books have been a bit disappointing of late. (I did recently enjoy Normal People by Sally Rooney, but basically everyone else in the world has written a glowing review of it.) One of the shows I talked about was Fleabag, and I mentioned that the second season would be coming to Amazon soon. I have to admit that I was a little wary of this new season–the first season was such a beautifully complete story that I couldn’t imagine how a second season could measure up. But, you guys, Season 2 is BETTER. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are wonderful things happening with characters and with the narrative structure, and it was just a sort of a perfect season of TV. Everyone should watch it. Seriously, please go watch it, because I really need someone to talk about it with.
Do other people fall into reading ruts where you’re reading all the time and finishing lots of books, but nothing really excites you or even sticks in your memory? Over the past couple of months I’ve read all sorts of things, including some with quite a bit of buzz (The Woman in the Window, The Immortalists), but have been pretty uninspired by all of them. But I have been watching lots of great TV, across the full range of steaming services I apparently now have to pay for. I have particularly enjoyed several short series that show some realities of being a woman that I haven’t often seen on TV before. So here are Kinsey’s official recommendations for your spring TV viewing. They’re all short enough to knock out in a single evening, although they are all also at least a little raunchy and maybe things you don’t want to watch with your mom or your kids. Although, I don’t know your life or your mom or your kids, you do you.
Derry Girls (Netflix) is a comedy about a group of friends who go to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. It captures the intricate social strata of high school girls perfectly, and the family interactions have a completely non-saccharine ring of truth to them, while also being very funny. There’s a scene where someone drops a glass on the kitchen floor and a character’s mom acts like a nuclear spill has occurred and makes everyone stand on chairs–I loved it so much I had to rewind and watch that bit again. But as funny as the show is, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always hovering on the edges, never letting anyone completely forget that they are living their lives in a battle zone. Also, there is amazing 90s music for my fellow Gen Xers, and Northern Irish accents that required me to have subtitles on to understand everything going on.
Shrill (Hulu) Lindy West’s memoir didn’t originally strike me as good source material for a fictional show, but the first season absolutely charmed me. Aidy Bryant (who I didn’t know before because I hate Saturday Night Live and never watch it) is amazing as a woman trying to navigate life as an entry-level journalist with a meddling mom and a terrible non-boyfriend. I guess you would say that her weight is the hook of the show, but it’s not like every episode is about how hard it is to be fat. Very early on she decides she is going to stop obsessing and just live her damn life, and most of the episodes are about her doing just that. Within the first five minutes of episode one I started googling to try to figure out where to buy her cute clothes and the infuriating answer is that they had to custom make basically everything because plus-size clothes are so awful. So enjoy the show, but know going in that you will not be able to buy those dresses.
Fleabag (Amazon) When I started writing this I initially thought, “Oh, I have three women-centered comedies to recommend!” But Fleabag might stretch the definition of comedy, so be warned. It follows a young London woman though encounters with men, her father and stepmother (played by the marvelous Olivia Coleman as possibly the worst woman in the world), and her sister. The main character is clearly on the verge of falling apart after a tragedy that is only slowly revealed in the show, and her relationships with her family make me want to use words like “searing” and “blistering.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the star and creator, and she is so observant and specific about the absurdity of life that the show is funny, while also pressing on some very painful areas of the psyche. Season 1 has been out for a couple of years, but I was finally inspired to watch it because Season 2 just showed to raves in the UK, and will be coming to Amazon in May. So now is a good time to get on this dark, dark train.
I am obsessed with the Duggars. Yes, in this golden age of peak TV, I have devoted many, many hours to watching various iterations of their TV show and even reading gossip blogs. As someone raised as an only child, I have long been fascinated with stories about big families. As a kid, I used to LOVE the Boxcar Children books and a 1950s time capsule series called the Happy Hollisters about a family with five kids who solve very gentle mysteries. So the reality show genre following big families was made for me, and I have watched them all. The Duggars are obviously the biggest, in terms of family size, popularity, and scandal level, and they just fascinate me. I wish I could be embedded in the family, like an anthropologist, so I could truly see how their unconventional beliefs play out in real life and how much of what you see on TV is really just for the benefit of the cameras. Meghan MacLean Weir must feel the same way, because The Book of Essie is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes story of a religious reality show family, with all the hidden secrets and scheming you can imagine.
The book kicks off with Essie, the teenage daughter whose life has been lived on TV, revealing to her mother that she is pregnant. This will not fit with the family’s public image and Essie’s mother immediately starts strategizing how to spin this unexpected development. But Essie is not about to sit around and wait for someone else to decide her fate–she’s been planning for years and has her own strategy for getting herself and her baby out of the reality show rat race. The book’s point of view alternates between Essie, one of her high school classmates who get swept into her plan, and a reporter who has her own experience with how the media and the truth intersect. This cleverly allows you to see Essie’s perspective from inside her family, but also how the rest of their small town and the larger outside world perceive the reality show circus.
There are plenty of twists and turns in the book, although nothing particularly took me by surprise. The story largely goes where you expect it to and most of the twists are fairly well-telegraphed. Although this is not classified as a YA book, as far as I can tell, it read that way to me–the main characters are teenagers and the story is presented entirely from their point of view, and it was a quick and easy read. But I enjoyed the peek into this family with its wildly different public and private faces, and I appreciated reading a story in which a cast of female characters are running the show, for better or worse.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Emotional behind-the-scenes drama
You might also like: Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir, not a novel, but it was one of the best books I read last year and tells a similar harrowing story of a childhood in a family on the religious fringe.
Before I started writing this review I searched through our past blog entries several times, because this seemed like such an “us” book that I couldn’t believe one of us hadn’t already written about it. It’s a lady Sherlock Holmes! A Study in Scarlet Women is the first in a series of (currently) three books by Sherry Thomas about Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant woman who throws off the constraints of her conservative Victorian family and starts solving mysteries.
Overall this is a quick, enjoyable genre read but there were a couple of things I really appreciated about it.
- Friend of the blog Jo originally made this observation, but there is not a one to one character match. There are plenty of parallels with the original Holmes stories, but Thomas constructs a world around Charlotte that makes sense and doesn’t try to wedge everything into exact characters and relationships when another arrangement offers more insight into her characters. So you get the fun of seeing the connections, but it doesn’t feel the author has just renamed characters from the original work.
- Charlotte is portrayed as exceptionally smart and deductive, but not superhuman. As a woman raised in a sheltered environment, she has to learn lots of things and, as the story moves along, all of the different characters in her orbit contribute to her detective work. Sherlock Holmes is traditionally this lone genius who is completely self-sufficient when it comes to solving mysteries. I liked the slightly more realistic idea that even a genius isn’t going to know everything right out of the gate and might gladly rely on friends and family for help.
- Thomas is known for her romance novels, and there is a bit of that sensibility here, just in that the relationships in the book are treated with a lot of respect and are central elements to the story. Love is as important here as figuring out who committed the murders.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Fun, feminist mystery
You might also like: The Deanne Raybourne mystery books–I particularly like the series that starts with Silent in the Grave. And they’ve got a slightly different feeling, but I also enjoyed the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, starting with The Crossing Places.
A number of years ago I made a decision: I was not going to spend any more of my wild and precious life reading books about how hard it is to be an old white man. Overall I’ve been pleased with this choice and think I am a happier person for spending my time reading YA and mysteries rather than Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Franzen or whatever else the New Yorker wants me to care about. But every now and then one of these “I am a white man with broken relationships and concerns about my legacy” stories slips through. Often this just reinforces my original decision (I am still mad about the time I’ve spent on Philip Roth) but on those rare occasions when I am pleasantly surprised, I want to give credit where it’s due. So let’s talk about Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
Arthur Less is about to turn 50, his latest novel has been rejected by his publisher, and he just got an invitation to his younger not-quite-a-boyfriend’s wedding to someone else. He clearly cannot possibly attend, so he patches together enough teaching/residency/vacation offers to make up a months-long trip around the world. The book follows him from his California home to Mexico, Paris, Morocco, India, and assorted other locations as he tries to overcome both small daily indignities and his looming worries that his life has amounted to nothing. This sounds like it would fall squarely in my hated “old white man” category, but it somehow covers that ground while also being quite charming and feeling relatable to those outside its main character’s demographic. Arthur has a sense of the absurd that gives him a perspective on what’s happening to/around him, and the author is aware enough to actually address the old white man issue within the plot in a quite clever way. It’s a brief book and quick read, but it’s stuck with me for days, leaving me thinking about how we perceive ourselves vs. how others do, and especially about how we are seen by those who love us.
A couple of final notes: first, I am definitely not breaking any news here, since Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As is typical for me, I’m just chiming in late on something already widely recognized as great. Second, as I was looking at various reviews and comments on this book, I saw a number of people refer to this as a comedic novel. This surprised me, since I didn’t think it was funny at all. I do tend to be sensitive to stories about people embarrassing themselves and that does make up a big part of this story–if other people find that funny, I can only conclude that they must be monsters. Maybe some reviewers feel like they have to call it comedic simply because it doesn’t feature constant addiction and death with a backdrop of genocide? I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a bittersweet story that at times made me very sad, but ultimately surprised me with how full of hope and supportive of happiness it turned out to be.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Delicate and surprisingly emotional
You might also like: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This was actually a tough one for me and I really struggled to think of books that shared both the general sort of story issues but also had the same sort of sweet and sad feeling. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this one–Less surprised me so much that I am still trying to get my head around it.
Current events at the moment seem specifically designed to fill me with rage, so at this point I am generally looking for escape in the books I read. I thought that What She Ate by Laura Shapiro–described as a look inside the lives of six famous women by examining the food they ate–would be a fun discussion of snacks and baking. In fact, what Shapiro actually did was highlight how the patriarchy has devalued the experience of women throughout history. So reading this did not help with my rage! But it was a completely absorbing, fascinating book.
Shapiro writes a chapter each on six famous women, using their own writings and primary historical sources to tell both their individual story and highlight some element of the time they lived in:
- Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William, kept house for her brother in the Lake District until he married and struggled to find her place in 17th century English society as an unmarried woman.
- Rosa Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England used food to, if not defeat the English class system, then at least to make herself a good life within it.
- Eleanor Roosevelt apparently pretty actively supported terrible food in the White House for a variety of reasons, but at least part of it being because she had (and wanted everyone to know she had) bigger things to worry about.
- Eva Braun’s insane relationship to food and illustrated a tiny corner of the Nazis’ insanity and hypocrisy.
- Barbara Pym was a brilliant author whose stories of domestic life offered a window into the world of middle-class post-war England.
- Helen Gurley Brown, the famously skinny editor of Cosmopolitan who was trying to navigate the ever-changing role of women in the workplace and mostly just seems to have ended up torturing and denying herself at every turn.
Each woman’s story was interesting, but Shapiro also uses the book to make a larger point about how what is considered “important history” has long been determined by men. Food is enormously important to everyone–we all think about food all day!–but because food was traditionally women’s business, history rarely takes it into account. Literature, as well. Shapiro describes how the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept in the Lake District has long been considered only in terms of the insight it could offer into her brother’s poetry, but is actually a significant historical and literary document in and of itself. Apparently the fact the she talks about what she plans to make for dinner somehow negates it’s worth. This book is a huge step towards insisting that food be seen as an important element of history itself, as well as a tool for examining larger cultural forces.
I should also say that although each of these stories was engaging to read, most of them were not particularly happy. Perhaps that is just the fate of being a smart woman in most any period in recent history, but quite a number of these stories ended sadly. The only two women that I might consider swapping places with would have been Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym–maybe because they were women least interested in fitting themselves into traditional roles and most willing to follow their own paths, regardless what anyone thought.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: Sneakily-radical history via food
You might also like: Each of the stories here made me want to track down more info on the person profiled (except for Helen Gurley Brown, she seems awful) and Barbara Pym is a goddamn genius so I obviously recommend that everyone go read her work. But if you’d just like to read something about fun that revolves around food, the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is lovely. And while I know it isn’t universally beloved, I really adore Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and I think she does a good job of discussing how Julia Child thought about food and how it impacted her life.
I am an absolute sucker for books about the Blitz. Something about the combination of London, historical fiction, the drama of WWII–I will read just about anything the features the word “Blitz” in the blurb. And I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way, since these books continue to get published. The new Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fits nicely into my favorite sub-category of this genre–women in the Blitz–while adding some layers I haven’t often seen.
Emmie is a young woman living in London in the early days of WWII. She works part-time as a fire dispatcher, but dreams of being a reporter and is thrilled to get a job at a magazine, sure she is on her way to be an intrepid war correspondent. However, it turns out that she is mostly doing typing at an old-fashioned ladies’ magazine whose editor won’t answer any sort of reader questions that deal with any “Unpleasantness.” Of course, there’s a war on and life is complicated, so Emmie ends up reading lots of letters from readers with serious problems, and can’t bear to think that they won’t get any response. She she starts responding and well, hijinks ensue.
Now, the basic plot here requires that Emmie spends a lot of time worried about being caught and worrying about what will happen when she does, and that is one of my least favorite things to read–I find that completely agonizing and by the end of the book was almost skimming scenes in her office for fear of what was going to happen. What saved the book for me were Emmie’s experiences outside work, where she and her best friend attempt to live their 20-something lives in the middle of a war. More than most Blitz books I’ve read, Dear Mrs. Bird gets across the feeling that yes, terrible things were happening, but that for those people living in the middle of the bombing, it became normalized. Emmie and her friends have to view the nightly bombings and tragedies as just another irritation to deal with, like bad traffic, in order to live their lives. And when you’re twenty-two, something like getting dumped is likely to feel like a much bigger deal than the war. And yet, at the same time, the book takes on the issue of how the internal and external pressure to keep the famous British “stiff upper lip” was hard on people, and how sometimes even the most patriotic Londoner needed to acknowledge the toll the constant bombing took on them.
There’s also just a bit of romance, although I couldn’t help but feel that Emmie might have landed in the wrong place there–I’m holding out hope that there might be a sequel featuring my favorite character, Emmie’s long-suffering boss at the magazine. He’s in his forties and spends most of the book rolling his eyes at Emmie’s adventures and the rest of the world, and I found him completely charming. And I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that this is the role I would most likely be playing in this story.
Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society meets Bridget Jones.
You might also like: Well, obviously, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the Bridget Jones books. But also a book I rave about a lot called The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets or another adorable one called Miss Buncle’s Book. And if you’re looking for a little period escapism with a lot of charming young British ladies falling in love, Mary Stewart basically perfected post-war romantic suspense and I read through all her work as a teenager–my favorites of hers were always Touch Not the Cat and Nine Coaches Waiting.
And if, like me, you’d just like to read some more books about the Blitz, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are epics that also involve time travel. I also love Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. And in other media, check out “The Stolen Child” and “The Doctor Dances” episodes of Doctor Who and the movie Hope and Glory.