Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

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Two New Reviews: House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel and Nowhere Else I Want to Be, by Carol D. Marsh

Two new books to share with you, via my reviews in the 1/13/2017 issue of Shelf Awareness.

House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is “an engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” Before reading this, I didn’t know much about Mary Todd Lincoln’s stay at Bellevue Place, a sanitarium where her son Robert had her committed 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. This novel weaves Mary Todd Lincoln’s story with the fictional Isabelle Larkin, a socialite whose fiancé Gregory is a political hopeful and one of Chicago’s most eligible and attractive bachelors. When Isabelle catches Gregory committing a crime, she’s trapped … until being sent to Bellevue where she befriends — you guessed it, Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more under the Fiction section in the Shelf Awareness issue.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be is Carol D. Marsh’s memoir of her 14 years as executive director of Miriam’s House, a community of women who are addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. She lived on the premises with her husband Tim and together with their staff, provided the women with a home and cared for those forgotten by their families and society.  Along with the many heartbreaking stories of the women she came to know at Miriam’s House, Marsh shares her own story of growth in this role as she learned to confront her naiveté and false assumptions.

Although I didn’t work in a direct service capacity, a lot of this reminded me of my time working at a domestic violence shelter. More of my review in the Shelf Awareness issue, under the Social Science heading, as well as a review with Carol Marsh by my writing colleague Katie Noah Gibson, who blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

 

 

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Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.

 

 

 

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Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote

tomboy-survival-guide

For several weeks, I’ve been hinting about a new freelance book review gig. I’m thrilled to announce that I am a new contributor to the popular book site Shelf Awareness.  My first review for Shelf Awareness was Ivan Coyote‘s memoir Tomboy Survival Guide about growing up transgender in the Yukon during the 1980s and their process of discovering and accepting their gender identity.

As coincidence would have it, this review was published last week — on Election Day, no less — and I share it with you now, during Transgender Awareness Week. In these uncertain and frightening times, Ivan’s voice becomes even more important.

Read more about Ivan’s story and my full review of Tomboy Survival Guide in the Biography and Memoir section of Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

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Review: You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, by Arisa White

youre-the-most-beautiful-thing-that-happened

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened
by Arisa White

Augury Books
2016
100 pages 

Language is at the heart of poetry, with each word carefully considered for its meaning, cadence and place. In You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, the third poetry collection from Arisa White, language is elevated and emphasized in an innovative way.

As per the publisher’s description, “Arisa White’s newest collection takes its titles from words used internationally as hate speech against gays and lesbians, reworking, re-envisioning, and re-embodying language as a conduit for art, love, and understanding.” Because many of the titles are common words that may not be readily apparent as offensive in English (but are derogatory in other countries and cultures), White includes a glossary of the words’ disparaging connotations.

(“…how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty I discovered when I paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases,” White writes in an Introduction to You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. While reading these poems, beauty might not be the first descriptor readers conjure up.  Arisa White’s work is raw and searing, delving into topics many find difficult and perhaps even ugly.

And that’s exactly what makes You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened a touchstone collection, especially in these unprecedented times when our societal discourse, national rhetoric and political exchanges from the likes of the Republican candidate for President of the United States (and his entourage) divulge into demeaning and crass language about women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, immigrants, and everyone who is perceived as different, flawed, “other” or “less than.”

If words could stick on people,
if spoken, they would become
a different creature.

Blinded and you’re turned
five times around. Nothing
in you knows what it knew.

It’s the best part of the game:
Prick the girls you like best
while pinning on the donkey’s tail.
(“Tail”) 

Arisa White’s poems are rooted in words that demean and belittle  — but their transformation is a product of the inherent beauty of humanity and love for each other.  We may feel your words but we are greater than them, Arisa White seems to be saying. We are more than your hurled venom, larger than your overpowering prejudice and stronger than strangers’ stigma.

We’re queer and you look too much boy good thinking
taking the rainbow off the plates in Maryland —
no one looked at us longer than was needed.
(“Strangers”)

As humans, as a people, we are encompassed by memory; we are love, we are our losses and life combined. (“I realized that the labels we use to name present us with a loss,” White explains in her introduction. “To name a person, an experience, or an object means we see it for that purpose, that utility, and gone to us is the ‘what else’ — the possibilities of everything the label can’t encompass.”)

Together since the year of my birth,
yet you are pantomime in the wings of our family’s speech
Why do you arch in shadows, 

accept the shade eclipsing her face? 
The holidays would be more gay 
if we didn’t ghost in dead air, 
in wooden boxes, letters folded over and over again, in locked rooms
where shames are secretly arranged— 
(“Auntie”)

Nestled within You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is an elegiac suite of poems titled “Effluvium.” (I needed to look up the definition; if you need a vocabulary lesson, too, dictionary.com tells us that it is “a slight or invisible exhalation or vapor, especially one that is disagreeable or noxious.”)  These poems, a remembrance “for Karen, 1963-2000,” focus on a loved one who died of AIDS. While several other offerings in this collection are slightly vague and indirect, this suite doesn’t need backstory.  The heartbreaking loss of a young mother in her late 30s is all we need to know.

For some, these will be difficult poems for their subject matter and the rawness of the language. It’s not a collection for everyone. But at the same time, it is for everyone because all of us have known pain and all of us have seen the ugly side that life can bring. And we’ve emerged through that experience changed by the way darkness can transform into light, and ugliness into beauty.

arisa-white

About Arisa White
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, Post Pardon, and Black Pearl. She was selected by the San Francisco Bay Guardian for the 2010 Hot Pink List and is a member of the PlayGround writers’ pool; her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of Play Ground Festival. Recipient of the inaugural Rose O’Neill Literary House summer residency at Washington College in Maryland, Arisa has also received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2005 and 2014, her poetry has been published widely and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet.

poetic-book-toursMany thanks to Augury Books for providing a free copy of You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened and to Poetic Book Tours for including me among the bloggers on this tour. No monetary compensation was exchanged for this review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Leave Me by Gayle Forman

Leave Me, by Gayle Forman

“But hearts are complicated and fragile things. They break for medical reasons, but frequently crack from the pain caused by unresolved questions and conflicts, changing friendships and devastating losses. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave everything we know behind, connect with others who are hurting, and cross a few bridges for our hearts to heal.”

That’s just one of my takeaways from Leave Me by Gayle Forman. For more of my thoughts, go here to read the rest of my review, which was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/9/2016). 

 

 

 

 

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In the Unlikely Event You Meet Judy Blume (Yes, THE Judy Blume) and Have No Clue You’ve Been Blurbed in Her Book

The Girl:  “Mom, did you know you’re quoted in the new Judy Blume book?”

This announcement greets me as I’m preparing dinner, as I tend to do.

“Um … excuse me, what, sweetie?”

She holds out the paperback version of In the Unlikely Event and there it is.

blurb-in-the-unlikely-event

(As a friend pointed out, my blurb has MY NAME where all the others just list the publication. My name … in Judy Blume’s book!)

Here’s the best part about this.  Obviously, I read an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of this one and wrote my review (from whence this blurb came) for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2015.

judy-blume-paperback-of-in-the-unlikely-eventFast forward a year. This summer, Judy Blume visited Pittsburgh on her tour promoting the paperback edition. Of course The Girl and I were there, among a sold-out crowd. As part of our ticket price, we were given a copy of the book, which I had her sign. Little did I know, my review (and did I mention my name?!) was included!

Needless to say, I had no idea. I’m completely stunned. I’ve provided a blurb upon request, but to my knowledge I’ve never been blurbed like this before and certainly not in a novel by one of literature’s icons.

What an absolute thrill!

 

 

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