Book Review: Fanny Burney: Her Life by Kate Chisholm

The details:

Title: Fanny Burney: Her Life
Author: Kate Chisholm
Genre: Biography
Pages: 368

Kate Chisholm decided, in this biography, to eschew the formalities of calling the subject Frances Burney or Madame D’Arblay, her title after she married an aristocratic French emigre, and instead used the name that she was called by her family, Fanny. I liked this approach, one where the reader is allowed to feel a certain closeness to the subject. While reading this biography, I felt as if I could really get to know Fanny, the novelist whose line in Cecilia likely inspired Jane Austen to change the title of First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice.

Fanny Burney lived a remarkable life beyond her work as a novelist. Through the connections of her music historian father, she became acquainted with a who’s who of 18th-century society, including David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Hester Thrale. For several unhappy and unproductive years, she was the second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte and witnessed King George III’s struggles with mental illness. She went through the horror of having a mastectomy without anesthesia. She was in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and Thackeray drew upon her account of it in her diaries when he was writing Vanity Fair

Chisholm describes Fanny as a shy child, one who at times seemed slow to learn, but whose powers of observation and intelligence are apparent in her diaries. She began by writing to “Nobody” and eventually progressed to novels. Worried about her step-mother’s reaction to her writing, she burned her early efforts, including one manuscript, but could not stop herself from writing another. She maintained a sense of secrecy about her writing and asked relatives to pick up letters on her behalf from potential publishers.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t savvy regarding business matters and sold the copyright of her first, wildly popular novel for less than it was worth. When she finally told her father about the novel, he used her fame to leverage his position in society, introducing her to influential people who wanted to meet the writer of Evelina. However, he set a boundary to what Fanny could write about, convincing her to scrap a play that satirized Bluestockings because he was worried about offending important people.

Although in some ways she could be persuaded by her father, she defied his wishes by marrying a French emigre named Alexandre D’Arblay. That she had finally found, at the age of 41, the man who so completely complemented her, who in all aspects seemed to be her match, was fascinating to read about. They seemed to possess a unique understanding of each other, and Fanny went so far as to ask that he be kept at work and not be told her mastectomy was taking place until the operation was over and she was out of danger. That she deeply cared for him is apparent, and the reader can only wish that they had met sooner and had spent more time together.

I really enjoyed this biography, which also gave criticism of Fanny’s works and their continued importance in modern literary scholarship. Although she is not as famous today as other writers of her time, such as Jane Austen, Fanny’s novels present a clear picture of what it was like to be a young woman during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She knew what etiquette and manners had to be displayed in society, and could describe with equal ease walking through Vauxhall Gardens, meeting a domino at a masquerade party, or facing the dilemma of marrying for love or money while hoping for both.


Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

The details:

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata; Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 176

Keiko Furukura’s family has tried for years to cure her. When she was a child, her parents took her to a therapist. Her younger sister adored her because she didn’t care for toys or candy and would indifferently hand them over when asked. Keiko realized that she was not like other children. As an adult, she wants to fit in to the idea of normal that her parents and sister expect of her. By chance, while she is attending university, she walks by a newly completed convenience store and writes down the phone number listed on the “help wanted” sign. She succeeds in getting a job there, which makes her family happy, and continues to work there for 18 years, which does not.

In the convenience store, Keiko learns a set of rules to govern her behavior. She can mimic her coworkers’ way of speaking and dressing, repeat the loud greetings from the training video, and figure out the logical way the store works during each season, how cold drinks might sell one day and discounted prepared foods on another day. She has a knack for creating the right ambiance, for restocking shelves during the lunchtime rush, and for reading customers’ actions to determine when they might be ready to pay for their items. The interior of the store follows a set pattern of sounds and expectations. Each night, Keiko thinks of the “music” of the store; it lulls her to sleep.

Although she is content with her life, taking her existence as a convenience store worker very seriously, her few friends and family cannot understand why she doesn’t want to get married or pursue a more serious career. They all want her to make an effort to be normal. Keiko doesn’t mind trying, but, frankly, she needs the process for change spelled out for her. Her life in the convenience store follows a strict routine, and she can’t fathom what step to take next to make those around her pleased with her.

The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.

After a span of time in which she is asked 14 times why she is not married and 12 times why she doesn’t have a better job, she decides to tackle the logically bigger problem first: marriage.

Enter Shiraha, a former coworker who was fired. He had been stalking coworkers and customers looking for a wife. Keiko is wise enough to recognize the predatory nature of his behavior, but he needs a place to stay and she needs to convince those around her that she’s normal. She decides to try an experiment. She invites Shiraha to live with her, as if he were her pet (she refers to his food as “feed”), letting him sleep in the bath, and calls her sister to test her reaction. She’s thrilled! And so are the rest of Keiko’s acquaintances. She tells them the basics, that she is living with an unemployed man (which is technically true), and they make up the story of a tortured love affair themselves. Shiraha is an awful person, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the people who want Keiko to get better. He looks down on Keiko and goes on and on about how nothing has changed in society since the Stone Age:

“This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.”

As people start treating Keiko like a “normal person”, commenting on her personal life at work, inviting her out for drinks, and giving her advice, she begins to wonder what she has given up in order to meet societal expectations. And those sacrifices just keep growing as more is expected of her. What will Keiko do? This is the story of love between a woman and a convenience store, and as a reader you just kind of have to go with it.

Convenience Store Woman was a quick read. I finished it in about a day and enjoyed the quirky narrator, her views of the world, and the way she reacts to those around her. Murata deals with issues of identity and society in an interesting, though sometimes too simplistic, way. I felt indignant on Keiko’s behalf for much of the book. Most of all, however, I wish I could visit a Japanese convenience store, whose bright displays and tasty food sound nothing at all like my local stores. Murata does a marvelous job of describing the convenience store, the unusual hum and rhythm of daily life that goes on in the glass aquarium-like walls, an atmosphere so enticing that perhaps it’s not so crazy that a woman working there could fall in love with its capitalistic routine.

Book Review: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The details:

Title: The Dud Avocado
Author: Elaine Dundy
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1958)
Pages: 272

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a quirky book that I find hard to categorize and to review months after I finished reading it. The narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, is an American who makes a deal with her rich uncle when she tries to run away as a teenager. If she agrees to stay in school and finish university, he’ll give her enough money so that she can do whatever she wants for two years. The only rule is that she will wait to tell him all about it when she returns. Sally Jay happily assents to this plan and, when the novel opens, she has spent a few months in Paris really living it up. She dyed her hair pink and is still in her evening dress on the morning described in the opening chapter. By chance, she meets a fellow actor, Larry, from back home and quickly falls in love with him.

There’s something charming about Sally Jay and her wisecracks that I loved. She’s still young enough that she’s a bit naive about other people’s motives, but, through her disillusionment, she retains her curiosity, fascination with the world, and sense of humor.

“That’s my answer to the question what is your strongest emotion, if you ever want to ask me: Curiosity, old bean. Curiosity every time.”

She is eager for experience, a trait that sometimes gets her into trouble, much to the amusement of the reader. While on vacation on the coast of France with Larry and a couple of his friends, Sally Jay completely loses it after days and days of interminable rain. She throws a chicken carcass at the cat that came with the house (she doesn’t like cats much). Then she picks up a pear, bites off the top like a grenade, and throws it against the wall. Finally, she breaks a few plates and starts laughing, all the while the others are watching her with concern. She tells them she wants to have a good time. When they ask her how, she doesn’t quite know “but brother, not like this.” Scenes like that, though humorous, contributed to my problem of deciding how to describe this novel. It’s the sort of writing that will appeal to people with a zany sense of humor.

In an Afterword, Dundy explained that she got the title during a dinner party where she told someone that she had never been able to grow a plant from an avocado pit. It just never worked for her, and the person said that was because she had a dud avocado. Within the text, one character says that women are like avocados, and I suppose we are supposed to view Sally Jay as a dud avocado. This novel tells the story of a young woman entering adulthood and finding the whole setup very confusing. She misreads people and makes bad decisions and she grows in the process, but not too much. The last line of the novel reassures the reader that she is still the Sally Jay of the first chapter and capable of a good one-liner in any situation.

Book Review: Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

The details:

Title: Natural Causes
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 256

Barbara Ehrenreich, who has a PhD in cellular immunology, provides an accessible guide to modern medicine in Natural Causes. She discusses the current trend towards wellness and a longer lifespan and the fear of death that underlies it. She begins by talking about routine tests in doctor’s offices and progresses to how much is still unknown about illness and aging.

I thought that the most fascinating part of the book was her explanation of macrophages, cells which are part of the immune system. When she was studying for her degree, she thought of macrophages as the hero of the immune system because they perform so many important functions, eating dead cells and helping to heal wounds. However, more recent research has uncovered that macrophages actually assist cancer cells in growing and spreading, eat lipids and block arteries, causing heart attacks, are one of the main culprits in attacking healthy cells in autoimmune disorders, cause inflammation, and might be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, you can adhere to a healthy living program, eating whatever is the current fad, working out regularly, and still be done in by an aspect of your body that you can’t control.

Ehrenreich is critical of the traumatic aspects of routine tests that are not evidence-based and haven’t been proven to be largely effective in saving lives. She compares the shaman practices studied by anthropologists with the detached and ceremonial role of doctors in our modern society. They dress in white coats and perform acts that are mostly done only because they have been for generations and because, as she quotes one doctor as saying, the patients expect it. She says that there are many reasons not to completely throw out preventative testing. For example, if someone really needed to have a test done, then insurance companies might refuse coverage on the grounds that it is not medically necessary. But she’s advocating for people to make informed decisions and not just blindly follow a doctor’s advice.

She also attacks the classism at play in the interpretation of what is healthy and what is not. For instance, many people who smoke live long lives, and some people who get lung cancer never smoked a day in their lives. Not all fast food is unhealthy. Some things are just out of your personal control. We give a privileged stance to the wealthy. Certain fads are given widespread coverage, like mindfulness, which has had a large boom in books and apps, and subsequently profit for its practitioners, despite the fact that it’s not proven to do anything to improve mental well-being. We are meant to admire those who do risky things like attempt to climb Mount Everest, even though it has a high death rate, because only the wealthy can do something like that. But we don’t try to understand why lower-class people smoke or eat fast food. She talked to one woman about why she smoked, and she said that she worked long hours and smoking served as a kind of stimulant, keeping her awake and de-stressed when she was exhausted so she could deal with everything in her life. Ehrenreich is very sympathetic, and I think she has a point. No one would advocate smoking, but why heavily tax a thing impacting mostly lower classes, which brings a level of enjoyment?

The larger theme of the book is about coming towards an acceptance of death and aging. When we read about someone else’s death, particularly a very famous person, we try to look for causes behind it. Did they drink a lot? Smoke? Live an unhealthy lifestyle? We want to assign blame because we don’t want to believe that death could be random or unfair. However, it will happen to us all one day, no matter how much healthy food we eat or how much we exercise. Ehrenreich notes that she sometimes eats butter or drinks wine, knowing that it isn’t the healthiest choice, but that life wouldn’t be worth much without things she enjoys. She talks a bit about some very wealthy people who plan to live to advanced age, but she also asks us to consider what quality of life we’ll have if the only goal is to extend life. I picked up this book largely because it falls outside of my usual reading scope, and I’m glad I read it. Ehrenreich offers a sensible account of medicine and health that made me more aware of my own views about wellness.

Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The details:

Title: Offshore
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1979)
Pages: 181

I’ve tried several times to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which is widely considered her best work, but haven’t been able to get into it. Instead, I set it aside and picked up her novel Offshore, the winner of the 1979 Booker Prize. Set on a London houseboat docked on the Thames, the book is about Nenna James and her neighbors. Nenna lives on the Grace (throughout the novel, the occupants are sometimes called by their houseboat’s name) with her two daughters. Nenna is uncertain, disorganized, and in just as transitional a stage as her houseboat moored on the tidal Thames, caught between land and water.

For such a short novel, Offshore contains a complexity of ideas and characters. Fitzgerald has a lot to say about life and decisions without offering concrete answers. She portrays characters who don’t quite fit in, misfits who lack something that their more successful peers have. Nenna has been living apart from her husband, who refuses to join her on the Grace. The Dreadnought is slowly sinking. Maurice, which has the same name as the boat’s occupant, houses one of Nenna’s closest friends. The most capable person is Richard, occupant of the Lord Jim, who tries to organize a fundraiser for the Dreadnought and whose wife dislikes living on a houseboat.

There’s a certain feeling of mismatching at play here. The characters have married the wrong people, have ended up in the wrong place, have held on for too long to a leaking houseboat. These are all people who have moved onto the Thames in order to escape something on land, but none of them have quite managed to get their lives stabilized to living on water. The main conflict of the novel centers around Nenna and her attempts to organize her life. She finds it difficult to make plans for the future and would prefer to have someone else make the decisions for her. Although her children seem wise beyond their years, her husband is just as uncertain as she is, and it seems that she has no one to help her adjust to solid ground.

I read, I think it was in the introduction, that Fitzgerald once lived on a houseboat on the Thames. Another author who hadn’t experienced it might have glamorized such a life, but Fitzgerald presents it in all its dreary, leaky reality. For a novel that is so much about uncertainty, it seems fitting that it ends in an uncertain way. Without giving anything away, Fitzgerald chose to leave her characters in a place where everything is truly still in flux. Nothing is really decided. Fitzgerald seems to be telling the reader that much of life exists in that space, neither onshore yet not at sea, where it can be difficult to decide with any realistic idea of the eventual consequences. This novel was one of the most unique I’ve read recently, and I’m excited to find more of Fitzgerald’s work.

Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The details:

Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1937)
Pages: 264

In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct anthropological research in Haiti. She went to escape from a tempestuous love affair and later said that she tried to channel her feelings into her work. In the course of seven weeks, Hurston wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published the next year. In it, she uses dialect to give her characters a unique voice.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

Janie Crawford, our heroine, was raised by her grandmother in the southern United States. As her grandmother grows older, knowing that she won’t be around much longer, she thinks about what to do with Janie. In an effort to ensure a safe future for her granddaughter, she makes a match between Janie and an older man. With romantic notions filling her head, Janie agrees to the marriage, knowing that she doesn’t love her future husband, yet hoping that love will come with time. She dreams of a love that resembles the feeling she has when sitting under a tree on a warm summer’s day.

Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!

It doesn’t take Janie long to realize that love doesn’t always follow marriage. After her grandmother’s death, she meets a well-dressed man, named Jody Starks, walking along the road and follows him, hoping that perhaps he’ll be the key to the sort of freedom she craves.

But life with Jody is in some ways more confining than anything Janie has known thus far. They move to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all African American self-governing municipalities in the US. Jody arrives with a large amount of money and uses it to gain influence in the town, eventually becoming the mayor. He buys Janie fine clothes and builds a house for them, and they run the town store. As she sits at the front counter, Janie feels distant from the other townsfolk, who see her as Mrs. Mayor and not as an equal. Although she has everything she needs in terms of clothes and food and shelter, she finds that her emotional needs aren’t being met. Jody wants to control her, wants to dictate how she should act and who she should talk to.

Above all, this is a novel about trying to find a sense of freedom in a world where women still didn’t have much power. When Janie finally meets Tea Cake, the wonderfully named man who will become the love of her life, life begins to alter for her. The tree she had always dreamed of begins to grow and branch out. The most charming part of the book is Hurston’s use of language. There were phrases that hit me as being beautiful, such as “she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see.” This is one of those books that has the power to transform a vision of life. It is about becoming yourself, finally, through all of the joys and sorrows of experience.

Book Review: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

The details:

Title: Nine Coaches Waiting
Author: Mary Stewart
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1958)
Pages: 352

Nine Coaches Waiting offers a plot that feels familiar. A lonely, orphaned woman hired to be a governess arrives at a rural estate and falls in love. At one point, the main character thinks about Jane Eyre. But Mary Stewart saves this book from being too derivative by peppering the writing with literary references, beginning each chapter with an appropriate quote, and by giving her heroine, Linda Martin, a unique, clever voice.

The book begins with Linda telling the reader, “I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” When she was offered a job as a governess for a family in France, she quit her job at a school in London without hesitation. She knows very little about her employers, Leon and Heloise de Valmy. There is a brief mention, early, of Linda remembering her parents speaking of Leon and the accident that left him paralyzed, but the connection between the two is frustratingly never explained. How did Linda’s parents know Leon? Why were they speaking of him at the breakfast table? In a book that relies on suspense, I was expecting there to be a connection, some plot of revenge against the daughter of a hated rival, but it is never spoken of again.

Instead, Linda falls into a routine caring for young Philippe, the Comte de Valmy, who is under his uncle and aunt’s care while his usual guardian, Leon’s brother, is off working on an archaeological site. Philippe is lonely and obviously frightened of Leon, and Heloise mentions more than once how sickly and delicate Philippe is. Linda nicknames Leon the Demon King and thinks he looks like a fallen angel. Since Philippe’s parents’ preferred Paris to the countryside, Leon has managed the estate for years and plans to do so until Philippe becomes of age. He takes great pride in the great house, diverting money from his own estate for Valmy’s upkeep. Anvil-sized hints abound, making the mystery rather less thrilling than it could have been.

When Philippe falls victim to two accidents, Linda isn’t that suspicious. She’s too distracted by Leon’s handsome son, Raoul, from his first marriage. Again, readers will know immediately where this is going, but the journey to get there is delightful with Linda narrating. She saves Philippe from certain death. However, she doesn’t want to think the accidents are anything more than that. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the characterization and the style of writing, but the plot didn’t offer many surprises. Overall, I would recommend it. It’s perfect for summer reading, the sort of book that doesn’t require too much effort, yet is still very entertaining.

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

The details:

Title: Stoner
Author: John Williams
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1965)
Pages: 288
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The introduction to Stoner lauded it to me as a defense of the humanities, of studying a topic for passion rather than the utility of the thing, something I’m all for and which seems to have been abandoned in our modern society. It says of an interview the author John Williams gave:

he complains about the change away from pure study within the universities, the results of which cannot be predicted, towards a purely utilitarian, problem-solving way of doing things more efficiently, both in the arts and sciences, all of which can be predicated and measured. Then, more specifically, Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text “as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.”

Our hero, William Stoner, was born on a farm in rural Missouri. He doesn’t have any thoughts beyond working on his family farm until someone speaks to his father about the possibility of him going to university in Columbia, Missouri. Stoner, as he is called throughout the book, spends his first year dutifully studying agriculture, vaguely feeling that the information he learns will eventually be useful when he returns to the farm, but feeling no real interest in the topic. During his second year, he takes a mandatory course on English Literature and decides to change his entire program. He doesn’t tell his parents about this change and doesn’t have any idea what to do with this new course of study until one of his professors tells him that he’s going to be a teacher.

Stoner seems so powerless. He falls into his profession by chance. He never once asks himself how he can become like his favorite teacher and only considers the path after it’s suggested to him. The author tells us how passionate he is about literature, but we don’t really get to feel that at all. We find out his dissertation topic, but not why he chose it. It’s a book about being passionate about a subject, about feeling so strongly about it that you abandon everything you know to follow it to see where this new knowledge leads, and yet it lacked passion. Williams is very matter-of-fact as he tells the reader about each stage of Stoner’s development.

It is a dry book, and the contrast between Stoner’s supposed love of literature and the plain, detached narration style was interesting but sometimes worked against the novel. I am not by any means advocating for a pre-broken heart Marianne Dashwood intensity of life, but the level of stoicism displayed by Stoner was off-putting to me. One of his friends describes him as Quixotic, but there was no tilting at windmills and an unfortunate lack of imagination displayed at various points. I never felt like Stoner really wanted anything. We are told he falls in love, we are told he loves literature and loves teaching, but I saw little evidence to prove that. The women in the novel are also rather stereotypical and undeveloped, which detracted from my ability to really like this book as much as others do.

Although Stoner was originally published in 1965, it didn’t sell well in its original printing. Recently, it was translated into other languages and became a huge hit in Europe and eventually found its way back in print in the US thanks to New York Review Books. Although I have mixed feelings about this book, I think perhaps the point is the contrast between how we perceive ourselves and how we appear to the world. To himself, Stoner felt like a Don Quixote, a dreamer in a confusing world, but to outsiders it just appears that he’s caught in the stream, carried along in the choices that seem inevitable. He has an overwhelming passion for literature, is sometimes caught up in the feeling as he leads lectures and seminars. Like his author, as quoted in the introduction, when asked if literature is written to be entertaining, I think he would agree:

“Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”

Book Review: Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan

The details:

Title: Based on a True Story
Author: Delphine de Vigan
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 384
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

The narrator of Based on a True Story is named Delphine, just like the book’s author. Like the author, she has published a partially biographical novel about her mother and herself. When she attends book signings,  she is asked what she will write after this highly successful novel, and she isn’t sure what the answer to that is yet. At a party, she meets someone whom she simply calls L. L. is elegant, the sort of effortless, put-together woman Delphine admires and envies. The relationship that quickly develops between the two reminds the narrator of spontaneous adolescent friendships that haven’t carried over to adulthood. L. will call from just around the corner when she’s available and ask the narrator to join her. They rarely plan in advance, and L. evades meeting the narrator’s children and boyfriend.

One night, they have dinner together. L. asks, out of nowhere, what Delphine is writing now. But the narrator doesn’t have a good answer to that, at least not one that satisfies L. She had been planning to write a novel about a reality show star, one who is simultaneously created and exploited because of the exposure of her life to the public. L. doesn’t think that’s good enough. She says that she saw, from the moment that she met Delphine, that there was another, even more personal novel lurking behind her last one. L. insists that there has to be a literal truth that the author is exposing in writing. Delphine thinks that, no matter what story one tells, it can’t be the literal truth; the author has to cut parts that add nothing to the story and fill in the holes to make an engaging narrative. They have the following exchange:

[L.:] “It’s important that it’s true.”

[Delphine:] “But who claims to know? People, as you say, maybe only need it to ring true. Like a musical note. Anyway, maybe that’s the mystery of writing: it’s true or it isn’t.”

And that is the question that the reader is asking from the beginning. The very title of the book suggests to the reader that this is at least partially based on a true story. How much is true, and how much has been invented?

As her relationship with L. intensifies, other parts of Delphine’s life begin to fall apart. Her children move off to further their education, creating a void in her life. She cannot write even a simple sentence or go near her computer without being physically ill. She receives letters from someone very close to her, either family or a longtime friend, with vague threats and expressing anger over her last book. She loses notebooks full of plans for a new novel, one that L. disapproves of, while travelling with her on crowded public transportation. Throughout, Delphine gives the reader some foreshadowing of where her relationship with L. is heading.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the plot. Someone recommended Nothing Holds Back the Night to me, and, when I put a hold on it at my local library, I discovered this book was available and checked it out. In some ways, it is about female friendship and truth in writing: just how much the reader needs to know about what is truth and what is fiction, and whether that matters at all. It takes a conventional thriller plot and twists it into something more literary. I found certain aspects of the plot to be pretty obvious and some readers might be frustrated by how long it takes for the plot to develop, but I enjoyed this book immensely because of the larger issues discussed by the characters. Delphine de Vigan poses questions about literature and truth that will leave readers thinking about the book long after finishing.

Book Review: The Actor’s Life by Jenna Fischer

The details:

Title: The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide
Author: Jenna Fischer
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 252
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

I am a very big fan of the U.S. version of the TV show The Office, so when I saw that Jenna Fischer, who plays my favorite character Pam Beesly, had written a book. I immediately got it from the library. Unlike many recent books by celebrities, this isn’t a memoir. Fischer provides very few details about her personal life, only sharing as far as her experience might help others who aspire to a creative life. It is a well-written and extremely useful book about a way-of-life most people glamorize.

Fischer offers practical advice about getting headshots, finding an agent and manager, and auditioning. She’s realistic yet supportive, writing as a mentor to any new actors arriving in Hollywood. Even if you’re really good, she says, you still might not make it, but you have a better chance by doing as much as you can to build your own community of fellow actors. She says that when she arrived in Hollywood, her first instinct was just to send out copies of her resume and headshots and study the craft alone while waiting for the phone to ring. But she began to realize that she needed to become further involved. She volunteered and joined groups and worked behind the scenes when needed and took additional classes so that she could surround herself with those who were passionate about acting. Although a little luck is needed to be successful, she found that she had a better chance at getting that luck when she was more involved.

It took Fischer eight years to get her first big break: a regular role on a TV series, The Office. During the time between her arrival and that role, she recalls that she sometimes wanted to quit. It was difficult to live in debt, in bad apartments, auditioning for roles, getting close, and not being chosen, or getting chosen and having the show be cancelled. However, she surrounded herself with supportive people who wanted to help her succeed and wouldn’t listen when she told them that she wanted quit. She recalls the advice of one of her teachers: if you can imagine doing anything else, do that instead. Fischer couldn’t think of anything else, so she knew she had to try to be an actor.

She also mentions some friends who are also actors. One was very talented, but could never quit his job as a full-time waiter. Another could support himself through very small roles and never became very famous. More quit and went home. She also includes interviews with other actors who each had very different paths to achieving their ideal acting life. The point is that a successful life as an actor, or as any other type of artist, doesn’t look the same for every person. The common thread is how much work is necessary to get to that ideal place career-wise. Fischer is honest about the struggles she went through early in her career. It’s not as easy as showing up and having managers and agents recognize your talent. And it doesn’t end once you get a regular role on a very successful TV show. She writes about being fired recently from a job because focus groups noted her lack of on-screen chemistry with the male lead.

This is a funny, reaffirming, and kindly written book, filled with practical advice and a supportive attitude. Fischer covers everything from eating during a scene (the food will be served cold so it doesn’t go bad, order something light if possible since you’ll need to eat during all of the scene takes, and take small bites, as she learned during a scene involving ice cream cake during The Office’s first season). She outlines the steps for joining the SAG-AFTRA union. She offers great advice for being a professional on set and avoiding gossip. Sometimes the lifestyle is not glamorous (she recalls a horrible time filming a commercial for a new ride at an amusement park), but it’s all worth it to be doing something she loves doing. She talks about her mistakes so new actors don’t duplicate them. Although this is a book about how to become an actor, Fischer provides advice and supportive stories that would be useful in any creative pursuit.