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R&R 136 | My Life in France

A review! FINALLY! I wrapped up some client shoots and one of the first things I did was get this review ready, because it was time. I will continue to be busy for a few more weeks as we're 4 weeks away from our wedding day, buuuuut I will try and prepare another review during that time! Meanwhile, I hope you'll enjoy reading this one.

Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
My Life in France
First published in: 2006
This edition: movie tie-in, Anchor Books, 2009
ISBN: 978 0 307 47501 5
Pages: 414
Cover: Columbia Pictures

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There is only one good Jules in Julie Powell's Julie & Julia, and her name isn't Julie. The one good thing
about that flop of a book, is that it got me curious about Julia Child. (The woman more than the chef, I
should add. All that butter, no thanks. But that feisty lady behind the apron? Yes please!)

The only two good things about Nora Ephron's subsequent movie, are Meryl Streep and even MORE Julia Child, as the movie is based on both Powell's self-indulgent train wreck, and on Julia Child's My Life in France, which deserved Meryl, but also its own movie. Alas. After fast-forwarding through bits featuring Amy Adams's horrible wig (e.g. I only watched "Julia Child's scenes"), the movie at least inspired me to get a copy of My Life in France. A lot of butter, but no more Julie. Hurrah!

And let me tell you. My Life in France is BY FAR the superior book. It has what Powell's self-aggrandizing "memoir" lacks in abundance: love, love of food, respect for others, passion, and genuineness.

Child's voice is infectious. I tend to have trouble starting books, especially when they concern subjects I am trying out. I usually read a lot of fiction, and a lot less non-fiction. And My Life in France is a memoir involving lots of cooking – as this book largely covers the time in Julia's life when she attended the Cordon Bleu and the years after that, writing cook books and starting her TV show – and my interest in cooking and recipes has only really developed this past November. I read this book before then.

So I expected to struggle getting into it, honestly. But it was a breeze to read. Julia Child tells her story with so much joy, and genuine affection. I know the phrase "feel good" is used very, very often… but it is an apt description here. This lady enjoyed life, and it just shows. I think that, in another crazy lifetime during which I would have actually gotten to meet her, that Julia Child and I would've gotten along great. Her personality sparks. I admire her spirit. She put her mind to it, and she did it. Adjusting to France, learning the language, learning to cook. She did it and did it well and that's inspiring.

To continue on this train of thought regarding my expectations for this book: I expected to like it. Definitely. But I ended up really, really loving it and this surprises me, today still. I just didn't think I'd be so taken with Julia Child.

I believe Julia Child is the Original Foodie, and she writes about it with a clear passion. Yes, she would often use French phrases for recipes and ingredients, and that wasn't always easy to follow. But I'm referring to food and a human's senses. The joy of first experiencing a dish, the scents one can detect. Experiencing food. She describes food – cooking it, smelling it, tasting it, processing it – in great detail, and with feeling. Julie Child clearly loved food. She understood it. It's hard to describe food and flavors to other people. I'm a vegetarian, and I don't understand bouillabaisse. But Julia managed to make me get why it's an impressive recipe, even though I could never (bring myself to) enjoy the taste of it. And a large chunk of Child's cooking (and French cuisine basically) consists of meaty meals. But Child still managed to enthuse me about food and cooking generally. I'll just stick to the vegetarian edition 😉

It's not just the food which she describes well; the book is of course about her life in France. She tells us about the places she's been, the people she's met. Her struggles and triumphs. There are detailed, lively anecdotes. My deep kudos to Meryl Streep *bows* (I do think she mastered the essence of the person, and became, Julia Child), and like I said this book deserves its own movie… but truth be told it doesn't really need one, because Julia Child has such a vivid and enthusiastic voice. Child's world really comes alive on the pages.

Besides this being a record of one's journey in cooking, My Life in France is also, of course, about Julia and Paul's marriage. Their story is a sweet one, and I'm glad she had him in her life. Like Julia, Paul comes across as a charismatic but very relatable person. I think he made her even better than she already was. I was charmed by their compatible, supportive and loving relationship. There was so much mutual respect between them and Child really managed to get that across to us readers. I think their connection was my favorite element of this memoir. The man behind the woman behind the apron.

And my compliments to Alex Prud'homme for successfully helping Julia Child streamline and organize her thoughts, notes and memories into one delightful book.

It's weird. I don't usually attach a visual feeling to reading a book. I mean, I do when I review books and take these self-portraits. I reflect and visualize what I would like to express in relation to a particular book. But in this case it was during my reading experience that I could visualize something, which is what this R&R's self-portrait reflects:
It's like Julia would be standing in her kitchen, this tall, impressive woman, in the process of cooking. You smell everything. It's mouthwatering and your stomach growls. But it's okay to wait a while, because you're too focused on this woman and what she's telling you. "Whoop!" she exclaims while expertly swaying from one part of the kitchen to the next, telling you stories about her husband and their first lunch at some cozy restaurant. It's almost like you're sitting at her kitchen's bar, enjoying a glass of red wine together, listening to this fun but fierce woman, contently smiling. Makes me wish it was real… but I'm happy enough with the idea of it.

R&R 135 | The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
First published in: 2010
This edition: Pan Macmillan, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-230-74869-9
Genre: non-fiction, ethics
Pages: 337
Cover typography by Stephen Raw

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Ever since I was a student in elementary school, I have been fascinated with ethics. I can still discuss it, with a passion. Even if that means being the only one in the 'pro' or 'con' team. Ethics to me isn't about popular opinion. It's about carefully weighing one situation with the knowledge at hand. Using the mind as well as the heart.

Life is important. In order to benefit and sustain life, there's science. After all, it's how we humans develop everything, from our beloved iPads for entertainment to developing medicine and new technologies to help understand and treat devastating diseases. Science, then, could be considered to be our friend.
But what if science becomes something else entirely? What if science forgets that which is supposed to be so valuable? What if science loses respect for human life? Science, then, becomes an enemy. As it has to the Lacks family, whose story Rebecca Skloot outlines in THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, of a very bad case of cervical cancer. Before passing on, her cancer cells were removed from her body and subsequently used for research. As it turns out, Henrietta's cancerous cells formed the first immortal (thus forever multiplying, forever useful) strain of human cells in the scientific world.
HeLa cells are still used in science today, worldwide. Henrietta Lacks's cells were initially used with enthusiasm (it was a breakthrough after all), sold to one research facility after the other. Researchers seemed to forget the human being behind them, not even knowing her name.

Henrietta, an African American woman from a low social economic status, wasn't made aware of her cells being used for (future) research. The family she left behind wasn't made aware of her cells being used for (past and current and future) research.
Rebecca Skloot poses the question: has the Lacks family – Henrietta and offspring – been exploited by science? Henrietta's children in (the book's) present day live in poverty, in poor health, and without health insurance. Skloot wonders: is it right that the family members of the one person whose cells have been a tremendous benefit to science (also financially), cannot afford their own health care?

I admired, immediately, Rebecca Skloot's obvious dedication to this story. A lot of time, effort and (I believe) love went into this book. She has clearly done her research, which she outlines neatly and clearly in the first (fascinating) section of her book. She translates scientific material in an understandable English: people who know zilch about cell research will be able to understand most of this. (The one thing that disappointed me was learning, after I'd already finished the book, that Skloot had included notes in the back of the book. I wish she / the editor would have referred to them in-text.)

The second part of the book changes gear: whereas the first section deals with cell research and HeLa's history, the second part of the book lets us readers know about what effect HeLa has had on the people closest to it, genetically. Skloot really appears to care about the Lacks family, which allows for readers to connect with them and form an understanding of their plight. It also keeps the story from being too scientific and makes it human, which is what this eventually is all about: that human life.

But this is where Skloot lost me as a reader. The first part had me – ethics buff – completely enthralled; the second part brought out the book- and general critic in me.
Skloot has, at this point, inserted herself into the story, turning it from a book about scientific ethics into a semi-memoir: "How I met Henrietta's daughter Deb and her relatives & how I wrote this book". She even appears in the book in several scenes. She gets too close and while, as mentioned, it makes the book human, the book becomes obviously biased and extremely preachy.

It caused me to wonder in how far I agreed with the Lacks family and Skloot. Are the scientists responsible for their life of poverty? Perhaps. Yes and no.
But are the scientists who researched HeLa responsible for Deb's various physical and mental health issues? No. Did they make her ill? No. Are the scientists responsible for the life of crime lead by one of Deb's brothers, Zak – or his anger management issues? No. Are the scientists to blame for the abuse Zak endured at the hands of his stepmother? No. Are the scientists to blame for the admitted fact that the Lacks family never asked any questions – but always just assumed what was easy and convenient to them – until they learned of the actual impact HeLa has had, how big it had gotten? No.
But that's what Skloot keeps hammering on about, and it gets old fast.

I answered a rather decided 'no' on every question, except the one on poverty. Part of me feels the Lacks family deserves some form of compensation because HeLa earned science a looooot of money. I understand that they'd need the money. And HeLa is major.
But another, bigger part of me feels the Lacks family is a little greedy for feeling, so angrily, that they must have money for cell research which has been a benefit to thousands of lives. There's the big picture that I'm looking at here. And they come across as selfish in a way. They may not be. But Skloot fails to paint them in another light.

I feel that these cells which Henrietta had removed from her body were not actually "a part of her". Deb Lacks, who comes across as a paranoid, hostile and unsympathetic person, would look at HeLa cells and exclaim that they "are her mother". In a way this moved me; I am a sentimentalist despite what you are reading in this review. It's all she has left of her mother. But the realist in me would say, they are cancer. They are foreign cells that have invaded her mother's body and caused her death. They themselves are not her mother. A removed tumor to me is not part of someone's actual "natural" tissue. And they weren't stolen from Henrietta as if they were a cherished part of her body. I'm just not sure the Lacks family has a financial claim over removed tumor cells.

Should they receive compensation? In some ways, yes. But are the Lacks's helpless victims of evil scientists? I don't think so personally. Not in the way Skloot describes them, anyway. (They are, each and every single one of them, unsympathetic.)

I also reach out towards the grey area as opposed to the black and white area when I say that it was the 1950's. Ethics were not much of a thing at all. African Americans were treated abysmally, yes. And there is no excuse for that. None. And it horrifies me that people, human beings, are still being treated differently because of skin color, (non-)religion, or sexual orientation – to name a few things. To be fair I could see how this plays a major role in the Lacks family's present-day anger.
Right now though, I'm referring to the ethics of removing cancer cells from any dying patient, and using those cells for research – it just was a different time. And no one expected, before removing those cells from Henrietta, that they would be so valuable. (But it would have been nice if Henrietta was acknowledged in some way.)

It bothered me that Skloot seemed so biased against the scientists in question – I expected more objectivity from this book in that sense, outlining facts, which is how the book started. It turned into a soap opera next (there's a scene where Deb gets completely paranoid and attacks the author, for example).
Why wasn't Skloot more critical of Henrietta's husband Day – the man whose constant philandering gave Henrietta so many STD's, antagonizing and who knows maybe even causing her severe cervical cancer? The man who allowed his girlfriend to physically abuse his children? The man who neglected his children and didn't provide them with any chance for education. The man who withheld from his daughter Deb any information about her mother('s death) she so desperately, almost heartbreakingly needed. All she had were those cells.
Was she not allowed to, by the family? Or was he actually not on her radar as being someone to criticize because he wasn't a "terrible, greedy scientist"?

And finally, the one thing I couldn't get over, especially once I got through that meta-fiction nightmare of Skloot's "My Life as the HeLa author" – the book accuses everything and everyone of exploiting the Lacks family.

What is this book, with its sensationalist tag lines and intimate details of the Lacks's lives, doing?

…yeah.

R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

E.L. James
Fifty Shades of Grey
First published in: 2011
This edition: Vintage, 2012
ISBN: 97-0-345-80348-1
Genre: erotic romance, adult
Pages: 514
Cover design by Jennifer McGuire; photography by Papuga2006 | Dreamtime.com

R&R 134 | Fifty Shades of Grey

Wow, it took a while for me to get back to reviewing. I'm a little rusty.

I could properly begin this review by first clarifying why I was hesitant about reading this book. It was not about its subject. I'm a 29 year old woman who was raised in an environment where sex was never a taboo. I have nothing against eroticism, whether it's subtle bed scenes in love stories, or Alcide literally jumping his were girlfriend's bones like WHOA! in True Blood. The only reason I will not watch Eyes Wide Shut is because I am repulsed by Tom Cruise, not because I'm offended by any sexual lifestyle between consensual adults, including the Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism or SadoMasochism (summed up to the acronym BDSM) lifestyle.

I didn't really plan on reading Fifty Shades of Grey because (sigh) it's Twilight fan fiction (that is how James started this series), and I really didn't want to relive Twilight, much less read a derivation of it, which in short is about Anastasia, a naive virgin who gets involved with hot billionaire / BDSM aficionado Christian Grey. They're way into each other. Steamy sex and spanking ensues. Fangs are not included.

So, hesitant. But rule number 1 of being a book reviewer is: don't judge it until you've read it. In the end I decided I wanted to have an informed opinion because it's all anyone's talking about right now. Oh and my American twin was going to read it, so I had to order a copy, too. We giggled on Skype about how utterly trashy it would be, and fun because of it. I found myself actually looking forward to reading it, and I freakin' loved the idea of reviewing it. "Dis gun be gud," I thought as I snuggled up in my bathrobe and fuzzy bath slippers, this book in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I had my notebook at the ready and I read with an open mind, taking it all in.

I enjoyed it exactly because it was the crap that I thought it would be. It's that feeling that you know something is so bad, and that makes it… I won't say good, but I will say entertaining. It's why White Chicks is a movie I'll always watch when it's on TV. I had some laugh out loud moments with Fifty Shades, all due to cheesiness, like when Ana daydreams about "a Christian Grey flavored popsicle". Oh, yuck. But: lolz.

But being amused by a bad book still doesn't make it a good read. My second rule of being a book reviewer is: stay true to your opinion and be critical. Note the good (entertaining in ways & amusing – check) and never leave out the bad, no matter how many toes you step on or how bitchy people will think you are.

I understand why people enjoy reading this book, but I resent it being a "best book" of anything. And I'll tell you why: Fifty Shades of Grey's writing is heinous. And when I say "heinous", I want you to imagine the Law & Order intro voiceover guy (Steve Zirnkilton!) is the one who's actually saying it. Heinous. I tried to not get annoyed by this, but James left me no choice. I'm against this book being a hype and IT getting movie deals instead of any other book of substance that's actually well written.

E.L. James is British, and I could tell from the way she wrote certain things. There were obvious British colloquialisms (e.g. "dressing smartly", "ringing someone"), but I also noticed it in Christian Grey as an entire character. I'd been watching The Voice of Australia during the time I read this book, which features Seal as one of the judges. And one way or another, his British, silky voice snuck in my head when I was reading Christian's dialog. And it fit beautifully. There wasn't anything really American about Christian, not convincingly anyway. Not in my reading experience.

It gets worse: there's a painful amount of repetitive phrasing in this book. Several other reviewers have actually counted repeated phrases and posted lists. Examples: Ana blushes / flushes various shades of crimson throughout the book (which explains the photo for this review). Christian Grey runs his hand (with the "unusually elongated index finger", which is the most obnoxious penis metaphor ever – we get it, he's hung) through his hair countless times, chiding Ana again and again for endlessly biting her lower lip.
…where does James live? I want to mail her a thesaurus.

Almost every page of this story, narrated poorly by Ana, contained either an "Oh my!" or "Holy [insert hell, shit, crap, etc]!" or "geez". Ana also kept telling us about her "Inner Goddess" versus her subconscious. The phrasing makes me feel that Ana, like Christian, is an inconsistent character. This book reads like a teenaged virgin's diary, yet James wants us to believe this story is told by Ana, the intellectual literature graduate, who loves Jane Austen. (Jane Austen would turn over in her grave.) Having Ana mention her "medulla oblongata" randomly in order for her to sound smart after all doesn't cut it. It's just too bad this book isn't intentionally satirical.

I wasn't a fan of the epistolary style here, in the form of several email exchanges between Ana and Grey. They were cute at first but then James kept using this technique to fill her pages. Not every book can pull this off. Either you do it well (or briefly) or you don't do it at all.
A small nitpicky thing that bothered me was how Ana's mom rather uncharacteristically blurts out fanfic slang, like she and us readers would automatically know what it means. UST apparently means Unresolved Sexual Tension. If you're selling fanfic as a novel, edit it like one.

The sex scenes were well written at first but became uninspired quickly. I know this book is supposed to be a fantasy, but the sex scenes paint an unrealistic picture of women losing their virginity and female sexuality in general. I don't know or understand much about the BDSM lifestyle, but I don't think James understands it (I'll get back to that later) or eroticism, either. I don't think she really knew what she wanted this book to be. Her "heroine" is wide open for business and climaxes at the drop of a hat, all the while convincing herself she is now A Legit Sex Goddess. But she cannot say the word "vagina", instead referring to her lady bits as "down there", of course shyly blushing pink/red/salmon/burgundy while doing so, because "oh my."

Which leaves my biggest and most predictable issue with this book: the unhealthy relationship between Ana and Grey. And by unhealthy, I do not mean the BDSM lifestyle. By unhealthy I mean how Christian Grey is epitomized as Mister Right, with an immensely insecure Ana fawning over him. Meanwhile her sense of self, her values and her brains seem to just trickle out of her ears every time Grey so much as looks at her. Ana frequently mentions how hot and rich Grey is. Because apparently that is what gives a man merit. His looks and his checkbook. Oh and listening to classical music. #extracheese

Like I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I am aware that Fifty Shades is about giving female readers a fantasy story. Women like the idea of being able to fix a flawed, handsome man. Which is exactly my damn problem with this book. Because Christian's not just a flawed, commitmentphobe with a warm heart underneath it all, simply A Broken Handsome Man dealing with obstacles and heartbreak from his past who just needs some of Mary Sue's tender loving care. Nooo, Christian's a borderline psychopath who enjoys hurting women. I feel BDSM is stereotyped, and used to justify assholery – Grey gets off on slapping women but it's okay, he has a special room of pain and uses sensible whips only. It's sexy now. I mean, Ana climaxes all the time. (I later learned that he especially enjoys spanking women who look like his mother. What are you still doing here? Run for the FUCKING hills, ladies!)

I cannot believe a secretive, manipulative, emotionally stunted, arrogant control freak like Christian Grey (or his twin Edward Cullen) is Woman's idea of a Dream Man. I can't speak for the rest of you, but he's not MY idea of a Dream Guy, anyway. Or Ana's (after all, she kept whining and trying to change the guy!). Perhaps if the book remained erotic and sexual (with two people actually mutually enjoying each other) then I could see it being a fantasy and enjoy it as such. But no, it had to be a love story. Which for me ruined the fantasy part. This book is like a Nicholas Sparks novel on Heisenberg's blue meth. It doesn't work for me this way.

The only way for Fifty Shades to redeem itself to me is if Ana does not stay with Christian in the end. And that in itself is not my idea of a good romance story: when you end up NOT rooting for a couple.

So, is this book worth reading? Why ask, you've already read it! I'll leave that up to you, but advise you to take everything with a truckload of salt. I think women respond to fantasies differently and I for one am just not into Christian Grey.

The fact that this book is so popular does mean that – female – sexuality is less of a taboo with the sale of every copy. (It's like Sex and the City never existed, but ok.) That's never a bad thing. It's just too bad the book's message about love and sex literally blows.

I think I would have gotten more enjoyment from a Harlequin novel, and I say that in all seriousness. Because that's fantasy and romance, and enjoyable, but not trying so hard to sell a dysfunctional man as Mister Right, a messed up relationship as The Ideal Love Story, The Perfect Fantasy. No thanks. I'll stick to reality.

COMMENTS MODERATED. LET'S KEEP IT FRIENDLY.

R&R 133 | Bossypants

Tina Fey
Bossypants
First published in: 2011
This edition: Sphere, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7515-4783-2
Genre: humor, memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 285 (including Q&A, reading guide)
Cover design by Mario J. Pulice; cover photo by Ruven Afanador

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In a nutshell?

Man. I was feeling really down the weeks before heading to the UK for our annual book shopping… I mean toy tractor show trip. And then I found Tina, which makes Bossypants my bible.

Comedy writer and actress Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock) has that delightful self-deprecating humor, which I already knew from being an avid watcher of her show 30 Rock, in which Fey plays herself a comedy writer named Liz Lemon, whose passion in life is a good sandwich.

So when I heard she'd written a memoir, I was on it so fast, I got it almost a year after it was first published, at a charity shop for what amounts to about 2 bucks. Now that's commitment right there. Right. There.

I'd just started reading Julia Child, bless her, but The Fey tempted me and I started reading that instead (after finishing Bossypants, I switched back to Julia Child and have her my full dedication). And I'm so, so glad I did. I needed this. I needed to crylaugh and be confronted with turning 40 ten years from now (an eye opener). But no, seriously. I did need this. Bossypants and the type of humor in it is the perfect prescription against having the blues.

Fey's memoir starts with this hilarious introduction – as I read it I swear I could hear Tina speaking to me… I'm Kaat d'Arc – ensuring you that you were about to read a winner. Fey proceeds to take you through her childhood, her teenage dreams, her experiences with her first jobs, That Palin Skit and how 30 Rock came to be. Bossypants is funny and varied; there's not a dull page in there. It's a wonderful way to get to know Tina Fey, if you're a fan, and I personally am really psyched that she wrote this. Tina Fey is honest and very personal about everything, with a healthy dose of self-mockery, and always keeps it upbeat.

But even if you appreciate humor – of the David Sedaris Genre, yes, I said genre – but have never even heard of 30 Rock (because you've been living under it), this book is for you. I had trouble putting it down. The humor isn't cheap or predictable, but exquisitely funny.

One of my favorite chapters is about Tina Fey's honeymoon, "My honeymoon, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again Either", describing how their cruise ship caught on fire, effectively ruining what cruise director 'Dan Dan the Party Man' hadn't already. (Fey is married to 30 Rock composer Jeff Richmond.) (And I'm never going on a cruise. You can forget about it.)

I enjoyed reading where The Bossy in Bossypants began: during her job at the (chapter is also entitled) "Young Men's Christian Association". It's fun to stay there. She also writes about improv, which I actually found very useful reading.

As a photographer I especially enjoyed reading about Tina's experiences with photo shoots and her opinions on retouching in "Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That". You kinda get to see it from a whole new perspective. It was one of the chapters which birthed one of several epic crylaughs: unstoppable laughter while the Niagara Falls streamed down my face. (Wil came into the living room during one of these momentous occasions, and proceeded to stare, not sure whether this was good or bad and whether he should hide yes or no.)

I appreciate her chapter "30 Rock: An Experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents", telling us how the show came to be, and introducing us to the people who have written or are still writing for the show using snippets of script to point out their various talents. (It was then that I learned Donald Glover, who plays Troy in Community used to be a writer on 30 Rock.) I appreciate the chapter because I am a fan of the show, but also because I think Fey did a wonderful thing by including her fellow writers in her book.

When I finished the book, I felt a little sad and empty. It was over and done with. I knew I would need to write Tina Fey a bunch of fanmail now begging, BEGGING, for an autographed glam photo and for her to write a second book. It was going to be a chore. I heaved a sigh, and then my eye fell on the Q&A and reading guide sections, usually reserved for the publisher to go all out and inspire us readers to discuss amongst ourselves the value of what we'd just read and the social impact.

But no, this wasn't standard. I encourage you not to skip these parts, as the humor just continues. It's a bit of a bonus. This was a Fey Encore and for now, I am a very satisfied reader. You will be too. Read this book.

The only thing that bothered me about Bossypants is that it didn't come with a free sandwich. But I suppose there's always room for improvement and I'm sure Tina will take my (one time, limited) free advice to heart when she works on volume 2. I'm sure of it.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Really funny. Really. It will cheer you up.
– and it's varied!

– Great for Tina Fey fans, but also for fans of humor in general
– You might experience crylaughter, which is both strange and relieving.
– Bonus: the Q&A and reading guide

Cons:
– Re: sandwich not included.

Special thanks to Wil for agreeing to be my man-arms & man-hands.