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R&R 139 | Holidays on Ice… v.2.0

David Sedaris
Holidays on Ice
First published in: 1998 (first edition), 2008 (second edition)
This edition: Back Bay Books, 2010 (second edition)
ISBN: 978-0-316-07891-7
Genre: memoir, humorist
Pages: 166
Cover design by Chip Kidd; cover photography by Marshall Troy

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The first thing I plan on doing when I'm done writing this book review is to deconstruct the myriad of branches and bulbs that is our Christmas Tree – which, I should add, is our second tree. We've managed to kill off our first one. It was quite a pathetic sight, really: limp branches, falling off. Needles everywhere. Duct tape couldn't save it. Tears were shed, some out of pride: that dear ole tree lasted us 4 whole Christmases. The rest of the tears were the direct result of my husband and I crylaughing our way to the gardencenter to pick up our new tree.

The holidays are once again over and done with. So this review is, as we Dutch would say it, "butter after the meal" and thus completely unnecessary and too late. BUT. It's how I roll.

When I bought HOLIDAYS ON ICE v.1.0 in 2010 at a second-hand book store, I wasn't actually aware of there being a newer version published two years earlier. I found that out when I reviewed it, but also figured I'd get to the rest of the book at some point! Now, I'm reviewing v.2.0, but only the 6 additional stories as I already covered the rest several years ago.

The first "new" story I discovered in v.2.0 is Jesus Shaves, from one of my favorite Sedaris bundles, ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY. It's more about Easter, but generally can be read as a story about any holiday, and holiday traditions. And how they vary across cultures. And how secretly, one can be pretty intolerant about someone else's beliefs – whether we're talking about easter bunnies here… or about something deeper. What I believe? That works. That makes sense. What you believe (or don't believe)? Man. That's fucked up. I liked that bit of social commentary here because it's true! It's what we humans do. Many tend to judge everything that doesn't fit within their own mindset. And I love how Sedaris addresses that with light humor.
What I also loved about this story is the dialog, which is in broken French (as it's set during a French class) translated to broken English for the sake of this story. Hilarious. It's like Sedaris ran Google Translate over it before getting it ready to send to the publisher.

Us and Them continues with the theme of intolerance for other people's traditions and beliefs and non-beliefs. (But takes place during Halloween.) The Tomkey family, you see, doesn't watch TV. They don't believe in TV. But it's so normal! Everyone watches TV! Etcetera. It's a great analogy. Or at least, that's how I read it. It's not quite as direct of a Christmas story, but it was still apt: it made me think about how some people clutch their pearls when someone deigns to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I say Happy Holidays. Not to stomp on Christians… but to include everyone.

The next story is a short one with a big message: Let it Snow, about Sedaris' siblings and stubborn mom (I love reading about her, I really do), is about forgiveness and loving your mom – no matter what insane crap she pulls at times.

Six to Eight Black Men is a little close to home, and a great addition to the collection. The Dutch holiday Sinterklaas, after all, is how Santa Clause originated.
It's one thing to live in this country during this Holiday (December 5th/6th; a time of arguments about political correctness, or the amount of pepernoten you'll find in stores nationwide from freakin' August on), it's another to try and explain it to foreigners without feeling embarrassed… or being called a racist. See, Sinterklaas doesn't have elves as helpers: he has black men. Six to eight black men. The story behind this is that Sinterklaas freed slaves, and gave them paying jobs. People who don't know this tend to assume they are slaves, and they judge us harshly, probably based on our history.
…the blackface doesn't help. While kids here are taught that "Black Petes" are their friends (a good message), I still cringe every time I see shoe polish (!!!) and bright red lips mixed with golden hoop earrings and a bad afro wig… on white people. To refer to Jesus Shaves for a moment: "Man. That's fucked up." I don't know what I'll do about this holiday when I have kids.
Thankfully, Sedaris doesn't make us feel like we need to crawl into a corner and never show ourselves again. Every country has embarrassing traditions and silly stories to tell. We've all got something that makes others raise their eyebrows all the way into their hairline. (Sedaris mentions how a blind man in Michigan can legally hunt.)

So far so good: all the new stories, despite different holidays, seem to fit well with the older six. It seems it's become more about holidays in general, making the bundle a lot more varied. The stories are each unique and just very different, and the book's a joy to read. But The Monster Mash could easily have been excluded from the bundle, and I wouldn't have missed it. Don't get me wrong, it's funny – morbidly funny (it's about David working at a mortuary), but there was no holiday spirit like with the other stories. Any other time of the year: bring it. I'll read it and love it. But it's not something I'm looking to read specifically over Christmas.

The final story is from Sedaris newer book SQUIRREL SEEKS CHIPMUNK (which is on my to-be-reviewed pile). This illustrated bundle of books is about animals doing human things, which is both bizarre and hilarious to read. The Cow and the Turkey is definitely Christmas themed (as barn animals are doing their annual Secret Santa), and it covers selfishness and how karma will eventually bite you in the ass. It's a bittersweet ending to a fun bundle of Holiday stories.

Sedaris is a walking oxymoron: the best cynical sentimentalist I've ever had the joy to read. I'm just grateful he's writing. He's cheered up many a foul mood of mine. And he's given me at least 11 (out of 12) reasons to enjoy Christmas even more. Thanks man.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope 2014 will bring you a lot of happiness and joy; that you will accomplish what you hope to accomplish or at least find the spirit and inspiration to try; that you and yours will be safe and in good health. And of course I hope that in 2014 you'll have the chance to explore lots of new stories and worlds…
XO Kaat Z

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 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.