Comedy · Humor · Nonfiction

Hyberbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, and Other Things That Happened


by: Allie Brosh

If you’ve never read the side-splittingly funny blog that is Hyperbole and a Half, you should stop reading my blog and head on over there pronto. Allie Brosh’s deliberately crude drawings and hilarious tales of childhood and life’s misadventures are not to be missed.

Her posts on depression are some of the best takes on the disease that I’ve ever read.  My mom suffers from pretty severe depression and it took me a long time to understand it; I wish Brosh’s comics had been around back then to help. I think the way she writes about it makes the disease really accessible for people who have never been depressed.  The comics are so important: for people suffering from depression – solidarity; for people who are affected by others’ depression – understanding and compassion; and for helping the general public understand depression – de-stigmatizing. (There is nothing more infuriating than someone without any experience with mental illnesses proselytizing that “sad people only need to think happy thoughts!” when the subject of depression comes up. Don’t do that.)  She manages to treat the subject with a kind of gallows humor – you laugh in the middle of these painful posts, but it’s a good laugh.  The kind of laugh that adds to your understanding instead of masking it.

Onto brighter things – the rest of her blog and book deal with rather more lighthearted things.  Childhood exploits, like eating an entire cake in one sitting, or quandaries of adulthood – being an adult is hard, y’all! – are all painted with the same brightly colored, achingly comedic brush.  The book contains probably 50-75% new material.  (Some of it is best of posts from the blog, though.)  I liked reading the old posts in book form – I got the e-book – and if I ever get the chance, I’ll buy the hardback and get a signed copy. Sadly, she’s not heading to my part of the U.S.A. anytime soon.

Some of the others stories made me put my Nook down and just laugh really hard, even the ones I had read before! I was having a really bad night last night – the family dog got accidentally poisoned – and I so desperately needed the laugh.  I was surprised that I laughed as hard as I did, honestly.

The last and biggest part of the book was a story on how she has impostor syndrome as a “good person.”  It was a little long for my tastes and I didn’t really relate all that much, but I suppose many other people will.  It was the only part of the book I didn’t absolutely love – but I still liked it. That is literally my only criticism for the book – so yes, it is that good.

My suggestion is pop on over to her blog and see if you like it. If you do, buy the book! It’s fantastic!  Even though some of the stories are in the blog, it’s nice to have your own copy that you can mark up and access and share anytime, with anybody who reads English.  And if you know someone whose life is being affected by depression, consider sending them a copy of the book or a link to the blog posts. Like I said, it’s a really important work on depression.

(NPR’s Fresh Air did a great interview with Brosh here.)

History · Nonfiction

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England

by: Dan Jones

This is the other awesome book I talked about a while back; it took me quite a while to finish it.  Nonfictions generally take me longer to work through than fiction books.

This is a broad history of the Plantagenets, England’s ruling dynasty for over 200 years.  Despite the name, there is a heavy focus on the kings at, I suppose, the expense of the queens. There was reasonable focus on Eleanor of Aquitaine in the beginning of the book but the queens further on in didn’t get much exposure.  (In fact, a few were briefly shown- and I mean a sentence or so – as being important to diplomatic or political events but how or why they were important was never shown.)  So, don’t get too excited about a book that places emphasis on both kings and queens.  This isn’t that book.

Jones’ writing is engaging and informative.  There’s no dialogue – it is a history book – and sometimes it becomes hard to tell people apart. All the men are named John, Edward, Edmund, or Richard; all the women Isabella or Eleanor.  (Okay, this is a bit of exaggeration but only a bit.)  Though Jones did a good job of describing the different personalities, he didn’t always do a good job of helping me keep them separate, especially when they were casually referenced later in the book.

Note-keeping would have been helpful for me, but my brain doesn’t handle details well.  Jones keeps things organized and presented in a logical manner, so if you’ve got a sharp mind for small details you’ll probably find it easier to keep everything sorted than I did.   Otherwise, I think Jones did a good enough job tying the story together into a bigger picture that even without keen mind for dates that I came away with a great understanding of the time period.  (Also the anti-Semitism. Holy cow, people. I had no clue.)

As a broad history, it really works.  The book flows seamlessly from war to domestic and international politics to matters of dynasty and heirs.  I don’t feel like anything was out of balance. Enough action to keep the reader interested, enough politics to keep the reader intrigued, and enough analysis to make the reader think. There are lots of maps of Europe and England and a family tree at the beginning and a list of recommended readings at the end; very helpful!  You don’t have to know much about the history of England to be able to follow (thank god, because at this point my British history is pretty much limited to what I’ve learned from romance novels.)  I really loved the analysis of the kings politically and from international standpoints.   There was a time or two where I felt Jones was overreaching in reading the personalities of the time, but for the most part he asserted his conclusions by saying what he felt the evidence pointed to and occasionally even walked the readers through an analysis of a primary source.

Speaking of primary sources, the really nice thing about this book was that the primary sources were translated into modern-day English.  I loved, loved, loved that. Lovely!

If you’re looking for a broad history of the Plantagenets, or a jumping-off point into English history, than definitely give this book a go.  It’s easy to read, well-balanced and well-written.  It seems fairly unbiased but unfortunately I don’t really know enough about history to say that with any authority.  If you’re looking for an equal focus on kings and queens or if you want a really in-depth analysis of any of these kings, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Science · Science Fiction

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation


by: Olivia Judson

This is one of the awesome books I have been reading and talking about in my blog lately.  I am completely and totally in love with this book. It’s 16 kinds of fantastic.

It’s a book, of course, about the evolutionary biology of sex – that is, Judson talks about all the weird and wacky ways that animals reproduce and why scientists think they act like they do.  The format of the book is a huge part of why it’s so amazing –  animals, like fish, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians, write in with their sex-related questions and problems.  And she answers, going off on tangents to explore concepts or similar practices in other animals.  It’s glorious.

Every question and answer is only  a few pages long, making the information easily digestible. Judson does an excellent job of defining science terminology in layman’s terms.  She also – and this is just absolutely superb of her – introduces terms and concepts as they’re relevant, rather than doing a huge info dump at the beginning of the book.  I hate huge info dumps – a lot of science concepts are kind of complicated and people need time to digest them once they’re introduced.  Even if someone picks up the information easily, the terminology is often new and weird and multisyllabic, so introducing a word and allowing the reader to learn it before introducing another new word is a much better tactic than presenting what amounts to a vocabulary list at the beginning of the book.  (I have Strong Feelings about this, guys. Very. Strong. Feelings.)

Anyway, Judson’s presentation of information is smooth and, er, whelming.  It’s generally just enough new information to make the reader feel like they’re learning something new and cool but not enough to make the reader feel lost or unable to keep up.  (Well.  Full disclosure: I am a science person working in the sciences.  So please let me know, readers, if you feel differently!) She’s honest and open throughout – when something is not known, she says so and then proceeds to discuss competing theories that are thought to explain it, noting which theory she most agrees with.

Her vocabulary is quite good, which I don’t know if I liked or disliked.  I liked her precision with words, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like she could have stuck to a more common vernacular since she was already using an extensive scientific vocabulary, which many of her readers were presumably already unfamiliar with.  The tone of the book was light and interesting but sometimes the vocabulary was fighting against the tone. It’s from 2000, so I can safely assume relevant discoveries in the field have been made since then, so some of the gaps in knowledge may have been filled since publication.

Okay.  Now that that’s all out of the way – this book is just fun.  Creatures are weird and they do weird things! It’s fascinating!  I just wanted to quote this book over and over and over – preferably with no context, because the quotes are much more startling that way.  I often found myself laughing at the sheer silliness of animals everywhere.  (There’s an ocean-dwelling species where the female is 200,000x bigger then the male!)

You don’t have to like biology to like this book – it’s not heavy or technical and it doesn’t feel like something you’d read to “improve” yourself.  Rather, it’s wacky facts of animal sex presented with style and wit by Judson.

Judson covers topics like monogamy (everybody cheats), females vs. males (it’s not she-wants-commitment,-he-wants-freedom!), incest (a species gotta do what a species gotta do, y’all), asexualism, homosexuality, sex (like gender here) (also there are species that have more than 2 sexes, which I didn’t know), and so much more.  It’s all in animals – there are no political discussions here – and all based on evidence and research and just really cool information. (I think this information is also important to developing thoughts on some hot-button issues, because people often trying to justify their stances by incorrectly evoking evolutionary biology.   This, however, is not something the author pushes.)

This book is fantastic and I love it!  I would recommend it to anyone who likes nature or animals, or who is interested in sex, or who wants to read something science-y that isn’t scary – this is a great book!  If you have a serious dislike of rodents, if there’s an animal that grosses you out, or if the thought of bugs mating makes you gag a little, than alas and alack!, this may not be the book for you.