103 book reviews later, and I'm still not sure I've gotten the hang of doing it. I started out reviewing books I read to my kids and books I myself was reading, and then, over time, I started reviewing almost exclusively review copies sent to me by publishers. Most of the books have been either Mommy books or chick lit, neither of which are genres I particularly care for. Early on I knew I had to view the books differently, asking myself which audience is the book written for, and is it well-written for that audience. This is something you just never really know, so I softball a lot of my opinions. The books that I feel are aimed toward readers like me, I actually tend to be more stringent with my criticism. Truthfully, I think I should be stricter than I am with all the books, although the two books that I didn't care for got me blistering hate mail from the fans of one book and the author of another.
The reason for my new mode of thinking is the fault of Emily Giffin's Baby Proof, a chick lit book of such high quality that I feel that now I can only inadequately describe how engaging it is.
Claudia Parr, a senior editor at a publishing firm in Manhattan, is spending her thirties happily childfree and married to her soulmate and best friend, Ben. Before marriage, Claudia and Ben both agreed they did not want children. Then, unexpectedly, Ben's biological clock begins to tick and he changes his mind with a vengeance, incessantly dropping annoying hints about motherhood to Claudia. This leads to resentment, which leads to fights, which leads to irreconcilable differences, which leads to divorce.
Claudia moves out of the apartment she shares with Ben and moves back in with her best friend Jess, a gorgeous high-rolling Wall Street whiz whose taste in men is as bad as her taste in fashion is good.
The majority of the novel focuses on Claudia's post-divorce life, and her steamy new relationship with her colleague Richard, a charming but louche older man who entertains Claudia and distracts her from her broken heart and her growing suspicion that perhaps she's made a horrible mistake, sacrificing her soul mate for her freedom.
And being a Chick Lit novel, it also deals with Claudia's frustrating but mostly lovable family; a sister dealing with infertility, another sister dealing with an unfaithful husband, and a flamboyant, untrustworthy mother.
This is all standard Chick Lit fare, but where it differs from the other genre books is high quality of Giffin's skillful writing and the care she takes with each character. Edie Bloom's Immaculate Conception had a million busy, zany things going on to distract the reader from the fact that it had a completely unmemorable plot. In fact, without going back and rereading the review, I honestly can't remember what it was. Baby Proof has a very simple, traditional plot: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, etc., and far fewer moments of excitement. What it does have, however, is care and time. Claudia's budding relationship with Richard is allowed to slowly unfold and develop into a clear, three-dimensional picture. Giffin has taken time to get to know these characters so well that she doesn't make a single false step, and although the reader may be rooting for Claudia and Ben to get back together, she'll enjoy every single bit of witty banter and hot sex between Claudia and Richard.
She'll also enjoy every bit of the book as a whole, with an ending that manages to be satisfying without wrapping everything up in a tidy bow or betraying the spirit of the characters.
For those readers who don't care for Chick Lit, this is the one book you'll want to read on an airplane. And for those readers who care very much for Chick Lit, Baby Proof should be an essential part of your library.
by Emily Giffin
June 2007 by St. Martin's
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The cover of Anastasia Goodstein's Totally Wired, a guide to help parents unravel the tangle of iPods, cellphones, and laptops their children are planted squarely in the middle of, has a picture of a pretty teen in a white knitted cap sitting in a red leather chair, talking animatedly on the phone. Which is fine enough to let the reader know what's on the inside, but if you wanted to boil the book down to its very essence and put said essence on the cover instead, the book would look exactly like a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a plain, unassuming book with only the words DON'T PANIC on the cover.
Today's teens, Goodstein argues, are really no different from the hippies or the kids screaming over Elvis' dance moves on Ed Sullivan or kids listening to Michael Jackson on their Walkman. They're just doing what teens always do, but with more modern technology than their parents had.
Goodstein, who has worked extensively with teens, runs a website called Ypulse, a blog for teens in media and adult marketing pros. It provides news, entertainment, commentary, and resources that teens may find valuable and/or fun. Through her work, Goodstein concludes that the hype over out of control teens going wild on the web is mostly just that - hype. Most teens, she argues, don't want the whole world to watch their web activity. Their LiveJournals are mostly friends-only, where they discuss their days and make plans with their peers, and strangers are not welcome. Further, being connected to the web through IMs, blogs, and virtual games like Teen Second Life gives shy teens a chance to express themselves in a positive way.
Goodstein does caution parents, however, that teens often do not fully realize the public nature of the internet, and are often genuinely surprised when the photos and video they take or the things they write end up being seen by thousands of people. She gives several cautionary tales about teen girls videotaping themselves in sexually explicit situations (a subject about the hypersexualized climate in pop culture is also addressed) as well as humiliation of teen boys, the sad story of the "Star Wars kid," Ghyslain Raza, being the most notorious. Cyberbullying is also addressed, as well as steps taken to curb it.
Goodstein presents the various applications of technology teens use in a matter of fact, encouraging way, and by doing so illuminates the actual problems today's technology presents, once the overhyped fear of predators is minimized. Plagiarism and cheating techniques are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be, and bullying can be a lot more undercover. Making the internet accessible to all teens, even those without computers at home is a challenge for teachers as well (apart from not being as savvy as their students). Downloading illegal music is also a challenge for many parents, not only because it's difficult to stop, but because parents vividly remember their days of taping music off the radio and transferring their friends' albums onto cassette tapes, and have a difficult time explaining to their kids why downloading music is a totally different thing (it really isn't, the music just sounds a lot better). Goodstein suggests ways parents and teachers can get connected with today's teens, and interviews several parents with varying parenting styles about their kids' use of the internet and parental restrictions they place on its use.
On the whole, Totally Wired is an upbeat, enthusiastic look at the way teens use technology, and encourages parents to get involved with their kids' online lives. This, Goodstein believes, can translate into making strong connections with them in their offline lives as well.
by Anastasia Goodstein
March, 2007 by St. Martin's Press
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club.
Look at the cover. Legs and feet. Again. They won't stop. They will not stop with the legs and feet on chick lit book covers. This must be stopped. How can we stop them? What legislation can we pass? I can't take it anymore. Please, I implore you to rise up and strike a blow to publishers everywhere: No more legs and feet, or so help us, we'll start reading only the Russian greats! Try and put legs and feet on those covers, I dare you.
It seems that not even sixty year old chicks are immune from the dreaded cliché. And they even gave her a cat and a glass of wine!
Poor Virginia Ironside. Afforded no dignity, even in her senior years. Not that she or her heroine Marie Sharp want any crumbs thrown their way, thank you.
No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club is the droll diary of one Marie Sharp, who celebrates her 60th birthday by starting a journal. Unlike most seniors, who find it important to keep their brains and bodies active and as youthful as possible, Marie decides old age is an excellent opportunity to let it all go. No more will she feel pressured to learn Italian, or see China, and she'll never, ever join a book club! No silly, clichéd rubbish for her!
The novel focuses a lot on Marie's cantankerous observations on the less-than-glamorous aspects of aging. I was using it as a sort of guide, a window as it were to my future in twenty five years, when one of the chapters begins with her best friend Penny calling her to state in a panic, "I can't seem to find my clioris."
Then I screamed in terror and ran away. I don't want to know anymore!
When Marie's son Jack becomes a father to baby Gene, Marie's dry wit and stiff upper lip melts and novel goes from being a Bridget-Jones-As-Silver-Fox chronicling the live and loves of aging Boomers to a sentimental love story that flawlessly articulates the love grandparents feel for their grandchildren. According to Marie, it's unconditional love without the fear and crushing responsibility of motherhood. Who wouldn't love that?
In between the bits of myopic love and worry Marie lavishes on baby Gene, she also manages, despite her insistence that it's all over, to attend parties, attend to her dying close friend Hughie and his grieving partner James, mentor her housemate, a pretty French teenager, and, possibly, fall in love again.
No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club is a chick lit book with a decidedly different pace, while it may not be for twenty-somethings, older readers with no desire to grow old gracefully will definitely identify with Marie. Like the woman who wrote this Amazon review:
I am recommending it to our book club of older women; sure can identify with the subject matter.
Marie would just die.
No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club
by Virginia Ironside
April 2007 by Viking
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
The Immaculate Complexion.
Here's the deal with my reviews, mostly: I try to review books not for what they are, but for what they're supposed to be. I'm not going to take this book, another lighter-than-air look at the fashion industry, and compare it to Dostoevsky or Jane Austen or Dorothy Parker, and I don't think I should.
Immaculate Complexion is supposed to the the kind of book you read when you're sitting under a tree in the backyard with one eye on the book and the other on three small children playing in the sprinkler. It's a book you want to bring to the beach, because it's one of those mass market paperbacks, the books that have an advertisement for something right in the middle of it* (the ad in this book is an offer to get 4 books free if you join the Romance Book Club.), and it's small enough to jam into your beach bag under the sunblock and the towels. It's the kind of book you want to read if, as one Amazon reviewer** said of the book, "Normally, it takes me weeks, even months to get through a book. My mind wanders, I fall asleep, I count the pages to see how long it is till the next chapter begins."
But if you're Jessa Crispin, you won't even open it.
So, with that categorization, how does it hold up? Not too bad.
Immaculate Complexion, a book packed with so many right-this-very-second pop trends that you'd better read it right now before it dates itself, was written by two former publicists for a cosmetic company*** under the pseudonym Edie Bloom, a true grit take on the makeup industry seen through the eyes of plucky young heroine Marnie Mann, a temp sent to float around in an Estée Lauder-like company. What unfolds is exactly what you think is going to unfold, if you've read The Devil Wears Prada or Miss Understanding or any of the hundreds of tell-all chick lit books about the fashion industry.
*Fat (5'7", 140lbs. i.e. - not fat)fish out of water gets hired.
*She has her feelings continually hurt by anorexic fish.
*However, fish has brains and pluck, and therefore
*lands a fabulous boyfriend, and
*becomes a success.
The writers cover the basic plot structure with a lot, and I mean A LOT, of stuff, so much stuff I feel overwhelmed even thinking about recapping it: A Power Lesbian boss forcing Marnie to plan her A-List wedding, a batch of bad Botox that causes paralysis and comas, the mysterious disappearance of Hattie LeVigne, the company's 90-year-old founder, and even murder. And that's just during the 9-to-5. During her off hours, Marnie is given a new romance with Paul, the head of the Cheese Department at the neighborhood Dean & Deluca, and a vegan, animal-rights activist of a best friend, Holly, with whom Marnie is trying to start her own all-natural cosmetics line.
Any one of these plot points could have been its own book. It was as if the writers had a lot of grievances to get out of their system and poured it all out on the page at once. Maybe they shouldn't have done this, because they could have written (and collected paychecks for) at least five books with the same zany recurring cast of characters.
The work stories aren't written too badly - if there's one thing girls usually knock out of the park, it's writing about the skinny, pretty bullies that tormented us in high school and made us feel suicidally fat and ugly. However, the book really shines during Marnie's off hours, where her romance with the sweet and gentle Paul really rings true and sets off a powerful spark. The writers manage to add a great dollop of love with almost no sex, so if you're looking for that one dog-eared page to read over and over again, quit looking. You won't find it here.
The only thing about the book that I found somewhat alarming were some careless racial references that quite frankly need to be left out of future editions.
When describing the privileged childhood of Summer and Rebecca LeVigne, Hattie's grandchildren and heiresses to the family fortune, they are mentioned as being photographed at their thirteenth birthday party with "a big black mammy holding an enormous cake in the background."
While I understand the writers were trying to make a point about class privilege, I think there must be a better way to do it than that. Like wearing blackface, I think there's just no real way to make that okay, regardless of intent.
The other comment was when Marnie looks at a photo of a young Hattie applying cream to the face of Mao Tse Tung, and it reminds her of her Asian boyfriend. What? Why? How could this possibly be true?
While I in no way think the writers were being deliberately racially insensitive or cruel, I feel obligated to give a heads-up about it to blog readers who may be sensitive to racially dubious remarks.
Those two sentences out of 326 pages aside, Immaculate Complexion is a book you can buzz through easily without taxing too many brain cells, which is perfect for these last few days of warm summer weather.
*I really hate it when books have commercials right there in the middle. One of the major advantages of books is that they're commercial-free. This practice needs to be stopped, by force if necessary.
**The Amazon review section is sort of like the blank pages in someone's high school yearbook now. So many of the writer's friends and relations line up with their "U Rule" and "BFF 4-evar!" that they're completely untrustworthy for getting a legitimate opinion. And sadly, I'm just as guilty. One of my BFFs from high school got a book published a few years ago, and who was right there to give him five stars? Me, that's who. It was a book on computer programming. I hadn't even read the damn thing.
***Whose names I will not reveal in case they're still getting free swag.
The Immaculate Complexion
by Edie Bloom
May, 2007 by Dorchester
Mass Market Paperback, 326pp
Monday, September 03, 2007
For The Love Of Letters.
I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: this book needs a different title. It seems fine at first; it's simple, direct, and tells the reader exactly what to expect. However, when I went to Amazon to find a photo of the book to put at the top of the review, Letters to Penthouse popped up instead, even when I typed the title word for word into the search box. You can't compete with Letters to Penthouse. It's just too distracting. Although - ALTHOUGH! - you can't argue with the fact that the men who Couldn't Believe Something Like This Would Ever Happen To Them could benefit from a professional letter-writer who could avoid some of the many, many clichéd phrases that hack their way between all those threeways.
Samara O'Shea's guide to the forgotten art of letter-writing valiantly attempts to revive the fading art of written communication. Like many of us word nerds, O'Shea is concerned with the current trend of the devolving English language, thanks in no small part to the technology boom of Blackberries, text-messaging cell phones, and instant messaging. Internet speak has become the written equivalent of fast food - it may sate the appetite, but does very little for the soul.
For The Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing is broken up into seven chapters, each addressing a different situation that would call for an abandonment of email and a reliance on a postage stamp. Love letters, business letters, Dear John letters, thank you letters, and letters of apology are all carefully addressed, with several subsections devoted to everything from the erotic letter to the best way to write a letter refusing to write a letter (of recommendation).
O'Shea gives several juicy examples for the reader to enjoy. She includes her humbling letter of apology that she wrote after she was fired from her job at O Magazine, one of the hot and nasty letters James Joyce wrote to his wife, and makes reference to the adamant refusal from Joyce's grandson Steven to reprint any more of those heated missives. (O'Shea opted to reprint Junior Joyce's crabbily-worded response on her website rather than in the book, for fear of receiving more unwanted correspondence from the notoriously litigious Joyce.)
Reading For the Love of Letters caused me to think back to when I'd last written an actual handwritten letter. It had to have been years ago, when I reached out to a long lost friend in hopes of catching up. It was a tremendous success. I received a handwritten letter of my own from her almost right away, and her opening sentences were, "It made my whole day to find a letter, an actual letter in my mailbox! I haven't gotten a real letter in years, and it made me so happy to sit down at the kitchen table to read it."
Neither O'Shea nor I mean any disrespect to email correspondence, I'm sure. I personally am a big fan of email. With two children and a full time job, it's an invaluable tool to keep up with the doings of both friends and business. But it cannot be denied that letter-writing is indeed a lost art form, and receiving one can be like an unexpected and appreciated gift, depending, of course, on the content.
Admirably, O'Shea has managed to dovetail her love of craft with love of money by starting an online (where else?) professional letter-writing business, Letter Lover, where, for fifty bucks, she'll say anything to anybody.
Everybody has spent what seems like hours in front of the computer, with a necessary letter hanging overhead, with no idea how or where to begin. It's somewhat of a relief to know you now have the opportunity to shove this unwelcome task off onto somebody else, and O'Shea does write excellent letters, no two ways about it.
However, if it's a love letter you're wanting to write, please don't hire her. Do it yourself, or don't do it at all. Even O'Shea states right up front on her website that her love letters are not going to sound like the person they'll ostensibly be from. After all, the handsome lunkhead who used Cyrano de Bergerac's passionate words to woo the lovely Roxane worked for only one reason: Roxane didn't know either Cyrano or the lunkhead. But Cyrano knew Roxane. Therefore he was able to draw from both passion and the context of her life, which is what made his words to her so irresistible. To be perfectly blunt, O'Shea doesn't want to blow your boyfriend. You do. And no matter how skilled the writer, that kind of passion is very, very hard to fake. Better to get a passionate letter written all in internet acronyms than a bloodless love letter with no grammatical errors and well-set margins.
But her weaknesses in writing love letters are her strengths in just about every other letter she writes, where courtesy, integrity, and intelligence are valued far above passion, and this is where both The Love of Letters and O'Shea's website are an asset to anyone who must put pen to paper.
For The Love Of Letters
by Samara O'Shea
2007 by Harper Collins