Monday, September 28, 2015

"Luckiest Girl Alive": Mean Spirited and Darkly Twisted

I read yet another book that is capitalizing on the success of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" and yet another thriller with psychotic women at it's core that has the word "girl" in the title.  Even Reese Witherspoon has tweeted about how amazing Jessica Knoll's twisted novel "Luckiest Girl Alive" but does it live up to the hype and it's instant New York Times Bestseller status?

I'm a firm believer that just because everyone else thinks something is fantastic doesn't mean that it actually is.  I also don't always agree with the books that everyone thinks are amazing.  Page turning doesn't always equate to awesome book.  For me, "Luckiest Girl Alive" didn't have a soul or the soul of Ani (formally TifAni) FaNelli was as black as the rose on the front cover.

As the lone narrator of this book, Ani, invites her readers into her seemingly perfect life as she prepares for her amazing wedding in Nantucket to her amazing, blue blood fiancee who seems to adore her.  Ani works as a feature writer at The Women's Magazine in New York City.  Her main work revolves around sex tips for women and she aspires for something greater even though many would kill to have her job, and her fiancee, and her fancy labeled clothes (which she constantly references), and her ever shrinking, wedding preparation waist line (which she is obsessed with).

But Ani has a huge blemish on her past that she longs to forget and that the reader isn't really privy to until the last half of the novel.  The immensity of her teenage days as TifAni, an outsider who is plunged into the old money world of the very prestigious Bradley School and the privileged and ugly lives of her classmates, gave her the ambition to stop at nothing in order to make others believe she is worthy.  While at Bradley she was willing to sacrifice her reputation, her safety and in some instances her sanity in order to make the popular kids like her, but the mean spirited nature of the school sucks her in even further and further.  The bottoming out is horrific and maybe not as poignant as it should be?

This novel reminded me of the very dark and twisted movie Heathers (1988) starring Christian Slater and Winona Rider, but with even more disturbing aspects in it.  I quite liked Heathers (at least I did when I was a teenager, but I haven't seen it in many years), but found more of a distaste than a fondness for "Luckiest Girl Alive." Ultimately this novel felt like a mean YA novel full of spoiled rich kids who mistreat themselves and others while Mommy and Daddy's money protects them from consequences.  I guess that might be why the emotional weight of what happens to everyone didn't feel as heavy to me.  Each character in this book is contemptible in different ways.  Ani is an insatiable snob who doesn't really care about anyone but herself even after all the events play out.  Her best friend Nell is the same.  Ani's mother only cares how things look to others.  The popular students at Bradley are ridiculous stereotypes of every mean girl and mean bully movie ever created.  Ani's fiancee's cluelessness doesn't seem to fit and the scenes which feature his bland mother and father and overly racist cousin ring false.  The few characters who do garner compassion also disappoint as the story unfolds.  One becomes a monster, and the other a lewd predator.

I always have high hopes for any new thriller that promises to be entertaining and intense, but mostly I am let down by how psychotic and shallow everyone in many thrillers are.  I find myself drawn in more by psychologically complex characters who lose their way, or are aware of their darkness, or are  compassionate in some way.  For me, "Luckiest Girl Alive" lacked that sensitive side and ultimately felt bleak and heartless.

Reese Witherspoon has already bought the rights to make it into a movie, and it will most likely be very popular and many people will read "Luckiest Girl Alive" and love it.  I'm just not one of them.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Yes Please": Poignant and Real

I never thought much about Amy Poehler on SNL.  It wasn't that I didn't think she was funny, but I never really gave her much thought.  At the time she was a cast member along with her "comedy wife" Tina Fey, I was living in Philadelphia without cable.  We only got two channels on our t.v. and we didn't get NBC.

I fell in love with Tina Fey after I had been prompted by friends and family members alike to watch 30 Rock.  My husband and I binge watched all the seasons.  When Poehler's Parks and Recreation came out, I was in another phase.  I was pregnant with my daughter Story and not all that interested in jerky camera movements and characters glancing at the camera to get laughs.  I started to really pay attention to Amy Poehler when she co-hosted the Golden Globes with Tina Fey and they (as Amy Poehler would say) "crushed." So many people told me that I had to watch Parks and Recreation, but even though I had cable at that point in my life, I still didn't have the time to watch another comedy.

After reading "Yes Please", I am a fan of Amy's going so far as to begin binge watching Parks and Recreation (after one weekend I am already through the first 3 seasons!).  Although the New York Times gave "Yes Please" a scathing review, I would like to respectfully disagree.  The reviewer said that Amy doesn't know how to write, cuts on her looks too much, and apologizes for how boring her book is.  I'm not sure if I read the same book, but I saw this book as a humble gift by a very talented writer, comedian and actress whose blue collar beginnings did not stop her from becoming the revered and lauded phenom that she is today.

Does she explain how agonizing it is to write a book? Yes, because anyone who has ever written a book knows that it is hard.  Does she delve into her relationship with her appearance? Yes, because any woman (and man with the exception of the dude who wrote the mean review) would understand what growing up with asymmetrical, not classically beautiful features means.  It doesn't mean that she thinks she is ugly, it just means that she is highly aware of the fact that she is neither drop dead model gorgeous or homely.  She's somewhere in between.  Does she sometimes opt out of the comedic in this memoir / autobiography account of her life and instead go for a more universal take on humanity and the hard work that it takes to become a star? Yes, and that is because she's being honest and real and at times really funny as she is being honest and real.

There are so many aspects of this book to love including cameos from famous friends and adoring family members, funny stories about what it's really like to work on SNL, the earth shattering devastation of divorce, the Improv scene in New York and Chicago, what it's like to work on Parks and Recreation, what it's like to be in love with your kids, and how sometimes you need to step way outside of your comfort zone to find comfort like when she went to Haiti and spent time working in an orphanage there.

Amy's book really showed me that she is a real person who loves to laugh, live, make others laugh, and be a powerful and bossy woman without making excuses, but apologizing when necessary. She loves many of the people who helped get her to where she is today, and in turn she has dedicated her life to help others succeed in comedy.  I laughed (when she was explaining her drug use), I cried (when she recounted her trip to the Haitian orphanage), I was touched by her love for her boys (when she talked about their personalities and chasing the moon, I smiled the whole chapter), I was never bored while reading this (how could you be with so many insightful and funny anecdotes?), and it made me a fan of someone who I didn't really pay that much attention to before.

That sounds like a pretty great book to me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"The Little Paris Book Shop": A Bit Too Much Of Everything

I love Paris.

I love books.

I love love.

Because of the three statements above, I should have loved "The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina George.

And I did love parts of it, but something about it didn't feel right.  To me, it was a bit like gorging on deep dark chocolate truffles with creamy centers.  It feels so good, and dark and smooth in the beginning, but then after you eat too many, your tummy hurts.

Too much of a good thing?

Many people who love this book will disagree with me heartily, and I get it, because when I started reading the story of Jean Perdu (which means lost in French, by the way), the owner of a floating Literary Apothecary where he prescribes books for what ails people even if he can't seem to cure himself from his 20 years of love solitude after his lover left him, I too thought I would be entranced for the entire book.

The elements are all there.  Jean begins to awaken from his 20 year living depravation when a new woman, Catherine, moves across the hall from him in his building which is already chock full of a crazy cast of characters.  She stirs something inside of him and then uncovers a letter from his lover that was tucked away in a drawer in a table he gives her.  He hid it there 20 years before in order to escape the awful words he knew he would find - that his lover (who he doesn't even name in the beginning) wants to end things.

But, that isn't the case at all.  Manon's letter reveals, to Jean's horror, that she was dying from cancer and her wish is for him to join her in the South of France to say goodbye. He realizes he is 20 years too late, and that he spent the last 20 years in an emotional solitude for false reasons.

In his emotional spiral, Jean decides to unmoor his floating apothecary and take off on a journey to find the truth about Manon or to beg forgiveness for his stupidity and pride, or to find himself.  His neighbor, Max Jordan who is an author whose 1st book success has paralyzed his ability to write, journeys with him to find a new story.

Along the journey they have two others board their book and cat vessel - a chef and an eccentric bookseller.

At times, George's writing is beautiful, but it always seemed off to me.  The love scenes that Jean remembers are too much as is the intensity of their "big love" for each other.  It's not that I don't believe in "big love" or that I don't think love can unhinge people, it's just that there was too much unhinging and not enough hinging?  Maybe that's the best explanation I can give for not loving a book that seems just like the kind of book I would love.

Even in the end of the journey where I know I should have been tearing up and feeling vast amounts of emotion, I felt blank.

It did at times remind me of two other books that I have read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry due to the journey towards some sort of closure with a woman from the past and the discoveries along the journey.  It also reminded me of The Storied Life of AJ Frikery due to the eccentric nature of the bookseller and his love of books with the added bonus of a love story.

Speaking of bonuses - this book also had quite a few references to other books and food, and in the very back of the book, George was kind enough to include a list of all the books mentioned and their healing nature, as well as recipes for some classic French dishes.

I love a good love story, especially one set in Paris, especially one that also involves the adoration of books and their ability to heal, and I love good French food. I wish I could just put my finger on why this book hasn't become my favorite of the summer.

My only explanation is that it was a bit too much of everything.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"In the Unlikely Event:" Fasten Your Seatbelts

I grew up on Judy Blume books.

I'm sure most women in their early 40s would make the same claim.  Judy Blume opened my eyes to the trials of adolescence from bullying, to menstruating, to having a bratty younger sibling, to masturbation, to wanting bigger breasts, to the turbulent world of first sexual relationships.  Underlying all of her books for me was honesty and realness.

She tells life like it is which is why her books have been the subject of countless bannings and calls for censorship from school libraries.  Seeing an elementary school girl with the book "Forever" tucked under her arm branded her a harlot, one to be watched by her teachers.

In her first adult book since 1998's "Summer Sisters" Blume draws from her childhood growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey which was branded "Plane Crash City" in the winter of 1952 when three planes inexplicably crashed there in an 8 week span.  Blume was an 8th grader at Hamilton when these tragedies unfolded.  She returned to those tragedies to craft the fictional lives of a chorus of characters who all suffer in different ways due to the crashes.

At the center of this novel is Miri Ammerman, a 9th grade Jewish girl, whose single mom, Rusty, her Uncle Henry and her grandmother live together harmoniously until the planes begin to crash.  As she deals with her best friend's mental illness, her first heartbreaking love with orphan Mason, and her mother's first real boyfriend, as well as her father appearing in her life again, she also must deal with the betrayal of safety she feels when planes fall from the sky - not once, not twice, but three times in one winter.

She writes a poem about the crashes that she reads at a reunion years later: "Life goes on, as our parents promised that winter / Life goes on if you're one of the lucky ones / But we're still part of a secret club / One we'd never willingly join / With members who have nothing in common / except  time and a place / We'll always be connected by that winter / Anyone who tells you different is lying."

Miri's Uncle Henry writes about the crashes for the local paper and becomes a kind of local hero as does her boyfriend, Mason, who fearlessly pulls people from the 3rd crash and saved lives.

The power in this novel full of so many characters that at times I felt dizzy from the quick chapters and multitudes of perspectives, comes from Miri's and the other young characters who come of age in the early 1950s.  Even without planes falling out of the sky, adolescence can be hard, but with the added tragedies that many speculated were the work of communists or aliens, the looming pressures of adulthood seem insurmountable.

Blume's history as a life changing YA author shows when she delicately crafts the love story between Mason and Miri.  Their first dance together that didn't need conversation, their first gentle kiss, their heartbreaking conclusion and even their rediscovery of each other were written with sensitivity and love.  In the same way, Blume shows how the crashes unraveled Miri's best friend and her best friend's seemingly perfect family.  Everyone in this novel suffers the crashes in different ways - either as immediate victim or post traumatic casualties.  They are all connected.

For me "The Umbrella of Death" as the winter of 1952 in Elizabeth, New Jersey was referred to, took on larger significance.  It's the tragedies of life that often define us - how we heal from heartbreak, how we recover from illnesses both mental and physical, how we move on from the dissolution of our families or the loss of best friends or potential lovers.  It's that turbulence that Blume shows with heart and humility and what has made her such a phenomenon and such a defining part of the young adults' lives.  She knows how to give us a flight worth remembering - that we need to fasten our seat belts for, and that we need to wonder if there will be a safe landing or a horrible, tragic crash.  Regardless, we know that life will go on, even in the face of tragedy that no one should need to suffer through.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"The Chaperone": A Glimpse at One of the First Real Movie Stars

I put off reading "The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty for the whole summer.  I'm not sure why it went to the bottom of my summer "to read" pile.  I love historical fiction, and I wanted something that wasn't WW2 historical fiction.  "The Chaperone" sheds historical light on the conflicting roles of women in the 1920s - those who hung on to tradition, and those who were paving the way for the future of women's liberation by fictionalizing the actual trip that a young Louise Brooks took to New York City with a chaperone before she became an international movie sensation.

The relationship between a 15 year old Louise Brooks and Cora Carlisle, the housewife who volunteers to be her chaperone to New York City where Louise will dance with the premier group Denishawn. Cora and Louise make an odd pair.  Louise exhibits every trait that is synonymous with the loose morals of flappers.  She is young but sexually promiscuous, she enjoys getting drunk, she loves to defy the rules, and she refuses to act with decorum and grace even going as far to wear short skirts with her stockings rolled and showing too much skin.  To Louise, her disapproving chaperone, Cora, could not be more of a drag.  Cora expects Louise to be a lady by traditional standards which to Louise means to not have fun.  The two venture to New York City together, but their experiences there are both liberating in different ways.  

Cora's on a secret mission to find out about her past.  She grew up in a orphanage in New York City only to be one of the many orphans who were forced to relocate via orphan trains.  She fared well in her childhood when a nice family took her in and seemed to hit the jack pot when a handsome lawyer asked her to marry him.  But her curiosity about her origins leads her back to her orphanage for answers.

Louise by contrast wants to be a star and can already feel the way people, especially men, respond to her gravitational pull.  Her startling beauty with her Dutch boy bob and luminescent skin stopped men in their tracks even when she was only 15 years old.  Even the legendary Denishawn troupe recognized her star quality.  She cares nothing about the past or her origins but can't wait for the future. 

I loved the first half of this book which really did illuminate the roles of women in the 1920s.  Even in fashionable and forward thinking New York City there seemed to be a divide between the old and new ways of thinking.  Women like Brooks pushed the boundaries that made it possible for women to be whatever they wanted to be, but women like Cora were stuck in the change.  They wanted more freedom, but didn't know how to go about it and Cora shows this as she undergoes her own awakening in New York City which then carries over to her life when she returns to Wichita from her two month journey as a chaperone.  

The power of this story really resides in the first half of the book that centers on the chaperone trip.  Cora's story surprisingly has more energy than Louise's.  After Cora returns to life in Wichita a changed and emboldened woman, the book lost momentum for me.  The years spanned on too long, and I wanted the same historical insights that the chaperone trip brought to light.  The mentions of Louise's career seemed an afterthought in the 2nd part of the book, and Cora's life, although interesting, wasn't enough to hold my rapt attention until the end.  

I liked this book, but not as much as Moriarty's first book "The Center of Everything" or even her second book "The Rest of Her Life".  I did, however, make a concerted effort when I was finished reading to research more about the life and times of Louise Brooks who I found to be a fascinating character in this book.  I almost wish that I was still in the classroom teaching "The Great Gatsby," so I could use some of the information I learned about women during the 1920s to help my students better understand the great divide of morality that was occurring.  

Because I wanted to learn more and because Moriarty captured me in the first half of the book, I am glad that I read this book - even if it was at the bottom of my summer pile.