The Little Lady Agency: Guilty Pleasure

July 30, 2008

I am not going to apologize for the fact that I read quite a bit of chick lit over vacation.  I stated in my first post that I am not a book snob, and I enjoy a good work of fiction that doesn’t require deep thought.  Hester Browne’s Little Lady Agency Series is technically Brit Chick Lit, but it was very entertaining, and I liked Melissa Romney-Jones, her main character.    So far, there are three books in the series.  The series is about Melissa Romney-Jones, a woman from a dysfunctional yet somewhat aristocratic family who has few marketable skills but who has a talent for managing and organizing.  Melissa is curvy and sweet but has low self-esteem thanks to her family and after being laid off from yet another job, stumbles upon the idea to open a business that caters to helping organize and manage men’s lives.  She’ll send flowers to mothers and girlfriends.  She’ll help the men change their style of dress and counsel them on hygiene matters.  And she does this dressed as Honey, a no-nonsense blonde who wears tight 50s retro clothes and exhibits retro, proper behavior.  It sounds…sketchy…and that’s sort of a running joke and misconception throughout the series, but I promise you that this is not a series about an escort or high-priced hooker.  The three books are as follows:

  1. The Little Lady Agency (in which we meet Melissa and she establishes her agency)
  2. Little Lady, Big Apple (in which Melissa visits her boyfriend in NYC and ponders whether his career is more legitimate than hers)
  3. The Little Lady Agency and the Prince (in which Melissa helps a friend of the family back in London, ponders a move to Paris (!) and makes some hard decisions)

As I said above, I really liked these books.  I liked that the heroine was curvy.  She wasn’t necessarily overweight…this isn’t a novel about a heavy girl makes good.  She has a real body and her curves are presented as attractive and desirable.  Sure, Melissa was concerned about her weight, but what woman isn’t?  I like that it wasn’t a huge deal unlike the whole Renee Zellweger-Bridget Jones debacle (for the record, if anyone bothered to read the damn book, Bridget wasn’t fat either; she was just a normal, healthy woman who wished she were a bit thinner.  Not the big fucking deal the movie made it out to be.  Humph).  I guess I really identified with Melissa:  crazy family, less-than-stick thin, wondering whether you have any skills and where you fit in, worrying about keeping your identity when you are in a relationship and wondering if there is another “you” that you could put on like a suit of armor who handled every situation brilliantly and always had a snappy comeback.  I’ve been there; haven’t we all? 

Browne is a smart writer, and Melissa and her situations seem real.  I think that this series has a lot more depth than your average chick lit book.  Sometimes I am frustrated with chick lit because the women are too glamorous or have outrageous jobs with which I can’t identify (not that I exactly know what it’s like to run an agency but I can comprehend that more than I could working in Hollywood or working on a magazine) or even worse, the women are almost too flawed or screwed up for me to identify with them.  Melissa and her friends seem like people I know without trying too hard to be “just like everyone you know.”

Sure, there were parts of the series that dragged.  I wished Melissa had a bit more spine sometimes, and I don’t understand why both Browne’s series and Kinsella’s Shopaholic series had to take the heroines to NYC (where everything is on the line!!); is it some British rite of passage?  The second book in the series was my least favorite.  But overall, the series is an enjoyable, quick, meaty, guilt-free read.  I hope that Browne plans to continue the series.


Remember Me? Maybe

July 29, 2008

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella kicked off my vacation reading, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.  It’s about Lexi Smart, who the first chapter establishes as a someone who is not having a very good life.  Her career is going nowhere, and she just missed out on receiving a bonus by a few days.  She has appearance issues, including being slightly overweight and having horrid teeth.  Her boyfriend is a loser (literally called “Loser Dave”) who treats her like crap.  To top it all off, her father just died and she is facing his funeral the next day.

Next thing we know, Lexi wakes up in the hospital a few years later with amnesia and instead of her sad life, her new life is positively glamorous:  gorgeous face and body, great clothes, trappings of wealth and a gorgeous husband.  The problem is that she can’t remember any of it.  Even worse, her last memory is of the less-fab, doormat Lexi; somehow in the intervening years, Lexi has become a, well, bitch.  The rest of the book deals with Lexi’s attempt to reconcile the life she has with the life she remembers and figure out how she has changed so dramatically.

This was a pretty good book.  I liked it better than Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, which always ended well, but Becky frustrated me throughout (show some restraint and do some basic math!).  It was interesting how Kinsella ended the first chapter of Remember Me? with a bump on the head that ultimately was a red herring for the rest of the book.  Sure, sometimes Lexi seemed a little too obtuse and unable to understand how much she had changed in the last 4 years, but she was likeable.  There was a depth to this novel that some of Kinsella’s previous ones have lacked and some surprisingly poignant moments.  And some hysterical ones as well (two words:  Mont Blanc).  I really felt sorry for Lexi and how out of control she felt as she tried to put the pieces of a life she can’t remember back together. 

And it’s Brit Chick Lit!  How can you go wrong?

Also Recommended: 

  • the Shopaholic series (if you can get past Becky’s too-often financial idiocy)
  • the Little Lady Agency series (Browne):  more to come in subsequent posts

Cold Plague: Not Exactly a Cure for Hot Summer Days

July 27, 2008

It might not be the best idea to post about Cold Plague by Daniel Kalla after having eaten a gorgeously medium, well-seasoned NY Strip last night.  But oh well.  I have 8 books to post about, and I need to start somewhere.

Cold Plague begins in Antarctica where a team of French scientists have managed to tap into a lake 2 miles under the ice that supposedly contains the purest water on earth, water that might contain healing properties.   Maybe this water could be bottled and sold for exorbitant amounts?!?!  The action then shifts to France where WHO doctors Haldane and McLeod have been summoned to explore a Mad Cow outbreak in a rural part of France.  Cows have not only tested positive for the deadly prion but there have also been several deaths ostensibly from eating the infected meat.  The problem is that these deaths occur much faster than those infected in previous Mad Cow outbreaks.  Much doesn’t add up.  The EU Agricultural Commission sends their own representative to join the doctors on their investigation.  Is there a connection between the water from the Antarctic lake and the deaths in France?   Will I ever eat steak again? 

This book feels like Kalla wrote it in about two or three days.  It contains an interesting germ of an idea, but it was shoddily developed.  It took too long to reach a resolution, and the climax wasn’t shocking at all.  By the time it comes, frankly, you don’t care because the villains are so stupid (especially since one of them is a biologist who should know better).  A police detective is awkwardly injected into the plot, and somehow her son becomes involved.  It takes forever for her to get together with the WHO doctors and compare notes.  And there was way too much emphasis on the personal lives and feelings of the characters.  I think it was Kalla’s attempt to flesh out his characters, but it seemed artificial.  The book overall just seemed cold and clinical when it could and should have been terrifying…mad cow, our conscipulously consumptive society and lust for over-priced bottled water, the poisoning of the food/water supply…

This is Kalla’s second book featuring doctors Haldane and McLeod, and apparently Pandemic, the first book is much better (though I haven’t read it).  His other books are supposed to be better too.

So, this book was ehhhhhh.  It wasn’t thrilling at all.  It had potential, but unfortunately, it didn’t.  And hell yes I will keep eating steak.  And I like tap water just fine thank you very much.

The Effect of Living Backwards: Am I Stupid?

July 18, 2008

Quick post because I need to get ready to leave for the beach and hopefully more enjoyable, coherent books.

The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits is a weird book that makes little sense, which I hope was the point.    It sort of has a plot.  It begins in what you think is the present with a character named Alice as a student at the Institute for Terrorist Studies.  Some psychologist is trying to get her to role play her relationship with her sister and to revisit the hijacking she experienced.  The story then shifts to the hijacking:  Alice and her older sister Edith, with whom she has a strained, competitive relationship, are on their way to Edith’s wedding.  Their plane is hijacked, and Alice becomes the liaison with the terrorist negotiator due to her language skills.  But things are weird and nothing is what it seems.  Do the hijackers have a plan?  The passengers are threatened with guns that don’t have bullets.  Is everyone on the plane involved?  The bulk of the story follows the hijacking and then suddenly you are in the real present with a much-older Alice. Throughout the novel, chapters are devoted to the background stories of Alice and Edith’s mother and their fellow passengers. 

I’m actually making to plot sound more straightforward and dramatic than it was.  This book was very absurd and post-modern and is exactly the type of book that makes me feel stupid.  Every character is unreliable.  Nothing is what it seems.  The hijacking is someone’s grand experiment to prove a point.   I felt like the entire book was full of philosophical BS that only elite, super-intelligent readers can understand and let out a wry, knowing chuckle as they read it.  However, I think its real focus is the relationship between siblings and sibling rivalry.  Edith and Alice have always had an uneasy relationship, and the hijacking only exascerbates it.  It actually becomes a main part of the hijacking as they are pitted against each other.  And it turns out that there is another set of siblings in the novel for whom the hijacking may just be the latest volley in a long-simmering rivalry.  

Clever readers (or those who read reviews to figure out WTF was going on in this book) realize that the title of the book, The Effect of Living Backwards, comes from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and of course, the main character’s name being Alice is a dead giveaway.   Like Carroll’s Alice, Julavits’ Alice has entered a weird world full of strange characters. 

Julavits is a really good writer, and there were parts of the book I enjoyed.  None of the characters were likeable, and there was a distance to the storytelling that made it hard to engage the book.  I personally do not enjoy absurd, post-modern fiction.  The whole time I read the book I kept thinking that it reminded me of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  I like plot.  I like structure.  Maybe I’m just stupid.

The Book of Fate: Freemasons in DC Again?

July 14, 2008

Perhaps this is cheating, but I am starting this post before I have finished the book.  Somehow, I don’t think I will miss anything.  The Book of Fate is Brad Meltzer’s attempt to ride on the coattails of such stellar films as the National Treasure series (in the interest of full disclosure, I have seen and will admit to enjoying  somewhat the first NT film).

One fateful (ha ha ha) day, presidential aide Wes Holloway is in the wrong place at the wrong time as a lunatic attempts to assassinate his boss, the president.  Though Wes’ face is devastated by a bullet, it appears that the only casualty is the president’s deputy Chief of Staff and close friend Ron Boyle.  Imagine Wes’ surprise 8 years later when it appears that Boyle is in fact alive.  And all of a sudden, shady FBI-types are after him.  Wes soon discovers the existence of The Three and the Roman, more shady types who appear to be behind Boyle’s faked death.  But what is their role?  What do they want?  And best of all, the lunatic behind the assassination attempt escapes from his mental hospital with plans to target Wes, whom he believes is an apprentice of The Beast.  Yes, Satan.  THAT Beast.  Is there a Freemason plot going all the way back to that ol’ rascal TJ (Thomas Jefferson) and majestic GW (George Washington)?  Is the former president involved?  And can Wes trust his friends?  All these burning questions will be answered in The Book of Fate.

Oy vey.  I picked up this book because I like a good thriller as much as the next person.  But I like a well-plotted thriller most of all!  I think the Publisher’s Weekly Review said it best when it wrote, “…readers looking for efficient plotting may be disappointed.”  Indeed.  First of all, what kind of moron is Wes?  How can a man in his early 30s who has worked so close to so much power (he is still working for the former president 8 years after the fact) be so naive?  Granted, Meltzer is probably trying to illustrate how the president has become a father figure to Wes and that he is utterly BETRAYED by what he learns, but it comes off as an unbelievable tendency to trust.  There’s a lot going on in the book, and it’s a bit confusing because the point of view shifts from character to character with each chapter.  It appears that the FreeMason plot may be only a red herring to reel in the insane assassin, Nico, which is actually kind of disappointing to me because as I’ve pointed out before, I like a good conspiracy theory.  Perhaps most damning, all the characters are one-dimensional.  ALL of them.  Even freakin’ Wes, the biggest, most gullible fool in the world.  Really, I’m amazed he can tie his shoes, drive a car or feed himself. 

What I did like and what Meltzer got right was the details about the presidency and its inner workings.  The best parts of the book are when he details how it feels to be an ex-president.  It’s actually very poignant, and it makes you feel for these men who must resume a somewhat normal life after years in the most powerful position in the world. 

I hesitate to recommend this as even a “beach read.”  Instead, pick up old John Grisham.  I kept thinking how much more interesting this book would have been if it were The Pelican Brief or even had half its snap.

The Terror Dream:

July 13, 2008

I can’t believe how long it has taken me to post about this book.  I’ve had it as a draft for weeks.

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi was a GREAT book.  And I rarely say that.  Faludi explores the sexual anxiety that America experienced after 9/11 and why women (feminists) were suddenly either demonized or urged to get married, stay home and make babies.  In other words, women had to fulfill the victim role…in need of being protected and taken care of…or else they were viragos who were responsible for the male failure to protect the nation.  The first part of the book deals with various studies and media representations of women after 9/11…from the lionization of 9/11 widows who said their primary and greatest duty was to take care of their family to supposed baby booms and single women suddenly reconsidering their choosiness and deciding what was most important was finding a nice man with whom to settle down, even if he wasn’t the greatest catch. 

In the second part of the book, Faludi ties back this response to 9/11 to American’s earliest history and traces it from Puritan days to the Revolutionary and even Civil War.  She believes that the anxiety caused by 9/11 can be traced back to anxiety about our inability to deal with the natives.  At first, captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s were hailed as the appropriate response to the native threat.  Rowlandson is a good, Christian woman who submits to her abduction as God’s will.  However, she can take care of herself and that was ok.  Such narratives were prized. However, as time went on, abduction narratives began to paint men in a negative light (e.g. the husband scramming with the rest of the kids, leaving his wife and newborn to fend for themselves) and women began to act, well, less womanly (e.g. hacking natives to death because they remembered there was a reward for each native killed).  It began to be suspected that somehow women were sapping the vitality of the men and preventing them from being heroic.  As a result, female heroism began to be viewed with suspicion and even marginalized.  Only certain types of female heroism could be acknowledged and rewarded, and it was best if the female wasn’t heroic at all.  This anxiety has become part of our national psyche.

Stunning stuff.  For the most part, I really liked and enjoyed this book.  I found myself appalled by the first half of the book dealing with 9/11 and how women were treated.  How could I not have noticed it?  She cited several articles and essays from Time magazine, and I know I read them because I have been a subscriber to Time for over 10 years.  I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye when I read the essays she cites that are so damning when read in her book.   But I also remember being scared to death after 9/11 even though I live in NC.  I had just turned 24 2 days before 9/11.  And interestingly, I was engaged to be married two months later.  I had never been through anything like 9/11 before.  My life had been free from Cold War anxiety, the stress of Vietnam, etc.  Instead of feeling like I needed to rush to the altar like women were apparently urged to, I wondered if maybe we should postpone our wedding.  It didn’t seem right to have such a conspicuous display a few short months after 9/11. 

I didn’t agree with everything Faludi wrote.  For example, many of the examples she used were from extremely big cities, and I wonder how they played in other areas of the nation.  As well, I don’t think it is so unreasonable that anyone–man or woman–wonder about their lives and to whom they would cling if tragedy occurred.  Of course you are going to wonder who would miss you and how things would be different if you did or didn’t have a spouse.  I think that’s human nature.  I was scared to death and glad I had a fiance on whom I could lean.  I don’t think I would have necessarily have run right out and found the first guy to marry to provide that if I had been single, but it was a scary time, and it would good knowing I had someone. 

I like Faludi’s work and hate that some don’t read her because she is a “feminist.”  While I might not agree with everything she wrote in the book, I am angered enough by my own failure to notice what was being written that I swear to always read with a skeptical and aware mind. 

Also recommended:

The World Before Her: Kinda Sad

July 13, 2008

Sometimes I wonder if I have unreasonably high standards for books.  Or maybe I am simply too ignorant of what “good” is.  It seems like too many books fail to please me.  Am I not discerning enough?  Am I overly critical? 

The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall is one of those books that makes me doubt my competence as a reader.  It tells the story of George Eliot (nee Mary Ann or Marian Evans), author of classics such as Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch, after her marriage to the younger John Cross much later in life.  Weisgall alternates the chapters on Eliot with chapters set 100 years later on Caroline Spingold, a young sculptor married to an older, wealthy man and appears to have an enviable life.  Both narratives begin in Venice…Eliot and Cross have journeyed there for their honeymoon, and it is there that Eliot discovers the emotional, physical and intellectual limits of her marriage.  Spingold and her husband have journeyed there for her husband’s business, but Spingold is left to tour Venice on her own.  Her husband has no time for art or beauty and rues the fact that she seems to have become a real person.  Both Eliot and Spingold have spent time in Venice previously and cannot help but compare their earlier experience with the current one.  The book continues to progress their lives:  Eliot and Cross journey back to England and settle into their new home; Spingold returns to New York, argues with her husband, prepares for her next show and ultimately changes her life.  Eliot’s ending is sad; Spingold’s is happy.

Ultimately, I preferred the Eliot narrative.  And it was horrifically sad.  Why did she marry John Cross after her lover of many decades died?  How could she have not realized in time that he did not see her clearly and preferred to see her as the moral George Eliot, not the flesh-and-blood, doubting, brilliant Evans?  Of course, I’m looking at it through 2008 eyes.  But even though Eliot longed for the normal marriage she had been denied and craved a normal life free from scandal, it seemed as though she had enough money and clout to do what she wished.  But Mary Ann Evans wanted respectability.  What an interesting set of contradictions she was! It was interesting how such an intellect and talent as Eliot/Evans faced crippling self-doubt.  How she considered herself and was considered by others to be fairly unattractive (not simply homely but ugly) but how the regard for her face and figure changed as her intellect was acknowledged and revered.  I wonder if such a change could happen these days.  Has the regard for and weight given to physical appearance taken over completely or is there still enough regard for intellect that it could even overcome a less-than-pleasing countenance?  I would love for my brain to make me beautiful to society’s eyes.  Instead, I’ve often felt my brain warring with my physical appearance:  I’m not beautiful or even pretty and somehow, my brain seems to reinforce that instead of compensate for it.  But back to Eliot/Evans.  ANd how interesting that despite her conventional upbringing and longing for respectability that she should be willing to throw it all away to follow her heart and live unmarried with George Lewes?   And I’m glad she did.  I’m glad that she had decades of happiness with him instead of trying to take cold comfort in doing the right thing and denying herself him.  Good for you, Evans!

I had far less sympathy for Caroline Spingold.  The parralels with Eliot/Evans’ life are many:  dead true love, artist, insufficient, disappointing marriage to a man who wishes you were something else, something more malleable and controllable.  It’s clear that Weisgall wants to examine the decisions the modern, emancipated woman would make when in a similar situation to Eliot’s. Caroline’s story was set in 1980, and I just felt she was foolish.  She was fortunate enough to be able to do something about her situation:  divorce Malcolm, her husband.  Instead, she stayed married to him for 10 years, and waffled over what she should do.  Yes, he did support her art–unlike Eliot, she wasn’t as great a success–but she likely could have worked around that.  Or maybe she couldn’t, but her situation didn’t stir any great sympathy for her.  Her story ends happily: she has renounced Malcolm and married a much more suitable man, but I didn’t like how Weisgall settled it.  There was no great confrontation between her and Malcolm, no great epiphany.  Just a chapter set years later alerting the reader to the fact that she has changed her life. 

Maybe my lack of regard for Caroline’s character is due to the fact that everything came fairly easily to her, and she never had to work hard for anything.  She is very attractive.  She stumbles into a wealthy marriage.  She spent a summer in Venice with her artistic parents when she was 11.  Nice!  I wish Weisgall had given her a bit more depth or had focused all of the book on Eliot.  I don’t think that Caroline is a worthy comparison to Eliot/Evans. 

And what’s up with all the appearances of Venice lately?  Three of my coworkers have gone or are going to Venice this year.  Venice is a major part of Eat, Pray, Love.  All of a sudden, I feel that I need to hop a plane!