Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: September 19, 2006
Source Format: Library book!
Page Count: 317.

When Sarah Clarke is 14, she is seduced by her English teacher, Mr. Carr after class. What starts is a passionate, intense, and illegal love affair that Sarah feels bonds her to Mr. Carr. But when Mr. Carr's wife discovers their relationship, he decides to leave the school, and Sarah, to work on his family life. She spends the years after burning through hundreds of men, searching for a man to fit the Mr. Carr shaped hole that was left behind when he 'abandons' her. Of all of the men, one has remained constant: her friend, Jamie, and when Mr. Carr reappears, it is she who must decide between the man who abandoned her, and the one who has been there all along.

**Taming the Beast contains very mature content, and so may this review!**

Whatever she did, she was determined to not live up to anyone else's expectations. These expectations were, depending who you asked, that she would fall pregnant and live off welfare; that she would become the pampered mistress of some old but rich businessman; that her heavy drinking would tip into full blown alcoholism and she would die in a gutter clutching an empty metho bottle...

Sarah is about as damaged as they come when it comes to leading female characters. She is easily sucked into the abusive and erotic world that is Mr. Carr and puts up little effort to crawl out of it, even when he 'lovingly' leaves her bruised and pleading for him to stay. The two of them, to her, create the beast with two backs: ugly and roaring, but unable to live without the other half. She is also very book smart, partially because she loves to read classics, and partially because part of her escapades with Mr. Carr involve constant repetition of Shakespeare and other Great authors. She becomes a true victim of abuse, because even though the reader and Sarah know very little about Mr. Carr, she cannot move past him. 

Sarah knew that voice. Knew it because it had been echoing in her head for eight long years. Knew it because it was the goddamn soundtrack to her life. It sounded like blood rushing in her ears. No, that was real, the blood rushing, pulse slamming, heart thumping. All those sounds were real, and incredibly, so was his voice. 

While reading Taming the Beast, I was actually reminded of the Marilyn Monroe quote, "if you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best." Or something like that. We certainly see Sarah at her worst, and instead of hating her for the sometimes despicable things she does, we sympathize with her and wait for her to crawl out of her slump and make her life better. Maguire also expertly manipulated her characters so we also see them at their best and worst. Except Mr. Carr. We always hate Mr. Carr, which pushes us as readers further to wait for Sarah to leave him in the dust. When he comes back into her life, he comes back with a wild new vengeance, further twisting her life into something that is harder and harder to bounce back from. Then there is Jamie, sweet Jamie, her best friend from childhood who is the only one to fully understand her and knows the intricacies of her relationship and attachment to Mr. Carr. He is a beautiful constant in Sarah's life, and a well-rounded secondary character that we also love and empathize with.

And reading this way--with no deadline, no agenda--she remembered why she loved literature so much.  It was like fucking a new man and knowing that he had made other women come, but that when she came it would be an unshareable, untranslatable pleasure. She opened herself up to her books, and the words got inside her and fucked her senseless. 

I always get nervous going into books that are touted for being erotic and intense. I feel like I am walking myself into a Fifty Shades of Grey hole of sorts, and expect poorly written, useless sex. I was immediately impressed with how Maguire handled the loads of sex that happens in Taming the Beast. The reader is able to see the sex between Mr. Carr and Sarah for what it is, even when she can't: abusive and one-sided. However, the sex between her and Jamie is tender and what she should have been desiring all along. The way Maguire built up all of the relationships in this novel created different feelings for the sex that they have, and each encounter is beautifully written, regardless of how soft or ugly it is. 

As beautifully written as Taming the Beast is, and as intense as the character relationships are, I would have liked to see more of a change in Sarah, or at least for her to catch some sort of positive break. Reading this book is like having a little black cloud trailing behind you up until the last page, when we finally start to see a little ray of sunshine. 

This novel was dark, dramatic, beautifully written, and filled with sometimes romantic and sometimes dirty sexual encounters. The characters were empathetic, lovable, and hateable, and the relationships between them were wildly intense, which made this a rollercoaster of a read full of crazy feels.

Rating: 4 / 5 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: It Chooses You by Miranda July

It Chooses You by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire.
Publisher: McSweeney's Publishing
Publication Date: November 15, 2011
Source/Format: Library book!
Page Count: 218.
Goodreads & Amazon

Miranda July, filmmaker and author, was busy at work on her second film, The Future. Her writing and work was bringing up a lot of doubts about her talents as a filmmaker, and the likelihood of the film being a success. It is then that she gets sucked into the world of the Pennysaver and delves into the objects for sale, and the people who are trying to get rid of them. Paired with photographs by Brigitte Sire, It Chooses You is told in a series of small essays and interviews that gives the reader a glimpse into lives they'd probably never stop to think about otherwise.

Tuesday was the day the PennySaver booklet was delivered. It came hidden among the coupons and other junk mail. I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through to the real estate ads in the back. I carefully considered each item--not as a buyer, but as a curious citizen of Los Angeles. Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone in LA is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. 

I am pretty familiar with Miranda July's work. I enjoyed her film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and her novel No One Belongs Here More Than You inspired me to delve into other writing styles. I'm currently loving her e-mail subscription project WE THINK ALONE. My roommate has also given high praise to her heartbreaking film, The Future. As for It Chooses You, I was intrigued right away by the concept of the novel. I'm a nosey person by nature, and the book presented itself as a look into the lives of sellers in the PennySaver. I was dying to look at the photographs and read into their lives, and was so excited when I finally saw it in at the library. 

His conviction ignited me. I felt light and alert. Evidence of his faith in this almost-impossible challenge was everywhere: the pink blouse, the makeup littering the bathroom, the handmade dildo-esque wig stand. These were not signals of defeat. This was not someone who was getting sleepy at the end of his journey; in fact, everything he had lived through made him certain of what mattered now.

The interview format of this book, as well as all of the photographs, made it an incredibly quick read. I finished the book cover to cover in just a few short hours. July's prose introduces each new item from the PennySaver and a quick description of place, and then the interview carries along the dialogue of each encounter. Her prose also meanders into her struggles writing The Future, and where she was pulling her inspiration from. My favorite part of these interviews was the fact that July did not shy away from asking the questions most other people would be too shy to ask. She asks Michael, an elderly man in the process of transitioning to a woman, the process of his transition and how he came to the decision this late in life to do so. She asks about the financial standings, hardships, and family demons in each person she meets with, and almost always asks if they own or use a computer.

And though she knew I wasn't a reporter or anyone of consequence, she began to tell me about herelf the way Michael had, as if this interview really mattered. It occurred to me that everyone's story matters to themselves, so the more I listened, the more she wanted to talk. 

Each interviewee was gracious with their answers, sharing parts of themselves that they might not have shared with just anyone. It was fascinating to read about their lives, and how everyone, through the lens of July at least, seemed to be turned on to the idea of someone being curious about their lives. Each of her subjects were individually fascinating, though July's treatment of them was disappointing and bordered on the edge of judgmental and unflattering. Perhaps because she was using this project as a springboard for The Future, each person seemed to be molded into a quirky and strange version of themselves. July didn't seem to view them as actual humans, and even admits in the book that she would have to try to not replace each person with her own fictional version of them. 

Not that I was meeting one kind of person through the PennySaver, or that they all sold things for the same reason. Michael was poor, Pauline was lonelier than she was poor, Primila was just old-fashioned...In the process of trying to reassure the people I was calling, I would occasionally ention that I was someone established--not a student, but a published writer. Google "Miranda July," I'd suggest. 

I would have appreciated these interviews and glimpses into the lives of others more if it didn't come with the shadow of July's judgments, and they became at times so harsh that I became curious to know if her subjects would have agreed to the interview if they had known the kind of light they were being painted in. She gracelessly notes that she hopes Michael had sold his $10 leather jacket so he was $10 closer to womanhood. She describes one woman's house as a 'FEMA-like encampment,' and consistently points out their socioeconomic standing, the appearance of their house, and how old-fashioned and weird it is that almost none of them have computers. She handles each interview with a flippancy and ungratefulness that made me sad for the subjects in the book and seemed unfazed and uncaring about the stories these people were sharing with her. 

The sound and smell and the wings beating around my face began to make me feel slightly hysterical, like I might cry. I also couldn't stop smiling. I should go to Mexico, I though. Not that Beverly was Mexican, just that I'd always meant to go there. 

It wasn't until we are introduced to Joe, the final interview of the novel and eventual actor in The Future, that we see one of the sellers get treated with real respect and grace, and it actually made me cry and wish that every other seller had been treated as delicately so we could see the beauty in their lives as well. It was Joe's segment that momentarily made me forget about all of the lines of judgement and jabs at the other interviewees. It was tasteful and interesting and he was such a sweet character that I felt for him and had tears over someone I had never met. 

I thought about his sixty-two years of sweet, filthy cards and something unspooled in my chest. Maybe I had miscalculated what was left of my life. Maybe it wasn't loose change. Or, actually, the whole thing was loose change, from start to finish--many, many little moments, each holiday, each Valentine, each year unbearably repetitive and yet somehow always new. You could never buy anything with it, you could never cash it in for something more valuable or more whole. It was just all these days, held together only by the fragile memory of one person - or, if you were lucky, two. 

The photographs accompanying each encounter were also beautiful and captured each person and their object for sale well. The photos really laid each person open with beautiful portraits of them, and the objects around their home. Brigitte Sire did a lot of justice to each person, and even though their lives and July's judgments of them have now been printed in a book for thousands of people to read, Sire artfully showed just enough to give us nosey people what we would want to see while still preserving their privacy. 

It Chooses You had the potential to be really beautiful in the way that Miranda July's other work is known to be. With a killer concept that lured me in, and interviews that didn't shy away from the hard-hitting topics in each interviewees life, I wanted to love this book. Unfortunately, it was July's criticisms and flippancy with each subject that turned me off to it. 

Rating: 2 / 5

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 7, 2012
Source/Format: Owned hardcover
Page Count: 470.
Goodreads & Amazon

Cameron Post was a happy little girl. She had her parents and playdates with the best friend she could ever ask for, Irene Klauson. But just at the height of her friendship with Irene, which was starting to move into the murky waters of young experimentation, her parents unexpectedly dies and instead of feeling grief, she is guilty of being relieved that her parents will never have to know she was kissing a girl. In comes her grandmother and born-again Christian Aunt Ruth, and Cameron pulls away and creates her own secret life of contraband movies, dollhouse building, and secret hookups. Things are twisted again when a beautiful cowgirl, Coley Taylor, moves to town and begins what becomes another intense and confusing friendship for Cameron. At the apex of this relationship, Aunt Ruth catches wind of her niece's 'sinful' ways and sends her to a camp to "fix" her and her sexuality, and brings Cameron closer to herself than she's ever felt.

We both knew the knock was coming. We heard the footsteps stop outside Irene's door, but there was an empty time between the end of those steps and the heavy rap of his knuckles: ghost time. Mr. Klauson standing there, waiting, maybe holding his breath, just like me. I think about him on the other side of that door all the time, even now. How I still had parents before that knock, and how I didn't after.

I was so excited to find this book for only $1 at the Brown Elephant here in Chicago. I've heard a lot about this book and there was quite a lot of hype surrounding it, so I was curious to see what it was all about. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is easily one of the most beautifully written Young Adult novels I have read in a long time. Danforth is thorough in her descriptions, places, and feeling. At any given chunk in the book, she keeps the reader well acquainted with the temperature, the tension, and look of the place. The only downside to her beautiful writing was that it sometimes became too wordy or overwritten, and details were included that didn't necessarily need to be there, but looked nice on the page regardless. 

I wanted to share this summer world with Lindsey when she came, all of what was best about Miles City in July spread out before us like a picnic table heaped with pies. The meet seemed like a formality, and no home meet had ever felt that way before. In our prelim heats, on Saturday, I beat Lindsey's time in every event, even the freestyle. Other teams weren't used to the thickness of the water, the feeling of lake weed tickling their legs, their toes slipping off the algae coating on our homemade turn boards...

Cameron as a character was interesting but not at the same time. I was intrigued by the incredible interruption to her life brought on by the death of her parents and the entrance of her ultra-conservative Aunt Ruth. The main reason she lacked in energy for me was the distance from which she was telling the story, which created two Camerons. There was, who I called, Grown-Up Cameron, and Lil Cameron. Lil Cameron was going through a slew of issues with losing her best friend Irene, her parents, and leading a double life of sorts. Grown-Up Cameron has had what seems like years to process her childhood and sexuality, and this polishing of her memories eliminated a lot of the visceral feelings and angst that should have come along with being alienated by her best friends and coming to terms with her sexuality. Lil Cameron, through the lens of Grown-Up Cameron, seemed to have a very flawless time accepting her identity and rolling with the punches dealt by the adults and peers in her life. I wish there had been more emotion coming from Cameron in these very intense moments, instead of the glossy recollections coming from Grown-Up Cameron. 

Coley had to have known that this was what we were getting to--I knew it, this is what this guy did, what he was known for--but I could feel her, next to me, tense just a little at those words: curing gays. Maybe I tensed too. I tried to seem cool, though, cool like Rick. I made a point of keeping eye contact with him.

Meeting Cameron's parents before they died also would have been beneficial to understanding Cameron's missing of them, and a very pivotal scene near the end of the book. Besides the news of their death, and the obligatory moments where Cameron visits their grave sites and has small moments with her grandmother remembering them, there wasn't much of Mr. and Mrs. Post for the reader to latch onto and feel grief over with Cameron. The reader is told of Cameron's missing of them, but again, Grown-Up Cameron took the wheel in eliminating the crushing emotions that comes with losing both parents at once.

Jane was messing with the straps and buckles on her leg, pulling at things. It was grossing me out. The stump was all covered with a brace and padding, but I was afraid that if she didn't stop messing with it soon, it wouldn't be. 
She noticed me noticing this. "I keep some of the stash in my leg. I have a little compartment hollowed out. You'll get over it."
"I'm fine with it," I said, throwing lots of hay and not looking.
"No you're not. But you will be after a couple of hits." 

Some of my favorite characters in the novel were those at God's Promise, the camp Cameron is sent to to be 'fixed' of her sins. Jane Fonda had a what seemed hilarious, but turned out intense and heartbreaking, backstory that made me wish Jane had her own book. With her prosthetic leg, and a Polaroid always on hand for snapping embarrassing candids of the other campers, she was a well-rounded secondary character that knew when to use her humor, and when to be serious. I also loved Adam, though his reason for being sent to God's Promise was a little confusing and unclear. Each camper was strapped with their own emotional baggage and pressures that came along with their personal identity and familial perceptions of those they chose to love. It was sad and beautiful and Danforth treated each one with a tenderness that made me want to gather them all up and help them escape to a place where they could be unthreatened to be who they were. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is definitely worth the read, though I was glad I had only paid $1 for it. The prose is beautiful and descriptive, and Danforth created quite a few one-of-a-kind characters that I am unlikely to forget, though her tendency to over-write and the distance from which Cameron is telling her story diluted what should have been intense, heart-pounding moments. 

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book to Movie Adaptations

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish where book bloggers list their top tens...on Tuesday! I have never done this meme (or any meme) before, but I can think of a bunch of book to movie adaptations that I actually adore so I thought I would give it a go!

1) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I was so nervous about this movie because of how special the novel was to me in high school and various other points throughout my life. It's the only book I've read more than twice, and I believe that the movie truly did the book justice.

2) Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan. This is a movie that I saw before I read the book, and I think I actually liked the movie better (sorry!). I love the vibe of New York City in this movie, the soundtrack, and I thought the journey in the movie was heightened more than in the book with trying to find the band and Caroline.

3) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was excited about this movie for months and months and it didn't disappoint me. The modern day soundtrack helped capture the mood and tone of a time that has passed, and who doesn't want to go to a Gatsby party now? It was a beautifully shot movie and very flashy, much like that era. I do think Gatsby/Daisy were romanticized a little too much, but hey. Also: Leonardo DiCaprio.

4) Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling. Wow, I just got so excited thinking about the first time I saw this movie. I started reading Harry Potter when I was ten, and the movie came out just a couple of years after. I remember my fifth grade brain being BLOWN at seeing Quidditch brought to life and the magic of Diagon Alley. Sigh.

5) Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl was a master at writing children's books that were tinted with sinister and creepy characters. The movie (the original one with Gene Wilder, I can't even comment about the Tim Burton version) was incredibly creepy and odd and freaked me out. Kids are droppin' off left and right and Willy Wonka is the orchestrator of what seems to be pure madness. But also very magical, who doesn't love watching that scene of the room FILLED with everything edible? Yum.

6) The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Where to even begin? I thought the movie captured perfectly the pure mystery surrounding the suicide of five sisters, but also the tone and feel of the novel. Definitely a book I need to re-read sometime very soon.

7) Romeo & Juliet  by William Shakespeare. I read the play in high school but wasn't crazy about it (again, something I need to revisit), but we also watched the film adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and suddenly loved Shakespeare. There's such a strong vibe to this movie that gets me every and it's beautiful and tragic and wonderful.

8) Matilda by Roald Dahl. Another one by Dahl that I absolutely adored. I recently purchased this movie again and still get freaked out by the Chokey and Miss Trunchbull. Another movie filled with the absurdity of Dahl's imagination--the unforgettable cake eating scene, and Matilda's horribly absent parents.

9) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I contemplated whether or not I should put this on here since the novel is one of my favorites of all time, but figured what the hell. Stanley Kubrick definitely put his own spin on it, and the film needs to be regarded as a separate entity from the novel, especially since many of the most important themes or scenes in the books were changed completely or didn't measure up. It was as gritty and disturbing as one can expect, though, and it's Kubrick, so even though it was very different, it was still a pretty brilliant film.

10) Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I read this memoir in high school and was amazed by the uniqueness of Augusten's situation and the beautiful way in which it was written. I also became a huge fan of the movie, with Evan Rachel Wood capturing perfectly the rebelliousness of Natalie, and Joseph Cross really seemed to fit as Augusten. Also, the scene in the movie where 'Year of the Cat' by Al Stewart is playing and everyone is screaming is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

Phew, that was a harder list to come up with than I thought! What about you all? What are some of your favorite movie adaptations?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: The Graduate by Charles Webb

The Graduate by Charles Webb
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication Date: 1963
Source/Format: Library book!
Page Count: 238.
Goodreads & Amazon

Benjamin is a recent college graduate who is feeling lost and jaded with his newly acquired degree. He moves back in with his parents, and is drowned in questions from his mother, father, and upper class friends with what he is going to do with his life now. The annoying question hangs on his back and the directionless feeling sinks in when he realizes he doesn't want a career in what he went to school for. In this haze of post-graduate depression, Benjamin is seduced by Mrs. Robinson, a beautiful and lonely friend of his parents. Another wrench is thrown into the mix when he meets Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine. Finally, he has the direction he's been waiting for, but there are major roadblocks preventing him from going there.

"The whole four years," he said, looking up at his father. "They were nothing. All the things I did are nothing. All the distinctions. The things I learned. All of a sudden none of it seems worth anything to me."

I really wanted to like this book. After all, I'm as much of a hopeless and directionless college graduate as the rest of them, and even though I haven't yet seen the forever-talked about film with Dustin Hoffman, I've only heard good things about the movie. However, I found The Graduate to be absurd in such a way that I couldn't tell if it was trying to be absurd or not. 

As a big fan of dialogue, The Graduate had an overwhelming amount of it, so I can see why the film may have been more successful than the novel. After graduating, Benjamin is ultimately lost and frustrated with the direction his life is going, and this feeling is enhanced by the dialogue because every single thing Benjamin has to say is interrupted or cut off entirely. No one wants to hear what he has to say, and the constant stopping and starting of Benjamin trying to speak not only makes us curious to know what it is that is so important, but makes us angry because he never gets around to saying it after all. Also, I think there is a very specific formula to writing dialogue that seemed to be chucked out the window. People interrupt and cut each other off all of the time in real life, but on the page it creates a very huff-worthy effect that made me want to skip lines of dialogue at a time to see what people were getting at. The cutting off also created a lot of redundancy and repetition that made me want to move on. 

"Oh no," Benjamin said. "You can ask me anything you want. I'd be happy to--"
"Are you a virgin?" she said.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want."
Benjamin frowned at her. "Am I a virgin." he said. 
She nodded.
Benjamin continued to frown at her and finally she smiled. "All right. she said. "You don't have to tell me." 
"Well what do you think," he said. 
"I don't know," she said. "I guess you probably are." 

The lack of prose in The Graduate gave me little understanding to the characters. From what the reader is told, Benjamin is a very bright student who has won awards and has offers from Ivy League graduate schools. However, the Benjamin in-dialogue is irrational, awkward, and not very bright sounding at all. A closer narrative with more prose that is tapped into Benjamin's thought process at little more would have helped me understand more why he finds himself in the situations he does, and could have helped me decide more if this story was supposed to be as absurd as it was. 

"But Benjamin?" she said.
"I can't see why I'm so attractive to you." 
"You just are."
"But why." 
"You just are, I said. You're reasonably intelligent. You're striking looking." 

I really wanted to understand Benjamin's feelings for Elaine Robinson, as she felt like such a flat character that was used only as a vessel to stir up some drama between him and her mother, Mrs. Robinson. Benjamin takes her out to appease to Mr. Robinson and his own father and is a royal jerk for the entire date. It is only when she is humiliated at a strip joint that he feels sympathy for her, and decides she is his life partner. As shown in the above dialogue, he cannot even come up with an acceptable answer to justify his affections towards her, which proved to be frustrating for both Elaine, and myself. Elaine also is somehow the catalyst to this shit storm of events that I cannot even begin to explain, and you'd have to read the book to see just how the cookie crumbles. Benjamin's actions were brash and made with infuriating haste. Again, a closer narrative could've tightened that up just a little bit, so I could have seen where Benjamin's head was at when he does the things he does to win the affections of Elaine. 

Mrs. Robinson was perhaps the best character in the whole book but she fell into a cliché. A saucy one, but a cliché all the same. She played the role of wealthy, lonely wife very well, and she ends up being a great villain that had me cursing her name out loud, "damn you, Mrs. Robinson!" We also learn more about her past than Benjamin's which was interesting, even though the knowledge we learn about her is not relevant or used in the rest of the book.

As for the affairs, y'all know I love Jacqueline Susann, so at first I thought the affair was thrilling. Awkward, as I think that's how an affair should be between an older married woman and a fresh-faced college graduate, but thrilling all the same. Mrs. Robinson turned Benjamin into putty in her hands, and that made me wonder how many other lovers she has taken and manipulated in this way. But with all the Elaine stuff and the dramatics that fall around it, I couldn't tell if I was supposed to take this affair as a serious romantic tryst, or something worthy of being on a comedy show.

Sadly, The Graduate  by Charles Webb disappointed with waaaaay too much dialogue, a lack of prose and character insight, and character action that just didn't make sense in the world of 1960's love affairs that I typically really enjoy. I am, however, looking forward to tracking down the film and finally watching that because I think that Webb's dialogue for his characters would be much better suited for the screen or stage.

Rating: 2 / 5

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Women by Jane Maas
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: February 28, 2012
Source/Format: Library book!
Page Count: 214.
Goodreads & Amazon

There isn't any denying the fact that I am a Mad Men addict. I flew through the five seasons that are available on Netflix, and so easily let myself get sucked into the world of hard-liquor drinking, cigarette-smoking, womanizing men in suits. And as handsome as those men in suits are, we barely get a glimpse into the world of the female characters on the show, and what life was like for them. Jane Maas lived the life of a female copywriter on Madison Avenue in a top notch advertising agency in the sixties. Much like Peggy Olson, she started as a receptionist, and eventually worked her way up to being one of the main voices in the 'I Heart New York' campaign that is still wildly popular. In her memoir, Mad Women she shares the ups and downs of being an Ad Woman, how advertising has changed since the sixties, and other anecdotes about her life as a women in the Mad Men-era.

"Was it really like that?" As soon as people find out that I actually worked at an advertising agency in the Mad Men era, they pepper me with questions. "Was there really that much drinking?" "Were women really treated that badly?" And then they lean in and ask confidentially: "Was there really that much sex?" The answer is yes. And no.

I minored in Marketing, and with my newfound obsession for all things Mad Men and retro, I loved Maas' recollections of advertising and the rules of it in the 1960's. Maas starts out this memoir with a day-in-the-life of a woman in an advertising agency. Her memory was spot on, so much so that it made me feel like I was reading more of a novel than an actual non-fiction memoir. In her day-in-the-life, Maas introduces us right away to the struggle of being a working mother in an age where most mom's stayed at home and doted on their children. First thing in the morning, she is also hilariously, yet sadly, mis-classified as a 'nice little secretary' when she offers to buy a colleague a cup of coffee.

Women who worked there in the sixties confided to me that more sex went on in that agency than on the television show. "It was in the air," one woman said, "you breathed it."

Maas covers everything from a woman's perspective that fans of Mad Men or advertising in general would have been dying to know. She has quotes and anecdotes from other women who worked in agencies about the sex and affairs that happened in the office, though she doesn't spill any juicy stories from her own agency at Ogilvy & Mather. She even delves into the equation of affairs, as in : promiscuous women =/= bad and punishable, but if both parties are married and the affair is considered serious, GAME ON! I enjoyed the insider look into this very big part of what happens on the television show, and the way Maas delivered these juicy tidbits made it feel like I was standing around a water cooler speaking in hushed tones with other women about the latest gossip. 

The National Organization for Women awarded me its first ever NOW award for the "Most Obnoxious Commercial of the Year Depicting Women." It was for Dove, of course, for chaining of those women to sinks. 

Maas truly achieves her goal of sharing the gender roles that we are familiar with in the sixties and how it affected her work. She is a mother who openly admits to putting her children third in her life (job first, husband second), and is constantly shaking off dirty looks from her daughter's teachers and classmate's mothers. In the advertising world, she was mostly in charge of writing advertisements for products made for and bought by women, which played into more of the stereotypes. It was eye-opening to see her struggle between being a woman, and being a business woman. 

Maas also shared failed attempts at products that she conducted focus groups for at advertising magnate Ogilvy & Mather. David Ogilvy is still a household name in advertising and has seen it's fair share of huge accounts, many of which Maas touched down on during her time there. She also shared several of her encounters with the man--known for being spunky and a little on the strange side--himself, and of his views on women in the workplace and how he handled his advertising, much of what is confessed in his own memoir, Confessions of an Ad Man (which Roger Sterling reads and then decides to pen the hilarious Sterling's Gold on Mad Men. Sterling even gripes about the book a couple of times in the series.) When she leaves Ogilvy & Mather, she goes on to work for some of the most influential women in advertising, but doesn't share many memorable events in those agencies. 

As much as I loved the insider look into the sex, drinking, and business side of advertising, Maas sometimes strayed from the content of the book. She sometimes drifts off into reverie about her patient and caring husband, and the day they met and their courtship and yadda yadda. It was sweet to read but felt out of place in her book of the advertising world. There is also the story she shares of the wedding she was coerced into planning for a mayor-to-be of New York City that was an interesting story, but again, felt out of place in this book. It seems that Maas sometimes slipped off the line of personal memoir and advertising tell-all. 

For a peek into the real life version of 1960's Madison Avenue, Mad Women delivers with hilarious and eye-opening anecdotes, though Maas' straying from the subject at hand gave the book a slightly discombobulated feel that made it feel like two books in one. 

Rating: 3 / 5 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 1, 2010
Source/Format: Library book!
Page Count: 323.
Goodreads & Amazon

A couple of friends and I have gotten together to read some books together. A couple of us in the group were in a YA writing class with the wonderful Stephanie Kuehnert. During her class we got to read a slew of awesome and influential Young Adult novels, and Shipbreaker was one that was recommended, but those of us in the group never got around to reading. We decided to give it a go!

Shipbreaker is the story of Nailer, a young boy who struggles to survive every day on the light crew, stripping copper wiring from shipwrecks in a dystopian Gulf Coast region. When Nailer isn't facing the treacherous conditions of his job that could be here today gone tomorrow, he is in a constant tango to avoid and satisfy his scary, alcoholic and drug addicted father. A silver-lining is in sight when a city-killer (hurricane) ravages the small coastal town, and shipwrecks a big, beautiful clipper. When he and his friend, Pima, jump on board, they find enough scavenge to keep them living comfortably for the rest of their lives. But amongst all of the jewels and silver and china, there is a rich girl who could be worth more than any of the loot if they can save her.

Shipbreaker started out very slow. In dystopian novels, I like a slow integration into the world instead of a hard dive right in that leaves me confused for the first couple of pages, which is what happened in this novel. It did pick up though, and one of the things Bacigalupi is most effective at doing in Shipbreaker is raising the stakes and tension through high action. There were several scenes where my heart was racing and I couldn't stop reading in fear of what would happen to Nailer on the next page. The action was well-described, though the stakes were almost always a life-or-death situation. I would've liked to see a little more at stake for Nailer besides his life every single time.

The thing that feel horribly flat for me in Shipbreaker was character development, which was disappointing. We are always told that Nailer's father, Richard, is a horribly scary man that is constantly 'sliding high' and someone you'd never want to cross. However, in scenes with Nailer, Richard flips back and forth between being menacing and evil, to being sweet and a great father to Nailer. I never completely feared Richard, and by the end of the novel, I could not understand why Nailer was so fearful of him, as we never see Richard being abusive towards him.

Another character I had issue with was Tool. In this dystopian world, there are human hybrids which are half-man/half-dog. These men are loyal to only one master, big, and vicious. At least we are told this, but then there is Tool. Bacigalupi didn't solidly describe in this novel why half-men even existed, and I felt they could have been replaced with some big, beefy and muscular men. Tool is also not loyal to a master, which also wasn't explained, and seemed to baffle me and every character in the novel that came across him. Tool also goes through a puzzling character transformation that I just couldn't figure out. I've heard that the half-men are explained a little better in the second book in the series, and I might read it just to find out what the deal with these creatures is!

As for Nailer, I kind of liked him. He is a hard-worker and values the idea of good, hard labor. He is also the softer side to the duo of him and Pima, and has a good conscious. However, I could never determine how old he was, and I don't think Bacigalupi knew either, because Nailer knew Pima's age, but not his own. He was actually asked how old he was and said he had no idea. Knowing his age would have helped his rationale a little, as well as his desire to be independent from his father.

Shipbreaker ultimately delivered in world-building. I really enjoyed seeing Bacigalupi's version of a far-future America. He also had the work and class systems worked out fairly well. He also did a good job at describing place, and I was particularly interested in how they viewed the world we live in now, and all of the buildings that are now lurking underwater. It was pretty cool to read about New Orleans, a place I'm fascinated with, in a different kind of light. Sadly, the characters, pacing, and predictable ending are what let me down.

Rating: 2 / 5

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, America!

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

I don't tend to think a lot about the freedom's we have in this country, but one of the one's I am most thankful for is Freedom of Speech. Think of all the books that wouldn't have made it out into the world if the author wasn't allowed to write about what they wanted to write about? It's a pretty cool thing, and something we can all be grateful for!

Hope you all enjoy your long weekend. I am back to work tomorrow, but we are cooking with neighbors, and watching the fireworks on our roof. If there's one thing Chicago loves about the Fourth of July, it's hundreds of thousands of fireworks, and on our roof we get a 360 view!

See you all in a couple days with some more reviews!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Newcity Lit Review

I recently read a really gut-wrenching, gritty, and wonderful novel, The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge, and reviewed it for the Lit section over at Newcity. Click HERE to read it!

Review: The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann

The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: January 1st, 1969
Source/Format: Bought it!
Page Count: 511
Goodreads & Amazon

The first book I read of Jacqueline Susann's was, of course, Valley of the Dolls. I devoured the whole novel in a four hour train ride to Michigan, and then wondered how it had taken me so long to finally read the book that had been catching my eye on bookshelves for years. I was entranced by the drama, the allure of retro styles and customs, and the lovable and sometimes hate-worthy characters. I knew I had to read more of her work, and so Jacqueline Susann became one of my biggest guilty pleasures when it came to reading.

The Love Machine delivers much of the same things that I loved about Valley of the Dolls. Robin Stone, a handsome news anchor is on his way to the top at IBC. When the President of the company starts giving him more and more power, his ego gets larger and larger, and the women seem to flock faster. Robin, who eventually becomes nicknamed The Love Machine by the media, is handsome, can drink multiple martinis without ever feeling it's effects, and has some issues. Those issues don't seem to stop Amanda, a beautiful New York fashion model, Maggie, an even more beautiful news reporter, and Judith, the wife of his boss, from falling in love with him. Spanning over nearly a decade, The Love Machine is loaded with sex, vodka, infidelities, and a weird amount of steak dinners.

The pace of this novel was very quick, which really pulled me into reading it obsessively, once again while traveling. The plane that I was reading on could not land back in Chicago due to rough weather, so we had to circle around in the air waiting for clearance. Part of me was disappointed I wouldn't get home as fast as I had wanted, and the other part of me was glad that I would not have to stop reading. Each page was filled with drama that errs on the side of soap opera melodramatics, but was still heart-wrenching and saddening none-the-less. The pace made for a very quick read, though the pace sometimes forced us to miss out or gloss over some pivotal moments. Susann would jump over several months in a sentence, and because of the quick pace, I wish some moments had been slowed down so I could have felt for the characters more.

As for the characters, I loved a majority of them, which is strange because many of them should have been very unlikable. Robin Stone is a man with commitment issues and frequently leaves town without informing his woman of the minute. Near the end, he also starts on somewhat of a self-destructive rampage, and yet Susann built him up so well throughout the novel that we actually sympathized with him and didn't hate him at all. The feministy side of myself was kicking me for feeling sorry for Robin, but at the same time, FEELINGS. Then there was sweet Amanda, who was a little way too naive, I must admit. We didn't get to know Amanda as well as we did Robin, and I think it would have helped to know more about her and why she kept chasing after Mr. Stone for so long. I also loved Danton, the jealous and constantly steaming account executive that must work with Robin and consistently get the short end of the stick.

This book is everything that Mad Men has lead us to believe about the 60's. Easy affairs, high drama, sexy executives, and a little bit of that television glamour. I feel like I should warn everyone who reads Jacqueline Susann, though, that the men in her books will have every reader question the actions of their significant other. I can almost guarantee it ;)

Rating: 5 / 5.

Have you read any Jacqueline Susann? Do you love soap-operaish books?