Jennifer Gilbert was only 22 when she was violently, randomly attacked outside a friend’s apartment in New York City. In the wake of that physical and...moreJennifer Gilbert was only 22 when she was violently, randomly attacked outside a friend’s apartment in New York City. In the wake of that physical and mental assault, Gilbert was forced to reconcile the fact that someone tried to kill her with the knowledge that he didn’t succeed — and that she must find a way to move forward. Piece by piece, inch by inch.
Sound like the plot of terrifying movie? Yeah. It basically was. Gilbert’s I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events — the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t is the story of her tumultuous twenties, the aftermath of the attack and her rise to eventual success as an event planner, entrepreneur and mother. It’s filled with hardship and heartbreak, love and loss, humor and devastation — and through it all: determination. The one thing Gilbert’s attacker couldn’t steal.
Here’s the thing: I don’t generally seek out survivor’s stories. Not because I’m disinterested, cold-hearted; not because I don’t feel for others and hope for their recovery. Mostly because I’m a skittish, empathetic reader with an active imagination. If I read about it in a book, it’s not a huge leap to imagine these terrible things happening to me. And when they’re written well, it’s no leap at all.
Such was the way with Gilbert’s tale. I felt her cuts and bruises; I ached when she ached. Her descriptions of life pre- and post-attack were heartbreaking. I didn’t pick up the memoir with a clear understanding of what happened to her — only that she had a great adversity to overcome on her path to becoming a successful business owner. That aspect appealed to me: the one-woman show. The tough, don’t-tell-me-no female founder. It’s what prompted me to pick up I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, and the attack hit me like a wrecking ball. I didn’t see it coming.
But Gilbert’s story is not a tragedy. She’s honest about her feelings following her near-death experience: the fear and anxiety and chaos that encircled her life after 1991. She doesn’t sugarcoat things, doesn’t smooth them over. But when circumstances really start to get her down, Gilbert pulls herself up by those metaphorical bootstraps and digs in. She refuses to be a victim; she doesn’t want others to know her story. After her physical wounds heal, the details of her attack begin to fade — and aren’t dragged out for every newcomer on the scene. Her attack is not a party trick or fodder for gossip.
Gilbert turns inward and gets down to business. She becomes determined to thrive.
This story of her road to recovery and path to finding love was interesting and well-paced, and I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is definitely a reminder to never take life for granted. Gilbert makes it clear that she never craves sympathy; she doesn’t want others to feel sorry for her. I believe she held this story in for as long as she could, eventually finding the strength to disclose what happened twenty years ago when her young son began his struggle with alopecia.
You know, I just really liked this book. It worked for me. The author herself is erudite and sassy, confident and funny. Though obviously wealthy, she never comes across as holier-than-thou — and she doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. She felt like “one of us,” basically — genuinely. I could see myself throwing back champagne at one of her impeccably-organized parties, dripping in diamonds, or just see us catching a latte in jeans while the kids are in school. Assuming I was, um, a mother in New York City. But you know what I mean.
Fans of contemporary memoirs, stories of triumph, those interested in the event-planning business or anyone who just craves a good read will find plenty to ponder in this memoir. At just over 200 pages, I devoured it quickly and really liked Gilbert. She’s an amazingly resourceful person, a role model — and this is a book I heartily recommend.(less)
Duncan Jepson’s All The Flowers In Shanghai is a coming-of-age saga concerning a young, sheltered woman — a second daughter — and the unexpected path...moreDuncan Jepson’s All The Flowers In Shanghai is a coming-of-age saga concerning a young, sheltered woman — a second daughter — and the unexpected path she’s forced to take. I fell in love with Jepson’s descriptions of the lush gardens in which Feng learns about life from her grandfather, and his early presence in the book endeared me to the story. From the moment I started, I felt invested in Feng’s future and eager to learn what became of her.
The emphasis on tradition, “giving face” (paying respect) and the tightly-controlled, measured lives of women in 1930s Shanghai all served to demonstrate how Feng’s fate seemed beyond her control. She falls in love with a young, poor man just before she’s shipped off to the Sang family, and the memory of their brief time together — an innocent time, a “normal” time — never leaves her. It’s Bi, in fact — or the memory of him, anyway — that eventually leads her in a new direction. But not before so much befalls her.
Before we go any further, I’ll whip out my ignorance: I know very little about China’s Communist revolution, civil war and cultural practices. While other readers have devoured books like Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, I’ve yet to pick up much literature set in Asia. Jepson’s All The Flowers In Shanghai served, for me, as a nice primer on a very unique time period.
Though many of Feng’s actions seem hard to understand, I feel Jepson did a good job of justifying his narrator’s actions in the context of the era. I was angry at her handling of certain situations, especially regarding the treatment of her own children, but I knew her feelings of betrayal guided these reactions. At a time in which wives were property and a necessary commodity, Feng is thrust into a life she never wanted. The book nicely captured the sense that much of what shapes us isn’t decided by us at all. Quite sobering.
Other readers have mentioned feeling emotionally distant from Feng, and I can understand where they’re coming from — but I actually felt bonded to her through all she’d been through, especially as I realized the drastic lengths to which she had to go to keep from feeling as though the Sangs, and her husband, “owned” her. Though Feng does eventually come to use sex as a weapon, I didn’t find the novel distasteful or graphic. The scenes in which Xiong Fa “visits” his new wife made me feel squeamish and sad for her, but I wasn’t horrified by Jepson’s descriptions. It’s all handled with care.
It might be worth noting that Jepson, a male author, has written a moving novel from the perspective of a broken young woman. Never pandering, Jepson’s accounts of Feng’s life as the woman chosen to give the Sang family an heir resonated deeply with me — and, as the Chinese Revolution spreads, I felt the full weight of its futility. Wealth, privilege and tradition mean nothing in the face of the changing world.
Though ultimately somber, All The Flowers In Shanghai was a story in which I felt invested from the beginning and was eager to finish. Fans of historical fiction, tales of motherhood and those who enjoy peeking at feminine roles throughout history might find something sad, touching and fascinating in Jepson’s debut.(less)
Jane Green's Another Piece Of My Heart was not my cup of tea. I only stuck with it because I was determined to find if these characters would reach so...moreJane Green's Another Piece Of My Heart was not my cup of tea. I only stuck with it because I was determined to find if these characters would reach some peace or redemption, but never felt invested in their journeys. Though I thought I was supposed to sympathize with Andi against monstrous Emily only to "get" what Emily was going through later in the story, all I felt was endless frustration at both women and lukewarm Ethan, Andi's husband and Emily's father, for being so blind.
Lest this dissolve into a rant, I spent most of the book wanting to put Emily in time-out -- forever. The way she manipulated her father and did the whole "evil smile while hugging you" bit was so over-the-top, so cliché, that I often couldn't help but roll my eyes. I haven't read much fiction about blended families and can only begin to appreciate the difficult position in which many families find themselves while journeying toward becoming a happy family. That's not easy. And if Emily wasn't such a stone-cold, selfish brat, I might have felt something for her. I mean, Andi isn't her mother; her own mom is passed out somewhere after going on another tear about how "fat" Emily has become, etc. and so forth. She's in the bottom of a wine glass with no hope of climbing out . . . for a while, anyway.
Another Piece Of My Heart held few surprises and was painful to follow on audio. Aside from the strangeness of having the author herself narrate a story about an American family with her British accent, complete with British slang that would never fall from an American's lips, I couldn't stand the portions featuring Emily's ranting and screaming. The story was so repetitive: Andi pretends to be nice to Emily, assuaging her guilt that she isn't treating her right; Emily rebels against Andi's attempts at said niceness, rightfully calling her out for being "fake" with her, "Emily, honey?" nonsense; the two get in a battle royale; Ethan admonishes the women to "talk it out" or some such and completely ignores the fact that he's part of the problem.
Suffice it to say I was not a fan. While others found the story realistic, it was far too overblown for me to enjoy. I don't welcome drama this epic in my own life, and it wasn't entertaining or enlightening for me. I felt some relief when it was over.
But two stars for Janice, the alcoholic mother who undergoes a transformation throughout the narrative. When everyone else goes crazy, she manages to stand as the only voice of reason toward the close.(less)
Meredith Goldstein's The Singles, a humorous and often dry look at love and its endless pursuit, is a quick read that anyone forced to attend a friend...moreMeredith Goldstein's The Singles, a humorous and often dry look at love and its endless pursuit, is a quick read that anyone forced to attend a friend's nuptials alone will appreciate. When it seems our friends are all coupling up, settling down and leaving us behind, Bee's buddies band into an unlikely group to recall their college friendships, career misdirections and several other catastrophes along the way.
When I started the book, I was initially nervous that Goldstein's debut would suffer from the dreaded Too Many Characters-itis. I mean, on the surface, it seems like it completely would. We're talking a real motley crew of people here, folks, and that listing above doesn't include many other peripheral characters or Phil, Nancy's son, who actually winds up attending the wedding in her stead. That's a ton of people.
It's a testament to Goldstein, then, that I could actively recall every person in this book without referring to any notes. I can recall their colorful back stories, too, and the circumstances that brought them to Annapolis, Md., to see Bee marry Matt, her nondescript husband. Strangely, though, the couple exchanging vows are the ones I felt I knew the least. The groom is nothing more than a prop. And that's fine; I mean, I get it. The book is really about friendship and the links between the singles, not the happy couple. Still.
Casting director Hannah was probably my favorite character. If anyone out there watches the fabulously hilarious and underrated "Happy Endings" on ABC, she completely reminded me of Penny. She's that friend who just can't get her act together and has too many quirks to mention, yet you can't help but love her -- and want to protect her. She arrives at Bee's wedding frightened of seeing her ex-boyfriend, the one who just about broke her; he's coming with his new girlfriend, of course, leaving Hannah/Penny to stave off her anxiety in a way that makes her unintentionally crazy. While I really felt for her and hoped she would abandon the Crazy Train, I couldn't help but be amused. Who hasn't faced an ex with a sense of dread and excitement?
Being a Maryland girl myself, the Annapolis setting piqued my interest. References to the Naval Academy, local bed and breakfasts and Maryland's famous seafood made my local heart jump for joy. I definitely got a feel for the coastal, breezy wedding Bee was going for, and liked that Maryland featured so prominently in the book. It seems like much of what I read favors the bright lights of Manhattan or glitzy London, so reading about our capital was great for this crab lover.
Fast-paced and fun, The Singles takes place over the course of one weekend. Everyone arrives with a hefty amount of emotional baggage, and most carry a sense of uncertainty about where life will take them next. I like that the novel didn't offer easy answers, and things weren't sealed and clean by the end. Goldstein didn't pair off her bumbling characters, having each magically find love or redemption. What was messy did, for the most part, stay messy.
Still, there was a hopeful chord struck by the end that I really appreciated -- and I think fans of women's fiction and novels on friendship, love and starting over will appreciate The Singles. It's a light, quick read that resonated with me, and readers who enjoy short character studies and vignettes will appreciate Goldstein's storytelling and attention to detail.(less)
In a relatively short time, Sarah Pekkanen has developed quite a reputation for her smart, sassy and realistic examinations of women’s friendships. Th...moreIn a relatively short time, Sarah Pekkanen has developed quite a reputation for her smart, sassy and realistic examinations of women’s friendships. Though this is my first experience with her work, I can tell she’s earned it: These Girls is equal parts heartbreaking, surprising and moving. Just as I felt the story was veering into comfortable, well-worn territory, Pekkanen’s plot curved in a new direction. I loved not knowing what I was going to get — and that the obvious tropes didn’t apply.
Of all the characters, I really related to Renee in her pursuit to slim down. It’s funny the way weight can manifest itself in various parts of your life, and I thought her struggles — and what she ultimately sees as a “solution” — were well-drawn. The constant pushing of sweets in a workplace is something I can certainly understand . . . even when I’m the cupcake-pusher. I can’t imagine the tremendous pressure on those expected to look, think and dress a certain way just to maintain a certain “reputation” in their industry.
What really worked in These Girls was the scope of the interwoven plots. We’re not dealing with a trio of single girls taking on Manhattan; these women are smart, challenged and struggling to maintain their professional and personal roles. Cate, Renee and Abby’s individual family problems were detailed enough to invest me in the story, but not complicated enough to get frustrating. Though there were no easy solutions, this isn’t one over-the-top drama after another. Abby’s personal issues with her former job left me feeling a little cold towards her, especially as I felt she’d brought them on herself, but Pekkanen did a great job of creating sympathetic heroines I couldn’t actively dislike.
And Trey? He’s yummy. He’s savvy and paternal and suave and a total Chris Pine in my mind. I think Pekkanen’s overall moral — chicks over, um . . . guys — is a sound one, and I liked that we didn’t have a trio of otherwise intelligent women scratching each other’s eyes out over a man. I mean, really. We’re a little more evolved than that, right? I like my books to not be completely stereotypical and demeaning.
For fans of women’s fiction, novels centering on friendship and those looking for a good hook (each character’s back story is revealed over time, wrapping up only at the end), Pekkanen definitely knows what she’s doing. These Girls is a strong, well-paced book that dropped me off far from where I’d started. And I dug it.(less)
It’s almost impossible to summarize Jennifer Gooch Hummer’s Girl Unmoored — mostly because this story was so much more than I ever thought it would be...moreIt’s almost impossible to summarize Jennifer Gooch Hummer’s Girl Unmoored — mostly because this story was so much more than I ever thought it would be, and caused me to feel So Many Emotions I can barely articulate them all. Knowing it deals with loss and grief, I wasn’t sure how maudlin the story would become . . . but in Hummer’s very talented hands, what could have ventured into sad-sack territory somehow left me feeling enlightened and uplifted.
Reflecting on the book, that’s the word that keeps coming back to me: uplifted. Because even a book about death, homophobia, pain and ignorance somehow left me feeling good. And yes, I’m serious — I think it would be nearly impossible to finish Girl Unmoored without some sort of smile on your face. Because Apron? She’s amazing. And I’m feeling amazed by how much I adored this book.
Where was sassy, bright, hilarious, brave and klutzy Apron when I was 13? Because really, girl knows what’s what. Partly because her mother’s terminal illness robbed her of a childhood, I know, but she’s incredible all the same. After all these changes, Apron feels . . . well, unmoored. At least until she meets Mike, a handsome actor portraying the title role in a local theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Apron attends with her judgmental friend Rennie, a simple girl who comes from a deeply religious family. When word gets around that Mike is a little more than “friends” with Chad, and that Chad is has a mysterious illness, proverbial — and literal — stones are cast at them. And Apron — amazing Apron — is somehow the link that holds everyone together.
I can’t tell you why I loved this story so much, but I read parts with my hands shaking and tears streaming down my face. One particularly incredible moment — which I won’t spoil for you — comes near the close of the novel . . . when Apron retrieves a photo of her mother to give to someone in need. When she passes it over and explains why she’s sharing it, I actually felt like my heart was breaking. Like, cracked open on a broken mirror. And it’s been a long time since I felt like a book was breaking through that harsh Meg exterior.
I loved Hummer’s writing and Apron’s unique turns of phrase, especially when she was embarrassed or scared or angry (“My hair is melting,” for instance). I loved Mike and Chad and the pure devotion they had to one another; I even loved Dennis, Apron’s screwed-up, grief-stricken father, because I can’t fault him for what he does and somehow wound up caring deeply for him. Even “M,” Apron’s mother’s nurse-cum-wifely-replacement, had her endearing moments . . . until she said something that made me want to punch her. And then? Then I was glad things worked out as they did. I also loved Dennis’ obsession with Latin and how he instills a passion for it in Apron, and how each chapter opens with a telling phrase that had me wanting to read them all aloud.
Despite all my crying fits, I finished Girl Unmoored feeling like I could spend another 1,000 pages with Apron. Like I wanted to meet up with her a decade later for coffee, chatting about what she’d done with all that curiosity, courage and intellect. Though our narrator is a kid, absolutely nothing about this book is child-like — and I’m not sure how it’s being marketed. Young adult fiction? Coming-of-age drama? Contemporary fiction?
Regardless, readers, lend me your ears (eyes?): read this book. You will feel human and alive. It’s the one I’m going to be touting all year, declaring to others that this is the book we should all be trying to write. And the one we should all want to read.(less)
Devan Sipher’s The Wedding Beat is, if you’ll pardon the term, dude lit. Chick lit with a goatee. Sipher’s male narrator brings a refreshing change of...moreDevan Sipher’s The Wedding Beat is, if you’ll pardon the term, dude lit. Chick lit with a goatee. Sipher’s male narrator brings a refreshing change of pace to the classic city love stories I gobble whole — and I couldn’t help but fall for the cute, sweet and occasionally clueless Gavin.
This quick read is the sort of story I escape into during periods of extreme stress, you know? When you need something light, frothy and fun. Though the story meanders into deeper issues at points (the state of journalism, for one), the fast pace keeps you moving through Gavin’s adventures around New York — and into the ballrooms of the city’s fabulous brides. Those who love weddings will find plenty of details to pour through via Gavin’s assignments, and it was hard not to get in a bell-ringing, engagement-seeking mood. It’s obvious why Gavin, a single guy in his late thirties, would find listening to others’ love stories tedious after a while . . . and why he’d feel like “a wedding beat” was continuously pounding in his psyche.
Though never specifically named, Gavin’s paper is obviously The New York Times — and his attempts to survive cutbacks and lay-offs felt alarmingly familiar. The author’s modern touches — like the staff’s need to blog and tweet, aimed to keep our industry from becoming obsolete — were interesting and true. Delving into the author’s background, surprise: Sipher is a Vows columnist for the Times.
So, you know, Gavin is basically Sipher. And Sipher is Gavin. And rumor has it James Marsden’s character in “27 Dresses” is based on him — a storyline also woven into The Wedding Beat. So the plot thickens.
If you’re a fan of those types of movies (and I totally am), you’re going to eat this one up. With just enough romance to keep me hooked, Gavin is a quirky but loveable guy — a character you can’t help but want to be happy. Though he takes a few missteps in his quest to find the ever-elusive but unforgettable Melinda, he’s a genuine guy — and a very charming one. It was fun to read a romance from a male perspective — and penned by a male author.
So yes, The Wedding Beat: fun, quick and very enjoyable. I listened to the audio during three days of a super-long commute and wouldn’t have wanted to pass the time any other way.(less)
Beth Gutcheon's Gossip is a whirlwind. Though it took me a third of the book to get the many dynamic characters straight in my mind, I felt invested i...moreBeth Gutcheon's Gossip is a whirlwind. Though it took me a third of the book to get the many dynamic characters straight in my mind, I felt invested in their stories and compelled to find out what happens to them. Gutcheon’s storytelling is non-linear; we bounce around often, moving from boarding-school past to present, but I never felt motion-sick. It worked well: we get the friends’ stories piece-meal, revealing little truths along the way, and I loved that.
Gossip reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Before you go throwing a proverbial book at me for the sacrilege, don’t “X” out of here — in terms of the narrator, Lovie’s first-person omnipresence reminded me of Nick Carraway telling the story of Daisy and Gatsby. We’re obviously being told a story in retrospect, and there’s a sense of foreboding as we move through the years. Though Lovie is undeniably critical to the story, she seems to serve more as storyteller than protagonist.
Dinah is the story’s real dynamo. A gossip columnist with plenty of secrets of her own, I found myself drawn to her character and wanted to see what uproarious thing she would do next. By contrast, Avis — even the name sounds so dull — comes off as the dull fish. Lovie is somewhere in the middle; she seems like a normal, respectable shop keeper, but we know all about a certain clandestine relationship she has carried on. The trio all keep secrets from each other, and truths from themselves . . . and that web eventually ensnares all of them.
Early in the book Lovie notes a historical definition of a gossip. To paraphrase, a “gossip” was one who “stood godparent” to a child — and the “gossiping” would be chatter between both godparents, discussing and worrying over their charge. When Lovie is named godmother to Nicky, Dinah’s son, she takes the role seriously. Having no children of her own, her friends are her family — and Nicky’s life is of particular interest to her. As the years progress, her sense of responsibility for his well being and actions only increases — especially as his own mother seems too caught up in her own dramas to notice him.
Spanning the 1960s all the way to a post-9/11 New York, it was easy to be swept up in Gutcheon’s vivid descriptions of society life and the friendships that shake and shatter her characters. As their loyalties are all tested, Lovie and her solitary life as carried into a maelstrom. The book’s cover — and description — are deceptive; there’s much more happening here than a little friendly rivalry between former schoolmates.
If a book about women with a title like “gossip” doesn’t seem intriguing, I still encourage you to give this one a chance. The explosive ending shocked and astounded me, and no sooner had I finished than I wanted to start it all over again. I knew I’d missed so much in my eagerness to finish. Gutcheon’s Gossip isn’t weighed down with filler; her words are obviously chosen with care. And for a word nerd like me, learning an alternative meaning of “gossip” — and how that theme is carried throughout the book — was fascinating. An excellent read.(less)