Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: Bookminded Recommends

Bookminded Recommends: A book for your inner fashionista.

To get where I’m coming from, first I have to tell you a little story. Really it’s my husband’s story: about the time that we were moving and he moved 25 contractor bags full of fashion magazines. Yes, you read that right–25 contractor bags of fashion magazines. They were all mine, and I insisted on moving them into our new apartment. They were primarily W and Vogue, with some other international editions mixed in.

This was what I called my fashion archive. My husband called it trash. Eventually all of those magazines did find their way to the trash–that is, the recycling bin (many recycling bins over weeks and weeks), however I still  stand by my argument, which led me to cart around all of those pounds of glossies for so many years: fashion is important. It’s worth archiving, it’s a way that we express ourselves, and it has its own history. All of which makes it an important object of study in my opinion.

So, since you know a little bit about my fashion biases, it will probably come as no surprise that I love Amanda Brooks’ latest memoir/fashion history/insider’s view of the industry titled Always Pack a Party Dress. Brooks has particular insight into the fashion industry–really into the whole industry of aesthetics. She started her career as an intern for Patrick Demarchelier, and then as a “gallerina” at the Gagosian Gallery and she moved on to a variety of fashion posts–ending up as the fashion director Barneys New York, before decamping to her family farm in England to focus on her family and other projects.

Brooks has always been impeccably dressed with a twist: she never ignores her WASPy, prep school roots, but they are always partnered with a twist. (Think Barbour meets Balmain.) For those that love fashion, and get a thrill reading about early Tuleh, Louboutin, or Phillip Lim, her book is fabulous–with lots of insider anecdotes (like the time she met Billy Zane and Mick Jagger at a nightclub in Paris) and I highly recommend it. If, however, your idea of dressing up is Lands’ End with some Patagonia or L.L. Bean thrown in this may not be your book–but for those of you with a dash of Carrie Bradshaw in your hearts, you will love it. (And it basically covers the fashion history contained in those 25 bags.)

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All The Single Ladies: Kate Bolick’s Spinster.

The word spinster connotes images of an old woman living in a sad little apartment with her many cats as companions. A woman that shuffles along the city streets with bags that contain enough groceries for a day or two–like a quart of milk, a can of tunafish, and a few slices of deli meat. She smells like moth balls and closed spaces. Spinsterhood is a condition, an affliction, an incurable disease.  Or is it?

In Kate Bolick’s new book Spinster, her jumping off point is an assertion: “Whom to marry, and when it will happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence.” But by considering a group of women–all writers themselves: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton–in concert with her own life, Bolick suggests that there is another script to follow, the one that the individual writes for herself. In Spinster, then, she unpacks the term and challenges the notion what it means to be an unmarried woman and/or a woman who follows her own mind–even if she does eventually marry.

Written in a style that is part historical narrative and part personal history, Spinster will get you thinking–about what conscious and unconscious coupling looks like, and how women commit to and preserve their individual ambitions.
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Summer Reading: A (fabulous) fictional foray into the life of The Royals.

File this under ‘Books That Are Nearly Impossible To Put Down’: The latest novel from blogging duo Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, The Royal We, is an absolute delight from start to finish. It is the kind of ‘dessert read’ for which you need not feel guilty—as its prose is fast-moving and breezy, yet smart and clever—in short, what you *wish * US Weekly would be (Except. It. Is. Not.). 

The Royal We is a contemporary Roman à clef of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that manages to create its own world that is original and wholly entertaining, even as its story is imbued with some details inspired by the courtship of Wills and Kate.

Instead of St. Andrews, readers are given the backdrop of Oxford as the setting wherein American exchange student Rebecca (Bex) Porter and Nicholas (Nick) Wales, future King of England, meet for the first time. Bex has come to the UK from Cornell to further her study of art and history in the idyllic setting, and also to find her own identity apart from that of her twin (Lacey, also a student at Cornell). Over time, Bex’s good nature and friendliness earns her the acceptance of Nick’s inner circle—and eventually she and Nick realize that they are drawn to each other apart from the group. Once they confess their mutual attraction, they embark on a relationship that spans two continents once Bex returns to the U.S. to complete her degree until she returns to London to work and reunite with Nick.

There is one problem, however, and it’s a big one. The looming shadow of the monarchy and its expectations and obligations.

Bex and Nick carry out their relationship in private for several years, until they finally receive the (reluctant) permission of the Queen to be seen together (platonically) in public. This newfound public visibility is not, as it turns out, a good thing—and it leads to the couple’s split. The British press mocks this ‘yankee’ who lacks aristocratic bloodlines—and suggests that she is a climber with designs on the heir to England’s throne.

Will they reunite? Will true love win? Will they each manage to keep some of themselves, even though forces (the Queen, Royals watchers, turncoat friends, and jealous siblings) conspire against them?

You must read it to find out! So, so good—the most fun literary indulgence I have had in a long time.

The Unmoored: Two haunting books about strangers living in strange lands.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, readers meet Anna Benz, an American expat living in Switzerland with her husband and three young children. Despite having spent nearly a decade in the country, her grasp of the German language has yet to advance past a rudimentary level. With her husband Bruno and mother-in-law taking care of many of life’s quotidian tasks, however, she is able to exist in an insulated bubble—speaking only when needed to those outside of the home. And her lack of a driver’s license leaves her entirely reliant on the local train that allows her to find a life outside of her small Zurich suburb. While her language fluency may be limited, there are, of course, other more primitive forms of communication to which Anna does have access—and her nameless malaise impels her to search for connection through a series of ill-considered affairs (even as she goes through the motions of learning in a daily language intensive course designed for foreigners).

And in Family Life, Akhil Sharma presents narrator Ajay Mishra, who suffers from a similar cultural and personal disorientation when his family moves from Delhi to New York City in the late 1970s. America holds the promise of success and upward mobility for the Mishra family—but after a tragic accident renders Ajay’s older brother Birju incapable of realizing the dreams his parents have for him, the family’s screeches to a halt, leaving Ajay to exist as a virtual orphan.

Though both Anna and Ajay are surrounded by family and would-be friends, each is alone, bearing the burden of decisions and happenstance that would seek to define them. We see each event play out in (dreadful) slow motion, as if watching a Greek tragedy with the knowledge of what lies ahead. By societal standards, Anna is a “good wife, mostly” and Ajay is a good brother and a good son–on the outside. But what others don’t see is the internal struggle that each character experiences. They only see the missteps and mistakes that play out in public.

As Tolstoy famously observes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in Hausfrau and Family Life readers see the veracity of this statement. The precise prose of Essbaum and Sharma impresses us with the ability to delicately create worlds that we may inhabit temporarily—if only to convince us that we are happy that we do not reside there permanently.
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Bookminded Recommends: A Snow Day Movie.

Looking for the perfect snowy day movie? Then reach back into the archives and watch one of my all-time favorite movies–1996’s Beautiful Girls (and as a side note, how is it possible that this movie is almost 20 years old?!).
beautiful-girls-poster-2Set in a small Massachusetts town called Knights Ridge, the movie begins in the days leading up to the ten-year high school reunion of a group of friends. Most of the group have stayed in town (running a snow plowing business–ha!), but one of them–Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton)–has achieved some success with his music career in NYC. He comes home not just for the reunion, but hoping he will find the answers to his big city problems in the slower and simpler way of life in his hometown.

But of course his friends are facing the same life problems and questions–just in a different setting.

Featuring all-star cast including Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Michael Rapaport (hilarious!), Mira Sorvino, Rosie O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, and a young Natalie Portman, this comedy is as poignant as it is funny.
Unknown-1Portman shines as the Conway family’s 13-year-old neighbor, Marty, and in many ways serves as a moral compass for Hutton’s character Willie Conway. We get the sense that given a different place and time (that is, if Marty was closer to Willie’s age) these two would be “walking through [this] world together.” Watch this scene for some of their literary repartee:

And watch the trailer here:

Have you ever seen Beautiful Girls? What other recommendations do you have for snow day movies?

NB: Beautiful Girls is available for viewing via Amazon Prime and Netflix.

What We See When We Read.

I remember precisely the moment that my mental images of a book’s characters didn’t jive with someone else’s. The book in question was Pat Conroy’s sweeping novel set on the Carolina coast, The Prince of Tides. My family’s next-door neighbor Judy loaned me the book and for a week solid, I ran home after school (I think I was a sophomore?) and tore through its 700 pages with great focus. I had a clear vision of Tom and his twin sister Savannah; I could even picture the landscapes and settings described in the book with exactitude.

Until the movie was released, that is.

I finished the book about a month before the movie arrived in theaters and I couldn’t wait to see the story played out on the big screen. (As a side note, I think it was actually the first movie I went to see by myself.)

The casting of Nick Nolte for Tom struck me as a bit off. I was thinking more a young Robert Redford or Paul Newman type. But when Barbra Streisand appeared on screen as Tom’s psychiatrist and eventual love interest—well, that really threw me off. She was not who I had pictured while reading–AT ALL.

Even though I had been picturing characters in my mind since I started reading books without illustrations, I recognized in that moment the significance of our own mental images in establishing connection and engagement with literary figures. And the fact that someone else’s image didn’t match mine made it difficult for me to enjoy the film. In fact, when I reread the book as an adult, I felt that Barbra Streisand was intruding on my interior reading world!

In fact, in Peter Mendelsund’s (very excellent) book, What We See When We Read, he cautions against this very thing: “One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard.” Indeed.

Mendelsund also talks about signifiers and notes that “there are moments, when we read when all we see are words” but also points out that “words are like arrows—they are something and they also point toward something.” While we learn this concept in Semiotics 101, the author’s examples are both clear and interesting.

In his role as the associate art director at Alfred K. Knopf, Mendelsund designs book covers (like these) and with What We See When We Read has created a unique and full-illustrated text that investigates the phenomenon of the elision of the visual mind and the literary page. If this idea intrigues you, Mendelsund’s book is worth a read—I loved it.

This was not my casting vision while reading. ;)

This was not my casting vision while reading The Prince of Tides. 😉

 

 

My favorite read of 2015, already?

For the past several years, the first book that I finished in January has ended up being my “year’s best” for that particular year. In 2012, it was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, in 2013, Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire, and in 2014, it was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This year, I predict that Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves will hold the same honor.

You know the kind of novels that you feel like you truly inhabit while you are reading them? Well for me, this was one of those for sure. The story starts off slow—as it carefully lays the groundwork for the book’s framework. We meet Eileen Timulty, the only daughter of Irish immigrant parents. Her father is the de facto mayor of their Bronx burrough while her mother is the long-suffering (sometimes alcoholic) wife that young Eileen must care for. Early on, Eileen is fully aware that this is not the life that she wants for herself and at this point another character enters the narrative, casting a long shadow into her future: The American Dream.

Eileen keeps out of trouble and stays focused, earning degrees that enable her to climb the management rungs as a nurse at the local hospitals. She marries a man, Ed, who is opposite to her father—even more so than she realizes—who is happy with his job as a community college Biology professor, his Jackson Heights apartment, and his wife and son, even as Eileen longs to move up the ladder. When Ed turns down a coveted faculty position at NYU and later, the deanship at Queens Community College, we think that this couple is mismatched and destined for failure.

And when Ed starts to exhibit strange, erratic behavior, we wonder whether this small family of three will implode against the backdrop of 80s upheaval.

A story about taking the long view—looking toward the future without denying one’s past. A story about love, and commitment, and finding peace in one’s choices. This novel had me up at 4 am to finish the final pages—and there I sat, crying—moved beyond measure by the way the author ended the story. Beautiful writing and a narrative that is much more than simple plot movement. Everything works together here to great effect—the post WWII American ideology, the setting of New York City and its suburbs, and most of all, its believable and endearing characters. Read this book—it just might be your favorite of 2015.
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Bookminded Recommends: WBUR’s Digital Bookshelf.

Truth be told, I am never at a loss for book recommendations. I always have some books “on tap”–whether they be in the stack on my bedside table (that was a fib–I actually have a stack and a bin beside it!), scribbled in my planner after a friend recommends a title, on my bookshelves, or in my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. But sometimes I will hear something on my local NPR station, WBUR, about a book or an author and think it might be something that I would like to read. Often I am in the car and will forget to look them up after the fact. So that is why I am so excited about this: WBUR’s new Digital Bookshelf! 

Books are divided up by category and if you click on the book cover, it will also show links to WBUR coverage on the book–either show podcasts or articles. Such a great way to collect all of that content in one place–check it out!

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres--everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! :)

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres–everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! 🙂

Memoir Monday: A book and its film.

Two years ago, I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which catalogues her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And last night, I saw the movie based on the book.

I had read a few reviews when the book was released, but wasn’t inspired to pick it up until one day I held the book in my hand at the bookstore and read its opening pages.

“I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with two many men…As a teen, I lived back-to-the-land style in the Minnesota northwoods in a house that didn’t have an indoor toilet, electricity, or running water. In spite of this, I’d become a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, and then I went off to college and became a left-wing feminist radical. But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.”

And with that, I was hooked. I will tell you what it is not: it is not a saccharine, feel-good book about someone who decides to embark on a “life adventure” with book advance in hand and then write about it. Instead, the reader understands that this was a journey that the author had to take—to save her life.

The memoir Wild is beautifully written and emotionally evocative—so too is its film representation. Reese Witherspoon pulls off the role of Strayed convincingly (note that Strayed herself appears in the opening scene as the woman driving the pickup truck that drops RW off!) and the visual rendering of the narrative and landscape are real and resonant. Some of the flashback scenes are actually hard to watch as they don’t shy away from the gritty reality of the author’s experience previous to her four-months-long hike.

Read the book, if you haven’t yet—and then go see the movie. Both are very much worth your time.
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Bookminded Recommends: Empire.

The nineties were my college years and they were also (in my opinion) some of the best years for hip-hop and R&B. Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Tevin Campbell, and others were on regular repeat on my dorm room stereo. And listening to this album–well, it just takes me back.

So when I saw a promo for the new Lee Daniels produced series Empire, which centers around a hip hop record company founded in the nineties, I was intrigued. The basic premise of the show is this: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the head of Empire Enterprises, a business that has brought him great success. He has three grown sons, a beautiful fiancé, and a business that continues to grow. But he also has a past that threatens the life he has built–as well as a future that is uncertain (I don’t want to give too much away here). Part of his past arrives at the beginning of the opening episode in the form of Cookie Lyon (Teraji P. Henson), Lyon’s former wife and mother of his children. She has been in prison for the last seventeen years on drug charges from back when they were a struggling married couple with three young children and a dream. The only problem is that that dream, to start a record company, was funded with the money from Cookie’s illegal dealings. And upon her release, she comes back to claim half of the company–using that information as leverage.

The literary tie-in with the series is that it is loosely based on both Shakespeare’s King Lear and James Goldman’s 1966 play, A Lion in Winter. Though Empire offers a melodramatic, nighttime soap take on these analogues, the musical backdrop (produced by Timbaland) and the acting (Howard and Henson, who previously starred together in Hustle and Flow have great chemistry) is so far enough to sustain this viewer. The first episode is available online here.

Have you seen Empire? If so, what did you think?
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