Book Review: Becoming Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

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Even my cat, Pokey Jones, liked this book!

Once upon a time, in land called the south side of Chicago, lived a girl named Michelle Robinson. Instead of living in a huge castle, she lived in a modest house on a street called Euclid Avenue. And instead of having to deal with an evil stepmother, she had two loving parents and a protective older brother. Like a lot of girls, Michelle Robinson dreamed of adventures that would take her beyond her humble roots and finding her own Prince Charming. She did that and so much more, thus becoming the history-making first lady Michelle Obama, not only the first black first lady (not to mention one of the most educated and admired, and if I may dip my toes into the shallow end of the pool, one of the most stylish first ladies, in the history of the United States).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are so “unwoke” you might as well be in a coma, you are fully aware of Michelle Obama’s years of living in the White House – her “Let’s Move” campaign to alleviate childhood obesity, her work with second lady Dr. Jill Biden on veterans’ issues, her loving marriage to President Barack Obama, and her challenges of raising two children in the White House under the glare of the media. This is a very compelling part of Becoming, and Mrs. Obama is fully honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly she dealt with during the White House years.

However, most of Becoming focuses on Mrs. Obama’s life before her time as First Lady, and it is both extraordinary and ordinary, which I’m sure a lot of readers with relate to.

Mrs. Obama describes these years in rich detail that had me riveted. Her family was firm and loving, inspiring her to be a striver and excel in whatever she pursued. She writes about teachers who supported her from grade school through law school. She lovingly mentions the girlfriends who inspired her, and are still with her today (even if one standout friend is only with her in spirit). Mrs. Obama discusses the various mentors she was blessed with while navigating the difficulties in the workplace. And she’s brutally honest about these privileges and her gratitude seems truly sincere.

However, she also had to deal with the thorny issues of both racism and sexism, and plenty of naysayers who claimed she’d never make it. For instance, one person tried to convince Mrs. Obama that she wasn’t Ivy League material. Ha, she showed this person, didn’t she?

And yes, Mrs. Obama also dishes on a certain fellow named Barack Obama, from her initial meeting when she was his mentor to her twenty-five plus years of their marriage.

But just as Mrs. Obama is grateful for her blessings, she is also honest about the trials and tribulations she faced personally. Prince Charming was sometimes a bit of a challenge and often their marriage was less than ideal. Mrs. Obama also faced issues with having children, finally reverting to using fertility treatments and later giving birth to her cherished daughters Malia and Sasha. In other words, her life is at turn both typical and atypical, one that inspires and one that a lot of us can relate to.

Now, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Michelle Obama. However, as a book reviewer I realize I must be truthful of my assessment of Becoming. Not to be gross, but you can’t crap on a cone and expect me to call it ice cream. Thank goodness, Becoming is a sundae of a read and truly exceeded my expectation. It’s both down to earth and out of this world, one that takes a treasured place on my book shelf. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Book Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I’ve been a fan of author Curtis Sittenfeld ever since I read her debut novel Prep several years ago.  Since then Sittenfeld has written several critically acclaimed books. Now she’s back with her latest release, a collection of short storie, called You Think It,  I’ll say It.

In You Think It, I’ll Say It, Sittenfeld chronicles the lives of men and women in our modern day, both the mundane and the complex.

In the opening story, a man and a woman (married to other people) play a game called You Think It, I’ll Say It. It is their way of coping with their less than ideal relationship issues and marriages that have known better days. Little do they realize their little game just might lead to dire consequences.

In Gender Studies, Henry elopes with his student Bridget. Left behind is Henry’s longtime former girlfriend Nell. At first, Henry thinks he has done the right thing leaving Nell, for he has enough with her smugness. But has he found the ideal woman in a less “affected” woman like Bridget? Or is he just with her because of her youth, and what he believes is her less than formed identity?

In Bad Latch, a new mother struggles with breastfeeding and the judgmental attitude of mothers. Is she less than a mother because breastfeeding isn’t this magical bonding moment and she might have to turn to (oh horror), formula? In Bad Latch, a “Breast is Best” activist character is a hilarious highlight.

In Off The Record, entertainment reporter, Bridget copes with new motherhood while on a business trip to interview an up and coming actress. The actress reveals a juicy tidbit asking Bridget not to put it in the article. But finding this actress a bit of an obnoxious twit, Bridget wonders if she should put in this detail in the article out of spite. Should she she? Hmm, maybe she should.

And clearly The Prairie Wife is based on The Pioneer Wife (and other lifestyle bloggers) and a total hoot in all its snarky bitchiness.

Pretty much all of You Think It, I’ll Say It is a tremendous collection, written in Sittenfeld’s sharp voice that makes her such a singular voice her generation. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions by JR Helton

In his memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, JR Helton (who goes by the name Jake in the book), visits his younger years in 1980s Austin, Texas. It’s a time of working shitty barely blue collar gigs that are hardly on the fast track to respectability and career success. And it’s also a time when he found himself on a never ending cycle of crappy decisions, which included a bad marriage, toxic friends and family members, drugs and alcohol and educational aspirations cast to the wayside.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions begins with Jake dropping out of the University of Texas-Austin to try his hand making it as a writer. Alas, Jake has to give up his writing ambitions and find himself a “real job.” His first job is a soul-sucking job with Austin Paint and Spray, which morphs into other awful painting jobs working with dangerous chemicals and even more dangerous co-workers and shitty bosses. Helton writes about his co-workers in exquisite detail that they spring to life on every page.

Jake’s personal life is also in shambles. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Susan, but their marriage proves to be more sour if not outright dysfunctional. The only thing these two lovebirds have going for them is a really hot sex life. Whereas, Jake eeks out a living painting, Susan takes on bunch of lowly office jobs, but soon finds her way into Austin’s growing movie production scene where she often has affairs with her co-workers, throwing it back in Jake’s face every chance she gets.

And it doesn’t help that Susan’s parents make for less than ideal in-laws. Her father is a washed-up football star with serious mental health issues and her mother is a faded, has-been actress.

But don’t feel sorry for Jake just yet. He proves to be less than an ideal husband. He’s sullen and misanthropic. His communication skills are almost non-existent. And he spends most of his time with Susan pissed off and has a strangely flirtatious relationship with her mother.

As for his own family? Well, they don’t come across quite some cuddly and lovable either.

And thus Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions goes on-Jake working one bad job after another and making poor decisions, which hound him in his younger years until he finally realizes it’s time to grow up and get it together when it comes to work, education, his substance abuse and to his too long marriage to Susan.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions is a memoir that reads like a novel, a bit similar to Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches. It also reminded me of two other memoirs of poverty and blue collar life-Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth and Ben Hamper’s Rivethead. It is a book written with true to life characters, a compelling plot and richly-detailed dialogue.

And though Jake is a bit of an anti-hero, he is one you end up rooting for especially once Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions reaches its satisfying end, which of course, you’ll have to read yourself.

 

 

 

Book Review: And Then I Am Gone-A Walk with Thoreau by Mathias B Freese

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There is one thing people realize once they come to their “twilight” years. They have more of a past than a future. This is a time when they often take stock of their lives – good, the bad and the ugly. Writer, teacher and psychotherapist Mathias B. Freese is one these people, and now he shares his journey in his thoughtful memoir And Then I Am Gone: A Walk with Thoreau.

Thoreau, of course is Henry David Thoreau author of the classic Walden Pond, which many of us probably read back in high school. For Freese, Thoreau is a muse who guides him during his journey of self-examination. Ultimately Freese is asking himself, not the cliché “What is the meaning of life?” but “What is the meaning of my life.”

And Then I Am Gone is divided into two parts. Part one sets up the tone for the book and provides several chapters focusing on moving to Alabama, finding happiness with Nina, a past love affair, his relationship with his children and his own childhood, his thoughts on Trump, writer Norman Mailer, the movie Citizen Kane, and Thoreau as therapy. Part two focuses on Freese’s new life in a new home, his journey with Thoreau and coming to grips with his own mortality.

Born and bred in New York City, Freese is a secular Jewish man now living in Alabama with his southern belle, Nina, an Irish-American Roman Catholic. Not surprisingly, Freese finds country life below the Mason-Dixon line a complete cultural shock and often has difficulty navigating a world so different from the hustle and bustle of city life. However, it does force him to come to grips with his past. Freese has had success with his professional life, but his personal life was often in shambles. Childhood was difficult with a mother suffering with mental illness. Freese has been married and divorced a few times, and is also estranged from his daughter but is closer to his son Jordan.

Okay, Thoreau. Just what is life all about, hmm? Freese wants to know, You wrote a damn book about it. Surely you’ve got the goods. Now pony up!

Freese has questions and Thoreau provides answers, which often leads to Freese having more questions. Needless, say this can be quite maddening, which often leaves Freese feeling downright pessimistic.

But as I kept reading And Then I Am Gone, I thought to myself. Well, maybe we’re not always meant to have all the answers to our questions after we ask them, whether we ask Thoreau, our best friend, a therapist, our horoscope or a stranger on the street. At times those answers will leave us not exactly happy or more confused than before. Or sometimes we will find clear, concise advice or wise counsel in a time of confusion (especially in one of the most messed times in our nation’s history).

I found Freese’s book to be a true inspiration as I go through my own journey of self-exploration and after year of great difficulty, self-care. There are times I look for answers and feel nothing but despair and at times I feel true joy. We’re not supposed to solve the mysteries life and just accept things are going to be murky. At times we live life to the fullest and at times we are slackers on the couch. we should just live our lives the best we can before we are shuttled off this mortal coil.

I also appreciated Freese’s vivid style of writing. He can be a curmudgeon but he’s also wise, funny, a true storyteller. And Then I Am Gone is a treasure of a book.

Now if only I had kept that copy of Walden’s Pond….

 

 

Book Review: Up All Night-From Hollywood Bombshell to Lingerie Mogul, Life Lessons from an Accidental Feminist by Rhonda Shear

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I’ve often used the phrase “if so and so didn’t exist we’d probably have to invent them.” I’ve used them so often that it’s become a tired cliché. Note to self: Make one of your New Year’s resolutions to come up with a new phrase.

But I don’t have to apply this to Rhonda Shear. Shear is all about invention and re-invention. In fact, Shear is a potpourri of re-invention, a sex kitten who has lived nine lives, and will probably live nine more. And she dishes the dirt and tells her tale in her biography, Up All Night-From Hollywood Bombshell to Lingerie Mogul, Life Lessons from an Accidental Feminist.

During her life, Shear has been a New Orleans beauty queen and a struggling and striving actress who got to kiss Fonzie from the TV classic Happy Days.  Shear later became a stand-up comic and host of the popular USA network program Up All Night, fueling the fantasies of horny teenage boys, grown men and probably a few lesbians. Shear is also a hopeful romantic who found her way back to her teenage love, now husband, Van Hagen. And last but now least, Shear is now a successful “bimboproneur,” inventor of the Ahh Bra and other underthings, which she sells on HSN.

Life began very modestly for Rhonda Honey Shear born and raised in New Orleans. Named after movie star Rhonda Fleming, Shear’s parents, Jennie and Wilbur Shear, doted on little Rhonda and got her involved in dance lessons at a very young age. It was then and there Shear knew she was destined to stardom. She began to compete (and win) local beauty pageants. She also found the love of her life, Van Hagen and together they had a sweet but somewhat volatile teen-age courtship. After high school, Shear got a BA in communications from Loyola University.

After she received her degree, Shear moved to Los Angeles, where she tried to make it as an actress. She got parts in D-list fair but also got a role in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. She guest starred on quite a few TV shows like the aforementioned Happy Days, and shows like Cheers and Dukes of Hazzard. Shear. (But she also had to deal with a lot of #metoo issues from some unsavory types in the age before the “Days of Weinstein and Roses.”)

It was through these appearances Shear was able to hone her comedy skills, which inspired her to do her own comedy act. She spent plenty of time working at some questionable clubs but also did her act at iconic comedy showcases like the Comedy Store. She worked a lot with other comics like Gilbert Gottfried, but also developed a comedy act with other funny ladies.

But her teenage swain, Van Hagen, was still on her mind. Through the power of social media, she found her high school honey and once again they connected in a way not often seen other than in Hollywood romantic movies.

But Shear also had dreams of owning her own business and along with her new hubby, created a successful lingerie and lounge wear company, which after a few struggles is doing very well and is sold both via HSN and her website Rhondashear.com. One notable item from her line is the Ahh Bra, an actual comfortable bra!

Up All Night is composed of three parts, part one is about Shear growing up in the Big Easy, part two is about her life in Hollywood and part three is about her life in Florida with hubby Van Hagen and her life as a successful business women. These three parts are composed of chapters Shear calls lessons, lessons which include: Beauty Matters, Don’t Wait for Opportunities, Create Them and Love Has No Expiration Date.

Is this book perfect? Of course not. At times I found it a bit rushed and not fully developed. I wish Shear would have gone deeper into various phases of her life. At times, Up All Night just skimmed the surface. I wanted more cake, less frosting. Perhaps, Shear’s life would be better served through several volumes of her life story. But it’s very likely her publisher wanted to pack it all into one book.

Some of the advice Shear offers verges on Hallmark card clichés or something you might find on a bumper sticker or a fortune cookie (but then again, the advice is pretty good and I think Shear’s heart is in the right place-she really wants to be there for the reader).

Oddly enough, I found myself quite interested in her life as a beauty queen. This could be because I’m from the land of the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin, where women where cheeseheads, not tiaras.

And as a fledgling jewelry designer with a mad love for Martha Stewart and lesser known ladies of business, I gobbled up her tale about developing her business, coming up with the Ahh Bra, and other sexy and also comfy lingerie and lounge wear designs. And I appreciate how Shear shared the good, the bad and the ugly of running one’s business, how she made her mark on HSN and life as a lady mogul. When it comes to our breasts, ladies, I don’t care if you are an A Student, packing a couple of killer Bs, a tempest in a C cup or a cornucopia of riches, a comfortable bra is every women’s birthright!

Ultimately, I grew to like Shear and her brand of feminism. Feminism is often open to interpretation (not too mention misunderstanding). You can be a feminist in so many ways, and Shear more than proves it.

Retro Review: My Way of Life by Joan Crawford

When it comes to a film diva’s way of life I can’t help but think of Joan Crawford. Certainly she was so much more than using evil wire hangers to beat her kids and being hailed as Mommie Dearest, right?

Well, of course one of the first ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age is full of wisdom, so what a blessing it was to find Crawford’s book My Way of Life, a book written long before Gwyneth Paltrow thought up “unconscious coupling” and told us to stuff vagina eggs up our tampon tunnels via her lifestyle website Goop.

My Way of Life is part memoir/part self-help book. Published in 1971, long after Crawford’s heyday and just a few years before her daughter Christina told us her tale of the abuse she and her siblings were slung at the hands (and yes, wire hangers) of “Mommie Dearest.”

My darlings, Crawford just knows we are clueless when it comes to our love lives, our careers, our households, our looks, our child rearing and our entertaining skills. And she’s only too willing to help because she’s a giver. Plus, she does this with a lot of juicy Hollywood tales and a steaming heap of name dropping that TMZ’s Harvey Levin and Perez Hilton would sell their mothers for!

Now, I’m sure most of you know some of the common sense ideas Crawford pontificates upon in My Way of Life. You’re very own Mommie Dearests probably taught you these things when you were growing up. You should always prepare for the day by writing down a to-do list, or as Crawford calls it “plan of action,” and it’s best to do this the night before. No matter what, remain confident and positive. And it’s a good idea to have your day’s outfit already laid out and cleaned and pressed.

Okay, but what else Joanie?

Well, we should never let our husbands know about childrearing and cleaning routines. Apparently, they can run Fortune 500 companies or run a country, but that can’t handle changing a diaper or loading the dishwasher.

Crawford also tells us to not to get fat and ugly or a man will leave us for another woman.  But a man should never catch his wife without a full face of make-up on or with curlers in her hair.

When it comes to eating Joan admonishes us to never serve a dish featuring the colors red and yellow together. Well, there goes my corn, tomato and basil salad. And Crawford wasn’t exactly fond of butter, potatoes, cheese and avocados. You’ll get my butter, potatoes, cheese and avocados out of my cold, dead hands.

When it comes to making your figure slim and chic, Crawford advises us to never sit on a soft chairs because it spreads out one’s hips. And here I thought my curvy hips was due to genetics.

Scrubbing the floor is great exercise. If you want to go without a bra you should swim for it’s good for the chest. Well, sorry, but my girls need a house.

Crawford is full of advice when it comes to beauty and fashion. Moisturizing is key. Or as Crawford puts it, “Moisturizer is probably the most blessed invention of the past two decades” (Dr. Jonas Salk, “Bitch, please!”)! We should never have our face in a sour, disagreeable expression because it makes us ugly.

Ahem…

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As for our wardrobes, Crawford has a lot of advice on extolls the virtues of matching, hats, gloves, and jewelry. And never dress for yourself; dress for the man in your life.

Did I mention men? Yes, according a Crawford thinks a woman needs a man like a fish needs water. And she isn’t reticent on how to please our husbands. For instance, learn about every aspect of his life including his job (as for you having a job? Well, your husband is your job, silly!). It doesn’t matter if your man pumps gas for a living or is the Chairman of the Board for Pepsi-Cola like Crawford’s fourth husband Alfred Steele. Make his career your career and he’ll be happy morning, noon and night. Also, never let you man know about the mundane aspects of your life. You’ll just bore him. Let him know nothing of household purchases. Goodness, don’t you ever let hubby see that box of Kotex or his testicles will shrink into Rasinettes.

As for childrearing you ask? Well, never once does Crawford mention wire hangers as a method of discipline. But boy does she know how to raise kids. According to My Way of Life. Crawford is the perfect mother.

For the most part, I couldn’t help chuckle and roll my eyes while reading this book. However, I did think it had some good advice on keeping healthy with both exercise and good, decent non-trendy food choices. I do think some of her fashion advice was pretty timely even today like finding your own style, choosing your clothes for your way of life and find the colors that make you most happy. I also appreciated her praise of sex, not just for one’s man but for one’s self, too. She also mentions about the importance of relaxing after a long, hard day, advising readers to put the phone away, have a glass of wine and have a good conversation with people you love.

Yes, a My Way of Life is dated and a bit silly, but it’s still a fun read in our age of Kardashian, and one retro read I can highly recommend!

Book Review: I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi

Maddy is a ghost, stuck in limbo. Dead from an apparent suicide, Maddy leaves behind her husband Brady and a teenage daughter named Eve. It is a wonder why Maddy would kill herself for it seems she had an ideal life. She was so kind, smart and generous to her family and friends. Brady was a devoted husband to Maddy and is a loving father. And though Eve is currently struggling with the difficulties adolescence, she’s basically a good kid.

Maddy may be physically gone, but in the spiritual world, she roams, watching over Brady and Eve both overcome and confused by her suicide. Her death leaves a huge gap in their lives and scars that may never heal. Brady and Eve try desperately to understand why Maddy would leave them in such a heartbreaking, tormenting manner. Was it something they did…or didn’t do? Were there any signs? And if there were signs, why were they so blind to them?

Maddy believes one way she can help Brady and Eve is to help them find a wife/mother replacement. Soon she sets her sights on Rory, a teacher whose fun and happy personality can only enhance the lives of Brady and Eve and lead them on a path to happiness and healing.

Through divine intervention Rory begins to work as a tutor for Eve. But she ends up being so much more than that; through her compassion she helps Eve come to grips with her mother’s death, her overwhelming grief, and her difficulties with her father. Rory does this utilizing both her warmth and charm (and sometimes sassy good humor). But what about Brady? Yes, he is drawn to Rory and appreciates the positive impact she has on Eve. But is Rory a suitable replacement for Brady? Hmm…

And during this process Maddy is a constant spiritual guide. She tries desperately to manipulate Brady from becoming a rage-filled man who strikes out at his surviving daughter. She also reminds him that being a good man doesn’t necessarily mean being a workaholic at the detriment to his family. At this pivotal time it is of utmost importance Brady be devoted to Eve and help her come to grips with Maddy’s death as well as the usual trial and tribulations of being a teen girl.

As for Eve, she misses her mother terribly, and lashes out at her father while at the same time understands that he is her father and loves her desperately. Eve also grows quite fond of Rory and is grateful, not only for her tutoring but for her love and empathy at a time she needs both.

But not everything works out so smoothly. Brady and Even often question Maddy’s suicide, wondering if they were at fault. At turns, Brady and Eve are bitter at each other and at other times, content and loving. As for Maddy? Well, her suicide isn’t as clear cut as it seems and as I Liked My Life reaches its compelling end, we begin the understand the complexity of Maddy, Brady and Eve’s lives and how they intertwined. We also are treated to a rather fun, yet unexpected plot twist when it comes to Rory and her life.

I Liked My life is a haunting tale, one written with grace, dignity, warmth and insight. The characters are both complex and simple. They are people we know and maybe they are us. Fabiachi is a gifted writer and I Liked My Life is a striking debut from a true talent. I look forward to more work from her.