Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

Every once in a while I really need to escape to the fun and fluff of what might be called chick lit.. But sadly, a majority of these books leave me less than sated. The plots are wafer thin and characters are one dimensional.

So thank the twinkly stars above for Teri Wilson’s gem of a novel The Accidental Beauty Queen.

Charlotte Gorman is a bookish lass who adores her job as a elementary school librarian. Her identical twin sister, Ginny, is a stunning beauty and Instagram star.

As The Accidental Beauty Queen begins, Ginny is hell bent on winning the Miss American Treasure pageant. However, her hopes are nearly dashed when she has an allergic reaction and her looks are severely compromised. She convinces Charlotte to go as her replacement, which Charlotte begrudgingly agrees to do even though it compromises her sense of right and wrong. In The Accidental Beauty Queen the Gorman sisters travel a twist and turn journey that opens both their minds and their hearts about the very different worlds they live in.

The premise interested me and thank goodness the novel did not  disappoint. Both Charlotte and Ginny, along with the stable of supporting characters, are multi-dimensional and Gorman girls convey the complexities of sisterhood in a way that is very relatable. They are more than they seem.

Speaking of sisterhood, the contestants are not bimbos or bitches, but funny, bright, accomplished and fully supportive of each other.

And then there is a certain mystery gentleman, Gray, who enters Charlotte’s life. Is he a Prince Charming who will sweep Charlotte off her platform stilletoed feet or a callow playboy who will break her heart into a million little shards? Like I mentioned, I really adored The Accidental Beauty Queen. Wilson can actually write and she keeps you guessing as a reader. She doesn’t rely on tired old clichés that lazy writers often do. She has a clever way with dialogue that is contemporary but wouldn’t seem out of place in a 1930s’ screwball motion picture.

The plot is funny and vibrant, but at times heartbreaking and profound. And her sexscenes are actually sexy, not sleazy.

In other words, Wilson writes chick lit for those who aren’t into chick lit. I can’t recommend The Accidental Beauty Queen enough.

 

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.

Book Review: The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kedzior

When not being ignored by the two coasts, flyover country is being celebrated as where the “real Americans” live, usually by conservative pundits. And to these pundits, real Americans are defined as white and for the most part living in the suburbs or rural areas who define themselves as conservative Christians.

But not so fast, living in flyover country, I know we are a much more diverse bunch and so does Sarah Kedzior, which she sums up in her collection of essays The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

A reporter for Al Jazeera America and residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Kedzior’s essays focus on such thorny topics as race, income inequality, the friction among generations, education, foreign policy, the media, women’s issues and so much more.

Kedzior starts off The View from Flyover Country with an introduction rolling out what her collection of essays is all about, giving the reader a clear idea on what to expect among its six parts.

In Part One, Flyover Country, Kedzior defines flyover country and topics such as how expensive cities are killing creatives and hipster economics.

Part Two, Post-Employments, explains issues of survival, how workers are paying a steep price, zilch opportunities and how sometimes these issues make people do extreme things like lighting themselves on fire.

Race and religion define Part Three, where Kedzior writes about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Black Lives Matter, and what happened in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown being gunned down by police.

In Part Four Kedzior examines the broken promise of a higher education, and how school debt has crippled countless smart, hard-working and talented graduates. She also decries the deplorable pay of adjunct professors who work tirelessly to educate our students.

Part Five is a careful examination of our media and how gaining access seems to be only available to the well-connected elite (don’t I know it!) and the problem of fringe media in the Internet age.

Foreign policy makes up Part Six when it comes to gender, Edward Snowden, the situation in Iraq and basic human rights.

Finally, Kedzior sums things up with a standout essay on the importance of complaining. If people didn’t complain, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, black people would still be at the back of the bus, and gay people wouldn’t be able to marry those they love.

While reading The View Flyover Country, I marked several pages with post-it notes and wrote down some key quotes and passages in my well-worn notebook. Kedzior writes in a down-to-earth way with smarts and clarity. She truly cares about these issues and implores us to also care about them.

The View from Flyover Country is a treasure of a book and is ideal for both the college classroom and book discussion groups everywhere.

I Read It So You Don’t Have To: How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

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Whenever I write a book review I remind myself an actual human being wrote this book-remember to be empathetic in your review, be fair, be firm.

But when it comes to Cat Marnell’s memoir How To Murder Your Life…well, screw being nice. As the kids say, “I can’t even.”

Now I’m a pretty caring and compassionate person, especially when it comes to someone in a cruel grip of addiction and mental health issues. I’ve read countless books about people dealing with these issues and I know people in real life who have dealt with these issues. And have offered an open-mind and a shoulder to cry on to them.

Knowing a smidge about Marnell due to my interest and experience in both fashion and media I picked up How to Murder Your Life thinking it would be a book about a young woman’s harrowing journey through addiction while trying to make a living in two very challenging industries while also dealing with personal issues like family, education, friends, love and various mundane tasks like paying the bills and making sure the fridge is full.

I thought How To Murder Your Life would convey how Marnell finally realized she had a problem and had a someone or several someones intervene and tell her she needs to get help. I thought it would be a tale of Marnell agreeing to get help, go to rehab and at turns deal with breakthroughs and breakdowns finally arriving on some type of sobriety and doing everything in her power to stay that way. I expected wisdom, clarity, vulnerability and redemption. I was at the very least, hoping for a well-written book.

I got none of these things.

Marnell grew up posh and privileged in the DC area. Her family is both loving and at times infuriating. Marnell, as a child, seems to be silly, fun, creative and like any kid, a bit of a handful. Well, aren’t we all? From a very young age Marnell is interested in the fashion/beauty industry and develops a passion for magazines, going to the point of creating her own ‘zine.

When she reaches her teens she decides to attend boarding school and soon after goes into a tailspin, some of it where she is truly a victim (she loses her virginity to what seems to be date rape), but most of it where she is a willing and enthusiastic participant. Lazy, obnoxious, and fully entitled, Marnell barely graduates high school, can’t quite get into a proper college and gets addicted to various substances thinking it makes her dangerous, edgy and glamorous like she’s the Edie Sedgwick of the modern age.

But despite her lack of education, talent and mastery of anything other than taking an alphabet of any drug she comes across, Marnell gets an enviable gig working for Lucky magazine. Much of her easy entry is due to being privileged, white, thin and spoiled and well-connected. Granted, this isn’t exactly rare in the world of media and fashion.

Thus, Marnell continues to be a complete trainwreck, professionally, personally and romantically. From her early days with Lucky to later on where Marnell is working for the website xoJane under the “legendary” Jane Pratt.

Drugged out her gourd, Marnell’s life is a collection of missed deadlines and missed periods. But instead of being horrified by her life, she seems almost proud. And sadly, she is coddled by nearly everyone in her realm and as How to Murder Your Life reaches its conclusion, Marnell is still a fucking junkie!

Well, isn’t that a trip? Is How to Murder Your Life well-written? No. Marnell’s writing is distraught, callow, unenlightened and so purple Prince would probably say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And the name dropping of celebs, high priced cosmetics and designer duds just made me roll my eyes. Your not only one to apply MAC to your lips, Marnell. It doesn’t make your special (As I type this I’m wearing Chanel no. 5. Yes, you may touch the hem of my ancient Limited sweater).

Fortunately, there are countless on books about drug addiction that are worthy of your time. How to Murder Your Life is clearly not one of them.

 

 

Book Review: Popular-Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Care Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein

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“Popular!
You’re gonna be popular!
I’ll teach you the proper ploys
When you talk to boys
Little ways to flirt and flounce
I’ll show you what shoes to wear
How to fix your hair
Everything that really countsTo be popular
I’ll help you be popular!
You’ll hang with the right cohorts
You’ll be good at sports
Know the slang you’ve got to know
So let’s start
‘Cause you’ve got an awfully long way to go”

-Popular from the musical Wicked

The word popular, one that must send shivers down most of our tailbones. It’s one of those words that take us back to our teen years when popularity was everything. And whether you were part of the “in-crowd,” a rejected outsider or somewhere in-between, the concept of popularity probably still affects you even though high school is now in the review mirror of life.

And that’s why Mitch Prinstein’s take on popularity is such an interesting and informative read with his book Popular-Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Care Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.

According to Prinstein we are most likely familiar with two types of popular. On type of popularity is based mostly on wealth, status and fame. Back in high school the most popular kids were the athletes and the cheerleaders. Today this type of popularity is best portrayed by people like President Trump and reality stars like the Kardashians or world famous celebrities like Taylor Swift or Kanye West. This popularity is considered controversial because even though these people have their admirers, they  often quite detested and often, deservedly so.

And then there is another kind of popularity based on actual likability, wealth, status and fame notwithstanding. To me, these include people like the Pope, President and Mrs. Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and so on. Sure, these people have their share of “haters,” but for the most part, these people are admired for their contributions to society. Wealth, status and fame are a by-product.

Of course, looking back at high school a lot of the athletes and cheerleaders were completely likable. And I don’t hate the Kardashians as individuals, I’m just not fond of them as a concept…but I digress.

In the book Popular Prinstein goes to great lengths to explain how popularity affects us personally and professionally, especially in the age of social media, where far too many of us are too dependent of followers, likes, retweets and so on to assess our worthiness.

To get us past the digital high school halls of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, Prinstein offers compassionate ideas on how to be genuinely likable that will bring us true happiness and gratification and will affect society in a positive way.

Prinstein also doesn’t shy away on how not being popular in both childhood and adulthood can leave scars and how people can heal, whether they have experienced moments of neglect or rejection during those unpopular moments.

In Popular, Prinstein uses studies, interviews and other assorted methods of research to write about popularity in an audience-friendly way. He also asks readers carefully chosen questions on how on how popularity affects one’s sense of self. Popular has its academic moments, but is never dry and boring. It took me only a couple of days to read Popular and it’s still food for thought, especially when I get hung up on how many followers I have on Twitter.

I especially recommend Popular to parents and teachers.

 

Book Review: Shrill-Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve been a fan of writer Lindy West since her Jezebel.com days. Whether she was writing about pop culture or social issues, I found her writing voice to witty and wise,  a welcome relief from tiresome clickbait and lazy listicles.

So it was a thrill to read West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud woman.

Growing up,  West was nerdy, shy and fat, not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, she was able to find success, both professionally and personally, once she became an adult and found her voice.

And though her voice brought her admirers it also brought her haters,  mostly obnoxious trolls.

You see West is a woman with an opinion. She’s also fat. How dare she!

Through her feature articles and opinion pieces, West expressed her disdain for rape jokes and the struggles with body shaming. In response, she often faced horrific comments telling her she should be raped and ripped her apart for not being a tiny size two.

West fully describes in Shrill what it was like to be caught up in hail storm of hatred. It was a time of loneliness and tears,  vulnerability and anger, but it was also a time where West found support, decency, empathy and a the will to go on as a writer and just person trying to live her life

But in the end West triumphed. She triumphed so much a troll even reached out to her to apologize.

Today, West is having the last laugh. Shrill is gaining lots of praise, including praise from two of my faves, Caitlin Moran and Samantha Irby. Now based in Seattle West now writes for GQ,  The Guardian,, and other assorted highly respected publications. She founded the advice blog for teenagers called I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault. West is also blessed with a loving family and a happy marriage. Hmm, maybe being shrill isn’t such a bad thing.

Though Shrill is West’s story, it’s also the story of every woman with an opinion and  one who doesn’t fit into our society’s slender notion on how to behave…and look like. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.