26 Jun 2012

Review: "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe

Some books  retain their freshness decade after decade, never losing their relevance. "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe is one of those books. It is truly special. Published in 1958, it was written during the 1950s when women wore smart skirt suits to the office and only worked to fill the time until they could get married. Preferably to a man with a good enough job to fund a house with double-garage and school fees for two children. Last year, apparently, the book got a bit of a renaissance because it was featured on Mad Men - however, I found it thanks to you wonderful people in the blogosphere!

Every day young women flood out of the subway stations in central New York making their way to the city's offices. One of them is Caroline, a young graduate from a good college, who discovers that she has ambitions and slowly starts to work her way up in the world of publishing. While working for a publishing company in the glamourous Rockefeller Center, she meets the obsessive actress Gregg who becomes her flatmate, the beautiful April who is as terrible with men as she is with personal finance and the successful single mother Barbara, divorced at the tender age of 21.

As chapter after chapter weaves their stories together into one story, I felt like these girls became my friends. Their world absorbed me completely and as they experienced bad romances, difficulties in their careers and worry about families and futures, I became more and more enthralled to the story. When the last page turned, it felt completely wrong. I just did not want to let go. I craved knowledge of what happened next and the last few days, I have been thinking about all of them, especially about Caroline and Barbara.

It is a story of looking for love and finding instead sex, friendship or rejection. Of trying to figure out whether to pursue a career or while away the hours until a walk to the altar. It is absolutely fascinating and many of the observations are as relevant today as they were then. Like the lecherous senior executive who will grab any female thigh when he's had a bit too much to drinks or the girl who brings even her bridal underwear to work in order to get the approval and envy of her colleagues. It resonates with me as a modern office girl and I found the office politics very familiar, just as the trouble that these girls experience with prioritising family, work and boyfriends is just like the stuff that my friends and I talk about today.

The beauty of this book is in its relevance, in the way that all girls will recognize something of themselves in these girls even though the books was written over fifty years ago. Also it is beautifully written with every girl's voice being distinct and characteristic.

Read it if: You enjoyed "The Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles" or "Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann. You prefer a good book to a re-run episode of Sex & The City.

17 Jun 2012

50 Shades of Boring

The last few years it has seemed like one hyped booked after another has taken the book markets with storm and in a way that is great. It keeps interest in the industry and hopefully brings in people that otherwise wouldn't read but it also means that some genres get put in a box. 
If you haven't heard of "50 Shades of Grey" by E.L. James, I have to asked where you have been for the last few months because this book has been everywhere. Literally swept the globe, invading book shop after book shop and defining a new genre that goes by the name mommy porn. Which in my humble opinion is a horrible name and evokes some nasty pictures reminiscent of Stifler's mom but that's besides the point. The point is that this is one of those hyped books that I can't figure out whether I like or hate. 
The story about it is more interesting that the plot as it were. It started out as a fan fiction blog imagining a heavily sexual relationship between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan of Twilight. Oh yes, someone actually got so fed of with the lack of s.e.x. and abundance of lukewarm romance in the Twilight books that they took matters into their own hands. Well done and a fun idea but if you ask me, it doesn't really work as a book. 
The heroine is a young woman called Ana. Short for Anastacia. She is pretty without knowing it, clumsy and quite bookish - not a party girl. So far, so Bella (though Bella is not bookish, I guess). By coincidence she meets the very handsome, very rich, very eligible Christian Grey who turns out to be a bit of a pervert who doesn't do girlfriends but instead have young women sign contracts detailing their relationships. Sounds pervy, doesn't it? 
In the end, it isn't. Not really. The first book was okay, entertaining, it had novelty factor and I will admit that Christian Grey is quite a catch. But by book three, I was so weary of the same boring sex scenes over and over and over that I skipped them. And then you might as well not read the bloody book in the first place. 
So instead of writing up reviews of all three books and driving myself nuts in the process, here comes the list of all of the things that annoyed me about the three "50 Shades..." books:
  • All of the characters apart from Ana and at times Christian are decidedly 2-D and lack personality. 
  • The ridiculous psycho-babble about why Christian Grey is who he is - who gives a ....?
  • The fact that Ana climbs the career ladder faster than you can say casting couch.
  • The cover art. Cringe.
  • The way it airbrushes sex (no limbs get in the way, nothing is ever awkward). 
  • The focus on all things material - I don't want to know the brand of her shoes!
  • The fact that it is hyped up to be boundary-breaking when really it is very very vanilla (as Christian would say). 
  • Book three. All of it. Every single bloody page.
Read it if: You are curious what the hype is about. You have never read erotic fiction before and want to be put off it forever. 

13 Jun 2012

Review: "Palladian" by Elizabeth Taylor

There is a smell of history, old days about this book - not about my actual copy but about the story. It is not the fusty, musty smell of something old and shoved-away-into-a-corner-of-the-attic, it is more like the smell of distant memories. A smell of a silk dress hanging in a wardrobe, a smell of good quality tea leaves and autumn leaves falling from teas. It is a good thing, a good smell. 

"Palladian" is a governess novel, much in the tradition of Jane Eyre. The poor, orphaned Cassandra Dashwood (a nod to Jane Austen whose sister was called Cassandra and who wrote about the Dashwood sisters?) is not all alone in the world. Her former head mistress and now friend Mrs. Turner has found her a position as a governess with a good, wealthy family and now she has to leave her childhood behind and take charge of someone elses. 
Being a young, bookish, shy and timid girl, Cassandra is not the best suited person to fit into a family where everyone have their cross to bear and their secrets to hide. 
Marion Vanbrugh is a widower whose love of books and Greek has left him with little interest in the real world whereas his brother Tom is so bruised by reality that he sedates himself with drink and sex. Aunt Tinty suffers from anxiety to a degree where it is almost disabling her but which nobody acknowledges. Pregnant Margaret has much to be happy about, her pregnancy, her career as a doctor, but she is depressed and unhappy and snaps at people at every turn. Nanny has seen better days, nothing is as good now as it once was, it is all going to the dogs...
Sophy Vanbrugh, Cassandra's young charge, is a ray of sunlight even though she has a morbid fascination with graveyards and funerals and fears that she will never be as beautiful as her late mother. 

It is a novel that is hard to pin down. Some pages are so sad that I wanted to stop reading, while others are full of hope and Cassandra's youthful optimism. It is beautiful, the words building a little world so full of characters and all of them come to life, none are left one-dimensional. 
In "Palladian", Elizabeth Taylor draws on great authors such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Daphne du Maurier, yet the novel is fully her own. It is a bittersweet story full of sadness yet with little sparkles of humour and love. It is a joy to read and while reading the second half, I was unable to put it down, so enchanted was I with the story. 

Read it if: Your favourite Jane Austen heroine is Anne Elliott. If you enjoy Virago classics and a good cup of tea. 

For other bloggers' review of "Palladian", try:
Fleur Fish in her World

11 Jun 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman - a far cry from fairytale

This is a test. If I say Snow White, which image springs to mind? Let me guess... a young lady with black hair, a yellow, blue and red dress, large eyes, surrounded by squirrels and a birds and all kinds of cute animals. It is the Disney Snow White I am referring to... I have a feeling that for many of us, she is who springs to mind when we hear the words Snow White. 
The original Snow White, however, was the main character of a German fairy tale and as with most fairy tales, there are several versions but the most famous one is probably the one told by the Brothers Grimm in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Though the queen in the Disney version is quite grim, she is nowhere near as scary as the original queen in the Grimm version who, upon finding out that Snow White (at the tender age of seven) has grown more beautiful than herself, commands a huntsman to take Snow White into the forrest, kill her and bring back her organs... oh yes, pretty nasty stuff. 
Snow White is getting the big overhaul this year with Hollywood bringing out not just one but two versions of the fairy tale. "Mirror, Mirror" looks quite cute and pretty-ish whereas "Snow White and the Huntsman" is going for a darker version of the story. 
My boyfriend and I went to see "Snow White and the Huntsman" at a late screening recently. There was only seven people in the cinema and we settled in to enjoy what we expected to be an action-packed adventure but unfortunately left with a bit of a meh feeling. 

The good parts were: 
  • Kristen Steward who adds character and steely courage to Snow White. She is pretty but she is also a really tough girl who takes on the queen and her beauty is more about what is on the inside than what is on the outside. 
  • Charlize Theron as the evil queen. Magnificent. 
  • The dwarfs are cool! They are not cute and they are not funny like the Disney versions, they are hardcore warriors fighting to survive.
  • The costumes, especially the queens dresses, are spectacular and the scenery in the dark forrest is really well-made with a spooky atmosphere. 
The not so good parts: 
  • The huntsman doesn't do it for me - it might be prosaic but I kept thinking that he could do with a shower and a shave... He just was a bit too much of a pretty boy made rough only by grime and beard, they should have gone for someone a bit more rugged. 
  • The enchanted forrest. Dear me... they could have gone a bit lighter on the fairies, not to mention the deer. It was too much, next time stick closer to real nature which is amazing enough without the added sparkly and glitter. Did Twilight and sparkly vampires teach you nothing people? 
  • The ending. Too fast and too little time and energy spent on tying up the lose ends. 
Watch it if: You have a thing for fairytales and loved Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. You want to see Kristen Steward in a role that is a bit more Joan of Arc and a bit less damsel in distress. 

7 Jun 2012

Move over Mary Poppins!

We've probably all been there - working as a nanny. Some of us only a few times, watching kids while their parents were out for dinner or at the cinema, others of you readers may have worked as au pairs or live-in nannies. Or some of you might be planning to. I have only done the occasional night of babysitting but I have a thing for nanny novels. I love reading about nannies, not sure why but I do. So here are three good nanny novels:
"What the Nanny Saw" by Fiona Neill
Ali is an English student fighting to make enough money to make it through university so when she spots an opportunity to take a year out from university and come back debt-free, she jumps at it. Soon she finds herself at the center of the family living in the most expensive villa on Holland Park Crescent in London. The Skinners are filthy rich and as both mum and dad works long hours in the world of finance, Ali is left with a lot of responsibility for the children: two teenagers and a pair of four-year-old twins. When the family's life is shook by the downfall of Lehman Brothers, Ali has to decide where her loyalty lies and fight to separate her own personal life from her job as a nanny.
"The Diary of an American Au Pair" by Marjorie Leet Ford
Newly jobless and with a wedding just cancelled, Melissa wants to make a real change in her life so she takes on a job as a live-in nanny with a London family. Arriving in the United Kingdom with a suitcase full of romantic fantasies about life in London, she soon realises that these are indeed just fantasies. She is regarded as a bit of a curiosity - an American girl - and finds it hard adjusting to a life which is very much led under the motto of "Make do or mend". Fresh bathwater and heating is seen as a luxury even though she gets to visit splendid castles and meet fascinating people. It is a steep learning curve and perfect if you are considering moving to the United Kingdom.
"The Nanny Diaries" by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Manhattan mums seem to spend very little time actually mothering their children in this novel. Instead they get their hair and make-up done, have time for facials and shopping and spend large amounts of money decorating and re-decorating after which they host parties to show if the re-decorations and the new clothes. Nanny is a young lady who works as a nanny for one of these mums. Her charge is the cutest little boy whom a flux of nannies and a lack of maternal love has left insecure and lonely. As the story progresses, Nanny grows to love him and he learns to trust her as they both struggle to survive in a household where a nanny is worth less than a Hermes bag and where a little boy is just an accessory.

Review: "Cityboy" by Geraint Anderson

Ever wondered why bankers make so much money? This book won't give you the answer but it will tell you all sorts of other things about bankers... Stuff that seems too outrageous to be true. Now, I am not one for generalisations but Geraint Anderson, author of "Cityboy Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile" is quite a credible storyteller. He started writing the "Cityboy" column for a London newspaper, while working in banking and has years in the industry to use as material for what is a semi-biographical book.

"Cityboy" is the story of a young man, a real hippy with a German-inspired ponytail and an aspirational goatee, who is offered a job in the city as a stockbroker after a rather haphazard job interview that takes place in a noisy pub. He jumps on the chance to make some money but as the years roll by and he finds himself becoming more and more successful at work, he seems to lose himself more and more in a spiral of drugs, greed and gold diggers. 
Driven by a serious competitive streak, our hero fights his way through an incredibly large number of boozy lunches, dinners that turn into all-nighters and all-day drinking sessions that turn into cocain-fuelled mornings after. On this journey from innocent hippy to disillusioned professional, our hero meets some pretty stereotypical people who all represent a certain type of person that the author has met in his working life in city and they help illustrate the tale of craziness. From the self-made trader with a penchant for stripper and orange-tanned Essex golddiggers to the mathematical genius with no social skills, it is a parade of stereotypes but somehow it works. 

So what did I make of this book? It is somewhere in that strange grey zone between fact and fiction but most of all it is fun. Don't read it for the prose because in terms of writing, it's no beauty - at times it is even a bit annoying. Don't read it for the opinions on the world of finance, there are better books for that. Read it for the humour and the stereotypes. Read it to recognize people you meet on the tube in the morning and to appreciate your own colleagues more. 

Read it if: Your favourite book is "Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis. Your or your partners works in banking. You are a part of the Occupy movement and want to hear the nasty tales from an insider. 

4 Jun 2012

Italian books?

In less than two months, my boyfriend and I will be going to Italy on vacation and I cannot wait! So in (eager) anticipation I'm planning to read lots of books about Italy or by Italian authors but I have to admit that I find it difficult to find good ones. So this is an official call for help! Please please please recommend books that I can read to get in the dolce vita mode. 

So far, these are on my list to read: 

Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes

From amazon.co.uk: "Fed up with cold, foggy London and the high cost of real estate, Annie Hawes is persuaded by her sister Lucy to travel to Italy and graft roses for the winter. The sisters arrive in rural Liguria with some formal Italian, no knowledge of rose grafting, and visions of Mediterranean men and sun. What they find is a town full of hard-working, wary olive growers smack in the middle of an olive oil depression who think these two young Englishwomen are nuts. Extra Virgin tells the story of the sisters' acclimation--theirs to Liguria and Liguria to them--and how they fell in love with a crumbling farmhouse in the hills."

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
From amazon.co.uk: "Saviano has created a perfectly realized, morally compelling journey through the brutal world of contemporary Italian mob life in this ceaselessly violent tale of the Camorra, a network of thugs, exploiters and killers who run Naples and the surrounding countryside. Armed with a police band radio, Saviano visits one crime scene after another, recording the final words and circumstances of the dying and dead. The murders described are savage, cruel and senseless: The head... hadn't been cut off with a hatchet, a clean blow, but with a metal grinder: the kind of circular saw welders use to polish soldering. The worst possible tool, and thus the most obvious choice. Jewiss's translation of Saviano's intense prose flows beautifully from the pestilence and degradation of everyday life in the teeming Neapolitan slums to the futile efforts of the police to control the rich, organic chaos that is the only way the Camorra know how to live."

1 Jun 2012

Review: "The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman

If you have never been to Rome, then please put it at the top if your to do list. It is the most amazing city, a city that you have to visit at least once in your life. In "The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman, Rome is almost more of a character than a setting. It seeps into every line and the smell of fresh pasta and sweet flowering jasmine almost pours of the pages, making me hungry for both Italian food and a Roman holiday.

This is a book where you get more than you bargain for. It is a novel - indeed the full title is "The Imperfectionists: A Novel" - but it is composed of eleven short stories that all interlink and makes the total more than the sum of the parts. The plot, or plots, center around the happenings at the office on an international newspaper. Founded by an eccentric businessman in 1950s, it has been through good times and bad times and in 2004, when the reader is introduced to the story, it is going through what is decidedly a bad time. A new young publisher has taken over and he is by all accounts more interested in walking his dog than in newspapers and businesses and everyone from the editor-in-chief, cool and collected Kathleen, to the hopeful freelancer in Cairo are feeling the pressure.

Every chapter follows a different character and where this could lead to disconnect and to a lack cohesion, it instead brings out the best and the worst in every character as we get to see them from a range of angles. At worst this is interesting, at best it is riveting. Just like even the dodgy, grimy parts of Rome have a unique, rustic charm, even the most frustrating of these characters have personality and trait that makes you root for them.

My personal favourite was Herman Cohen who relentlessly chases spelling mistakes, Abbey Pinnola also known as Accounts Payable, the finance director and single mother of three and Oliver Ott, the young publisher who is as devoted to his dog Schopenhauer as most men would only be to their mother or vintage car. These three characters somehow spoke to me more than the others and I almost cried in the final chapter that features the young and hapless Ott.
Other chapters made my stomach hurt with the descriptions of loneliness and human tragedy, especially the ones about copy editor Ruby Zaga, who becomes someone else and much less happy, as soon as she comes to work, and Athur Gopal whose life changes in the blink of a moment.

This a beautiful novel, home of a range of stories that are like pearls on a string: every single one is beautiful and unique and together they are a piece of art.

Read it if: You long for a week in Rome. You always dreamt of working at an international newspaper.  You like literary fiction with a little more oomph!