When Life Gives You Lululemons

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Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of Lauren Weisberger’s novel, When Life Gives You Lululemons, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Emily Charlton has left her job as Miranda Priestly’s assistant and is making a name for herself in Hollywood, working as an image consultant. When she loses a few high-profile clients  to a much younger ( and trendier) competitor, Emily heads to the suburbs of Connecticut to take refuge in the home of her dearest friend, Miriam. Miriam’s life as a suburban mom is completely different from Emily’s fast-paced lifestyle. While in Connecticut, Emily gets a career lead, when Miriam’s friend Karolina, a former super-model and wife to a Senator, becomes involved in a front-page scandal. Emily soon realizes that Karolina’s situation may have a sinister side. Can Emily survive living in the suburbs, while she works to repair Karolina’s tarnished reputation?

LIKE-Emily Charlton is one of the most entertaining characters in Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada,and I was thrilled to see her as a main character in When Life Gives You Lululemons. This isn’t a sequel, but a stand-alone book that you can definitely read without having read Prada, but fans will be excited for the return of both Charlton and the devil herself, Miranda Priestly.

When Life Gives You Lululemonshas a solid cast of three strong female leads. I felt the most sympathy for Karolina, who faces severe judgement in the public eye for a crime that she didn’t commit. The fact that she is both rich and beautiful, seems to give others the freedom to be hyper-critical and over look other aspects of her personality, like her intelligence and warm heart. Weisberger’s novels often deal with themes of celebrity, serving to push-back against the way society both obsesses and criticizes those in the public eye. Karolina’s situation is a sad one, made more so by the fact that her step-son, whom she adores and has raised for many years, is taken from her during the scandal.

Weisberger has a knack for clever titles. I enjoyed the fish-out-of-water scenario with Emily having to spend time in Greenwich, CT.. She may know how to handle Miranda Priestly, but suburban housewives are a new breed of high-maintenance women for her to master.

DISLIKE-  When Life Gives You Lululemonswas an enjoyable read, it is not one that is very memorable. I finished it a few weeks ago and even as I am writing this review, I’m struggling to recall key plot points or even how it ended.

RECOMMEND-Yes. I recommend When Life Gives You Lululemonsto fans of The Devil Wears Prada. It’s also a solid pick for a beach read.

The Gospel of Trees

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Thank you to Simon & Schusterfor providing me with a copy of Apricot Irving’s memoir, The Gospel of Trees, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Apricot Irving was in elementary school during the 1980’s, when her parents accepted a missionary trip to the island of Haiti. She spent a majority of her childhood living in Haiti, with occasional trips back to the United States. Irving’s memoir is about finding a sense of belonging, both as an American being raised in Haiti, and of trying to connect with her father, who is temperamental and who often pushes aside the needs of his family in efforts to help his adopted country.

LIKE– The whole time I was reading The Gospel of Trees, I kept thinking about how Irving, who is just a few years older than me, was living such a dramatically different childhood than my own. Prior to moving to Haiti when Irving was six, her parents lived a simple life in the Coachella Valley, which is only a few hours from where I was raised in Glendale. Her mother dreamed of moving to a farm in Oregon, but was committed to raising a family with Irving’s father, who wanted to make a go at farming near his family in Southern California. The missionary opportunity in Haiti came due to her father’s agriculture expertise, as he was able to help the struggling island with farming and forestry.

Living in Haiti was a complex situation. It’s impossible to not have a place where you’ve made your home, especially one where Irving spent a majority of her childhood, not leave an imprint on your soul. Haiti is a very special place to Irving. It is a very special place to many of the missionary families who decided to move there, many making a life-long commitment. However, the missionaries are not always welcome. It’s very complicated.

Haiti is a poverty stricken country, that has a history of trauma. It was a former colony of both Spain and France, winning its independence through a bloody revolt. It was occupied by American forces during the WW1, who stayed for twenty years. Haiti has struggled for both its independence and to figure out its own government. It certainly doesn’t help that it has been ravished by natural disasters. With all of this, it is very contentious when missionary families, mostly white missionary families, try to help. Beyond race, there is also an obvious class issue. The missionary families may be giving up a lot of comforts while in Haiti and they may be considered poor (as was Irving’s family) back in America, but when compared to most of the Haitians, they are very well-off. Simply living in the missionary homes gives them comforts and safety that the Haitians do not have. Also, they can always leave. Irving does a solid job of explaining Haiti’s history and way it impacted the island.

Irving struggles with the poverty she witnesses and the realization that she is privileged. She feels an enormous sense of guilt, even from a young age, over this realization. Haiti is very much her home, but she also knows that she is an outsider. Her Haiti is not the same Haiti of the Haitians.

Irving’s father is a complex and difficult man. He has high expectations for his daughters that are difficult to meet and it seems that his expectations are amplified, when he is in Haiti, a place with so much need. They live in close proximity to an orphanage and her father takes a shine to an infant named Ti Marcel. Ti Marcel is a miracle baby, rebounding from near death. Ti Marcel becomes part of Irving’s household and the attention that her father gives to the infant creates a lot of jealousy in Irving. Ti Marcel will later be taken in by her own family members and moved far away. Irving’s father orchestrates visits to see Ti Marcel as she grows up, visits that are filled with tension and awkwardness. Even Irving’s mother felt jealous towards the attention her husband paid toward Ti Marcel. For her part, Ti Marcel does not remember the family that took care of her as an infant and the visits from this white missionary family are strange. Ti Marcel made a huge impact on the dynamics of Irving’s family, but she does not really understand it.

On a personal note, I visited Haiti in 2008, while on a Royal Caribbean cruise. RC has a private beach on the island, which they bring cruisers for day trips. It’s is the most pristine and gorgeous beach that I’ve ever visited. It’s paradise. It’s also mostly isolated from the rest of the island and the Haitians. Really, we could have been anywhere and it didn’t feel like we were on Haiti.

We did a jet ski excursion and in the middle of the excursion, while we were as far away from the beach as possible, our guide had us stop. An elderly Haitian man paddled out to us in a canoe. He was rake thin, missing both legs and nearly all of his teeth. Our guide, a local, waited as the man made the rounds to sell inexpensive jewelry and other small crafts. Everyone bought something and it was a very uncomfortable experience. I’m pretty sure that RC did not authorize this aspect of the excursion, as it seemed that they were making all efforts to keep us as isolated from Haiti as possible. The day at the beach was carefully orchestrated. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Haiti. This isn’t an excuse, but a fact. Now, I feel really uncomfortable knowing that I was enjoying an amazing, luxurious day at the beach, while extreme poverty was a stones throw away. I can’t think of my wonderful vacation memoirs, without wondering at what expense it was to the locals. I can’t get the elderly man in the canoe out of my mind. I’m sure that in some respects the tourism helps the local economy and is welcomed, but I’m more thinking that it’s wrong to visit a country in such a limited capacity. It’s  a facade to keep the tourists happy. Reading The Gospel of Treeshas started to breakdown that facade.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Irving’s memoir is heartfelt, compelling, and thought-provoking.

RECOMMEND– Yes! The Gospel of Treesis one of the best memoirs that I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a wonderful blend of Irving’s experiences with historical information regarding Haiti. I gained deeper insight into the long-term ramifications of colonialism and of the complex issues that Haiti continues to face.

Hello, Sunshine

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Thank You to Simon and Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Laura Dave’s novel, Hello, Sunshine, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Sunshine Mackenzie is a rising star in the world of social media chefs. She is on the brink of transitioning from Youtube videos to a high-scale production show on The Food Network. The only problem is Sunshine is not the image that she has created. She is not a farmer’s daughter and did not grow up in the rural south. She can’t even really cook. Just as her star is rising, her secret is exposed. Not only is the truth about her background revealed, but she is also caught having an affair with her producer, ruining her marriage. In the cutthroat world of social media celebrity, who has it out for Sunshine? Now that her world has been destroyed, can Sunshine rise from the rubble?

LIKE– I liked Dave’s snappy writing and colorful characters. I liked that the plot wasn’t completely predictable; for example, Sunshine’s life is complicated and the complications do not have simple resolutions. Hello, Sunshine has a strong message regarding social media and will give readers pause with regard to their own uses for social media. A few times, there is mention of characters taking posed, perfected shots for Instagram. These are pictures that don’t truly reflect their reality with accompanied falsified hashtags. Maybe I’m jaded, but I think most people engage in this behavior to an extent. Reading Hello, Sunshine has made think before I post. Am I reflecting the real me?

Sunshine’s life when she returns to Montauk and works for a high-end restaurant is entertaining. I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the back house of a fine dining restaurant. Chef Z is a fabulous crank!

DISLIKE–  There was a lot of plot crammed into the story making it feel rushed. For example, the start of the novel was a flurry of characters, the employees in Sunshine’s world, and it was on onslaught that was a struggle to track. I wish there had been more development between Sunshine and her niece, Sammy. I loved their growing relationship.

RECOMMEND- Yes. Hello, Sunshine is the epitome of a chick-lit/beach read. I’m not sure that I ever understood the concept of this until having my step-kids visit for the summer. The distraction of reading with kids around, makes me gravitate to novels like Hello, Sunshine. I’m not saying that Dave’s novel is lacking depth, only that it is written in a style that is easy to digest in small chunks and doesn’t require a quiet reading space. I’d definitely recommend Hello, Sunshine as a vacation read and I look forward to reading more of Dave’s novels.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Carolyn Murnick’s book, The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Carolyn Murnick and Ashley Ellerin were childhood best friends growing up in New Jersey during the 1980’s. They were inseparable as children, but when they became adults, their lives went drastically different directions. Murnick moved to New York City and lived in a tiny railroad apartment, while starting a career in journalism. Ellerin moved to Los Angeles and lived in a Hollywood Hills home with the money she earned as a stripper. She went to wild parties and dated celebrity Ashton Kutcher.

The last time Murnick saw her friend, they struggled to regain their connection. They were still friends, but had clearly drifted apart. A year later, Ellerin would be murdered, stabbed forty-seven times in her Hollywood home.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is Murnick’s examination of her friendship with Ellerin and her coming to terms with never quite knowing what happened to her best friend. Murnick attends the trial of Michael Gargiulo, the accused murderer, and becomes obsessed with finding out not only why Ellerin was murdered, but who Ellerin had become prior to her death.

LIKEThe Hot One is a compelling blend of memoir and true crime. With so much information readily available on the internet, Murnick falls down a rabbit hole when trying to figure out what happened to Ellerin. I found this quest to be highly relatable. I’ve had my own unsolved life mysteries (none anywhere near as dramatic as a murder!), but issues that no amount of research can resolve, yet ones that are impossible to let go. I felt connected to Murnick’s obsession and with the hold it had on her.

Even though I lived about fifteen minutes from the murder scene, I don’t remember hearing about this case in the news. It’s gruesome and horrific. Murnick does not spare details. I think the most chilling part is when Murnick decides to visit the crime scene and she stands across the street from Ellerin’s house, in a dog park. Gargiulo had a pitbull that he would take to the dog park and from the dog park, there was the perfect vantage point to spy on Ellerin. Murnick mentions that Gargiulo would have been able to see right into her bathroom. He stalked and hunted her. Other creepy patterns from Garguilo, based on all of his victims, is he liked to pose them and he committed the murders when he had a high chance of being caught, for the thrill. One woman managed to fend him off as he was stabbing her and lived, although she couldn’t positively identify him. Garguilo isn’t a random attacker either, he was Ellerin’s handyman and beyond working at her house, he managed to get himself invited over for social events. Murnick really sets the stage by explaining how she imagined Garguilo hunting Ellerin, waiting for the right moment to strike. It gave me the chills.

DISLIKE– Only that the point in which the memoir ends, does not give us resolution with regard to Gargiulo’s trial. I suppose this mirrors Murnick’s inability to have her own questions answered, but it also makes me wonder if she should have waited to tell this story. It was disappointing to not have this resolution.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you like true crime and memoir, The Hot One is a compelling read.

A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life

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Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advanced copy of Lauren Marks’ memoir, A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Lauren Marks is just twenty-seven years old, when she suffers a brain aneurysm while karaoking at a dive bar with friends in Edinburgh. She is rushed to a hospital in Scotland and her parents catch the first flight from California to be with her, unsure if she will survive the emergency operation. Marks does survive, and in A Stitch of Time, she chronicles her recovery. Until her aneurysm, Marks was an actress and writer, her keen ability with language was a huge part of her personality. Post aneurysm, Marks has Aphasia, making it difficult for her to understand or express herself through language. Through rehabilitation, Marks is able to recover her use of language, but her life and dreams are forever altered.

LIKE -Early on in her rehabilitation, Marks had the foresight to keep a journal and document her progress. Some of what she writes is incoherent and it’s rampant with misspellings, however, it  offers a glimpse into the way her brain has been affected by Aphasia, and it’s clear that through hard work, she has regained much of her language abilities.

I was shocked when she mentioned that many doctors think that a patient has six months maximum after their accident, to regain their language, and after that time, they likely won’t have significant progress. Marks is proof that this time marker doesn’t mean much. As she mentions, and I’m inclined to believe, the six months seems to be more in line with money and insurance payments, rather than what is best for the patient. It hurt my heart to read about Marks’ struggle with getting her insurance company to approve her much needed therapy and also that she was left saddled with debt. She doesn’t mention this in great detail, but enough to have that heavy reminder of our broken health care system.

I think this might be the first memoir I’ve read regarding brain aneurysms and Aphasia. I have been the care-taker for family members with dementia, which while not the same thing that Marks experienced, it did leave me interested in the subject of brain injuries and how the brain works. Marks does a wonderful job at explaining scientific and medical terminology in a way that makes it accessible for any reader. She also does a great job at blending the medical world with her personal life, giving her memoir balance.

When she had her aneurysm, Marks had to leave her life in NYC, where she about to start teaching, to move back home with her parents in California. She was essentially stripped of the direction her life was heading, and even when she began to recover enough to resume elements of her former life, her goals had changed. Many of her friends were getting married, having children, and seeing their careers take-off. Late twenties is a pivotal time for many people and Marks was forced to take a step back. I appreciated her calm perspective and the way she took this change in stride, even as she noted what she was missing out on.

DISLIKE– Nothing. A Stitch of Time is fascinating and affecting.

RECOMMEND– Absolutely. I know several people who have family members with brain injuries and I know that, A Stitch of Time, would be an informative read, but really, this is a fascinating topic for anyone. It would also be a good choice for anyone who is experiencing a major life-change or set-back and needs a dose of inspiration. Marks’ story is inspirational.