Monthly Archives: April 2014

Book review Monday: You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known was sort of like entering into a brief but doomed relationship. At first, you’re over the moon about your new flame, and the object of your affection can do no wrong. Then, after spending some time together, the cracks start to show. Little things start to annoy you. By the end, you feel cheated and betrayed and just want it to be over, already. Then, after the dust has settled, you look back with some fondness on the whole thing, through a haze of nostalgia, and wonder if you were being too harsh all along. This metaphor, I think, is particularly apt given the plot of Korelitz’s novel, which focuses on a relationship expert whose own relationship, in fact, is not what she believes it to be.

you should have known

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In You Should Have Known, we meet Grace Reinhart Sachs, a successful therapist in Manhattan who’s just written what is sure to be a bestselling book, provocatively titled — you guessed it! — You Should Have Known. The premise of Grace’s book is that women facing failed relationships have no one but themselves to blame: they should have seen it coming from the clues their partners were dropping the entire time. This smug premise may rub people the wrong way, Grace knows, but she believes with all of her heart that an ounce of prevention is the key to ensuring happy relationships. In other words, Grace’s message to women can be boiled down thusly: just don’t marry the wrong man, and you’ll be fine. As the book unfolds, we learn, from Grace’s perspective, about her picture-perfect life: she’s married to a successful pediatric oncologist, has a thriving therapy practice, and is mother to a bright twelve year-old boy who attends a prestigious private school, Reardon (the same school that Grace herself attended). Everything’s hunky-dory until a fellow Reardon mother turns up murdered, and Grace’s husband becomes the prime suspect. As Grace revisits her life with her husband, examining what appear to the reader to be fairly giant red flags that she somehow ignored for the past eighteen years of her marriage, she realizes, with dawning horror, that she married a psychopath. Accepting that her husband did in fact do the very bad thing he has been accused of, Grace skips town and takes her son with her, settling in her family’s cottage in Connecticut as she licks her wounds and starts over. Unfortunately, as Grace flees Manhattan, the book loses its way.

I was so excited about You Should Have Known when I started reading it because it had such great promise. The idea of a relationship expert who finds herself hoisted by her own petard when she realizes that she failed to take her own advice with spectacularly awful results (she married a murderer, whoops!) is delicious, and the suspenseful chapters in which Grace figures this out are wonderful. I loved Grace’s dawning horror as she realizes that everything she believed about her relationship was a lie. But the suspense that Korelitz builds is frittered away when Grace packs up her kid and drives to Connecticut, where she starts an idyllic new beginning in her family’s rustic lake-house and begins to fall in love with the handsome neighbor. Bluh.

All of the potential for drama and suspense escapes out of the plot like air out of a balloon as Korelitz subjects the reader to Grace’s reawakening at the lake-house. As a reader of a psychological thriller, I’m far more interested in the direct aftermath of the main character’s marriage with her husband, the dangerous sociopath, and a confrontation with said husband than I am in seeing the main character reconnect with old friends, develop a crush on the guy who lives in the next lake-house, and enroll her son in a good public school in Connecticut. It begs the question: as an author, why create a dangerous, sociopathic husband if he’s not also going to stir up a little trouble for his family? As murderous sociopaths go, Jonathan’s kind of a dud. Sure, he kills the lady in the beginning, but then he makes no attempt to make things difficult for Grace, who’s cooperating with the police, or to reclaim his son, who Grace has removed from the scene with nary a protest from anyone. In fact, Jonathan spends the entire novel off camera, which, in the beginning, helps to build a sense of unease, as if he could spring from behind a corner at any moment, but by the end, feels like a big wasted opportunity.

Also, being a writer, I took issue with Korelitz’s overuse of certain words and phrases. I guess I should take this up with her editor, but someone should have intervened after the seventh time she used the word “unlovely” to describe a building. My inner Hemingway was also cringing at all of the adverbs. SO MANY ADVERBS. Her favorite was “not unkindly,” as in, “he said, not unkindly.” Let me tell you: no one was unkind, ever, in this book. Adverb abuse gets my hackles up. And I know that no non-writers care about this, at all, but I am a writer, and I do care, so it affected my enjoyment of the book.

So, was this book a waste of time? No! I did enjoy large swaths of it. I loved the descriptions of life within the upper echelons of Manhattan, particularly in the close (and catty) environment of a private school. I thought the character development of Grace was fantastic (and, for what it’s worth, I pictured her as looking like Heather Dubrow from the Real Housewives of Orange County). I even enjoyed reading about Grace’s interactions with her long-lost friend Vita, from whom she had become alienated after her marriage to Psycho McGee (one of those large red flags I referred to above). But these things do not a psychological thriller make. I wish that Korelitz had followed the momentum of the first half of her book to its thrilling conclusion. It would have been a much different book, yes, and, in my view, would have been a better read.

 

Stephanie’s favorite things

Remember how Oprah, before she became a full-time life coach for Lindsay Lohan, or whatever, used to have a show? And on that show, once a year, she’d tell everyone her “favorite things,” which were, without fail, utterly impractical, frivolous, and (it almost goes without saying) delightful? Oprah’s favorite things would be, like, “handcarved wooden boxes from Nepal in which to store your energy crystals,” and “handmade planter repurposed from thousand-year old Viking ship dredged from bottom of ocean,” and “handwoven, six-foot cashmere scarves sold by sentient, ethically raised goats,” and suchlike. But most people can’t afford to buy Oprah’s ridick favorite things (unless, of course, they sell the free car they got from Oprah), so I decided to write a list of favorite things for the rest of us. Yes, I’m not a known tastemaker like Oprah, but I do have a collection of Pinterest boards that I personally “curated” (read: clicked on stuff while watching TV), and that should count for something.

Below, you’ll find a very short and very incomplete list of a few products that make my life better and don’t cost very much. Thus, I snatch these products up at any and every opportunity. Some of them may be irrelevant to your life. Others you may find offensive (see item no. 1: dirty hippie deodorant). But maybe — just maybe — your life will change after reading this list. And that’s the goal here: changing lives.

MOVE OVER, OPRAH.

BEAUTY

1. Bionsen natural deodorant. Here’s a fun little secret about me: in some areas of my life, I’m a dirty hippie. And I mean that sort of literally. I don’t wear deodorant. There, I said it! Well, let me qualify that: I don’t wear deodorant that actually works. I read somewhere once, I think, that deodorant causes Alzheimers (the aluminum, and all), and ever since then, on the basis of something I think I read once, I’ve avoided regular deodorant. I gave up my beloved Lady Mitchum in favor of “natural” deodorants that not only didn’t work, but in some cases, actually made me smell worse. Then, one fine day while living in London, I discovered Bionsen. I’ve only ever seen this stuff in the UK, but you can definitely also get it on eBay. It claims to be made from “Japanese spa minerals,” whatever that means, and while that’s almost certainly a load of crap, it actually WORKS. Okay, let me qualify again. It works better than any other natural deodorant I’ve tried, except for maybe Malin & Goetz eucalyptus deodorant, but that stuff is twice as expensive (and it makes you smell like the Stanford campus, which, now that I think about it, is not necessarily a bad thing). So, if you, like me, are a secret dirty hippie who does not actually want to smell dirty, and also doesn’t want to pay $18 for one measly stick, look into Bionsen. When I was in London Heathrow Airport recently, I went into Boots and bought, like, six things of it. It’s that good.

2. L’Oreal Magic Skin Beautifier BB Cream. I used to think this stuff was only available in Europe because I got it in an airport in Germany, and it was called L’Oreal “Nude Magique,” and the label was in French, but guess what? It’s just called L’Oreal Magic here in the old U.S. of A, and it IS (magic, that is). It’s white, and slightly gritty, and it matches the shade of your face when you put it on, AS IF BY MAGIC. I have tried so many BB creams over the last couple of years that my behavior is teetering on the border of clinically insane. For years, I couldn’t stop myself from buying BB creams and trying them, thinking each time that THIS BB cream would be the one that would actually beautify my skin and make me look vaguely Japanese, but until L’Oreal Magic, I searched in vain. And listen, my skin is still blemish-prone and just Irish enough to include a healthy dose of rosacea, but this stuff does a really good job at making me look like I’m not a mutant cross between a sixteen year-old with acne and an old Irish person with a drinking problem. Sometimes I even wear it instead of foundation. I know! Go buy some; it’s not expensive, and it works.

3. Body Shop White Musk. If you’re at all like me, you’ve worn a lot of perfumes in your day. My first perfume was Gap Day, and it smelled like dish soap. My second perfume, a vast improvement, was Body Shop White Musk. Don’t let the name (and its offputting inclusion of the word “musk”) throw you off. This stuff smells so good, even after all these years. It’s light, fresh, and classic. When I was in South Africa, I stocked up on it, because I feel like I never see it in Body Shops here in the US, but turns out, that was unnecessary, because you can buy it online. Oh, well.

4. Maybelline Baby Lips lip balm. Again, please don’t be put off by the horrifying name. My husband actually shudders every time he sees the label or hears it advertised, but whatever, I love this stuff. I wear the “Cherry Me” color and it’s amazing. It’s bright enough to suffice for lipstick, but it also moisturizes. I carry one in every purse (which is doable since each stick of Baby Lips only costs a couple of bucks). Buy it in drug stores.

FOODSTUFFS

1. Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea. I once wrote a blog post about how I only drink Irish-style tea, with milk. Then I stopped drinking milk, and I realized I no longer enjoyed my regular Red Rose tea, and was forced, against my will, to branch out. I dipped a cautious toe into the waters of infusions, and ended up realizing that chamomile was not SO bad (but I still stand by my earlier contention that Earl Grey is the Devil’s work). Then, when I was in London, my sweet friend Yan Yan brought me a little baggie full of Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea and told me to try it. It took me a few weeks to drum up the courage to brew a cup, but once I did, I never looked back. I would now happily drink five cups of this stuff a day. It manages to be sweet, warming, and refreshing, all at the same time. I’ve tried other licorice-mint teas in the US, but nothing is as good as Teapigs. You can get it online but it takes a while (because it ships from the UK). Otherwise, it’s probably worth flying to England for.

teapigs

2. My one-cup coffee filter. I have a variety of coffeemakers in my house because, when people come over, it is much easier to brew a pot of coffee or pop a few pods into the ol’ Keurig than to make coffee my way, which is by brewing one, single, perfect cup. But ever since my dear friend Karen gave me a single-cup coffee filter holder in college, I’ve never made coffee for myself any other way. It’s cheap, it keeps me to one cup of coffee a day, and it tastes amazing. A filter cup costs $5.00. Buy one.

3. Quest Bars. Okay, these are kinda pricey, even when you order them bulk online (yes, I do that), but they’re SO GOOD and they’re full of protein. Since I travel a lot these days, going wherever Al happens to be working and living out of hotel rooms with him, it helps to not have to leave the hotel to get breakfast every day or, worse, pay for room service. So I travel with Quest Bars. They are filling and yummy and gluten-free, and I don’t feel like I just inhaled a cup of sugar after having eaten one. Al thinks the best flavor is cookies ‘n cream, but I’m a fan of the chocolate chip cookie dough. He says tomato, I say to-mah-to, etc. (Note: I don’t actually say to-mah-to).

4. PB2. Oh, hey, did you hear that I’ve gotten into smoothies recently? Well, I have. And what’s better than a smoothie with a ton of peanut butter in it, amirite?? But, being a peanut butter addict, I knew that if I purchased actual peanut butter and brought it into my house, it would be gone (into my stomach) within a day or two, so I decided to mitigate the damage and give PB2 a whirl. It’s this weird, dehydrated peanut stuff that tastes exactly like peanut butter but supposedly only has a quarter of the fat and calories. It might be sorcery. (I’m kind of okay with that). I dump this stuff into smoothies and it even makes KALE taste better. KALE.

WARMTH*

*A note about this category: I have such horrible circulation that keeping my hands and feet from falling off is a major challenge every winter (and spring… and fall). So when I find products that actually help me in my quest not to become an amputee, I take note.

1. K-Bell fleece leggings. This winter, when I was in Bangor, Maine, visiting family, the temperatures were so low, stepping outside felt like journeying into outer space. Al’s thoughtful stepmom, seeing that I was not at all prepared for the winter, gave me a pair of K-Bell fleece-lined leggings for Christmas, and they changed my life. They’re leggings…. lined with fleece. That is all you need to know. I own four pairs.

2. Timberland boots. These were another recent Maine discovery. Let me tell you: these boots are the real deal. You can stomp through snow drifts in them or wear them to the bar and feel sort of edgy, OR BOTH. They are unbelievably warm, and this is coming from a woman with notoriously terrible circulation. My feet DO NOT GET COLD in these. For anyone who has ever hung out with me during the winter (or, in fact, any time during the year), this should be endorsement enough. In case you need more endorsement, please see rapper Timbaland.

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Well, that’s all I got for now. If you’re a TV producer looking to give me my own lifestyle show in which I dole out more advice about how not to smell terrible and what to put in smoothies, shoot me an email. Let’s talk.

 

Book review Monday: eight short book reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews here; this isn’t because I’ve stopped reading, but more because I’ve allowed myself to slip into indolence with my blogging. It’s much easier to read a book and move on to the next than to have to recall that book’s details and ruminate on its meaning. Ruminating can be so exhausting. But it seems a waste to read so many books and then not even share my opinions on them with anyone. So, as a sort of stopgap measure, here, in no particular order, are eight very brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past few months. Since I read some of these in January, which was eons ago, I’ve forgotten some of the details, hence my brevity. But hopefully these short reviews will get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott: A slim little book in which Lamott documents her son’s first year of life, in sometimes excruciating and often funny detail. Lamott was a thirty-five year-old single woman when she gave birth to her son Sam and was by turns apprehensive, terrified, enraged, enthralled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the experience. While the book chronicles some of the minutiae of raising an infant, Lamott also gets philosophical about life, late 1980s politics, gender, motherhood, religion, mortality, and family. While Lamott’s flights of fancy about God and angry tirades against George Bush (the first George Bush, at that) can border on the hackneyed and the dated, respectively, there’s a lot of universal stuff in here about the experience of being part of a family, and the difficulties involved with being a human grappling with unanswerable questions. operating instructions
  2. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst: After reading (and loving) The Line of Beauty, I just had to get me some more Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, The Stranger’s Child was a disappointment. Following several intertwined stories spanning several generations, and somewhat centered around the characters’ connections to a young poet named Cecil Valance who died in WWI, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of the past. Hollinghurst’s writing is, as always, spectacular. But fantastic writing is not enough to save this book, I’m sorry to say. The plot was complex and “layered,” yes, but needlessly so. The time-shifting, often done without explication or table-setting, was jarring and exhausting. The characters, many of whom had the same or similar voice and interests, became muddled together. By the middle of it, I began skimming, and I never skim. Well, almost never. I enjoyed the unreliable narrator Paul Bryant, and I think I get the point Hollinghurst was trying to make with all of this, which is that ALL narrators are unreliable, and memory is a tricky thing, and the past is not a monolith, and whatever, but could he not have done it with a more streamlined and plot-driven vehicle? I just kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.
  3. The UnAmericans: Stories, Molly Antopol: I read a glowing review of this book on NPR and since I love sinking my teeth into a good collection of short stories, I thought I’d give this one a whirl. Unfortunately, I came away a bit disappointed by The UnAmericans. My basic problem with the collection was not with the writing, which, sentence to sentence, was excellent. I found Antopol’s stories inconsistent in terms of character development and relatability, which meant that, while reading several of the stories, I found myself bored and disengaged, despite the marvelous descriptions of setting. There is a lot of good work in this collection. Some of the stories, like “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” about Eastern European Jewish refugees during World War II, are gripping and vivid. Others, though, like “Duck and Cover,” about communists in Southern California during the McCarthy area, left me cold. All of the stories feature Jewish protagonists, many of whom are struggling with questions of identity – religious, national, familial, or otherwise. These are broad questions and provide fertile ground for interesting storytelling, and sometimes, Antopol nails it. But the stories varied too widely for me to wholeheartedly recommend this book.
  4. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro: It’s hard to say much bad about Alice Munro. Part of her gift as a storyteller is her ability to take seemingly mundane situations in less-than-fascinating settings (often, rural, mid-20th century Ontario) and create compelling, emotionally rich stories. One of the most interesting things about this collection is Munro’s inclusion of four final works that “are not quite stories,” but are essays that are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four semi-fictional works form a mini-memoir at the end of the collection of stories and give a window into Munro’s own upbringing and early family life. dear life
  5. Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews: Somehow, despite being born in the early 1980s, I totally missed reading the 1979 classic Flowers in the Attic. I was aware of it, of course, but by the time I fully grasped that it was a “young adult” book with sexy bits in it, I was too old and world-weary to bother reading it. Then, I read this piece by Tara Ariano, one of my editors at Previously.TV, about what the book meant to her as a kid, and I decided to read it, for the first time, as an adult. As everyone in the world who has read FITA will tell you, it’s terribly written, outrageously cheesy, laughably unrealistic, and completely weird on every level. But the weirdness is kind of what works about the book. It’s so creepily bizarre that you can kind of get past the terrible writing and just enjoy the craziness. This book certainly isn’t going to win any literary accolades, but it is going to last, because it’s just the kind of macabre, taboo love story that teens (and, okay, adults) eat up. If you want to give your brain a rest and be weirded out at the same time, give FITA a go.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: My husband’s youngest brother gave me this book for Christmas this year. I had never read any Gaiman before, but as soon as I got into the story, I understood why people enjoy his writing. This story is small, and quick, but it sticks with you. Told from the perspective of a man revisiting the English village where he grew up, it’s a reflection on magic, family, and the fluid interplay between childhood safety and danger. I loved Gaiman’s simple, evocative writing and the sense of magic and promise in this story. ocean at the end of the lane
  7. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees is an interesting and disturbing read. It tells the story of (the fictional) Dr. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist who was arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing one of his 43 adopted children. Told from the perspective of Perina himself, as well as his trusted confidante and defender, Ronald Kubodera, the story traces Perina’s early life and career as a scientist before getting into the meat of the story, Perina’s journey in 1950 to the (fictional) Micronesian country of U’ivu, where he discovered, on one of its islands, people who had seemingly found the answer to eternal life. Perina’s subsequent handling of his discovery and his ensuing notoriety form a large part of the story, but it’s not until Perina begins to adopt children from U’ivu that things get decidedly twisted. The New York Times review can be found here.
  8. The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I’m a huge, lifelong Amy Tan fan. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses are among my absolute favorites, but I’ll read anything she writes. Her latest effort, The Valley of Amazement, while an impressive work of historical fiction, didn’t move me the way that some of her earlier books have. As always, Tan is an expert at capturing complicated mother-daughter relationships. But in The Valley of Amazement, the story wanders so much from the central relationships, and contains so many twists and turns (not all of which are particularly interesting) that I found myself bored and wishing it were more streamlined.

These eight aren’t the only books I’ve read over the last three months, but they’re the ones I felt like writing about, maybe because, in one way or another, they stuck with me (even the ones I didn’t care for). Have you read any of these? What did you think?