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30 August 2013

'Revenge Wears Prada' by Lauren Weisberger

This sequel to 'The Devil Wears Prada', which I loved, disappointed me for several reasons

I did not like this book.  I read 'The Devil Wears Prada' ages ago and liked it.  I also enjoyed the film.  When I heard that after ten years a sequel would be published, I marked it in my calendar.  I was disappointed for several reasons.  I am almost embarrassed to write this blog post because I usually find Lauren Weisberger entertaining.  But my mind was made up when a friend whom I had not seen in two months commented (without my asking) on how much she also did not like this book.  Too bad.  All authors have low points in their careers when a book is not as good as previous or expected.  It is a pity that it has to be this one.

Ok, ok... I am getting around to saying it.

Andy was annoying.  As a character, she was all over the place.  Not only had she not grown in ten years, she may have grown backwards.  I want to state that until she made that final decision about her marriage, I was certain that her backbone had been removed and put in a jar somewhere in an editor's basement.  The ending redeemed the rest of the story until that syrupy reunion.  It just all seemed forced.  Her friends and persons of influence were somehow measured by Andy with supremely rose colored glasses; so rose colored, she may have been seeing them in a completely different spectrum.

Having said all that, the one area that I liked was Andy's pregnancy.  From beginning to end it felt real and not glossed.  The pregnancy was unexpected and many women can relate to that.  Her reaction to the pressures of work versus her own changing body were true to life.  Finally, once she had given birth and had to return to work, her emotions, her exhaustion and her collapsed body image were so familiar and honest that I thought maybe there was hope for Andy after all.  Perhaps in ten years time when parenthood has taught her the importance of consistancy, and self trust as well as speaking her mind, she could be interesting once more.  After all, when we last saw Andy ten years ago, she had learnt the value of standing up for herself, speaking her mind and acting on her principles.  So what happened in the last ten years that she had to learn the lesson again?

Next is the horrid Devil herself, Miranda Priestley.  She was her magnificent, superior self, I was relieved to see.  What I did not see, were any signs of a premeditated, flawless revenge.  The more I thought about the whole situation the more I realized that any failures in business or fractured and collapsed relationships happened due to the protagonists themselves.  Sometimes it became obvious why Miranda had fired some of them.  Miranda Priestley at the top of the food chain does not need to take interest in insects.  Two small flies circling a rather small cake are not worthy of her notice.  If anything, the paranoia and greed of those beneath her did all the destruction she could want, had she truly taken an interest.  From the title of the book, I had expected Miranda Priestley to have a more central role like in the first book.  She was ever present but often in people's memories, nightmares and shuddering flashbacks... She was rarely active and when physically present, flawlessly professional.

I am disappointed.  It happens.  Not the end of the world but I wanted to like this book.  I cannot.  It will not discourage me from reading Lauren Weisberger though.  She has made me laugh and smile often enough to know she can do better.

Lauren Weisberger 
ISBN: 9780007311019 

18 August 2013

'This House is Haunted' by John Boyne

This book has the magic to expand its atmosphere into your life

This is a signed book I won on Twitter from  ...  I had, of course, heard of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' and both my children read it.  I received 'This House is Haunted' with some concern as I do not like scary stories, but I have gained courage in my maturity. And from the first few paragraphs... I liked it.

I think that there is nothing as melancholic as a rainy evening in London.  Having walked through several rainy evenings in London, I know what I am talking about.  I was put into a cold, wet, creepy evening in Victorian times, Charles Dickens included.  In the beginning the narrator blames her father's death on a walk to a book reading by Charles Dickens.  Her father had been ill and the cold rain and chill made him sicker.  See, immediately I could relate because I would absolutely leave a hospital to go hear some of my favorite authors.

John Boyne's book reads like a good old fashioned Victorian ghost story.  I enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters.  The protagonist had some quirks which made her real; she was grounded enough to be a believable witness.  I had some moments of creepiness, though no absolute horror.  It was the atmosphere and the sense of mystery that I enjoyed.  The predictable evil ghost had an unpredictable enemy.  I won't give it away but once it is revealed, it seems a logical solution to the problem of a murderous ghost.  'The crazy lady in the attic' literary device added a pleasant twist to the story.

Boyne used some of the classic expectations to his advantage.  Just when I thought I knew what was going to happen next, I failed.  What I am trying to say is that formulaic stories, to me, regardless of the evil of the monster, are still predictable and often end up being boring... but not this time.  My glass of wine had to be refilled several times while reading, always a good sign.

What a brief post but I already feel I have given too much away.  'This House is Haunted' is perfect for a rainy evening in the Fall.  I read it at the height of Summer in Southern France and still I could feel the chill in the air.  The evening felt darker and muffled, as if by thick curtains.  In short, this book has the magic to expand its atmosphere into your life.

John Boyne 
ISBN: 9780857520937 

14 August 2013

'I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman' by Nora Ephron

 It turns out I am eight hours a week from looking like a bag lady on the street.

I received this book as a 40th birthday gift from someone I usually consider sensitive, tasteful and intelligent.  I had not read anything by this writer, but I had enjoyed her films so I was excited.  Nora Ephron published it in 2006, six years before she died.  She was not young and she certainly knew it.  I laughed and laughed and then I was paranoid.  I am not quite there in terms of age, that is my late 50's to mid 60's but I see them looming, like that massive tidal wave in the movie "2012".  To my friend, the giver, I will say this... thank you, I have so much to look forward to... my consolation is that you are on the same path.

So back to the book.  The book is about female urbanites I can relate to very much. Nora Ephron discusses vibrant topics like handbags, marriage, flats (apartments in cities), children and the topic that made me laugh, pause, consider, worry... "Maintenance".  Yes it deserves the capital letter.  It turns out I am 8 (eight) hours a week from looking like a bag lady on the street.  Nora says so in this book and after doing some personal math, she is correct.  Eight hours a week times 52 weeks in a year is 416 hours.  Say I have been doing all this grooming consistently since the age of 15 (more or less depending on babies), that is 25 years times 416? That is 10,400 hours of my life doing some painful, occasionally humiliating things for the sake of vanity and social convention.  So far I have spent more than a year plucking, dying, scrubbing, painting, washing, exfoliating, waxing, blow drying, polishing, smoothing, soothing and toning... I am sure this list is not exhaustive.

So back to the bag lady who does not get professional haircuts, dye her hair, moisturize her face or (heaven forbid) wax her legs.  Have a good look because it could be any of you if you skipped it all for ONE week.  "So?" you may ask, "Who cares?"  My husband, Beloved Proof Reader,  says he loves me.  Yea right. That is the same husband who wholeheartedly approves of my sky high Louboutins... and try stepping out in those with hairy legs, dry feet and un-groomed toes.  If I did not care about what others thought, I could step out with my Louboutins and my bathrobe.  Usually, I only care about what BPR thinks and he makes approving noises when I make an effort (i.e. 8 hours he does not often see).  Is it worth it? Yes because I feel good... I hope I look good... but that is another topic.  But it has taken me a while to reach this decision.  At first, I was shocked at the time and effort.

Some of my friends shrugged their shoulders when I mention my latest read and some of the fun numbers in it.  In fact both my über-groomed European friends and the au naturel European friends said, "of course".  Shocking to think about it because after 10,400 hours it is natural.  Truth is that I had thought I was beyond those teenage obsessions and concerns.  Teens can be quite cruel about your looks and personal grooming, I know from personal experience.  But I outgrew those fears and insecurities.  I am a confidant, beautiful woman.  This funny book gave me some serious moments of deep self reflection about the most shallow of topics.  There are some depressing things about growing old.  There are some frustrating things about growing old.  But those 8 hours loving myself (painful sometimes, but love hurts) are in fact a weekly conquest of my self love, love of metropolitan cities, love of my husband and love of my children (who are glad to have a youthful mother)... though I'm not sure this is the result Nora would have expected from other women reading this book.

Nora Ephron 
ISBN: 9780552773812 

09 August 2013

'Seoul Survivors' by Naomi Foyle

Naomi Foyle did surprise me with twists and turns  and the way she captures the bustle of Seoul.

I enjoyed the first three quarters of this book. It was a prize Miriam won in a competition on twitter from ; a specialist science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint of Quercus Publishing, publisher of 'Seoul Survivors'. This first novel by Naomi Foyle is a near-future Sci-fi story set in Korea - which sadly is still divided in North and South Korea - with high tech fashion, sex, underground clubs, robotics, bio-engineering and interesting yet strange and sometimes twisted characters.

Mostly with science fiction, I find myself either liking or hating the book. This was different. I enjoyed the way in which the main characters developed and how all their stories started to weave into one another as the book progressed. The Canadian model, the British fugitive, the American-Korean scientist, Mr. Sandman the psycho and the North Korean idealist are all in unfamiliar territory trying to survive in different ways. And with a huge meteor threatening to seriously impact life on earth ... what would you do?

I did not particularly like the ending though - for me it left some key questions unanswered and seemed to end rather suddenly.  Then again the impact of a meteor is probably not much different. It is a shame because this is not a bad debut. Naomi Foyle did surprise me with other twists and turns.  She captures the bustle of a futuristic Seoul and I can imagine how it would feel. What really bothered me about the last part of the book is that the synopsis on the back cover gives too much away.  I wonder if authors write their own back-cover summaries. It should entice you and spark your interest, but when I was two thirds through the book, there were still specific parts of the story which were 'unknown' while they were already revealed on the back cover. It is very difficult to stay interested in the build-up and suspense of a story line if you know the outcome. Call me strange, but I like to be surprised.  Part of the attraction of sci-fi is that anything can happen.

Maybe I am a special case.  I don't even like to look at trailers of movies, because I like the surprise elements, the wow-factor. If I know I want to see a movie because it is a sequel to a film I've liked before or I have read a review and the story seems interesting or I like the cast, then I avoid watching the trailer and go watch the movie. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable. A while after I have seen a film I tend to forget how it ends, which means I get to be surprised again. Aging isn't that bad. I guess I have to rip the back cover off 'Seoul Survivors' and read it again once I can no longer remember how story ends.

 If you are interested in reading this book avoid the back cover and read the abstract on the publisher's website instead.

Guest blog by BPR

Naomi Foyle 
ISBN: 9781780875989 

03 August 2013

'How to Think Like a Neandertal' by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

The only "pure" humans around here come from Africa which really ought to teach some people a lesson

This book states that Europeans have 1-4% Neandertal genes, which would explain a lot... And the three children sitting behind me at this cafe may have more.  In any case, this book is all about getting rid of these kind of prejudices.  It tries to give us, non-scientific readers, an idea of what Neandertals were thinking while pursuing mammoths.  This book keeps its promise and delivers a lot more.

The authors, together, study and write about something called paleoanthropology.  Thomas Wynn is an archaeologist and Frederick L. Coolidge is a psychologist.  Paleoanthropology sounds cool but vaguely reminds me of a certain crime + science tv show... In any case, I looked up paleoanthropology (I love this word).  It is the study of the origins of current humans using fossils, tools etc...  Then I read this book.  I found it fascinating as it opened my eyes to how anthropologists and archeologists draw conclusions about civilizations and cultures in the distant past.  I do not mean the obvious ways, you know, with a shovel, a brush, a whip and a cool hat.  The most exciting aspect for this reader was how they tried to get rid of personal biases... and we all have biases about Neandertals.  They found ways of comparing, contrasting and measuring ... thought... without tainting it with our own ideas of intelligence and thought.

As a contrast let me point out all those 19th century and early 20th century gentlemen who dug up most of Italy, Greece, Turkey, northern Africa and Arabia.  They had ideas of what constituted intelligence and applied it accordingly.  If they thought that Greek culture was advanced then they (or we) were the natural descendants and improvements on the originals...  If a culture was deemed backward, (non Christian, too Eastern or too strange) then it was labeled savage, barbaric and belittled in writing and in history.  Something similar happened to Neandertals in common culture.

Neandertals were not so different from us and the authors prove it.  Moreover, I can follow the explanations, tests, evidence and logic.  I am excited.  I am excited because I feel a door has opened on a side of ourselves (yes I admit it, but not more than 1%, probably) that is often denied. To know how Neandertals thought brings us closer to understanding how we think.  Philosophy, science and divinity come closer together.  If you are the kind of person that gets excited when 6000 year old funeral mounds are discovered or new pyramids are found in distant deserts then this is also a book for you.  Those poor souls out there breathing dust and acquiring wrinkles are not making it up as they go along.  'How to Think Like a Neandertal' shows you not just what the Neandertals were thinking, but ironically, what the scientists are thinking.  By the way, Asians also have Neandertal genes.  The only "pure" humans around here come from Africa which really ought to teach some people a lesson... if those were the kinds of people that read these books...

Thomas Wynn  
Frederick L. Coolidge 
ISBN: 9780199742820