I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by Elle to read books for the June and July panels this year. However, the excitement was short-lived — the July column is a web-only feature, and I’m sensing that they are phasing this column out.
I enjoyed the June memoirs, and agreed that Approval Junkie was particularly good. While I wasn’t cited in the blurbs for the online edition, I was flattered that they quoted me about Ms. Salie’s book in the print edition, saying “Salie’s succeeding despite the so-called impostor syndrome that many women unfortunately feel is, as one reader noted, a much-needed reminder to ignore ‘that doubting voice inside your head.'”
The July books were fantastic; I particularly liked The Hopefuls, a novel about two couples in their late twenties starting to make their way in D.C. politics. You can read our panel reactions at the Elle magazine website.
The non-fiction selections I read for October for Elle magazine’s readers’ panel were quite challenging; the theme this month was triumph over early trauma. I found all three difficult to read, and I only would recommend one of them. Here’s what we read:
This is the only book I’d recommend out of the three. I liked the non-chronological order of the book, setting up our knowledge of the loss of his family — and the addition of two new half-siblings — rather quickly, while filling in the background on his childhood and the tumultuous years during high school and college. I also enjoyed his stories of the first few meetings with his new siblings; rather than ending with such a revelation, Mr. Boast’s discovery was a new beginning for him.
North of Normal
While I admire that Cea Sunrise Person somehow became a successful model and grew beyond her eccentric childhood, most pages were filled with such revolting behavior from her mother (I still don’t know what bothers me more, her near-constant pot-smoking or the fact that she’d have sex with a variety of men mere inches from her daughter’s bed) that I had to fight to finish the story. And while I appreciate that she finally found a stable, loving relationship with her current husband, I wish that more of her modeling and all three of her marriages had taken up more space than the wilderness years — the older she got, the less we learned about her experiences, and her epiphany about her past affecting her current relationships, and her current marriage, both felt like footnotes to the rest of the story.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones
For a memoir written by a journalist, I was disappointed by this book. First, the tone felt almost monotonous — his writing felt detached, which would be fine for a piece in a newspaper, particularly when short in length, but did not help to build empathy for the narrator in such a long-form piece. And secondly, his revelation that he was bisexual felt completely hollow. I understand that his near-molestation by multiple family members would be awful/confusing/therapy-inducing. But when he explained that he never felt comfortable in a relationship with a man, it felt much more like he simply found some men beautiful or attractive, which is more human than sexual. I understand that he would have been taught that seeing men that way was completely unacceptable, but after growing up and leaving his small town for New York, I’d expect a broader understanding of human sexuality than what he concluded.
I had a pleasant surprise this spring when I was contacted to join a fiction panel for Elle magazine’s readers’ panel; I had only done non-fiction reviews up to this point. The books that we read were quite varied, covering stories about early 20th-century anthropologists in Africa, a musician touring Europe, and a pair of brothers living in present-day New York.
My own rankings mirrored the selections of my fellow readers — Lily King’s Euphoria was certainly the best-written book of the three. (The Snow Queen, which came in last place, was a big disappointment from the author of The Hours; his central conceit of a vision in Central Park really did not make any sense in relation to the rest of the book.)
The one downside to Ms. King’s novel is that it is based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead. While I knew this going in, it wasn’t until after I’d submitted my votes that I found how similar the novel was to her life — from the love trapezoid that enmeshes the characters to the discoveries the three main characters make and publish. It sadly colored my whole experience of the book and, while it still is a good read, does not rate as highly with me as it did before I’d learned more about Ms. Mead.
As part of the jury for the Elle magazine Readers’ Prize, all reviewers get to vote on the top book of the year, either for fiction or non-fiction. Since I’ve been reading non-fiction titles for them, I voted on six memoirs that had been picked as “best of the month” throughout 2013.
It was easy to set aside those that I wouldn’t select for the top prize, but my two favorites were both great for different reasons. I ended up going with Richard Russo’s memoir Everywhere, which was selected as best of the month last December. My 2nd place book, Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde, was one that I had liked last February. It ended up getting the top honors for 2013. I’d highly recommend them both.
See the full end-of-year reviews at elle.com here.
I was able to fit in one more reading panel for Elle magazine before the baby came; I sent my reviews during the last week before my due date. To my surprise, they said the results were quite close. I had to send in a weighted preference to help them rank the three books because they said there was a 3-way tie for first after they’d received the reviews.
As usual, the book that I much preferred to the other two, She Left Me the Gun, came in second in our panel. (But it looks like other publications agree with me: Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A” and put it on their Must List a few weeks ago.) I was struck by the author’s story of piecing together her mother’s past, traveling to another country (South Africa) to find out why she’d run away to England in her youth. Both the author’s journey and her mother’s narrative were equally compelling, and kept me turning the pages quickly.
As for the other two books, I can’t say I recommend either one. Both tales meandered and I felt that there wasn’t much narrative force or hindsight that tied anecdotes together.
Now that I’m six months pregnant, I’m trying to read as much as I can before the baby comes. These reviews were submitted before the holidays, and I’m looking forward to fitting in at least one more jury before my due date in April.
While this was my second pick out of the three (not the first as picked by majority), I would still recommend Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde. While I never lived in an Orthodox neighborhood, I loved her descriptions of her neighbors and their way of life, and I certainly empathized with both her (non)gefilte fish out of water experience and the depth of her frustration after her breakup.
I wasn’t surprised that the jury put Vow at the bottom of their picks. I personally thought her viewpoint of being both the cheater and the cheated upon at various points gave her a unique perspective that enriched the narrative. But I know that many women would find the narrative self-indulgent, or at least difficult to empathize with.
I’m not surprised that they did not cite me on my least favorite book, The Feminist and the Cowboy. I wrote that the book not only felt too long, but that the author seemed “compelled to create — or at least exaggerate — the typical ‘boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl’ structure so popular in chick lit and romantic comedy movies, in order for the reader to hope that she would be able to regain the cowboy’s trust.”
While there are times that I’m disappointed to be on the non-fiction panel for Elle magazine’s reader’s jury, the December books this year were completely engrossing. Better yet, they cited my reviews for all three books this month on the website — and I think this was the first month that I’ve contributed where my rankings matched the status quo.
I would highly recommend the memoir by Richard Russo, Elsewhere. Like many writers, he had a difficult childhood, but I was impressed that the scope was wide (covering from his childhood through the last couple of years, yet never overwhelmed me as a reader.
The memoir by Melissa Francis, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, was impossible to put down. Whether you were stunned at her mother’s actions or impressed by her fortitude, it was a compelling tale.
The last book, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, was my least favorite by far. As I mention in the review, I was left wanting more analysis of her experiences and a better ending to tie the book together.
I have been enjoying the fact that, about a year ago, I was accepted to be a member of Elle magazine’s readers’ jury, a group of the magazine’s readers that are invited a couple of times a year to read 3 books and rank them from favorite to least favorite. As an avid reader (and writer, of course), it’s always fun to read advance copies and to compare how my rankings stack up to others that read the books.
I was happy to see that I was cited twice this month, on my favorite and least favorite books:
As I mention in the excerpt from my review on Happier at Home, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this book. It was full of lots of little ways to focus on the positive and live a more fulfilled life.
At least the 15 readers agreed on my least favorite book of the three, Why Have Kids — and not, as a non-parent, for the reasons you’d think. In addition to the quote they used on the website about its content, I was also incredibly frustrated with the book’s structure. The book is sloppily put together, she often repeats points, and she rarely shows the other sides of her arguments.
Speaking of the jury, I must go read some more; I have to finish one more book before submitting my reviews for their end-of-year rankings…
Last summer, I noticed that Elle magazine invites their readers to be a part of their Readers’ Prize jury. Each month, they ask 15 people to read three books and rank them best to worst, and submit brief comments on each selection. I emailed the editor about my interest, and a few months later, got a letter in the mail along with 3 advance copies of memoirs. I was in!
I loved being a part of the jury and was disappointed that, although they published the synopses in the December 2011 print edition, they never added it to their website, where they usually posted more of the readers’ reviews. So imagine my surprise, when upon Googling my name (what, doesn’t everybody?), I saw that my review had not only been submitted to the author, but my comments were the only ones singled out by her for her website.
So I may not be a published author, per se. But at least I know that one respects my opinion — and how I express it.