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.