Thursday, June 01, 2006

Book Report: Glam Lit

First, a little correction to yesterday's post. When I said that someone with a GRE writing a book would be more newsworthy than an Ivy League grad writing a book, I meant GED. A GRE would mean someone going to grad school, which also isn't unheard of for authors. A high-school dropout writing and selling a novel, on the other hand, is less common and therefore more newsworthy. I realized I'd mixed the two up just as I fell asleep last night. I didn't have scary grad school nightmares, though. Instead I continued a theme from the past few nights of having corporate nightmares. I keep dreaming that I'm back in an office building. One night, my boss was the former boss who inspired Gregor, only supervising me in the job I had when I came up with the idea for Enchanted, Inc.. Then last night, it was one of my good former bosses, but one who didn't quite get my career ambitions. She was very ambitious and determined to rise to the top in her career, while I didn't care much about that career and was more interested in my writing. She was still very supportive of my writing career, even if she thought being in an office and making big decisions was heaven. Being in a big, corporate office building is my idea of hell, and thus the nightmares.

Now it's time for another book report. This week's theme is "glam lit" -- books that have something to do with living the high life or being fashionable.

First, we have Bergdorf Blondes, by Plum Sykes. I wasn't all that interested in it, to be honest, but they had it at the library, and it was very popular (and is often shelved next to my books), so I thought I'd give it a try. This is your basic glam lit about rich people buying stuff and swanning about in their glamorous lifestyles, wearing designer clothes, flying on private jets, and so forth. That's generally not my thing. My major problem with most of the glam lit I've read is that there's sort of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it attitude. On the one hand, the author seems to be saying, "See, rich people have the same problems as anyone else, if not more so, so don't feel bad that you're not like them, and besides, they're all jerks" but at the same time, there's an underlying "Don't you wish you had this fabulous life?" message. This book was very much a case study of that, showcasing the pressure of that kind of life while also dropping lots of fashionable names. The reviews gave the book credit for being a satire, and there certainly was plenty in the book that showed up how shallow these characters were, but I'm not entirely certain it was intentional. The viewpoint character who's painted as being not nearly as bad as the other girls is still someone very silly and shallow, with misplaced priorities, and I'd also be more willing to buy the deliberate satire angle if the author herself didn't live that kind of life. She was on Good Morning America a couple of months ago, plugging her latest book, and she pointed out some of the things her characters just had to have, like a $10,000 handbag. When Charlie Gibson raised an eyebrow at that and asked if anyone really needed something like that, she said of course they did, and not in a sarcastic, eye-rolling "can you believe there are people like that?" way. It was more of a totally straight-faced, "well, duh!" way.

Not that I hated the book. I like her voice, and it was a good, quick, fun read. I just hate that it was a book that got so much attention when there are so many better books that deserve it more. Plus, there's the fact that the media seem to be setting up a no-win scenario -- they focus on these celebrity-related, shallow books, and then they turn around and use them as representatives of the entire chick lit genre and proof of how shallow it is.

So, I'd call it a good beach read, but she's made enough money (and seems to come from money), so get it from the library or used bookstore and use your new-book money on someone who isn't getting as much attention.

Next, there's The Second Assistant, by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare. This is one of those "bad job in a glamorous field" books, about a young woman who gets a job as second assistant to a big-shot Hollywood agent and has to put up with a lot of nonsense while soothing fragile Hollywood egos as she builds her career. I tend to get frustrated with bad boss books that are just about how downtrodden the poor heroine is until she finally breaks free of the bad boss. Yeah, I had bad bosses in Enchanted, Inc., but my heroine got away from those bosses as soon as possible and that wasn't what the book was about. This book ended up pleasantly surprising me because it wasn't really about her being put-upon. It was more about her figuring out how she could cope while still keeping her own integrity, and that added up to her being a success. I've been to LA once in my life, for all of a day, but I still had a fun "Hey, I've been there!" moment when the heroine goes to a movie premiere at Universal City Walk. That's where I went to my one and only movie premiere.

Clare Naylor is an established chick-lit author, and Mimi Hare worked for a Hollywood production company, which brings up another promo possibility. I could find an up-and-coming Hollywood actress, then we could write a book together about a young actress trying to break into the biz, have both our names on the cover, and then her fame could get it the publicity it needs to be a bestseller, which then would mean my subsequent books could say "bestselling author" on the cover. Now I just need to find an actress I could tolerate who'd be up for such a thing.

I've saved the best for last. Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro was a wonderful read. I checked it out of the library, but I'll be buying a copy to keep because it's the kind of book that makes me happy, and I imagine I'll be re-reading it a time or two. It's about a young woman who's feeling frumpy and invisible, and then she finds an old book on being elegant in a second-hand bookstore. Following the advice in the book ends up changing her life because it alters how she feels about herself and how others see her. She has a few misadventures along the way, some of which are quite funny, but there are also some poignant parts. What's really cool is that the style book within the book is a real book that has since been reissued.

I think this book resonated with me for a number of reasons. The style book is from the early 60s, and I have pictures of my mom as an army officer's wife from that era, looking like a dead ringer for Jackie Kennedy in her smart suits with gloves and little hats. Those clothes went on to form the basis of my dress-up clothes box when I was a kid, so that era of clothing style really appeals to me. Plus, I had my own book like that in my life, my mom's copy of The Seventeen Book of Young Living from the 50s. It was a guide to teenage life -- how to dress, how to decorate your room, how to behave socially, how to date, etc. -- full of drawings of tiny-waisted girls with full skirts, or else those sleek, elegant pencil skirts. I got my hands on that book when I was about eight, and I'm afraid that formed my impression of what teenage life and high school would be like. Needless to say, I was sadly disappointed. Life in the 80s was nothing like what that book portrayed.

I may be able to look reasonably pulled together in public, but I'm actually kind of a fashion dork, so I like the idea of a style so timeless that the advice can still resonate forty years later. Now I don't feel so bad about playing it safe and trying to look classic instead of fashionable. I'm inspired to go on a quest for the perfect little black dress, and I may even splurge on something that will be timeless and last.

My reading this week isn't falling into a theme, so I'll have to see how I can shape the next book report. I'll try to make this a regular feature.

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