As all of you know, I never use this space to promote anything but my book reviews. In this case, however, today’s launch of Sweatpants & Coffee is close to my heart. You see, I am a web designer by trade, in addition to being an extremely lazy (of late) book blogger. I jumped at the opportunity to build Sweatpants & Coffee because I believe in their mission – to inspire and encourage people to be their very best selves.
On Sweatpants & Coffee, you will find comfort in all of its forms. Television recaps, recipes, mental health notes, clothes, books, health & wellness issues, and much more. There is even some talk of featuring yours truly, in a column tentatively titled “Classics Worth Reading.” If all goes to plan, I’ll be bringing my famous ‘bother if / don’t bother if’ sensibilities to a brand new audience. Don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging here; hopefully more often than I have recently. (Don’t judge me! I’ve been busy finishing college and becoming gainfully employed!)
In the near future, I’ll be reviewing the following for Bucket List Media:
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Candide – Voltaire
The Cider House Rules – John Irving
Born Standing Up – Steve Martin
Inferno – Dan Brown
And much more! In the meantime, please check out sweatpantsandcoffee.com, or like them on Facebook here to join in and receive your daily dose of validation. You deserve it.
Author: Jordan Rosenfeld
Original Publication: 2013
Genre: Fiction, Supernatural, Independent
Grace Jensen is a lonely girl of twenty-eight. A terrible accident at the age of fifteen resulted in burns over most of her body, leaving poor Grace a literal prisoner of her own flesh. Physical contact is excruciating. Her relationships are complicated. Not because Grace complicates them, but because everyone in her world seems to be as damaged on the inside as Grace is on the outside. Her peculiar mother, with whom she lives, is a hoarder. Her handsome boss seems to not know quite what to make of her, despite his sweetness. Her former best friend, Marly, has not been seen since the night of the fire.
On the day that Marly’s beloved grandmother Oona dies, Grace receives a mysterious phone call which she believes may be Marly reaching out to her. Despite her mother’s misgivings and having felt abandoned by her best friend for the past thirteen years, Grace decides to attend the funeral and confront her past. She is immediately drawn back into Marly’s gravity, and decides to follow Marly back to Las Vegas in order to rekindle their friendship. Marly’s life is unsurprisingly anything but peaceful or healthy, and Grace is thrust into a whirlwind of secrets, lies, violence, and mermaids.
In the wake of Marly having been beaten, Grace discovers within herself the miraculous ability to heal by the laying on of hands, and empathic powers bordering on the psychic. With the help (or perhaps in spite of) Marly, her friend Drew, and a mysterious man named Gus – who wears his pain literally tattooed on his face – Grace must learn to control her power. She is torn between harnessing it for what she believes to be good, while simultaneously being ripped in dozens of directions by others, including her own heart. Grace can heal the flesh of others, but can she heal her own? Can she light the darkness which threatens to eat Marly from the inside out, or will it consume Grace with it?
I cannot say more about the plot without giving away key points, and you definitely don’t want to miss this book. I rarely read independent authors (and indeed this is the first independently published novel I have reviewed for this site), but Forged in Grace is a treat and a wild ride from start to finish. The imagery is powerful and engaging, and I found myself drawn into Grace’s world, Marly’s insanity, and the simultaneously seedy and delightful chaos of Sin City. The only complaint I had about the book is that I wish that more had been made of Grace’s relationship with Adam, her boss. I got the impression that Grace worked for a combination wildlife sanctuary / general medical practice for humans, and I’m not sure what it was. This could have been due to the fact that it was indeed confusing, or due to the fact that I was so hungry to find out what happened next that I missed some key point along the way. Regardless, it is a testament to Rosenfeld’s skill in crafting her characters that the only fault I found in the story was that there wasn’t more of it.
Fun Fact: Author Jordan Rosenfeld (jordanrosenfeld.net) works as a writing coach, editor, and freelance journalist, and also keeps a blog entitled “My Big Mouth” at Indie-Visible. Her nonfiction book Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time has sold more than twenty thousand copies. She lives in California with her husband and son.
Bother if: This was a fast and engaging read, and quite unlike anything I had ever read before. Seeing the world through the eyes of a severe burn victim in what seemed to be fairly accurate fashion was intriguing to me, as was the faith healing aspect of the story. Many of us can also relate to having had a friendship which was unhealthy, or with a profoundly unhealthy person. I found myself nodding my head in many places. I think that this is a story that most people would be able to enjoy. You may find it on Amazon.
Don’t Bother if: The story contains elements of the supernatural, faith healing, brief (if not terribly graphic) depictions of sex, and some violence. You may want to skip this one if you have any particular objections to those things. If you’re worried about Forged in Grace coming off as “chick-lit”, however, it doesn’t. I never use the term “chick-lit” in a derogatory sense, but I recognize that it doesn’t appeal to everyone as a genre. This book, despite being about female friendship dynamics on some level, doesn’t really veer into that territory.
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Original Publication: 1985
#240 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
18-year old Clay has returned to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation after his first semester of college on the East Coast. He and his friends are all congenitally wealthy and spoiled scenesters. His mother hides in her room drinking and his little sisters ignore him. His Hollywood producer father attempts to connect with him over four-martini lunches, but ends up speaking little. While home, Clay tracks down his friends from high school to catch up with them. Blair, his ex-girlfriend, is still chasing him. Trent is now a male model. Daniel, whom everyone thinks is gay, had been at college with Clay and returned home with him. All of them, plus assorted other friends, have done nothing since high school save drugs, although several have spent disastrous first semesters in various colleges. Clay is particularly concerned with the fate of his best friend, Julian, whom no one can seem to find. Julian is rumored to be a serious addict now who is also dealing drugs.
Clay parties with his old friends day after day, and becomes increasingly distant from them. The more drugs, clubs, expensive outings and one-night stands he has (with both men and women), the more meaningless Clay’s life feels. He recalls his past obsessions with disaster – collecting newspaper clippings of rapes, murders, and accidents. Although his friends encourage him to stay, Clay decides to return to college at the end of the break. First, however, he vows to track down Julian to see if the rumors are true. Julian, sadly, may be beyond help.
When Less Than Zero came out, it was held out by the baby boomers as what was “wrong with Generation X”, and Generation X decried it as “promoting ugly stereotypes.” Perhaps most disturbing (to me), Ellis has been credited in a way with inventing the Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world with his portrayal of wealth and narcissism amongst Hollywood youth. For me, the story had several fatal flaws. While I realize that the point Ellis may be trying to make is that these youth grew up in cynical environments, it didn’t ring true for me that the characters were so disillusioned with the world when they had seen exactly none of it beyond their own circles. The story might have worked better if the characters were coming back to Hollywood after their four years in various colleges, or were at least more than six months out of high school. The second flaw was that writing junkies effectively requires that they start out with hope, and that their hope is/has been slowly destroyed. None of these characters ever had any hope, anything meaningful in their lives, or any optimism at all. None of them have any experience with anything outside of themselves. For this reason, I failed to care very much about any of them. Rather than creating a relatable world filled with our friends and peers and thrusting us into it, Ellis has created the equivalent of a bad television show that we’re watching from well outside the perimeter. The third flaw was the writing – I’m being terribly nitpicky here because this was character dialogue – but Clay says “must of” instead of “must have” in one scene, and there are countless repeated clauses and other distractions. Rather than striking me as part of the world created for the story, it struck me as sloppy.
Fun Fact(s): The book was turned into a 1987 movie starring Andrew McCarthy as Clay, Jami Gertz as Blair, and Robert Downey Jr. as Julian. The novel was Ellis’ first, when he was 21 and still in college. He had this to say about it: “I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year—recently. It was so great. I get it. I get fan mail now from people who weren’t really born yet when the book came out. I don’t think it’s a perfect book by any means, but it’s valid. I get where it comes from. I get what it is. I know that sounds so ambiguous. It’s sort of out of my hands and it has its reputation, so what can you do about it? There’s a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written. Overall, I was pretty shocked. It was pretty good writing for someone who was 19. I was pretty surprised by the level of writing.” Ellis also wrote “American Psycho”, which also became a film.
Bother if: While the novel didn’t resonate with me, I suspect that it’s partially a factor of age, and that there are simply certain novels that one must read when they are the age of the characters. I’ll call it “Catcher in the Rye Syndrome”, if such a phrase has not been coined already. Ellis perfectly captures the discomfort of transitioning into adulthood by illustrating the precipice between the two. One passage that struck me is when Clay is eating Christmas dinner in a restaurant with his family, and flirting with a girl at the next table. The waiter brings out a phone so that the family can call Clay’s grandfather to wish him a Merry Christmas, and Clay muses that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of this girl by shouting “Merry Christmas, Grandpa” into a telephone at the table. Clay is the only character with a shred of humanity, and I can appreciate the social commentary that Ellis is trying to make with the story.
Don’t Bother if: The story contains graphic depictions of drug use and abuse, almost entirely by underage characters. It also depicts rape, torture, prostitution, violence, and a particularly distasteful scene where the characters are abusing a 12-year old girl. The story is intended to detail the nihilistic excess of youth with more money than brains and no parental supervision throughout their lives, and it does. However, I was unable to relate to most of it from anything other than an anthropological point of view.
Author: Alice Sebold
Original Publication: 1999
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Autobiographical
Best-known as the author of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s “Lucky” is her memoir of having been raped as a freshman in college, and the effect that it had on her life. Beginning in Syracuse in 1981, Alice is walking home through a park one night when she is attacked, raped, and brutally beaten. She makes it back to her dormitory, where she calls the police. From there, the story becomes a whirlwind – Alice does everything right in reporting the rape, going to the hospital to have evidence taken, and making her statements.
One has the mistaken impression that if you do all of the right things and that you’re telling the truth, that these things go smoothly. Not so – Alice’s credibility is called into question and she is picked apart by the police, and later, the attorneys. Her personal life is laid open for the world to see. She is told that because she was a virgin, she might be more credible. It is implied that maybe she invited the attack, due to her admission that the attacker was unable to undo her belt, and ordered her to do it, and she did. Never mind that he had beaten her and threatened her life.
As if trying to survive emotionally after such an ordeal weren’t difficult enough, Sebold is frank in her description of how her family and friends don’t know how to behave around her any more, and how she has to walk around school being known as “that girl who was raped.” It shapes her friendships and relationships in ways she hates and doesn’t expect, and in ways she also doesn’t recognize until much later. She comes to finally realize that, despite her apparent strength in dealing with the situation, that she was never “okay”, and probably has post-traumatic stress disorder. She comes to realize that the journey involved in getting over a rape is an extremely long process emotionally, and one has to dedicate years to their healing. “You either save yourself, or you don’t get saved.”
Fun Fact: Sebold was quoted as saying, “One of the reasons why I wrote it is because tons of people have had similar stories, not exactly the same but similar, and I want the word ‘rape’ to be used easily in conversation. My desire would be that somehow my writing would take a little bit of the taboo or the weirdness of using that word away. No one work is going to accomplish the years of work that need to be done, but it can help.”
Bother if: It’s an important story to tell. Much of it made me so angry I could hardly think, but it’s important for victims to realize that they can win. It’s not easy to win, but for the sake of yourself, you have to try. Sebold’s courage, strength, and willingness to do whatever she needed to do in order to bring her attacker to justice is inspiring. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes people don’t believe you. It doesn’t matter. Soldier on. It’s important for victims to know that it is possible to come out of the other side of such a terrible thing alive.
Don’t Bother if: It’s the true story of a young woman being beaten and raped. It’s not lighthearted, and Sebold, although very witty (assuming it is possible to be witty about such a subject), is extremely frank and matter-of-fact in her descriptions of what happened to her. It’s an ugly story about an ugly crime, even if I do think it’s an amazingly brave work.
Author: Michael Lee West
Original Publication: 2008
Genre: Fiction (Chick-Lit)
Billed as “a juicy novel of Southern discomfort”, Renata DeChavannes is a slightly overweight screenwriter who has just seen her superstar long-term boyfriend splashed on the cover of a tabloid with a hot young starlet wrapped around him. Furious, unable to reach him, and in the wake of her mother and stepfather’s untimely deaths in a plane crash, Renata storms through her house, ultimately coming upon a note written by her mother. “If you’re reading this, I’m dead,” the note begins, and her mother goes on to reveal that Renata’s childhood was not all that it seemed to be, and that she deserves to know the truth about her parents’ divorce when she was a little girl, her father’s subsequent remarriages, and the circumstances under which many of those things occurred.
Intrigued, Renata decides that she needs to go visit her paternal grandmother at her house on the Alabama coast, with whom her mother remained close after the divorce. Honora DeChavannes is preparing for her son’s latest wedding, and is delighted to tell Renata what she knows. Through her grandmother’s friends and a series of artifacts left behind by her mother, Renata begins piecing together the how and the why of how she came to be the person that she is, and wishes to reconcile with her estranged father, Louis.
While the book is quite funny and charming, I couldn’t help but compare it as I read to a paler version of Rebecca Wells’ “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” While there was nothing overtly wrong with the novel, it felt to me like it had nothing about it that hadn’t been done better by other authors. That said, I did enjoy the story, even if I was a little annoyed that the heroine being twenty pounds overweight somehow made her awkward, less beautiful, or etc. than her thinner counterparts. I realize that in Renata’s world (Hollywood), one can never be too thin, but I hardly think that the majority of the target audience of readers can relate to a size 8 woman being thought of as “fat.”
Fun Fact: The author, Michael Lee West, keeps a blog called Designs by Gollum, where she talks about food, design, and living on her farm. I loved her pictures.
Bother if: This was well-written, and a firmly enjoyable story. I liked Renata and her family, and much of it was very funny. It’s a sweet, lighthearted story and, although I think it holds itself out to be about the complicated relationships between fathers and daughters, was less about that than coming to terms with the events in your childhood which shaped who you became as an adult. If chick-lit is a genre you enjoy, I can see enjoying this novel very much.
Don’t Bother if: I can’t see the novel appealing to very many men, nor those who don’t read chick-lit as a rule. I didn’t feel, as I read, that there was anything about this novel which makes West stand out against similar authors, either as better or worse. The novel contains some extramarital sex (although not graphically detailed at all), but nothing else I can imagine finding particularly offensive.