Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present

March 3, 2010 at 5:28 am (Memoir, Non-fiction) (, )

Tinsel: The Search for America's Christmas Present by Hank Stuever

Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present by Hank Stuever
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1st edition, 2009
333 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir

Synopsis & Review: Black Friday 2006: Hank Stuever mingles with the crowd lined up outside a Texas Best Buy in the pre-dawn hours. When the doors open at five, he will be swept in alongside all the shoppers hunting the best bargains available on this most vaunted shopping day of the year. Business is booming in the US, and everyone seems to be spending, whether they have the money or not. From that arc-sodium lit parking lot, Stuever will follow several people through the 2006 Christmas season in suburban Texas, trailing them through malls and McMansion-filled neighborhoods. There’s Caroll, a single mother and devoted Christian, trying to provide her family with a lovely Christmas. There’s Tammie, energetic and optimistic, who decorates other peoples’ houses and is so involved with it that’s he sometimes neglects her own family. And there are the Trykoskis, a young and child-free couple who every year create a bigger, brighter, more elaborate light show on their house and yard, dazzling an endless stream of lookers on. While observing his subjects, Stuever also becomes an active participant, attending church programs with Carroll and hanging garland with Tammie. While immersed in their experiences for three years running (after spending the entire 2006 season in Texas, Stuever returns for visits in 2007 and 2008), Stuever also reflects on his own Christmases, and those of America.

I added Tinsel to my library request list right when it came out, but still didn’t get to read it till February. It’s okay, though; it doesn’t need to be Christmas to enjoy Tinsel. Read the rest of this entry »

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Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

January 19, 2010 at 12:41 am (Memoir, Non-fiction, Young adult) ()

Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnik

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading (A Reading Memoir) by Lizzie Skurnik
Avon, 1st printing, 2009
424 pages
Genre: Memoir, YA

Synopsis & Review: Sometime in the Sixties, says Lizzie Skurnik, YA literature for girls underwent a sea change, from wholesome entertainment into something rich and strange. Out of this marvelous transformation came Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, and then others followed suit: Katherine Paterson, Richard Peck, Robert Cormier, Scott O’Dell, Paula Danziger, Norma Klein, and Willo Davis Roberts, among others. Skurnik declares that this is when writers began dealing with “the lives and dramas of adolescent girls on their own terms, in their own worlds.” Her reading memoir Shelf Discovery is an epic odyssey through YA lit of a certain time, from the late Sixties to the late Eighties, and nearly all of the books will be recognizable to readers (women?) of a certain age. Shelf Discovery sprang forth from Skurnik’s Jezebel column Fine Lines, and spurred on by the enthusiastic response of readers, Skurnik gathered, categorized, and dissected a number of the classics of the genre. From Alcott and Burnett to L’Engle and Blume, Shelf Discovery features essays not only by Skurnik, but also popular authors like Meg Cabot and Cecily von Ziegesar.

The book is divided into chapters categorizing books nominally by theme, with the exception of Chapter One, Still Checked Out/YA Heroines We’ll Never Return. After these classics come She’s at that Age/Girls on the Verge; Danger Girls/I Know What You Did Last Summer (Reading); Read ‘em and Weep/Tearing Up the Pages; You Heard it Here First/Very Afterschool Specials; Girls Gone Wild/Runaways, Left Behinds, and Ladies Living off the Fat of the Land; She Comes by It Supernaturally/Girls Who are Gifted and Talented; Him She Loves/Romanced, Rejected, Affianced, Dejected; Old-Fashioned Girls/They Wear Bonnets, Don’t They?; and Panty Lines/I Can’t Believe They Let Us Read This. Essays vary from full-length Book Reports with synopsis and analysis, to the much shorter Overdue and Extra Credit selections, which were usually all-too brief.

At a Christmas Eve party, my friend Matt asked me why exactly all the girls in intermediate school were reading Flowers in the Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear all the damn time. (I have no idea how the topic came up; I was a little tipsy.) Though Matt is about a decade older than I am, I immediately had the answers for him, being part of the tail of that YA movement that flourished in the late Sixties up through the Eighties (when I got my greasy little mitts on them). So I began expounding on V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel at length, declaiming the narratives of the Dollanganger and Earth’s Children sagas (with brief forays into the Casteels and Adares during the former), while Matt and Josh listened raptly, dazzled by the secret lives of girls. I can’t even remember the last time I read FitA or CotCB, but I remembered everything about the books, including how much I had loved them and why. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Man Who Invented Christmas

December 18, 2009 at 4:10 am (Biography, Classics, Literature, Non-fiction) (, , , )

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s [sic] A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits byLes Standiford
Crown Publishers, 1st edition, 2008
237 pages
Genre: non-fiction, Christmas, biography

Synopsis & Review: In 1843, Charles Dickens’ popularity seemed to have plateaued and he was near bankruptcy. Rather than succumb to despair, he sat down and penned one of his most personal stories, and had it edited and published in six short weeks—just in time for the Christmas season. Though he first made little profit on A Christmas Carol, it went on to restore Dickens’ popularity, and became not only his most popular work, but one of the most widely read in the English language in the nineteenth century. Adapted myriad times for stage and screen (beginning nearly immediately; the first opened 5 February 1844), it remains one of the most enduring works of fiction, known in detail even to the many people who have not read it. Les Standiford argues that A Christmas Carol is not merely a holiday entertainment staple, but is also the “reason for the season,” and that Charles Dickens did not simply celebrate Christmas and the benevolence and goodwill it engenders, but resuscitated a dying holiday.

I’ve actually never read A Christmas Carol, and I’ve never managed Dickens. I’ve tried Great Expectations a few times, but then I wander off and read something worthwhile like a Christopher Pike book, or perhaps Gone with the Wind for the umpety billionth time. This makes me feel inadequate, as though I am lacking some fundamental Dickens appreciation spot in my brain. (I can usually assuage that feeling with the knowledge of my overlarge Zola appreciation spot, but it’s not always a comfort.) So I read this essentially on a whim, selecting it while looking for possible books for my two holiday reading challenges. I like Christmas after all, and I like books on cultural history. Unfortunately, this book didn’t really satisfy. Read the rest of this entry »

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One Perfect Day

December 1, 2009 at 1:27 am (Non-fiction) (, , )

One Perfect Day by Rebecca Mead

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead
Penguin Press, 1st edition, 2007
234 pages
Genre: Non-fiction, sociology

Synopsis & Review:

Using the American wedding as a rosetta stone, in One Perfect Day writer Rebecca Mead poses a series of questions that cut to the heart of our national identity. Why, she asks, has the American wedding become an outlandishly extravagant, egregiously expensive, and overwhelmingly demanding production? What is the derivation of the nuptial imperative upon brides and grooms to observe tradition while at the same time using the wedding as a vehicle for expressing their personal style? What does an American wedding tell us about how Americans consume, relate, and live today? One Perfect Day masterfully mixes investigative journalism and social commentary to explore the workings of the wedding industry-an industry that claims to be worth $160 billion to the U.S. economy and which has every interest in ensuring that the American wedding business becomes ever more lavish and complex. Taking us inside the workings of the wedding industry-from the swelling ranks of professional wedding planners to department stores with their online wedding registries to the retailers and manufacturers of wedding gowns to the Walt Disney Company and its Fairytale Weddings program-Rebecca Mead skillfully holds the mirror up to the bride’s deepest hopes and fears about her wedding day and dissects the myriad goods and services that will be required for her role within it.

Weddings are no longer a rite of passage, no longer a transition from childhood to adulthood, or an initiation into a sexual or domestic intimacy, nor necessarily a religious ritual. The result of this cultural shift is that the event itself has taken on an ever-increasing momentousness shaped as much by commerce and marketing as by religious observance or familial expectation. The American wedding gives expression to the values and preoccupations of our culture. For better or worse, the way we marry is who we are. (Jacket copy)

If you’ve been involved in planning a wedding recently, you might have found yourself bemused by an excess of consumerism. If you’ve missed out, you could peruse InStyle Weddings, Modern Bride, Martha Stewart Weddings, or even log on to The Knot.com, one of the most popular wedding planning sites online. Alternatively, turn on your TV and check out Say Yes to the Dress, Bridezillas, My Dream Wedding, Platinum Weddings (now followed by Platinum Babies, wtf), or any number of the myriad wedding-related shows out there that detail just what the American wedding should be. It’s bewildering, overwhelming, and even suffocating, like the “white blindness: Rebecca Mead describes after a sojourn in a bridal salon: “a reeling, dumbfounded state in which it becomes impossible to distinguish between an Empire-waisted gown with Alencon lace appliqués and a bias-cut spaghetti strap shift with crystal detail, and in the exhausted grip of which I wanted only to lie down and be quietly smothered by the fluffy weight of it all, like Scott of the Antarctic.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides

November 22, 2009 at 3:41 am (Non-fiction) (, )

Offbeat Bride by Ariel Meadow Stallings

Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides by Ariel Meadow Stallings
Seal Press, 1st printing, 2007
218 pages
Genre: non-fiction, wedding planning

Synopsis & Review: Unenthused by a white wedding gown and bored by the hoopla of the Hollywood-style reception, Ariel Meadow Stallings found herself absolutely exhausted with the nuances of traditional nuptials. So, she chose to take a walk off the beaten aisle and embrace the non-traditional bride within. Through trial and error, Ariel and her fiancé managed to crank out a budget wedding with all-night dancing, guests toasting champagne in mismatched mugs, gorgeous gardens, no monogrammed napkins, no garter, no bridesmaids, and lots of lesbians. Shortly after her 2004 matrimony, Ariel began searching for other brides whose ceremonies defied age-old tradition and reflected who they are. From there, she developed the idea for a guide for the offbeat couple.

Offbeat Bride serves as an inspiration for those who are interested in a vegan buffet, avoiding bouquet tossing, doing away with the elitist guest list and being a control freak without becoming a Bridezilla. Filled with sidebars, tips, tricks and planner encouragement (all taffeta-free) to help you figure out your special day, this book sees couples through the wedding process from ideas on how to announce their engagement to answering the question, “So, how’s married life?” and everything in between.

Once I got over the initial OMG EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE part of getting engaged last fall, I suddenly realized that we had a wedding to plan. Fortunately, two of my sisters, the younger and an elder, had gotten married in the summer of 2006, and so I’d recently seen the American wedding machine in action. Since it was handy, the first source I consulted was Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin. (This invaluable tome has been a favorite of mine since elementary school.) Then Maiya steered me toward The Knot. I bought one issue of Martha Stewart Weddings (the one with the butterfly cake cover; it’s so preeeetty!). And though Maiya swore up and down that she would be my mentor, my sensei, my defacto planner, I nearly collapsed beneath the awesome power of the Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC). There was much to do! So I refused to do it, and let our wedding languish. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Night in Transylvania: The Dracula Scrapbook

August 17, 2009 at 9:28 pm (Non-fiction) (, , , , )

A Night in Transylvania by Kurt Brokaw

A Night in Transylvania by Kurt Brokaw

A Night in Transylvania: The Dracula Scrapbook by Kurt Brokaw
Grossett & Dunlap, 1st printing, 1976
135 pages
Genre: non-fiction, horror

Synopsis & Review: “To be read only at night,” A Night in Transylvania is a compendium of information about the Romanian region of Transylvania and about the two Draculas that are its major claim to fame: Bram Stoker’s famous vampire and the fifteenth-century prince Vlad Tepes. Opening first with an introduction by the Drs Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally of Boston College, Brokaw moves quickly into an exploration of the legend of Dracula, both as villain and lover, and the mythology of Transylvania in popular culture. The first chapter covers the history of Vlad Tepes’ life and death, and his legacies in Transylvania. Chapters Two and Three explore Transylvania, with an emphasis on locales associated with the Wallachian prince: cities, churches, castles, and his tomb on Snagov. Practical aspects of travel in a 1970s Romania, down to costs (severely outdated thirty years later) and gratuities and the most helpful languages to have. Also included is a wealth of information about hotels, food, tchotchkes, and helpful phrases. Chapters Four and Five detail Dracula on film and in print, with the movies helpfully categorized by quality.

This book CHANGED MY LIFE. I am totally serious. Read the rest of this entry »

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