Five 30-Second Summer Book Reviews

Seeing as the summer is drawing to a close (and I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while), I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on a few of the books I read this summer — and hopefully give some of my recommendations to add to your August reading lists. These were all great reads for me (I don’t say that lightly, by the way), and I highly recommend all of them, although the subject matter and writing styles differ a lot between the books. Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read any of these yourself!

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1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Admittedly, the fact that I read this on the beach in Italy probably makes it seem a lot better than it is. However, Tom Rachman’s debut novel is pretty wonderful, and I would read it again in a heartbeat (that is, if I didn’t already have a hundred books in my “read this now” queue). Tracking the lives of individuals involved with an English-language newspaper in Rome (from readers to publishers to copy editors), Rachman weaves a stunning narrative that doesn’t quite come together until the very end…which, of course, is what makes it so perfect. Each chapter reads like a little insight into the life of each individual, and explores their personal struggles as well as their relationship to the newspaper. Rachman is gifted at painting vivid, realistic, and raw characters, and even though each chapter is relatively short, his writing (which is very clear, by the way) packs a punch, as he pulls out distinct details from each character’s life. Bit by bit, the reader is also fed the story of how all these lives intertwine — both intentionally and unintentionally — which kept me hooked until the very end. Perfect beach reading, very fresh and original, and overall just fantastic writing.

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2. The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, a novelist and writer for The New Yorker, is one of my hands-down favorite authors, and he particularly excels with his memoirs. I read one of his other memoirs, Paris to the Moon, a year or so ago, and fell in love with his writing style — it’s sharp, witty, intelligent, and yet decidedly unpretentious. The Table Comes First is less of a memoir than Paris to the Moon, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Although it’s a 300-page volume on one seemingly simple topic, food, there is never a dull moment in Gopnik’s writing. Incredibly cultured, his wealth of knowledge shines through as he weaves together food’s history, philosophy, and its criticisms alongside personal experiences on the topic. It’s really a brilliant read, and I highly recommend this for all a) foodies, and b) francophiles.

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3. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

If you’re looking for a good briefer on the history of Islam and the Middle East, look no further. (Okay, I know most of you probably weren’t looking for this. That being said, it’s totally relevant to the world today, and will seriously enhance your understanding of current events. So go read it!) Ansary’s book is widely regarded as one of the best histories of Islam out there, and his writing style is simple and understandable — this is not some stuffy book intended only for academics. What I love about Ansary’s writing is his humor, ability to synthesize, and that he doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of the topic. It reads like an engaging historical narrative, so if you’re into non-fiction/history, this is a good pick!

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4. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Rushdie. It’s still banned in many parts of the world and can be controversial in many respects (the book is partly a re-telling of the life of Mohammed, and Rushdie includes narrative elements which run contrary to the Muslim faith), but that’s part of what makes it an interesting read — it’s equal parts entertaining and relevant to our understanding of society today. I’ll admit, though, this is a tough book to understand without a lot of background knowledge of religion (and not just Islam), as well as historical events. I would recommend reading some sort of analysis to better grasp the major themes. This reading guide is a good start (and doesn’t give away the plot — just use it as you go from chapter to chapter). However, it is still an entertaining narrative, and Rushdie is a phenomenal writer — so I’d recommend this for anyone that really appreciates more complex literary styles and long, intense novels (think Beloved).

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5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a classic. I’ve been reading The Alchemist every summer for the past six years — I’m currently on my seventh reading. Regardless of whether you’ve read it before, it’s always a great addition to your reading list, and I find that I learn something new every time I pick it up. It’s not so much that the book has changed as it is that my life and perspective shift from reading to reading — so that something new stands out to me each time. That being said, the novel (very short, by the way — you could read it in a few hours) is packed with wisdom, reading more like a fable than anything else. It tracks the life of a former shepherd, Santiago, who abandons his flock in search of his “Personal Legend” — looking for buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. It’s a timeless book about following your dreams (yes, I know this sounds cheesy), but all of us could use a reminder like this once in a while. A great book for self-reflection, and perfect for pretty much any time, ever.

{Images: The Imperfectionists; The Table Comes First; Destiny Disrupted; The Satanic Verses; The Alchemist}

From the Shelves | “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a dark and extremely dense book — the first few times I spent reading it, I felt as though I were inching through the pages. (I read the Norton Critical Edition, which contains about 77 pages of the actual text, and it took me about 4 hours to read less than 30 of those pages.) At first, I’ll admit that I couldn’t stand it. It was difficult to read and it’s not exactly one of the fast-paced thrillers we’re used to reading today. But after reading it twice and analyzing it through discussions, I slowly grew to like it. There is literally so much material packed into this book that you have no choice but to read it carefully so as not to miss details (and, even then, you’ll miss a ton — I’m certain I did). But it is worth it. Because, in the end, you will have read such a thought-provoking work of literature that your head will be spinning with ideas and questions that seem to branch off in endless directions.

The book, published in 1902, is set aboard a ship on the Thames river, where several seamen sit watching as the dusk fades, waiting for the tide. Marlow, one of the men on the ship, spends much of the novel recounting his time spent in the Congo during the illicit ivory trade. He spends much of his venture there searching for the infamous Kurtz, the chief of one of the ivory trading company’s inner stations buried deep in the jungle. Marlow describes his experience as unsettling and illusory, but he ultimately shows an ambivalent devotion to Kurtz, claiming that he must remain loyal to “the nightmare of his choice.”

With so much of the story being consumed by Marlow’s tale, it is important to remember that he is not the narrator of the novel — indeed, one of the nameless seamen aboard the ship is in truth telling the story. Which brings us to one of the key nuances of Heart of Darkness that makes it such a complex novel: the different layers of storytelling within the book itself, and the different ways in which our opinion of the situation at hand is manipulated by the interpretation of the storyteller. In many cases, this is Marlow, who, as we see throughout the book, is not the most perceptive, nor dispassionate, translator of events. At the beginning of the book (page 5 in the Norton Critical Edition), Marlow is described by the narrator of the novel as finding the true meaning of an episode “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” This makes the book much harder to analyze and understand thoroughly because the reader cannot completely trust the primary storyteller.

The 1979 film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Although the setting and context of the story are different (the movie is set during the Vietnam War), the details and ideas that really define the book — racism, loyalties and motivations, individual perceptions of events, restraints, etc. — are what make the movie so similar. If you haven’t watched the film yet, I would highly recommend reading the book before seeing it, as it will make the experience of watching it so much better.

There is so much to say about this classic! I really enjoyed reading it and I would suggest reading it at the same time as a friend, so you can discuss it together. This is one of those reads that really benefits from thoughtful analysis, and you need to be alert to pick up on important details and themes. It is well worth the read, I promise — just be aware that it is difficult to get through the beginning, but once you acclimate to Conrad’s dense writing style, it becomes easier to understand. Happy reading!

{Source: Image via bookbyte.com}

A Few Thoughts On Style

I regularly find myself needing to “clean up my desktop” — meaning, the home screen of my computer, which gets cluttered with random photos and word documents from time to time. It generally becomes quite a time-consuming process (just as long as it would take to clean off a real desk), and I inevitably find myself reading old writings, flipping through pictures, and playing around on Photoshop.

It’s a tiring process, but one that is usually inspiring. I love finding old things that I saved years ago —  it’s like finding a lost letter in piles of papers on your desk. I also found tons of quotes — and one in particular that I would like to share:

I am not a fashion snob, nor do I consider myself a particularly “fashionable” or “stylish” person. I do have personal qualms with the last phrase, “everybody thinks fashion is attainable.” I believe that fashion is attainable to everyone, if they really want it to be. (Buying a few “trendy” pieces every season doesn’t count.)

I would re-word this quote, however. I would say that it is style that is not always attainable (and which I believe Louise Wilson was referring to), and, furthermore, having style need not be based on personal wealth or connections to the fashion industry. You have to have a knack for it. You know those girls that just have that “it” factor? That dress simply but well, know that less is more, always seem comfortable, happy, and radiant? That, in my opinion, is style. The predisposition to choose simple pieces, wear them with confidence, and make them look stunning. The ability to take black jeans and white t-shirt and make it look like the chicest thing in the world.

I have a confession: I actually hate the word “fashion.” Maybe it’s stupid, but it makes me think of pure trend-following (of which I am guilty, I’ll admit it), and dressing just to fit the times. I think it’s fine to bring trends into your everyday wardrobe, as long as they are still a part of you — and your personal style. Wear what you love, and pull it off with confidence.

That is style.

P.S. I know my blogging schedule has been a little erratic lately. I will do my best to keep blogging regularly, I promise! Your support and feedback means the world.

{Sources (from top to bottom): Holly Garber on Jak & Jil Blog; photographed by Scott Schuman for The Sartorialist; photographed by Tommy Ton for Jak & Jil Blog; photographed by Tommy Ton for Jak & Jil Blog. All images are property of their respective owners; I do not claim to own these images.}

America’s Cupcake Obsession

Georgetown Cupcake | D.C.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or your town is strangely deprived of bakeries), a quick glance around makes it clear that cupcakes are in style right now — and in a huge way. I see cupcake shops popping up almost everywhere I go, with store windows decked out in folds of tulle and plenty of pink and signs adorned with pretty script. Shows like D.C. Cupcakes and Cupcakes Wars are airing on TLC and The Food Network. So, what’s up with this trend? (Which I know isn’t so new, but it still warrants a mention here.)

Sprinkles Cupcakes | Los Angeles

I have nothing against cupcakes. I love cupcakes. And my recent visit to the now-famous Georgetown Cupcake only helped to solidify the relationship between consumer and cupcake. (Fun fact: they sell between 6,000 and 12,000 cupcakes per day and, at $2.75 a piece, they are some of the least expensive cupcakes around.) The industry surrounding cupcakes, however, I find a little unsettling, and I can’t help but wonder what the deal is with cupcakes being so trendy in recent years. Something about it bothers me — maybe because they’ve become so popular that they’re no longer original or fun anymore. When something becomes mainstream, it risks losing its allure. (It also strikes me as a fairly sexist business, but that’s a different story.)

Magnolia Bakery | New York City

So, naturally, I read up on the cupcake phenomenon. Some place the blame on Sex and the City. Thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker’s cupcake stop at Magnolia Bakery on Bleeker Street, the area (and its cupcakes) have become increasingly popular over the years. Others find the cupcake boom to be a bi-product of the recession, and therefore claim that the industry is not economically viable. In an article entitled “The Cupcake Bubble” by Daniel Gross, the author, quoting a colleague, wrote:

“Their economic rationale withstands any and all conditions. When the economy is going well, people can afford little extras like cupcakes. When the economy isn’t going well, people can afford only cupcakes.” Indeed, they are being pitched as affordable luxuries. In an age when discretionary, feel-good spending is at a nadir, cupcake bakeries are trying to persuade people to trade up from cheaper sugar-delivery vehicles (such as, say, a doughnut).

He also proposed that people find comfort in the in-complexity of cupcakes in an increasingly complex world, especially food-wise (because, apparently, new and exotic flavors of dark chocolate confuse customers?). Both of these arguments are valid, but the first is much more likely. I still love cupcakes, but the business has become a little too prominent for it to be special anymore, especially with many new cupcake shops opening up daily.

Vanilla Bake Shop | Santa Monica

But the fact remains: they are undeniably delicious and charming. (Although in some cases they are vastly overpriced and taste like cardboard.) The cupcake will always be a go-to treat for many people, myself included — but the cupcake craze needs to stop. Cupcakes aren’t so cute anymore when they’re on every street corner.

Thoughts? What is your opinion on the cupcake trend? Do you think it’s here to stay?

{Sources: Georgetown Cupcake image courtesy of Ahn Tran, via theeagleonline.com. Spinkles image via whitenoise.net. Magnolia bakery cupcakes image taken by Alison Krause. Vanilla Bake Shop image taken by Sam Kim. All images accessed via Google Images.}