Category Archives: Book Reviews

Author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat makes naughty list for the holidays

If the thought of the fast-arriving, anxiety-inducing holidays is making you want to throw a Xanax into your pumpkin-spice latte, author and blogger Jen Mann has your back.

spending the holidays with people i want to punch in the throat cover on carpoolcandy.com

Ballantine Books/ Random House

In her new book,  “Spending the Holidays With People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Yuletide Yahoos, Ho-Ho-Humblebraggers, and Other Seasonal Scourges,” Mann tells a stocking full of funny stories about how easily the holidays can be spoiled, regardless of good intentions and how many trees you decorate or cookies you bake.

decorating Christmas sugar cookies on carpoolcandy.com

Our holiday traditions include baking and decorating dozens of cookies, but they’re hardly perfect.

While many of the essays focus on Christmas– from Mann’s childhood through the present– she pokes fun at other holidays and our need to keep up with traditions and with the Joneses.

Her mother starts decorating for Christmas as soon as the lights go out on Halloween and has no less than 12 themed trees, 102 nativity scenes, and 150 Santa figures taking over her house.

That’s quite a precedent.

It seems everyone in Mann’s world is just one bad gift, one lost tradition, or one burned cookie away from ruining Christmas. She builds suspense in each harrowing tale of missteps, while commenting on the anxiety the holidays create, especially for moms trying to hold everything together and create the magic of the season.

Two essays — one on an overheard conversation between Overachieving Moms preparing for the holidays and another on humblebrag Christmas letters — give Mann a chance to air her grievances about all the irritating people who tout perfection.

Mann keeps it real in her own witty, self-deprecating letter, which heralds broken bones, her young son’s propensity for nudity and outrageous prices at Disney World.

By poking fun at the insanity of Martha Stewart-worshipping moms, and the cultural pressure to acquire expensive stuff, Mann provides relief — and a voice — for those who feel they can never compete.

You can read my full review in all its glory here.

Author Jen Mann of spending the holidays with people i want to punch in the throat on carpoolcandy.com

Author Jen Mann cracks me up

Mann is a great writer who perpetually portrays herself as the underdog, but is really a heroine and her blog a refuge for moms just trying to keep it together. The best part is that the book is less than 200 pages and a quick read that will make you giggle. You may even recognize some people you know.

Are you stressed yet about the holidays? Tell me in the comments.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” lit a fire under my ass

I’ve reviewed a lot of books in the past few years, but never has an author seemed to look inside me and shine a light on the web of ego and dreams tangled up in there.

Big Magic cover on carpoolcandy.com

The book came from the publisher “creatively” wrapped in paper with pretty ribbon

That’s what I felt like while reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new non-fiction book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which is out this week. I jumped at the chance to review her new book because I’m a big fan of her writing.

Her best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray Love, sparked both lovers and haters of her work, although, being on the love side, I don’t really understand the hate. Sure, it was self-indulgent, but aren’t most memoirs? Whether you bought into the journey, you can’t deny Gilbert’s talent. Her writing is personal, insightful, honest and funny.

Gilbert is able to see a situation, turn it over in her mind a few thousand times and then write about it so honestly and specifically,that even if the situation doesn’t apply completely, you can’t help but recognize yourself.

Elizabeth Gilbert on carpoolcandy.com

Big Magic is a must-read for writers, as it speaks to why we subject ourselves to the uncertainty, rejection, and criticism that comes with sharing your thoughts in public. Not to mention the love of art in lieu of a fat paycheck.

But it’s also for anyone who has creative desires of any kind and isn’t fulfilling them.

She uses an example of a friend who skated as a child and loved it, but quit when she became a teenager and realized she wasn’t going to the Olympics. She went on to become a successful businesswoman who was happily married with kids, but started to feel down and in a rut. After some soul-searching she remembered how skating used to make her feel and decided to get back on the ice.

She could have been intimidated by her age, by taking lessons with a bunch of 9-year-olds watching, by the cold, by lack of personal time….by what others would think. But none of that was enough to prevent her from getting up early to skate for an hour before work a few times a week. The feeling she got from being on the ice again carried over into the rest of her life and she felt joy and ease she hadn’t felt in years.

She hasn’t won any medals, and she’s still skating.

So what are you afraid of doing? What activity have you always wanted to try or tried once and left behind? There are a million excuses not to pick it up, and Gilbert lists them all in the book. But those excuses are hiding fear.

I’ll admit something I haven’t out loud much before: I have an idea for a screenplay.

Just writing this is making me queasy. I don’t feel comfortable sharing my dreams so publicly.

I’ve had the idea for about 10 years and have created characters, scenes and even dialog in my mind, but haven’t been able to commit to it because I’m afraid.

Afraid of failure and success. Afraid it won’t be as good as I want it to be. Afraid I have no business writing a screenplay. I’m no Brooklyn hipster or Hollywood phenom. I’m just a working mom driving carpool.

But Liz told me I have a voice and it needs to be heard. She hasn’t promised my work will be read, liked, produced and released. She just says I have to write it. For me. Because every year that goes by that I don’t write it, I feel like I’ve failed myself.

It would feel really good to get it all out of my head and onto paper (or a PDF file, you get the point.) I’ve spent more time in the last year on it than ever before and I actually have most of Act 1 down and an outline for Acts 2 and 3.

Writing desk on carpoolcandy.com

I spent a weekend alone in NYC last spring working on the screenplay.

But now I need to fully commit. To make room for this project, instead of waiting for free time to work on it. I’m a busy gal so there are lots of great reasons not to work on my story. Helping kids, cooking dinner, volunteering at school, reading for my book club and work. And how about just being dog tired after a busy week and preferring to lay on the couch eating cookies while watching Orange is the New Black?

But Liz has made me realize it’s fear keeping me from the page. And I can’t let fear win.

Big Magic has great stories and tips on how to tap into whatever creative gig you’re into. I gave the book a great review, which you can read here.  I’m not alone in feeling the power of this book, it just hit number one on the NY Times bestseller list.

What are you afraid of?  Be brave and tell me in the comments.  Then commit to punching fear in the face and getting started on your journey to a more creative life!

Kanye West: creative genius or out of control egomaniac?

Sorry for the hiatus kids, I was in jolly old England for a week with Aden (at least one post on that loveliness to come.) While I was gone, my review came out on the new book, “Kanye West: God and Monster,” by Mark Beaumont.

While the book is not great– way too long and not well-written or edited– I was fascinated by Kanye and wanted to learn more. He’s surprising in many ways. Growing up with two college-educated parents who valued the arts and instilled a strong work ethic, he started rapping as a kid in Chicago and worked his ass off writing and performing whenever he could.

kanye west god and monster book cover on carpoolcandy.com

He made his bones as a producer and was working in the big leagues by 19– showing up to meetings with record companies in a pink Polo shirt and a Louis Vuitton backpack– ready to negotiate. The 90’s hip hop world didn’t know what to make of him, but he refused to take no for an answer.

Once he broke into the music business, he worked obsessively on perfecting every record, surrounding himself with the best talent and open to all collaboration. As his star began to rise, his healthy ego became his downfall. His media meltdowns became legendary and made him a punchline.

But he just went back to work creating. His vision and influence extends well beyond music into producing and directing videos, fashion, and design. Kanye also changed the genre by writing more honestly about his life experiences and feelings, which opened the door for many new artists since. The book made me want to buy his albums.

While I wouldn’t recommend Kanye West: God and Monster— read why below, I don’t mince words– I hope a good writer gets access to Ye or he writes his own story. I’d buy that book for realz.

Anyone who’s glanced at a tabloid recently knows Kanye West as a flashy rapper married to reality TV star Kim Kardashian. But a new book, “Kanye West: God and Monster,” by Mark Beaumont (Ominibus Press) argues West’s talent and influence stretch well past the gossip headlines. 

Beaumont did his homework — there are eight pages of sources cited in the index– piecing together West’s story, using media interviews spanning more than a decade. But the only quotes in the book allegedly said by West and those in his circle are taken from outside reporting– not original interviews– so there are no revelations, and few new personal details. 
 
The book follows West’s life from childhood in Chicago, to his first shot in the music business, through to the present. The bulk of the content focuses on West’s creative process writing and producing, so it reads more like a music anthology than biography. 
 
The chapters are long and dense, each focusing on a particular album, explaining the origin and meaning of scores of song lyrics and musical hooks, and myriad collaborators. West has joined forces with dozens of rap and hip hop stars and the author names them all, making it challenging to keep up. While Beaumont is deft at analyzing West’s lyrics and relating them to the rapper’s life experiences, including so many examples becomes repetitive, tedious, and breaks the narrative’s flow. 
 
A consistent theme in the book is West’s perseverance and his refusal to accept rejection because his artistic convictions and belief in himself are so strong. Beaumont suggests that while West is a “god” in music now, he had a tough time breaking in.
 
He didn’t look or sound like other rappers in the late 1990’s, and came from a disciplined home with college-educated parents who valued academics, art and a strong work ethic. While most rappers were wearing tight shirts and baggy jeans slung low, West– a high-fashion fan– sported a loose pink Ralph Lauren shirt with the collar flipped up and a Louis Vuitton backpack.

kanye-west Rolling Stones cover
Beaumont builds a convincing case that West is a creative music genius, with an eye for fashion, video directing, and design. He’s also known among peers as one of the hardest working in show business. Rapping as a child, he hustled through adolescence and produced on a platinum record at just 19.   
 
The book examines his process– never writing down lyrics, constantly listening to music from all genres to find hooks, and putting them together with signature beats. West often burrows in hotels and makeshift studios for months with little sleep, barely stopping to eat, as he constantly rearranges songs up until a record release.

A near fatal car accident at the beginning of his career gave him renewed purpose and sparked more honesty in his writing. While most artists were singing about fast cars, guns and sex, West started writing reflective raps about peer pressure, materialism, racism, violence, and stereotypes.

The audience responded to his new vulnerability: he was selling records and wowing critics. Beaumont maintains this introspective writing style changed the game and opened the door for more sensitive artists like Drake, Kid Cudi, and Frank Ocean. 

But with success, came hubris and a lack of self-control. West began to draw negative attention by comparing himself to great musicians and cultural icons, like Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Steve Jobs, and Ghandi, and became famous for his public meltdowns. 
 
He was publicly vilified after effectively calling then President George Bush a racist on live TV, and again when interrupting Taylor Swift after winning her first MTV award insisting Beyonce should have won. The backlash sent him into exile, but the book doesn’t offer any new insight nor explain why West continued his monster ways in subsequent interviews, Twitter rants, and scuffles with paparazzi. 

Fans looking for scoop on West’s personal life will be disappointed. Many life events– messy breakups, his mother’s tragic death following plastic surgery, feuds with other musicians, his marriage to Kardashian and becoming a father — are glossed over. 
 
The book spotlights the music and West’s ambition and artistic influence. He has his own record label, produces and styles music videos, created a Nike sneaker, and has fashion lines in the works. His tour with hip hop magnate Jay-Z broke records and marked transcendence into the mainstream.
 
“They were outselling Rock and Roll giants, and had broken through cultural barriers to become accepted and loved far beyond their niche beginnings. They were pop culture figures dictating fashion, music and even changes in racial and social attitudes,” Beaumont writes.  
 
Beaumont’s writing style is bland, unlike his dynamic subject. West’s personal story, his fearlessness and tireless work ethic, and his talent and creativity will likely inspire readers. Beaumont hails West as innovative and riveting. Unfortunately, his book is not.

Are you a Kanye fan? Tell me in the comments.
 

In “The Book of Joan” Melissa Rivers is no longer the straight (wo)man

This week I reviewed Melissa Rivers’ new book about her mother– the late great comedian Joan Rivers– called The Book of Joan. It’s a sweet tribute, filled with jokes (“My mother never cooked. Her signature dish was takeout, ) advice, and personal anecdotes that will make you laugh.

I was a huge Joan fan, practically growing up at her knee as she made fun of herself — from her boobs to her love life– as a standup, talk show host, and red carpet critic.

I was surprised at how sad I was when she died suddenly last September after losing oxygen during a surgical procedure on her vocal chords at a Manhattan clinic. It was the end of an era. She was one of those famous people who was always there– at the awards shows, on the late night talk circuit, writing books–  and I figured she’d always be there. I guess I took her for granted.

I didn’t know much about Melissa before this book, other than being Joan’s sidekick. But she wasn’t just the daughter of a famous person, she’s a Penn grad who rose through the ranks to executive producer of several shows at E and is a single working mom.

Joan And Melissa Joan Knows Best as on carpoolcandy.com

(We TV)

I was impressed with her storytelling and humor in The Book of Joan. It’s a great retelling of Joan’s life in small snippets and stories, from Melissa’s perspective. Melissa had an extraordinary childhood, often on the road with Joan, meeting comedians, singers, and actors, and traveling the world. The book has great Hollywood folklore and behind-the-scenes gossip from the red carpet.

One of the best parts of the book is the personal documents Melissa shares that reveal parts of Joan’s character. There are several hilarious grade school report cards showing Joan Molinsky (her real name) was talkative, attention-seeking, and used bribery to win friends… and an early resume filled with lies about work experience.

But the most touching is a note Joan wrote to a teenaged rebellious Melissa about making mistakes. It was so spot-on I may copy it for future parenting use. Who knew that acerbic, bitchy diva could be such a loving, dedicated and strict mother?

The Book of Joan cover on carpoolcandy.com

(Crown Publishing)

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

The beginning pieces have the same rhythm and campy style of Joan’s books and some of the jokes sound comfortably familiar. But in later chapters, when talking about their life together ruling the red carpet and on several TV shows, Melissa’s own modern, edgy voice emerges.

The book touches on familiar aspects of Joan’s life — her exhaustive work ethic (working six days a week on several shows, books, a jewelry line and her standup act) … her indulgence in expensive things (designer handbags and shoes, first-class travel, a personal driver) … and her preoccupation with looks that led to countless cosmetic procedures (“she changed noses the way Taylor Swift changes boyfriends”).

But new details may enlighten fans. She was a stickler for manners, loved watching crime shows and reading about serial killers, hid cash all over her apartment for spending sprees and stitched needlepoint pillows to relax.

The most touching stories show Joan as a fiercely dedicated and loving mother, and grandmother to Melissa’s only child, Cooper, whom she enjoyed spoiling. Despite an intense work schedule, Joan always made Melissa a priority, bringing her on the road when she traveled, emphasizing the value of education and supporting her extracurricular activities. A note in the book from Joan to teenage Melissa infers her parenting skills. “Sometimes it’s very hard to grow up, to learn to be independent, to become totally your own self …” she wrote. “I love and adore you. P.S. You’re still grounded!”

Melissa describes Joan as a bawdy, fearless comic, but an old-fashioned, strict parent, scrutinizing every outfit Melissa wore and every man she dated. But the funny lady who picked on everyone in public was kind and generous in person, especially to her fans.

If you want to read more click here.

If you were ever a fan of Joan and/or love pop culture and old Hollywood, I highly recommend The Book of Joan. It’s a great Mother’s Day gift.

Need a Joan fix? Watch the amazing documentary, A Piece of Work, which followed her for a year when she was 75, working her ass off and living well. (Available on Amazon Prime and maybe Netflix?) It’s a fascinating look at celebrity, the mind of a comic genius, and the life of a lonely woman who sorely needed to be relevant and loved. Don’t we all?

We all want our kids to be “The Opposite of Spoiled”

I reviewed an eye-opening and useful book by New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber this week that I’m recommending to all my fellow parents. The Opposite of Spoiled argues that if we don’t get real with our kids when it comes to money, we’re setting them up for financial confusion down the road.

opposite of spoiled cover on carpoolcandy.com

What I liked most about the book is it’s not wonkish at all– it’s filled with lots of helpful advice and concrete suggestions for guiding kids to manage money responsibly. Lieber has been using his column, guests stints on the NYT‘s  Motherlode column, and his Facebook page to find real stories from families all over the country trying to keep kids grounded in our materialistic culture.

Lieber’s research led to this clinical definition of a spoiled child: He/she has few chores or responsibilities, few enforced behavior and schedule rules, and is lavished with time, assistance and material possessions by parents.

Sound a bit familiar? Yikes!

We’re all a little guilty of spoiling our kids and Lieber goes into all the reasons we do it– from childhood wounds to a need for acceptance from kids and peers. But we’re doing them a disservice by keeping them in the dark about finances and not requiring them to take on more regular responsibilities.

Shutterfly dry erase chore chart on carpoolcandy.com

Here’s an excerpt:

Some of the book’s unconventional recommendations may surprise parents, like answering salary questions honestly and not tying household chores to allowance. Parents who fear that talking with kids about money leads to spoiled children may be denying them a map to navigate important decisions later on.

 Lieber says it’s “lunacy” to expect a teenager who’s probably never bought anything more expensive than a bike to make one of the biggest financial decisions of his life when choosing a college, if financial aid is involved. The book’s goal is to lay a framework for kids to start dealing with the dough when they’re younger so they develop good habits before finances get more complex with student loans, retirement plans and insurance policies in their 20s and beyond.

 When explaining money decisions, Lieber suggests distinguishing “wants” and “needs.” If kids understand the difference, it becomes easier and more rewarding to save for coveted things. Guiding kids to separate money into spend, save and give away piles isn’t new, but Lieber delves deeper into how to help kids appreciate those choices, which often require patience and restraint and build character.

It’s rare to find a book about finance with so much heart, but Lieber’s bottom line is to invest in our kids’ futures by being honest and aware of our relationship with money: “There’s no shame in having more or less, as long as you’re grateful for what you have, share it generously with others, and spend it wisely on the things that make you happiest.”

You can read the rest here.

Would you be willing to discuss your household income with your kids? Tell me in the comments.

Mazel of the week goes to “The Andy Cohen Diaries”

If you wanna know what it’s really like to hang in the celebrity crowd– from the Vanity Fair Oscar party to weekends with the Seinfelds and Fallons in the Hamptons– late night Bravo host Andy Cohen’s new book, “The Andy Cohen Diaries,” will be your new guilty pleasure.

the-andy-cohen-diaries-a-deep-look-at-a-shallow-year cover on carpoolcandy.com

The book is a take off of “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” a gigantic tome of the artist’s daily activities and bitchy impressions of all the celebrities he encountered partying nightly in Manhattan in the late 80’s.

andy warhol diaries cover on carpoolcandy.com

Cohen was fascinated by Warhol’s commentary and thought it would be fun to detail a year in his life at the epicenter of pop culture in New York today.

It is fun.

The book’s subtitle,” A Deep Look at a Shallow Year,” suggests Cohen knows that some of the minutia– daily weigh-ins and workouts, two-hour massages, selfies galore– is frivolous.

But it’s all real, and if you want to know if stars are really like us, this is your book.

Andy Cohen and Kim Kardashian selfie from Instagram

A pop culture moment: selfie with Kim Kardashian’s ass on the set of his show,   “Watch What Happens Live” (Instagram)

In many ways, Cohen is still a fan and gets excited and even nervous to interview and hang with his childhood idols like Cher and Madonna, but he’s also an insider who finds himself in some crazy situations that bear sharing. He’s chatting at a party with Malala Yousafzai and Lady Gaga, he’s pigging out at Sasha Seinfeld’s bat mitzvah, he’s hitting the beach with Sarah Jessica.

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

Cohen — host of a late-night talk show on the Bravo network and executive producer of “The Real Housewives” series franchise — worked hard to get where he is, but he makes it look easy. A typical day in his downtown Manhattan playground includes a workout with his personal trainer, a romp at the dog park, lunch with friends, a meeting or conference call, a nap, hosting his show and drinking with pals until the wee hours.

His writing style is conversational and tight, infused with snarky and self-deprecating humor. He sticks to a diary format, which includes everything from activities to weigh-ins, to random thoughts and dream analysis. But he often uses only first names, and no explainers, so an index or family tree of his Algonquin round table of pals would be helpful.

An engaging storyteller, he creates a narrative with reappearing characters, including his hilarious, bossy mother, Evelyn. Other players range from the famous — talk-show host Kelly Ripa, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and musician John Mayer — to the amusing — his loyal doorman Surfin, an overly chatty flight attendant and his butt-kicking personal trainer, affectionately called “the Ninj.”

Cohen addresses the obvious risk in recording his every move and mood in the book’s subtitle, and in the introduction. He owns the name-dropping and navel-gazing, but has the honesty, wit and confidence to pull it off, striking a balance between being self-involved and self-aware. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and isn’t afraid to point out behavior gaffes and personality flaws.

You can read the rest here.

Andy Cohen's dog, Wacha, new book on Instagram

Andy fell in love with a rescue dog this year he named Wacha, after a player on his
beloved St Louis Cardinals (Instagram)

Cohen’s been promoting the book all over. Here’s a funny interview he did with Stephen Colbert this week.

I loved the book. Not only is it a gossip fest and a peek into the lives of the rich and famous,  it also captures a moment in pop culture and in New York, like Warhol did. Maybe Cohen’s book will inspire some young kid watching Bravo tonight to dream big. I’ll look for his diaries in 2039.

 

Anne Lamott cracks wise in “Small Victories”

When I saw author Anne Lamott’s new book, “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace” on my review list I grabbed it right away because her words are good for the soul. Who couldn’t use a little of that?

small victories by anne lamott jacket on carpoolcandy.com

It’s a collection of essays– some heartbreaking, some hilarious– about paying attention to the moments in your life that make you feel something deeply. It could be anger and resentment– Lamott has felt plenty of that growing up in a dysfunctional family of alcoholics and raising a son on her own. Or you could just be feeling frustrated and annoyed, like when she was trapped on a plane during a flight delay with a bunch of random strangers.

Lamott examines these moments and uses all the wisdom she’s gained in her 60 years to help us see them in a new, more positive light. She also seems to find the funny in common experiences. Her essay on giving Match.com a whirl made me giggle.

I first discovered Lamott when I was pregnant with Jacob and read her touching book, “Operation Instructions,” about the first year of her son’s life. She was struggling to keep it together after getting off drugs and booze and deciding to have the baby on her own. Her words about motherhood– both loving and terrifying– made me feel like I could handle taking care of the baby in my belly, despite the uncertainty.

She also wrote an excellent book about writing called “Bird by Bird “that gave  me advice and the courage to try.

And here I am.

author anne lamott, author small victories on carpoolcandy.com

Photo by Sam Lamott, the author’s son

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

Her tone is intimate and the pace slow, allowing readers to linger over each essay, like a great meal with friends you never want to end. She boils complicated matters down to basics, and stretches the limits of emotional depth in simple stories with larger lessons.

In separate essays about her father and mother, Lamott shares intimate details of growing up in a family that suffered from “spiritual anorexia.” Her vulnerability is tangible, even years later. Forgiveness is a recurring theme as Lamott strives to let go of anger and resentment and concentrate on the present.

“You sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that helped you keep track of things,” she writes.

Lamott acknowledges many character flaws that ring true for anyone. In one story, she decides a fellow mom at school is her “Enemy Lite.” She’s certain this hateful woman — who’s either exercising or baking cupcakes — is judging her, and perpetually trying to show her up.

But as the relationship evolves, she realizes she was projecting all her fears of failure and maternal insecurities onto this woman. Once she sees the situation clearly, she’s able to accept the woman’s kindness and forgive herself for not being perfect. “I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself,” Lamott writes.

You can read the rest here.

The book is beautifully written and so funny. Lamott is one of those authors with whom I’d enjoy  a long talk over a cup of tea. I just love the way she thinks.

Let me know if you’re a fan or would give the book a try in the comments.