Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

There’s a trend in non-fiction these days: the stunt memoir. Or, as I like to call it, the gimmicky memoir.

You’ve heard of some, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve read a few. But for the unfamiliar, the stunt memoir’s premise is that, for a certain amount of time, the author will embark on a personal challenge and then write about it — often in the spirit of self-discovery or improvement. Maybe it’s not looking at herself in a mirror for a year. Or trying to follow the Bible to the letter. Or following the advice of a women’s how-to guide from the 1960s.

And you know what? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s enlightening and interesting and compelling. And sometimes . . . it’s a stretch. It feels contrived. There’s nothing interesting or fresh. Friends, it’s with great sadness that I place the awesome Jen Lancaster’s latest work, The Tao of Martha, into the latter category.

This pains me — it really does. But this book didn’t work for me. I waited for it to get funny or to illuminate something or to shimmer with the wit that has made Lancaster a bookish superstar, but it just never got there. And with only 50 pages to go, I resorted to skimming. Skimming. Skimming in a Lancaster book. That’s just . . . sacrilege.

The Tao of MarthaYou’ve probably gleaned Lancaster’s “stunt” from the title but, if not, here goes:

“Jen’s still a little rough around the edges. Suffice it to say, she’s no Martha Stewart. And that is exactly why Jen is going to Martha up and live her life according to the advice of America’s overachieving older sister — the woman who turns lemons into lavender-infused lemonade.

By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, her husband (and maybe even her pets) to the next level — from closet organization to craft making, from party planning to kitchen prep.

Maybe Jen can go four days without giving herself food poisoning if she follows Martha’s dictates on proper storage. Maybe she can grow closer to her girlfriends by taking up their boring-ass hobbies like knitting and sewing. Maybe she can finally rid her workout clothes of meatball stains by using Martha’s laundry tips. Maybe she can create a more meaningful anniversary celebration than just getting drunk in the pool with her husband . . . again. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll discover that the key to happiness does, in fact, lie in Martha’s perfectly arranged cupboards and artfully displayed charcuterie platters.

Or maybe not.” (Goodreads)

So, okay: this book wasn’t bad. Despite my tone, a Jen Lancaster memoir is still often better than a non-Jen Lancaster memoir. Her battles in her garden, attempts to sculpt a magnificent trick-or-treating experience for neighborhood kids, poignant stories of losing a beloved dog? All well-told, and worth the price of admission. (And my three-star rating.) There were moments when The Tao of Martha offered up the Jen we all know and love and I thought, Yes! Here she is. Let’s do this.

But then . . . things just got boring.

The story felt forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. Jen is obviously not Martha Stewart and, haha, none of us are because she’s Martha and she’s perfect and blah blah, we’ve been here before. Haven’t we? It felt like a joke that had gone stale: everyone knows Martha is the shining beacon of all mere mortals can never accomplish. No one can be as lovely, perfect, nonplussed. So I guess I was waiting for . . . something more? Jen does experience some growth and actually finds she enjoys some of hobbies she adopts, but it wasn’t enough.

I just never felt invested in her journey, plain and simple.

If you’re new to Jen Lancaster, you can’t go wrong with Bitter Is the New Black. It remains one of the funniest and most heartfelt stories I’ve read, and follow-ups like Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat were also stellar. So while The Tao of Martha didn’t wow me, I can unabashedly recommend her works to anyone new to her humor. And I’ll still be eager to get my paws on whatever she whips up next.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Such A Pretty Fat’ by Jen Lancaster

Every girl carrying a wee bit more weight than the models of the world has probably heard it at some point. “Oh!” innocent acquaintances utter, taking in our cute shoes and tops (in slimming black, of course). “You have such a pretty face!”

I was a newly-minted 16-year-old the first time I heard that phrase in reference to yours truly, a woman who hasn’t been below a size 10 since middle school. At my absolute thinnest — which was probably my sophomore year of college, when I was walking five miles around campus daily — I was still 130 lbs. Nothing too husky about that — except that I’m only 5’2″. If only I were six inches taller . . .

But there’s no use wishing for impossible things — and Jen Lancaster gets that. In her third memoir, Such A Pretty Fat, Lancaster describes her struggles with diet, weight loss, exercise and an allusive sense of motivation. And considering she’s rolling-on-the-ground hilarious, it’s all done with her trademark candor and scathing humor.

What I love about Jen is that she’s a real, honest-to-God person. Flawed and funny and honest. Crazy and neurotic, yet lovable. She rants about things that I rant about. She laughs about things that I laugh at. And in this book, even more than her others, I felt implicitly understood and understanding of her. Such A Pretty Fat isn’t “OMG I’m so huge and let me whine about my weight but do nothing about it” shtick. Lancaster is actually a very confident individual — even cocky (but she owns it).

But like all of us, Jen eventually realizes her health and way of life are affected by poor eating habits and lack of movement. And in very meta fashion, she tells us that pitching a book about her struggles with weight loss — the very book we’re reading — is what finally prompts her to make a lifestyle change. And it works.

Such A Pretty Fat is at its most humorous when Jen describes her forays into the “business” of weight loss. Jenny Craig doesn’t come out looking too rosy in the portrait she paints, citing their constant “pushing” of the Craig-brand pre-packaged foods over education regarding smarter food choices. Jen’s portrayal of “food hating” seems spot on, and her story is poignant as she describes fellow attendees at Weight Watchers meetings who channel their self-hatred into a new target: the food itself. These “birthday cake haters” rage when coworkers dare to bring dessert into the workplace — without holding themselves responsible for, you know, using some self-restraint and simply not eating cake.

I work in an office, and trust me — I get it. It really does feel like we have dessert to celebrate the awesomeness of dessert, and you can’t take a step ’round these parts without tripping on a cupcake. (And I’m the one baking them.) Still, I appreciated what Jen had to say about actually backing away from the buffet yourself without trying to make everyone else miserable. Just because I’m opting to put down a doughnut doesn’t mean you have to do the same. To each her own.

Though Jen is often over-the-top, I love that about her. In terms of style, she’s pretty much my hero; girl can write and has excellent comedic timing. If you’ve ever struggled with weight (who hasn’t?) and enjoy your non-fiction heavily spiced with sarcasm and hilarity, don’t miss Lancaster. Though Bitter Is The New Black remains my favorite of her works, Such A Pretty Fat is a winner.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451223896 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Bright Lights, Big Ass’ by Jen Lancaster

What I love about Jen Lancaster is that you feel like she could be your best friend. Your scary, loose cannon, OMG-what-is-she-going-to-say-next friend.

And sometimes? Well, sometimes those people are the most fun in the world to be around.

In her second memoir Bright Lights, Big Ass, Lancaster focuses on the realities of life in the city — and how, specifically, Chicago is nothing like the sparkly, doors-wide-open, exciting New York City that “Sex And The City” character Carrie Bradshaw is so apt to describe. Reality includes annoying neighbors, ridiculous prices, people who don’t like pets and problems with mass transporation. All told with Lancaster’s trademark snark, of course.

While her debut novel Bitter Is The New Black chronicled her fall from success and wealth to unemployment and near poverty, her next memoir finds Lancaster in a better place — financially and emotionally. She’s married to Fletch, her longtime love, and living in a decent-ish apartment with her bevy of beloved animals. She’s sold Bitter Is The New Black and is eagerly awaiting its publication. Here, each chapter in Bright Lights, Big Ass is an ode to some aspect of life in Chicago — and is filled with anecdotes regarding her love of Target, Starbucks and modern conveniences. As I am also a huge fan of those things, Lancaster’s book read like a series of messages from a buddy.

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen this song and dance before, but Bright Lights, Big Ass didn’t “wow” me the way her debut book did. I snorted, chortled and laughed until I cried many times, but I wasn’t desperate to read portions of it aloud to my sister or boyfriend. With a second book in the Lancaster’s distinct style, settling in with her prose is like getting a long catch-up email from an old friend: you know it’s going to be full of good stories and fodder for the dinner table, but it’s probably nothing you haven’t heard before.

Without the biting wit made famous through her blog Jennsylvania, Lancaster’s memoirs would seem like a laundry list of whining. But she hasn’t become a New York Times best selling author without being funnier than hell. And she is: spit-take-inducing, compulsively readable and hilarious. And though she can also be erudite and cruel at times, she has a good heart — it’s just layered under a casserole of sarcasm, angst and elitism. But that’s totally fine, because as long as she keeps churning out the funny? Well, I’ll be reading.

Pick this one up as a stand-alone, if you like, but I’d recommend grabbing the books in order; it’s fun to see Jen’s progression. If you’re new to Lancaster, read them as Bitter Is the New Black; Bright Lights, Big Ass; Such A Pretty Fat; Pretty In Plaid; and, last but not least, My Fair Lazy.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451221257 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Bitter Is The New Black’ by Jen Lancaster

bitter_is_new_blackWe all know the Divas of the Workplace — they’re usually easy to spot. Whether you work in a chain store, a restaurant or an office, Power Women permeate every cell of the place. Jen Lancaster was one of these ladies — intense and hard-working but also intensely spoiled. Not very many years out of college, she’d already landed a six-figure job as an associate vice president at an investment research firm in Chicago, where she lived with her long-time boyfriend Fletch.

Jen is a self-proclaimed narcissist, so we can’t hold any of her hubris against her — or so we’re told. She’s beautiful, rich and important, a lethal combination for any numbskulls who make the mistake of crossing her . . . or just crossing in her path. Life carries along just fine for Ms. Lancaster — filled to the brim with expensive shoes, clothing and an enviable lifestyle — until the economy begins to tank around 2001. Now I’m not all about the corporate lingo, but anyone could see terms like “merger” and “lay-offs” were going to spell disaster for our heroine. When she finds the ax has come down, she’s been efficiently chopped out of her comfortable life, possibly forever.

Bitter Is The New Black: Confessions Of A Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag To The Unemployment Office, aside from bearing one of the longest subtitles I’ve ever seen, is a hilarious, often poignant look at Jen’s fall from grace — and her eventual reckoning with who she once was in order to change.

Of course the book opens with a seriously scary Jen drinking, shouting at waitresses and generally intimidating everyone around her — save a few lackeys at her workplace. As I can be a bit demanding and egomaniacal myself, I was a little worried I was going to be reading a book about myself — save all the shouting, because I’m way too polite for that. And, you know, the money . . . because I’m just an editor. And the shoes — not really my thing. Purses, though? Yes, please. And —

Whoa, I digress!

No, this book is all about Jen — and I wouldn’t want it any other way! She’s larger than life, a bit crass but always truthful, and I absolutely loved the fact that she was honest with herself and about herself. Bitter Is The New Black is really her journey out of corporate life and into a whole new life — one as a writer. But way beyond that, it’s about a serious paradigm shift — yes, I just used the work paradigm, who’s pretentious now? — that forces her to reclassify everything in her life that’s important. Suddenly the purchase of a $6,500 couch that once seemed life or death for Jen is seen as a terrible, terrible misuse of funds (thank goodness they didn’t really buy it). When unemployment checks begin to run out for both she and Fletch, all the dollars dropped on those Kate Spade bags and designer clothes? A waste. When you can’t pay your electricity and face constant harrassment from your landlord about getting behind on rent, living hand-to-mouth, nothing in your life can be the same.

Because things get bad for Jen and Fletch. Scary bad. Knot-in-my-stomach bad. They were never in danger of losing a roof over their head — they always had Jen’s parents in Indiana to fall back on — but they were definitely in some hot water. And it was only through their perserverance and ability to stick together that brought them through that.

Oh, and because Jen is one wickedly hilarious writer.

Bloggers in particular will appreciate Jen’s riches-to-rags-to-riches story, mostly because everything turned around after her blog Jennsylvania began to take off. Much like Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame, we see the power of the Internet — and the written word — in action.

If you’re looking for a funny read with a very healthy dash of comeuppances mixed into articulate but chatty prose, Jen Lancaster is your best bet. Laurie Notaro is still my reigning Queen of the Hilarious Memoir, but I’m totally willing to invite Lancaster to court.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451217608 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website