Book review: ‘Ali In Wonderland’ by Ali Wentworth

Actress and comedienne Ali Wentworth grew up in the shadow of Muffie Cabot, her perfectly-coiffed and powerful mother, and her early years are profoundly shaped by her childhood in Washington, D.C. Wanting nothing more than to escape the drab world of politics, Ali left for Los Angeles to break into show biz — and succeeded.

With stints on “In Living Color,” “Seinfeld,” “The Marriage Ref” and more, Ali has found her niche as a quirky but lovable character and eventually married one George Stephanopoulos. In the funny but circular way life often works, being a political correspondent’s wife brings her back to Washington. She and her husband welcome two daughters, and mayhem ensues.

Ali Wentworth’s Ali In Wonderland is a fun if haphazard memoir detailing her childhood and teen years and the unexpected events that befell her once she arrived in L.A. Touching ever-so-briefly on her marriage to George, which was my real vested interest in all this, Wentworth manages to weave together a book that is amusing if not wholly satisfying.

My biggest gripe with Ali In Wonderland is its disjointed nature. The book is told through vignettes without real regard to space and time. We may jump from childhood to adulthood, D.C. to L.A., and I never knew whether I was coming or going. This could have worked had their been some unifying theme or parallelism, but as it stood? I felt a little motion sick.

Also, I’m told over and over again how hilarious Wentworth is — and am even informed this by blurber Alec Baldwin. And Wentworth has certainly had an interesting, colorful life. But did I find myself snorting coffee or choking back uncontrollable belly laughs the way I am with my nose in a Jen Lancaster book? Not really. Plus, the book’s tone would shift so abruptly — from talking about a funny show to an attempted rape (literally) — that I further heightened my “am I coming or going?” feeling. I mean, is this humor or true crime? This isn’t funny, right?

There was plenty I liked about Wentworth’s stories, especially when she described her high school years and trips overseas. At less than 300 pages, it’s truly a quick read. But I felt like we’d barely skimmed the surface when discussing her family and marriage. Considering her husband is a prominent journalist and her mother a former first lady’s social secretary, perhaps she just didn’t want to go no-holds-barred and expose her family’s inner workings. I can respect that. But as an American with an insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip, I still craved something juicy.

I guess now would be the point where I admit to having a slight, teeny, almost invisible crush on Wentworth’s husband. George Stephanopoulos exudes control and charisma, and my sister, dad and I were lucky enough to greet him between takes of “This Week” once at the Newseum downtown. (Katie shook his hand! I was too nervous.) As I’m native to the area myself, I could definitely relate to Ali’s descriptions of Georgetown and life in D.C.

Fans of Wentworth or humorous memoirs might find Ali In Wonderland to be a pleasant, diverting afternoon read. Wentworth comes across as very likeable and down-to-Earth, and I never considered abandoning the book. But waiting for the laugh-until-tears-stream-down-my-face moment I craved never quite materialized.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061998575 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Twitter
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘We All Wore Stars’ by Theo Coster

More than 60 years after World War II, Theo Coster, a Dutch toymaker, sets about finding the students with whom he attended the Amsterdam Jewish Lyceum in 1941. One of them was Anne Frank.

Today Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl stands as one of the most important and heartbreaking documents to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. To escape Nazi persecution, the Frank family famously went into hiding in a “Secret Annex” in Amsterdam, where they lived for two years until they were betrayed to the German Gestapo. Anne used her diary to detail her isolation and loneliness, her hopes and dreams, the boredom of living in confinement — and, of course, the constant fear of discovery.

But We All Wore Stars isn’t just Anne’s story. Author Theo Coster was a young classmate of Anne’s, a fellow 13-year-old without any ability to predict the horrors that were to come. Having survived the war in hiding, Coster fled to Israel and went on to create the popular board game “Guess Who?” Now in his 80s, Coster has been slowly sifting through his memories of the Holocaust and attempting to reconcile his survival against the millions who perished. Tracking down his former schoolmates, including Jacqueline van Maarsen, was part of a process of healing — and creating a voice with which to argue with dissenters who claim the Holocaust’s atrocities never happened.

The Holocaust is a tragedy I’ve spent many years studying. As a history minor in college, I took countless classes on American and World History — for fun. Among them was a Jewish Studies class focusing exclusively on the where, when, how and why of the Holocaust. Students openly cried during lectures, myself included, and our professor actually had to leave the room once to regain her composure. Some of the images we saw and stories we read will be sealed in my heart forever. It’s impossible to discuss the horrible scale of the Holocaust — or to even begin to comprehend the logistics required to execute the genocide of six million people.

And Coster doesn’t try. This isn’t a history lesson — in fact, considering how slim the memoir is, Coster assumes you understand the basics of the war and are familiar with Anne herself. We All Wore Stars is an exploration of how five of Anne’s former classmates survived, all going “underground” to avoid being shipped off to concentration or extermination camps, and Coster meets up with them again to discuss Anne and her short — but extraordinary — life.

No major revelations about Anne are revealed, but it’s fascinating to hear others’ take on her personality during their school years. Of the five featured, Jacqueline was probably closest to Anne. She survived the war believing, as many did, that the Frank family had successfully escaped to Switzerland. Anne’s father, the sole survivor of their family of four, had the heartbreaking task of delivering news of Anne’s death to Jacque. And Jacque was one of the first people to actually see The Diary after the war.

We All Wore Stars really humanizes Anne, smoothing away her fame to create a portrait of a girl who was just that: a girl. A 13-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood, ruined and robbed of her childhood as so many were. Described as clever and silly, confident and outspoken, none of Anne’s classmates had an inkling she was destined to become a writer. No one could have known that her singular voice would rise from the Holocaust as bright and clear as any — or that Diary Of A Young Girl would go on to be published in more than 60 languages, and remains the second most-read non-fiction book ever. Behind, you know, The Bible.

Coster describes his own feelings regarding how he is portrayed in Anne’s diary, noting with some bemusement that Anne calls him “a rather boring kid.” Called Maurice at birth, Coster adopted the name “Theo” as a less “Jewish-sounding” alternative as he tried to pass as a non-Jewish friend’s nephew during his time in hiding. The name stuck and has been legally changed, and Coster seems to view this as a way of shedding his pre-Holocaust identity. I can’t say I blame him.

We All Wore Stars works best as another glimpse at innocent people torn apart by Adolf Hitler’s regime. Though Anne Frank is the one to bring the classmates together again, the book is as much about their personal journeys as Anne’s life and death. Both a tribute to their famous classmate and everyone murdered by the Nazi Germany, We All Wore Stars is a moving look at life, humanity and friendship. Readers fascinated by Anne and interested in the personal voices of Holocaust survivors will find plenty to ponder here.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 023011444X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Mennonite In A Little Black Dress’ by Rhoda Janzen

Broken from the sequence of an ugly divorce and a devastating car accident, Rhoda Janzen finds herself facing a harsh new reality in her forties. Long distanced from her conservative Mennonite family in California but still close to her sympathetic but stoic parents, Janzen boards a plane to abandon the lake house she once shared with her volatile husband and recuperate far from her old life.

Returning home to her traditional roots, Janzen laces anecdotes from her unique upbringing with the more complicated nature of her present. There were many times Mennonite In A Little Black Dress could have dissolved into a maudlin reflection of her tumultuous marriage and emotional and physical injuries, but it never does.

The synopsis above probably did nothing to sell you on how truly funny this book is. But it really is.

I read this book quickly, laughing at points until tears streamed down my face. Janzen’s mother, Mary, totally steals the show; her snappy one-liners and innocent-yet-savvy expressions were hilarious. And Janzen herself is a heroine we can all root for — a brilliant but damaged Everywoman. When her husband of many decades announces he’s leaving her for a man he met online, she crumbles. But her memoir doesn’t focus so much on her dissolution as it does the way she cobbles together the pieces of her broken heart into a new, stronger one.

As Janzen relives her marriage to Nick, a charismatic but unpredictable academic, we begin to feel her pain — and then we get angry. Why in the world would Rhoda stay with a man this violent, this harsh and mean-spirited? Like many, I wanted to shake Rhoda for being weak. Plain and simple, Nick was an abusive husband. Physically, emotionally — the scars ran deep. But as Janzen is sharing this story after the fact, we don’t become infinitely frustrated with her. As readers we understand she’s been through a (very) trying time; she’s seen the error of her ways. She’s making amends. She’s moving forward.

And that “moving forward” brings her home. You can’t help but giggle with — not at — her Mennonite family, learning about their traditional habits and practices. Janzen helpfully outlines a history of the Mennonites at the close of the book, and I almost wish this had come earlier as a short introduction. I’ll be perfectly honest: I was completely ignorant about Mennonites. I (wrongfully) assumed they lived as many of the local Amish do here in Maryland: very simply. Without electricity or running water. Without a working telephone. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read about Janzen’s childhood — the simple, homemade clothes; the public school education — and realized she was integrated with mainstream kids. Sometimes with hilarious results.

Then I felt dumb.

Mennonite In A Little Black Dress was the perfect combination of light and darkness, humor and poignancy. When Janzen recalled the kindness her students showed her after her car accident — carrying her bags around campus, writing her notes on the chalkboard so she wouldn’t have to lift her arms — I actually had tears in my eyes. Still smarting from her divorce, Janzen said she couldn’t help but feel as though the young people sensed more than just the pain of her broken bones. They took care with her. Though that passage was only a page or two long, it was one of the most memorable parts of the book.

Fans of memoirs — especially humorous ones — will delight in this snappy, quick and plucky memoir that also serves as a love letter to her family. Though the reviews are decidedly mixed, I loved it — and I definitely did not feel the story was as “mean-spirited” as others claim. It’s clear Janzen deeply loves her parents and that, despite everything, they deeply love her. No matter what. That’s family.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805092250 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Falling For Me’ by Anna David

Writer Anna David finds herself in a dilemma familiar to many 20- and 30-somethings: we wake up one morning and realize, Hey. This? Not what I imagined my life would be. I’m supposed to be married — or coupled up, at least. Maybe headed towards starting a family. Finding a more fulfilling career — and a better living situation. Better style, composure, sophistication. Something else.

Angry with her propensity to fall for unavailable men and desperate to avoid the vestiges of her last failed non-relationship, David turns to an old book for help: Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, a how-to guide for the “modern” woman. Cutting-edge at the time of its 1962 publication, Sex becomes David’s new gospel as she navigates making changes to her stagnant life. Though she surrounds herself with great friends, her family life remains troubled — and any attempts to find “The One” on sites like prove fruitless. But once David tries new things according to Brown’s recommendations — everything from redecorating her apartment to attending a snobby pottery class — she begins to see major changes. And these changes could lead to something big.

Anna David’s Falling For Me is the latest in memoirs written by young, talented and beautiful writers about how they thought they would find everything they ever wanted in New York City [or insert glittery city here], but didn’t. Though I didn’t find anything truly novel about David’s take, I enjoyed this fun and often informative read.

My favorite bits of Falling For Me came when David was at her most vulnerable and self-deprecating. I appreciated her unique brand of humor and could definitely see fragments of myself in her story. I think most women will relate in some way to David’s plight; it’s all part of the human experience. No matter how successful, everyone has gotten a glimpse of themselves in a mirror and thought, Who is that? David sets out to answer that question — and I think that was brave.

But . . . but. I don’t know. I guess knowing that David is a writer with several novels and other works under her belt made this feel sort of gimmicky to me. Like she said, Hey, I want to write a book about making my life better so I’m going to make my life better and write a book. It just felt so meta, you know what I mean? I don’t mean in any way to imply David was disingenuine; on the contrary, I thought she was very honest about both her past and present. I couldn’t shake the “writing about writing” navel-gazing feeling I got, though. I’m guess I’m also jaded by reading Cathy Alter’s Up For Renewal, which is a memoir detailing a divorcee’s quest to improve her life in a year based on the advice in magazines. Same premise, different writer.

And yes, David’s moral is the same (and a good one): no one can love you until you love yourself. You must improve who you are — spirtually, emotionally, physically — until you’re putting your best self out there. When you do that — when you’re truly happy in your own skin — you’ll find whatever it is you’re seeking. I get that — and I agree. Though it bears repeating, we’ve sung this song before.

What sets Falling For Me apart from other memoirs, though, is the way Brown’s advice — seen through David’s lens — got me thinking about myself. We’ve all heard the ol’ “If you haven’t worn it in a year, throw it out” sentiment regarding our bursting wardrobes, but the way David actually does just that got me considering my own cluttered closet. The book also served as a reminder for me to surround myself with positive people and things that make me happy. When David embarks on a challenge to keep from judging others, gossiping or complaining, I thought about the many times a day I do those things myself. And I definitely want to change that.

Fans of memoirs, motivational reading and David herself will find Falling For Me to be an interesting read full of funny anecdotes with a very human narrator. While I wish the genre had felt a little more original, I think David’s contribution to the world of self-exploration is a worthy one.

Check out the book trailer for more information on Anna, Sex and the Single Girl and more.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061996041 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Don’t Sing At The Table’ by Adriana Trigiani

Before she was an acclaimed and popular author, Adriana Trigiani was someone much more basic — much more familiar — to all of us: a granddaughter. In her memoir Don’t Sing At The Table, Trigiani recounts the inspiring and fascinating lives of her two strong-willed, larger-than-life grandmothers. Blessed with not one but two powerful female role models, Trigiani grew up listening to their stories and learning from the trials they endured. And as she grows and matures and experiences life herself, the lessons of Lucy Spada and Viola Trigiani begin to take on new meaning.

Don’t Sing At The Table reads like a love letter to the women she loves so dearly. I saw much of myself in her pages, remembering the summers I spent with Gram and Maw Maw, my maternal and paternal grandmothers. My family — warm and complex, like so many — has long been anchored by the lessons the women on both sides have taught.

It’s hard not to warm to Lucy, an Italian immigrant who lands in Minnesota with her husband. After his sudden death, she is left to care for three children in a foreign country while trying to keep her own business afloat. In another corner of the U.S. is Viola Trigiani, a warm and hard-working woman who is an equal partner in the clothing factory she runs with her husband. The lives of both women are incredibly inspirational, considering the heights to which they soared at a time when women were still taught their place was “in the home.”

And the women were at home, caring for their kids . . . but they were everywhere else, too.

The ladies’ influence on their granddaughter, Adriana, is evident and moving. While Don’t Sing At The Table opens with long and detailed accounts of Lucy and Viola’s marriages and lives before little Adriana would ever open her eyes in this world, the latter half of the book is framed around Adriana’s own opportunities and the lessons she learns by their example.

Though I was very interested in Lucy and Viola’s lives, I wish there had been a bit more of Adriana in the memoir’s opening chapters. It felt like an information dump — here is the woman we’re talking about; here’s what she looked like; here’s what her life was like. I wanted a little more emotion. Some intrigue. A bit of back story and, in time, better integration of the lessons they learned against the backdrop of Adriana’s own experiences.

But that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise warm-hearted tale. I loved the inclusion of family photos in each chapter, which really helped to bring Viola and Lucy to life, and the way that much of their advice would still hold true today. As a reader of Trigiani’s books, too, it was so fun to see the way Lucy and Viola were integrated into the author’s novels. Fans of her stories will delight in learning more about the women who inspired and helped shape Trigiani’s memorable characters and settings.

And if nothing else, it’ll inspire you to think of your own grandmothers . . . and, if you’re blessed to do so, give them a call. It’s fascinating to think of where we came from — the choices our ancestors made that landed us to sit right here, right now.

It’s a thought as large as the universe.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061958956 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘It Looked Different on the Model’ by Laurie Notaro

Ambien shenanigans. Tweekers falling asleep on your front lawn. Getting into a fight with a size “M” shirt at a boutique store — and losing. All just moments in the life of Laurie Notaro, a humor writer transplanted from sunny Arizona to the hippie-laced suburbs of Oregon. And in her latest memoir, It Looked Different On The Model, Notaro welcomes us again into the zany world that is her no-holds-barred brain.

Notaro has been my hero for quite some time — and though I couldn’t get into her recent novel, I’m still a huge fan of her true-to-life, hilarious stories. No one makes me giggle like Notaro, and some of her scenes in this one — especially those including “Ambien Laurie” — will forever be embedded in my brain. Her line about a monkey rooting through purse trash? Comedy gold.

That being said, is this Notaro’s finest work? Nope. Laurie is at her best when she’s making fun of herself and relating stories of “impending shame and infamy,” as her title suggests. The only problem here is that while a few of her recent tales had me in stitches, the vast majority just sort of . . . rambled along with no real goal or intention. Just between you and me, friends, I may have skimmed over a few. Like the open letter to her alleged iPhone thief? I mean, I love my phone — I really do. But page after page of that drivel? Eh.

But I still love you, Laurie — and I still desperately wish you could be my BFF. We’d make snarky comments about our neighbors and speculate over which crazy acquaintance is really a drug addict and gripe about our weight. It would be a grand old time.

I read this book quickly and recommend it — and her — to fans of Jen Lancaster and Valerie Frankel. If you’re looking for laugh-out-loud memoirs that remind you we really are all human, Laurie Notaro could well be your girl. I recommend starting with We Thought You Would Be Prettier, my first experience with Notaro — but if you’re a stickler for reading chronologically, first check out The Idiot Girls’ Action Adventure Club. Laurie doesn’t take herself too seriously, and that’s what I love about her. She’s a hilarious mess.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345510992 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

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