Brooklyn Girls: A fun, if slightly unrealistic, view of post-collegiate life in NYC

Brooklyn Girls

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B+ (88)

The easiest way for me to describe, “Brooklyn Girls,” from screen-writer and author Gemma Burgess, is that it harkens to the world of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, if all of the characters in Girls were softened slightly, worked a little harder, and lived happily-ever-after.

When I initially picked up “Brooklyn Girls,” I admit, I was hooked by the plot summary alone: Pia, a recent college graduate, struggling to balance new-found independence, socializing, romance, friendships, finances, and finding a full-time job decides to ditch the recent grad conundrum- “you need experience to get hired for the job, but you you can’t get experience until you’ve been hired for the job”- and open her own health-food food truck in New York City. I mean, come on, what recent female graduate doesn’t think that sounds like sure-fire entertainment?

To be fair, for the majority of this novel, my expectations were met, and I became hooked. The protagonist, Pia, is a strong, intelligent woman who is battling with her perception of inferiority among her parents and ex-boyfriend. At the novel’s open, she has just moved to NYC with her best friend from college, Julia, Julia’s younger sister, Coco, Pia’s best friend from childhood, Angie, and Pia’s enemy from college (and also Julia’s best friend) Madeline. After a rather booze-filled night, Pia gets fired from her new job due to inappropriate photos on Facebook and is forced to look for new work. Fearing that her parents, who live in Germany, will swoop in and pull her away from her new “adult” life, Pia realizes that she needs to secure a job fast, and after being fired as a waitress, she discovers the food-truck business by chance and decides to purchase a little pink truck- which she names Toto- and starts her own business, Skinny Wheels. Pia’s intention with Skinny Wheels is to cater to young professionals who genuinely enjoy food and who want to get a quick lunch that won’t go “straight to their thighs” or leave them in a greasy coma. To start her business, Pia borrows money from a loan-shark, and it seems like her business is an instant success. However, she soon realizes the true depth of her endeavor, the viciousness of her competitors, and the scope of sheer exhaustion, which of course, drives the majority of the entertaining plot. Pia is also introduced to an attractive British man whom she can’t stop thinking about, so of course, that is another aspect to look forward to as well.  Through all the ensuing romance, business chaos, and friendship struggles, you will be entertained as you watch Pia discover her passion for entrepreneurship and develop a true love for her food-truck baby.

Despite a promising plot, Brooklyn Girls does fall flat in a few different ways. First, I often found it difficult to read the often overly sentimental moments of the novel. While it is nice to read about friendships growing, and Pia’s own personal growth, her comments can sound more similar to the inside of a Hallmark card than to a typical person’s inner- dialogue. On top of that, without giving too much away, I felt that the way circumstances resulted for Pia was unrealistic. In fact, I found it so extreme that it could almost seem like a slap-in-the-face for other hard working 20-somethings (or maybe that’s just me!), and may taste a little sour to the women out there who are living the “real-life” version of Pia’s circumstance.

What I found positive about Brooklyn Girls was that some of its particular lines will truly hit home to any 20-something just getting started professionally- in fact, I found myself frequently highlighting passage to refer back to in the future. One of my favorite elements of the novel is that, gradually, the girls each find strength and support in themselves and through each other. It seems that each of the friends is battling with her own personal drama and is somehow perceiving that the others are doing it better or have it all figured out. As Pia comes to realize that maybe all her friends are about to fall apart, she recognizes her responsibility to help and care for her friends, and it is obvious that all of the girls behave reciprocally. It is a great way to illustrate women helping women- even if, sometimes, the illustration is just a little too cheesy.

Overall, I do recommend Brooklyn Girls, as long as you bare in mind that it may be slightly unrealistic. But, at least Burgess wants us to believe in the benefits of hard work, right? If you do find that you are a fan of the novel, you are in luck, as Burgess will be releasing a series of novels, each from the perspective of a different girl in Pia’s apartment- so stay tuned!

Penelope: a quick, laugh-out-loud read that may be slightly over-the-top

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B (86)

Penelope (2012), is the debut novel from Harvard graduate and Huffington Post writer, Rebecca Harrington, and emerges as a fast-moving, totally hilarious, and often pointedly realistic (if, at times, tragically so) novel on a girl’s first semester at Harvard University.

Penelope enters Harvard as an “undeclared” freshman, who seems to be dramatically unprepared- and apathetic for that matter- in comparison to her hyper-competitive peers.

Penelope knows very little about “getting ahead” at Harvard (especially in relation to her “friends” who seem to have read quite a few orientation books that Penelope, herself, neglected). Her naivete sets her up for an assortment of hilariously awkward engagements such as auditioning for a singing group, despite knowingly close to nothing about singing. Plus, Penelope’s non-pulsed personality, and constant desire to seem agreeable to all, add an additional factor to make for some laugh-out-loud conversations and situations.

What I ultimately loved about Penelope was that, despite it being a witty illustration of Penelope’s mundane life, it does dig a little deeper than what is on the surface. In her juxtaposition of Penelope’s slightly sanguine apathy towards her “mediocrity” at Harvard against the dramatic break-downs of her over-achieving peers, Harrington forces the reader to question who really has it better: Penelope or those aforementioned peers who seem to have mastered the recipe for “success.”

One of my favorite citations of the novel comes when Penelope and her roommate, Emma, discuss Emma’s recent “A-minus.”

(Emma) “It’s not good enough for law school! If I was planning on doing nothing with my life, then [an A-minus] would be fine.”

(Penelope) “But its pretty early on, you know. I’m sure it doesn’t matter much. You could even have fun all semester and it wouldn’t matter.”

(Emma) “I am having fun! I am having incredible fun! I am meeting incredible people and I am making the best friends of my life!”

And while it is clear that poor Emma really does not have quite those “best friends” she adamantly defends, what is truly depressing is her need to convey a constant aura of success, even in her social life. It is a sadly realistic illustration of modern-day perfectionism. Meanwhile, Penelope is confused as to why she is not living the “ideal” college experience- going to cool parties and having hoards of friends. Harrington suggests that Penelope’s problem may be less of a reflection of her “under-achievement,” and more of a reflection of her (unintentional) refusal to self-inflate. In a Facebook-centric world where individuals have the ability to publicly present their lives in whichever light they choose, this theme hits hauntingly close to home.

My only criticism of Penelope is that Penelope’s character is slightly over-exaggerated in her naivete and social failures. While her experience is refreshingly closer to my own than say, the experiences of college students on shows such as Greek or the recent movie, Spring Breakers, Penelope’s personality, honestly, approaches the border of “socially-challenged.” And though her awkwardness provides the backbone of much of the novel’s humor, Penelope may have been an even more powerful character if that awkwardness had been subdued a few shades.

Ultimately, Penelope is a fun, quick read that will leave you laughing out loud. I would recommend this book to 20-somethings who want to reminisce on their college years, and take comfort in a shared feeling of “inadequacy” due to failure to meet some illusion of the “perfect college experience.”

10 Girls To Watch: An enjoyable read that celebrates female resilience and compassion

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A- (92)

From Charity Shumway, 10 Girls to Watch is the often funny, and undeniably passion-stirring, story of Dawn West, a quirky, aspiring writer and fresh college graduate, struggling to make her way in New York City.

We are introduced to Dawn at a turning point in her life: she has just secured a temporary job- a writing job- at Charm magazine (unashamedly similar to real-life Glamour magazine), to track and interview the winners of the “10 Girls to Watch Contest” over the past decades, in honor of the contest’s anniversary. While she realizes the pay is stingy (and the work environment consists of her, one desk, and an empty basement filled with old files), Dawn is thrilled to even dip her toe into profession writing after spending her past year-plus working in low-paying “temp” jobs and blogging about lawn up-keep, whilst she was distributing obscene amounts of resumes and applications for writing positions (to no avail).

Undoubtedly, the story may appear familiar on its surface- little fish in the big city tries to pave her path as a writer. But please do not be deceived; 10 Girls to Watch adds a unique, and relatable, perspective to the literary world through the honest, often hilarious, voice of Dawn. Dawn has a number of “factors” working against her. For one, she is on the brink of “living her dreams.” She dangles over the edge a path she could follow, though never really knowing if she will fall into it. Dawn lives with the constant, though not-overpowering, knowledge that her project with Charm is temporary, and as soon as she is complete, she could be hauling herself back to “temp” agencies, resume in hand. On top of that, Dawn criticizes herself for failing to write, despite her deep-routed vision that she will, one day, be a writer. And finally, Dawn spends her days interviewing former “10 Girls to Watch” winners, which means she has the opportunity to speak with some of the most remarkable, passionate women in the country; and, meanwhile, juxtapose their stories of success against her own. Mixed with the pressure to find a man, manage her life with a difficult roommate, put food on her table at night, and stop herself from obsessing about her ex, Dawn is set up for a full-on depression, and at times, it does seem that she slips closer and closer in that direction. Yet, what is so entrancing about 10 Girls to Watch, is Dawn’s resilience despite. In fact, she (and, ideally, readers as well), chooses to find inspiration in the tales of Charm’s former greats, using their experiences to shed light on her own. It would not a reach to label 10 Girls to Watch as a “coming-of-age” novel, as it portrays a clear learning curve while Dawn becomes increasingly self-aware, and consequently, directs herself closer to the person she aspires to be. Above all, Dawn’s story celebrates female empowerment, strength, and even sisterhood, in a way that is just subtle enough to create a powerful, lasting impact.

10 Girls to Watch is highly readable, quick-moving, and realistic novel that is a perfect read for a “20-something woman,” but will be inspiring for any age or gender. Chumway creates a likeable character with an appealing voice, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Admission: Regettably, Dissapointing Film

 

C+ (77)

Yes, I am shedding a silent tear as I write that Admission, the recent film starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, failed to deliver despite its pairing of two of Hollywood’s funniest, most likeable actors. Neither actor disappointed in delivering the charm, wits, and personalities that we have come to expect of them respectively, their performances could not save this unlikable film.

Admission is the story of Portia Nathan (Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton University, who is relishing her responsibility to choose the nations brightest, most talented high school seniors for the upcoming freshman class. On top of this steady, life-encompassing career,- which she has been pursuing for the past 10 years- Portia lives with her snotty, uppity, boyfriend (played by Michael Sheen), who pats her head like a puppy, and condescendingly refers to her as a golden-retriever, completing her pleasantly- but equally dismally- safe life.

Portia meets John Pressman (Rudd), principle of an alternative high school, on a high school campus visit, and the pair spark a connection from the get-go, largely due to John’s fevor to talk to Portio one-on-one. John is an odd character- on the one hand, he is sweet and charming (it is Paul Rudd), and on the other, he is unbearably arrogant and unlikable. We soon discover that John’s ardent pursuit of Portia runs further than a simple crush- he wants to introduce her to Jeremiah (played by Nat Wolff), a student at John’s high school, and whom John believes is Portia’s biological son.

The plot mainly rotates around the arc of getting Jeremiah into Princeton, and though he has been coined “prodegy” who scored nearly perfect SATs and straight fives on his AP tests, despite never taking an AP class, has a D+ average, and a resume that is far below Prinecton standards. Portia begins to feel deeply for Jeremiah, and though she does not tell him that she believes he is her son, she continues to the teenager and becomes increasingly invested in his life (and- suprise!- John’s as well.)  So begins a tail of mildly humerus shenanigans as Portia and John try to primp Jerimiah’s application and juggle the “characters” that complete their lives, including Portia’s hippy mother (played by Lily Tomlin). And though these side characters are supposed to add humor, ultimately, the jokes are frustrating, and the hostile relationship between Portia and her mother is suprisingly depressing in contrast to the film’s comedic tone.

Although there are a handful of laughs scattered about Admission, the total piece is very one-dimensional, lacking any real depth or meaning. Rudd’s, John, does shed a refreshingly realistic light on the life on a “humanitarian do-gooder,” as John hops from developing country to country, neglecting the fact that his adopted son from Africa would rather stay in one place and live a “predictable” life. However, the only true saving grace of the film is Fey, who is funny and honest, and adds an extremely appealing repeatability to her character even just through her timing, expressions, and mannerism.

All in all, Admission is a predictable romantic comedy that, despite working with deep messages around parents and their children and the bonds that connect them, just barely touches the surface of the depth that it could have reached.

The Forgotten Garden: a beautiful escape into coastal England

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A (94)

The Forgotten Garden, written by Australian novelist Kate Morton, is a compelling story of identity, friendship, family, and secrets, which follows one woman’s search for her true identity, as unvieled through the eyes of the important figures who shape her life, both before and after her. With a backbone of a compelling plot and an intriguing mystery, Morton’s novel truly enchants through its beautifully wound dialogue, imagery and voice. This novel will transport readers into these women’s lives, and straight into their “forgotten garden.”

The Forgotten Garden, is written from the perspective of, primarily, three women, and jumps through time and voice with each unique chapter. The first of these women is Nell, a rather uptight woman who, in her early 20s, and on the brink of her marriage, is told that she is not her parent’s biological child, and in fact, was found abandoned on a ship sent from England to Australia. Nell is crippled by this news, ends her engagement, and begins leading a new, more detached life. She begins her personal journey to self-discovery by tracking her past, ultimately leading her to “the forgotten garden,” an enclosed garden set at a cottage on the Cornish coast on the Blackhurst Manor.

Many years later, Nell’s granddaughter, Cassandra, is living her own story. Cassandra grew up with Nell as her primary guardian, as her own mother (and Nell’s biological daughter) abandoned her at a young age. Cassandra’s story begins in present day, with Nell’s recent death. Cassandra, too, is quickly propelled into the mystery of Nell’s identity, and sets a personal mission to travel to the Blackhurst Manor and collect the final pieces of her grandmother’s puzzle.

Finally, many, many years prior to Cassandra’s search, Eliza Makepeace, a dark fairy-tale writter, is living her own, tragic, story- one which, of course, is intrinsically related to the Blackhurst Manor. Eliza’s fairytales are sprikled throughout the novel, adding an additional layer of depth and fantasy.

All three of these women, their stories, and the characters they interact with respectively are compelling. Although the story reads like honey, -smooth and sweet, without any jagged edges- you will find yourself itching to discover more and more about these women as they themselves unveil new truths.

The Forgotten Garden is deliciously savory, and its poetic prose will transport readers right onto Blackhurst Manor. Morton’s soft tone almost reminds me of an impressionist painting, and this pleasantness alone was enough to have kept me eagerly flipping through her pages. Yet, in actuality, The Forgotten Garden is a compelling mystery as well. Cassandra’s undertaking of Nell’s mission to self-discovery reveals many layers of a story that is, though not shocking, unexpected at times. Through these interwoven tales, Morton probes into themes of family, abandonment, and purpose and identity are probed. I definitely recommend this novel if you are looking for a way to escape to the Cornish coasts without leaving the comfort of your own home.

Girls in White Dresses: a social commentary

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B (85)

Going into Jennifer Close’s, Girl’s in White Dresses, I was sort of hoping that I wouldn’t be stepping into a story that glorified “finding the ideal partner,” or proposed that “marriage” is a key element of being a fulfilled, satisfied human-being- and, in some ways, I did end up getting just that.

But do not be mislead- Girl’s in White Dresses, is not your conventional romance novel.

The plot of Close’s debut novel is centered on a group of college friends, primarily Isabella and her friends Mary and Lauren, who have moved on from their days at Boston College and are now adults living and working in New York City. In addition to following the trials and tribulations of these three characters, the novel is sprinkled with stories and musings of the girl’s friends from school and co-workers. In its own way, each of these stories is, respectively, centered on love in some way, or, more accurately, the pains and frustrations that accompany finding, living, and maintaining romantic relationships. Indeed, the character’s stories are largely melancholic, and I did find myself wishing for at least a glimmer- no, not even a glimmer; I would settle for a speck!- of hope to shine through and remind me that the trials of love are worth it. (Ok, maybe this derives from a, uh-hem, healthy “rom-com” addiction and one-too-many viewings of “The Notebook.”)

This is not Twilight, folks: there is no sparkly aura around any of these men. In fact, upon reflection, I can’t remember any moments where, as a reader, I found any of Close’s character’s significant others to be appealing in any real way at all (sorry Darcy fans). In spite of this, men and relationships play a central role in the story’s of each character, and eventually, though their goals seems to be more about finding a “relationship,” than finding the “perfect man.” Maybe this is what sort of irked me about the novel as a whole- it almost feels as though the women are “settling” with mediocre men in order to fulfill a social expectation to be in a relationship. Close is being realistic in her portrayal of her character’s relationships- without the filter of any rose-colored light. However, it might have been more powerful if these women, who constantly question the line between how much annoyance and discord they should tolerate in their relationships before “normal” becomes “destructive,” found a little more joy in their relationships. The women spend so much of their time expressing frustrations, guilt, fears, and confusion, that it is hard to understand why they would even want to be married and have families in the first place.

Despite its rather dismal stories, Girls in White Dresses, does feel like a comedy. The ups-and-downs of these women are dusted with enough sarcasm and wit that they feel light-hearted. I truly did enjoy getting to know each of the character’s- her dreams and her joys. My only criticism is that I wished they didn’t feel such a pressing need to be married, but instead, viewed love as the “whipped cream” on top of their lives- not necessary, but a sweet addition. But, I suppose, that is the point Close is making. Maybe Girls in White Dresses is not a romance novel- maybe its a social commentary.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: Totally Relatable, Totally Hilarious

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A (94)

There is something about Mindy Kaling’s literary voice that makes me feel like I- or virtually any of my girl friends for that matter- could contrive my own autobiographical best-seller, simply by compiling miscellaneous life experiences, putting them to paper, and publishing it as a book. Although this may sound like a criticism, I actually mean it as the most sincere form of praise. See, the glory of Mindy’s voice is that she is not your average Jolene- she was, in fact, a head writer and actor on one of America’s most popular comedy shows, a movie actress, and is now the star and creator of her own comedy show, The Mindy Project. Yet, Mindy has the ability to lace her experiences with the accompanying emotions and motives, which are so raw and simple that women will easily relate. This allows Mindy’s experience, say, getting her first paid writing position on The Office, to seem actually seem pretty normal, considering that is actually quite “Hollywood-glam.”

What’s more, Mindy is likable. Her accounts are on the opposite spectrum of self-inflating, and yet, she also portrays a genuine confidence and happiness in the many areas of her life- from her culture, to her career, to her style, to her friends. Mindy speaks candidly about her body, and all its transformation- which, of course, is refreshing, considering the social pressure for women to be thin, especially in Hollywood. Not only does Mindy proudly considers herself “chubby,” but she further details the distinctions between the many classes of “weight,” which itself makes for a good laugh. It’s through this connectable, agreeable, voice that Mindy shares her story of growing up as a socially-awkward high school kid, becoming a college student, living as an unemploymened college-grad, taking a job as a nanny/aspiring comic writer, and finally becoming a professional television writer. She is simple, realistic, and hilarious. Plus, Mindy is smart, and she has certainly mastered a balance between self-deprication and pride. Because she describes her hilarious triles and tribulations over the years honestly and realistically, it is easy to celebrate along with Mindy as she finds success- and you’ll probably be rooting for her long after you finish her memoir.

As the title suggests, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? accurately captures a gamet of concerns, motives, and emotions that we share as women. I definitely recommend this read to cheer you up on a low day. P.S. This is a great book to read on your commute to work, or while you’re waiting for the dentist or something. I got this on audio, and I still come back to different passages when I’m jogging for a guaranteed laugh.

I’ve Got Your Number: light-hearted rom-com with the Kinsella spark

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B (85)

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella was initially recommended to me by my close friend and partner in rom-com crime, who told me it would be a fun “beachy” read. She was spot on.

Though this was the first of Kinsella’s book that I read, I eventually got a second, 20’s Girl, (which I may review in the future, but was less fun for me to read than the former), and I have come to appreciate her light, feminine, witty voice that carries you through her books like a ride on a fluffy, marshmallow cloud. I hope that didn’t take it too far. Let me put it another way: it’s the kind of story you want to read while your getting a pedicure and you’ve got a Frappuccino on your hand.

I’ve Got Your Number is the story of physical therapist and future wife, Poppy Wyatt, a kind, generous, and intelligent woman who can’t seem to truly identify those traits in herself. What makes this read so fun is the combination of likable characters and a funny, twisted plot. The story begins when Poppy loses the ring her PhD fiancé gave to her (and is a family heirloom) at her own engagement party when a fire alarm is triggered. While frantically scrambling to retrieve her precious ring, Poppy has her phone stolen, and is forced to “borrow” a neglected phone that she finds in a reception-area trashcan, which leads to her first conversation with Sam Roxton, the phone’s true owner, and high-level businessman who believes the phone should be respectfully returned. Of course, Poppy is still frantic in her ring search and decides to continue “borrowing” the phone under the promise that she will forward all messages for Sam to his email. So begins a quick-paced, laugh-out-loud unfolding of Poppy and Sam’s mobile relationship. Poppy and Sam, general opposites in nature, tend to frustrate each other with their differences, but ultimately, learn to complement one another through them: while Sam helps Poppy look “smart” in a scrabble game, Poppy helps Sam gain office respect by sending out considerate emails. The dynamic sets up for a funny journey toward self-respect and (surprise!) maybe even romance.

As I told my friend (who will mock me for saying it), I was disappointed with the novel’s ending. It seems rushed, unrealistic, and frankly, so cliché. But, as she would remind me, this is a rom-com; what did I really except? With that in mind, I’ve Got Your Number could just be the fun, quick beach read you need for these lovely summer days.