Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Concierge Confidential by Michael Fazio and Michael Malice

   Concierge Confidential is comprised of little vignettes about Michael Fazio's experiences as a concierge.  From a personal assistant to a hotel concierge to an entrepreneur, this guy has seen it all when it comes to service.  If you need reservations at exclusive restaurants, tickets to sold-out Broadway shows, or just dry cleaning services, Michael Fazio is your man.  Oh and if you need a bathtub filled with chocolate, a private helicopter to take you to Atlantic City, or VD medication, he can do that as well.

   But this book isn't just about crazy requests from the rich and famous - it's also about the philosophy behind impeccable service and why the standards of excellence are the way they are.  He also shares a few tips with readers about the secrets of the service industry, which might be really helpful if you live in Manhattan and happen to be a zillionaire.

   Michael Fazio might not be a professional writer (the sentences are often clunky and unpolished), but I have a great deal of respect for him.  As someone who has worked in service for nearly 10 years, I know how stressful it can be, but Michael Fazio might be the most patient, hardworking person in the world, which is exactly why he and his business partner, Abbie, have been so successful.  I'll never look at a hotel concierge the same way again!

   I've always had respect for people who work in the service industry, but not all service is good service.  With Concierge Confidential, Michael Fazio has set the service bar pretty high, and like I said in my previous post for Rosina Harrison's book, service is all about the details, and there's no better person to manage the details of your desire than Michael Fazio, Concierge Extraordinaire!

Overall Rating:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

   In Stieg Larsson's second Millennium Trilogy novel, the tables have turned for Lisbeth Salander.  The introverted, antisocial woman finds herself as the target of a media feeding frenzy when her fingerprints are found at a double murder crime scene.  To complicate matters further, the victims were working closely with Lisbeth's old friend, Mikael Blomkvist, on exposing Sweden's underground sex trade industry.  For the first time in her life, Lisbeth is unable to solve the problem on her own, but lucky for her, Mikael owes her a big favor.

   The Girl Who Played with Fire follows a pattern similar to that in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The first 200 or so pages provide background information and sub-plot details, so it moves a bit slow, but I was never bored.  But like the first book in the trilogy, the plot starts picking up speed about midway through, and once things start happening they don't stop.  And then you find yourself sucked into the powerful vortex of a Stieg Larsson novel...and then you stop showering  and all signs of productivity come to a temporary halt because finishing the book has become the only item on your agenda.  I guess you could say I was hooked like a bookworm (good one, Karli!).

   Anyway, what I really liked about this book is the fact that we finally get more of a back story on our heroine.  In the first one, we only get a few bits and pieces of Lisbeth's life story, but here, a more complete account is slowly revealed.  However, this does make the second book much more complicated than the first - more stories, more characters, more details.  And if you're like me and you don't speak Swedish, it can be difficult to keep track of all the names.

   I wasn't planning on starting the final Millennium book so soon, but this story doesn't wind down like it did in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The ending is more of a cliffhanger, and like I said before, I'm hooked...so off I go to find out what happens in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Overall Rating:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison

   Rosina Harrison (Rose) always knew she would lead the life of a servant.  Service had been the livelihood of her family for generations, yet Rose had dreams beyond cooking, cleaning and laundry - she wanted to travel.  In early 20th century England, travel was a luxury that few could afford, so Rose found a way around her financial obstacles by becoming the personal maid to Lady Nancy Astor.  The Astors were a well-respected, Aristocratic family in England, and despite their American upbringing, the family was held in high political and social esteem (Lady Astor was the first woman to serve in British Parliament).  Rose served the Astors for 35 years, and in her many years of service she was exposed to the most intimate details of the daily lives of British Aristocrats.

  In her memoir, Rose describes her life as a Lady's maid, depicting the private details of her relationship with the Astors and the daily duties she was expected to perform, some of which include dressing and re-dressing Lady Astor up to 5 times a day, maintaining Lady Astor's personal chambers, and caring for the priceless family jewels and heirlooms.  As most servants did at the time, Rose lived with the Astors, which meant that she was on call at all hours of the day and night.  Lady Astor had lots of energy and was known to be quite eccentric, so many of Rose's tales are quite entertaining.  But Lady Astor was also a very stern, prideful woman, and her relationship with Rose often suffered under these traits.

  But even so, during her 35 years with the Astors, Rose was able to achieve her dreams of travel.  She accompanied Lady Astor all over Europe and the United States, where Lady Astor made sure that her favorite servant was able to sight-see to her heart's content, as long as she managed to complete her daily duties of course.  Some readers might find Rose's detailed descriptions of service boring and tedious, but a servant's life depends on their ability to manage the details, and Rosina Harrison was a top-tier servant.

   Rose may not have been a professional writer, but her story gives us a more accurate depiction of the running of an elite British household from the underbelly of the servants' quarters to the upstairs dinner parties with George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame), and a whole slew of of British Royalty.  If you're a huge fan of Downton Abbey like I am, then Rose's memoir should prove to be quite entertaining, and through her story we see that fact is not far from fiction at all.  Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor provides us with a real account of 20th century Lords, Ladies, maids, cooks, butlers, valets, and chauffeurs, and it's really quite remarkable to track the tremendous social change that occurred between Rose's birth in 1899 and the book's publication in 1975.

Overall Rating:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rainy Day Reading

Since it's been an especially wet winter down south this year, I decided to make a Listmania list of Rainy Day Reading. And since it has rained here nearly every day for 2 weeks, I figure it's a perfect time for a rainy day reading discussion. What books do you like to curl up with on a rainy day?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

   Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is a very short collection of poems about, well, cats of course!  Those of you who are familiar with the musical, Cats, should recognize a few of the title characters since Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous production is based on this collection.  While the original book was published around 1940, the version I read was published in 1982 with illustrations by Edward Gorey.

   Being that this is an illustrated collection of rhyming poetry about kitty-cats, it's usually marketed as a children's book, but things have changed since 1940 and I don't know many kids who are familiar with words like "terpsichorean" and "gastronomy."  But there's something quite romantic about the idea of reading T.S. Eliot to your child, isn't there?

   Eliot may be known for his dense vocabulary and disjointed, artistic writing style that the modernists embraced, but Mr. Eliot also had a playful side!  Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats sometimes reminded me of reading Dr. Seuss, with whimsical verses and tongue-tying names like "Mr Mistoffelees" or "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer."  Yes, it's silly, but when you think about our beloved Cat in the Hat it's clear that American culture has always embraced silly animal stories for one reason or another.  In his poem, "The Ad-Dressing of Cats," Eliot writes:
...Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse - 
But all may be described in verse.

So there you have it...cute poems about kitties plus quirky Edward Gorey illustrations makes for a fun, quick read - and it's a way to cheat and say you've read T.S. Eliot without having to drudge through The Waste Land (sorry, Elaine!).  Lastly, I must recommend that, if possible, you read this little collection in the company of a cat.  I had one on my lap nearly the whole time, and I must say, it quite improves the reading experience!

Overall Rating:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The "essential" dilemma

No matter who you ask, everyone has a list of "essentials" for their bookshelves, as in the books that comprise the core collection - a handful of titles on display to demonstrate what a well-rounded reader you are. Today the Huffington Post published their list of essentials in the article 12 Books You NEED On Your Bookshelf.  It's an eclectic mix, and while I may not agree with their choice of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, I can certainly get on board with Toni Morrison's Beloved and Nobokov's Lolita.

If you've ever worked in a bookstore, then you may know that booksellers are frequently asked things like, "What books should I buy to make me look smart?" Wow. Ok. And I admit that while Les Miserables may still be sitting on my shelf making me look good, the bookmark is still holding my place on page 30 (I started it 10 years ago).  All I'm saying is that books are conversation pieces, so make sure your own "essentials" aren't just there to impress visitors, or you may find yourself in a not-so-sophisticated situation.

If I were to comprise my own list (which would never work because the list would change every day) it probably wouldn't be as diverse as The Huffington Post's, but that's because I mostly read fiction. Perhaps I could come up with a list of "My Favorite Fiction from the Last 10 Years," or "My Favorite 20th Century Women Poets," but I don't think I could ever come up with a short list to encompass all genres and dates.  That's why I love listmania lists.  They can be as specific or as broad as you want...I've even created a few of my own on Amazon.  I don't have trouble making day to day decisions, but let's just hope I never get invited to serve on the Pulitzer Board or anything.  I would lose all of my hair and scratch out my eyes with that kind of pressure.  That's why my opinions are better suited for blogging and listmania....because for me, the only thing that's essential for my lists is flexibility.

Friday, January 13, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

   Eva Khatchadourian's life changed forever on April 11, 1983 - the day she gave birth to her son, Kevin.  It was supposed to be a day of joy and celebration, but Eva was always apprehensive about becoming a mother, and Kevin is a peculiar child.  He is overly independent, a little too smart, and fiercely manipulative.  Eva is the only one in her family who can see that he is a cruel, calculated individual - at least until the day that 15 year-old Kevin murders 9 of his high school classmates in a sinister, highly-organized fashion.  Written as letters to her husband, Franklin, We Need to Talk About Kevin chronicles Eva's thoughts and memories as she relives Kevin's childhood and the events leading up to the murders.  Through these letters we see an unapologetic woman who never wanted to have children, yet whose life will forever be defined by her son.

   There are so many things I want to say about this novel, but I must first point out that it is so beautifully written that you may forget you're reading prose rather than poetry.  Sometimes I felt like I was reading Leonard Cohen.  For that reason, along with my opinion that Eva Khatchadourian is the most realistic, well-developed character I've ever encountered, I loved this book.  Shriver has tapped into some of the most controversial questions about motherhood and marriage here, and I've never been more sympathetic to a character than I was with Eva.  The nature vs. nurture question has been around for a while, yes, but Lionel Shriver takes the implications much further, especially regarding the emotions, experiences, impulses, and instincts that are ascribed as umbrella terms to motherhood. 

  But just in terms of plot, I am amazed and entranced by Shriver's ability to tell a story.  She doesn't just tell it in terms of chronology or events - Eva's story unfolds as the emotions and memories occur and reemerge.  She must come to terms with things that she never expected to encounter as a wife or mother.  But that is exactly why this unfathomable story is so painfully realistic - because it happens all the time.  People commit atrocious acts of violence every day that end up as white noise in the media.  But white noise on a cultural level can be deconstructed and dissected to reveal the source - all the way down to the deafening shrieks of a single instance in time that, for some, will change everything forever.  We Need to Talk About Kevin removes us as spectators and forces us to realize that none of us are untouchable.

Overall Rating:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Upcoming 2012 book releases

I'm thinking that 2012 is going to be another great year for new books, mostly because of promos, previews, and reviews I've seen of upcoming releases. Here are a few that I'm really looking forward to:

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

  So I finally got around to reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I'm very sorry it took me so long because I could not put it down.  Just in case I'm not the last person in the world to read this novel, here's a brief introduction:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Vox by Nicholson Baker

   Abby and Jim are two complete strangers living on opposite sides of the country, yet they become intimately connected through a sex-chat hotline.  And while dirty pillow talk may have been their intentions, the conversation quickly evolves into more complicated subject matter - the intellectual aspects of sex, and the minutia of erotic call and response.  For Abby and Jim, the anonymity of the situation allows them to be more open and honest about sexual experiences and the details of pleasure-seeking than if they were actually in a relationship.  Vox is a very short book (just over 150 pages) and there are no breaks or chapters - just a transcript of their conversation.  And while this conversation is definitely x-rated at times, they also explore other aspects of desire, namely emotional and intellectual.

  Nicholson Baker is a master of bringing out the voyeur in us all.  His books have been quite controversial, but when sex is the subject matter there will always be an audience.  Vox is definitely a very graphic book and not for those who are squeamish or easily-offended, but I found it to be really fascinating and very funny at times.  Baker is incredibly perceptive when it comes to physical pleasure and the human body, but Vox doesn't feel like reading a "dirty" book with gratuitous sex scenes.  It reads like a conversation between two average people who are briefly able to discuss the taboo subject of sex without self-consciousness or insecurities.

  Well gosh I really started out this year with a bang, didn't I? Sorry, I just couldn't resist...Anyway, I feel I should also mention that (according to the Wikipedia page for this novel) Vox was rumored to have been a gift from Monica Lewinsky to President Clinton.  I hope that's true, but even if it's not, it should give you an idea of the level of controversy that surrounded this book when it was published in 1992.

Overall Rating: