Chick-Lit, Fiction

A Satisfying Salad

Amazon describes Sad Desk Salad as The Devil Wears Prada for the twenty-teens. Author Jessica Grose has even jokingly called it The Devil Wears Sweatpants. The book’s title is a reference to the official lunch of choice for yuppie desk drones everywhere (from what I can tell, this meme came after the book, but I had to laugh in self-recognition). Grose’s tale is a not-quite roman à clef of her days as a dozen-posts-a-day blogger for Jezebel (or so she says), but it offers up intimate and often biting commentary on the late 2000s and early 2010s online media world.

Grose says the book is meant to be an updated portrait of what it’s like to have an entry-level-job-in-New-York-City-media: Bright Lights, Big City was just as much an inspiration as the 2003 The Devil Wears Prada, based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experiences working under Anna Wintour (and made into a fabulous movie of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway).

Sad Desk Salad chronicles a week-in-the-life of Alex Lyons, a glued-to-the-couch, muumuu-clad copy monkey for a women’s gossip website. Alex is tasked with feeding the daily beast dozens of bite-sized witticisms on celebrities and assorted news of the weird in the name of the all-mighty page view. When she receives her most salacious tip yet — a sex tape of a Tiger Mom-like socialite’s daughter — her moral mettle is tested by the wilds of the web. Her job, personal relationships and the esteem of readers and colleagues are all suddenly on the line.

The good: Having personally experienced the feed-the-internet beast pressure in previous day jobs (and having friends who still do), it’s difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of its satire for the lay reader who isn’t as familiar with that world. Grose portrays a sense of humor about her experiences that can only come from a healthy distance. More often than not, she skewers the media gossip blog world and the characters in it with a salad spinner, not an axe. Alex’s neuroses often border on obnoxious; Grose clearly doesn’t coddle her leading lady. And Alex’s hard-charging editor, Moira, ruthless in her quest for page views and upper management accolades, is hardly a clear-cut villain. There’s enough satire to appeal to the reader who can appreciate fictionalized social commentary but wouldn’t otherwise pick up something that looks vaguely chick-litty. But a tiny bit of earnestness in this salad’s dressing tempers its cynicism and provides a satisfying ending, too.

The not-so-good: I got through this one without the chick-lit cringe I get when I read characters who sound like they could be on Dawson’s Creek, use phrases like “just the same” too many times, or suffer through all-too-familiar plot lines hoping they’ll take a turn for the clever. It helps that Alex already has a man — a live-in boyfriend named Peter who works in finance — so the quest for one isn’t at all a part of the narrative.  While it was refreshing to read a chick-lit novel that portrays the challenge of maintaining an already decent relationship rather than the struggle to land one, it felt a bit too much like a page from DWP.  It doesn’t help that the beaus in both books are patently unlikable. Aside from one insightful exchange about the moral relativism of their respective jobs, Peter’s concern for Alex seemed too paternal for me to take their partnership seriously. The story would have held up just fine without him.

Cheese-o-meter: A couple of sad salad bar parmesan sprinkles here and there, courtesy of the aforementioned boyfriend.

Writerly lessons: You kill more flies — and win more readers’ hearts — with honey when writing what you know. Disciplined satire makes for a more satisfying read than a full-throttled sendup. Kudos to Grose.


Chick-Lit, Fiction, Storytelling

Warning: This Book Tastes Delicious

Girls GuideSince The Manny Diaries’ one loyal, regular reader has been on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean for the past two weeks, there’s no one around to make fun of my chick lit habit and peep my Kindle’s contents over my shoulder. So I thought I’d come clean about the two books I gobbled up in said readers’ absence to any other lurkers out there, because I’m actually pretty excited about them. I read The Girls’ Guide To Love and Supper Clubs and Sad Desk Salad back to back over the course of two weeks. They involve food, the internet, and twenty-something urbanite girly stuff, which is to say: a few of my very favorite things. I’ll start with …Supper Clubs.

Dana Bate’s heroine, Hannah Sugarman, is a pro when it comes to whipping up a carrot cake from scratch. But playing the part of proper bougie girlfriend of her boyfriends’ parents’ dreams? Not so much. After her boyfriend dumps her, she moves into a basement apartment and cooks. A lot. The “Spunky Sidekick Friend” (you know, the one that’s in every romcom?) convinces her to open a super secret — and illegal — supper club in the upstairs apartment inhabited by her landlord, without his knowledge. The rest is a cat-and-mouse-game-cum-romance with all sorts madcap mishaps and tantalizing foodie porn along the way.

The good: Dana Bate can surely spin a good yarn (She’s an alumnus of my journalism school, so I’d hope so!) Even during the parts that felt too predictable or conventional, Bate’s Hannah Sugarman is such uniquely pleasant company that you want to keep reading even when you know exactly where the story is going. This is Bate’s debut novel and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next, and to hopefully meet her: she’s a former DC resident and we’ve communicated on Twitter (I refuse to say we’ve “tweeted.” Ew). But still, this makes her awesome in my book. She also seems to understand the worlds she depicts in Supper Club pretty darn well: foodies and young DC professionals. I have a feeling I’d either really enjoy dining out with Dana or gain 10 pounds eating her braised brisket and pretzel bread — if she cooks anything like Hannah Sugarman. Also: I’d be shocked if this hasn’t been optioned for a movie yet; I was casting it in my head the whole time.

The not-so-good: As in most romcom’s and chick lit, it’s pretty easy to sniff out who Hannah’s main man will be by the end of the novel pretty early on, despite Bate’s best efforts to well, bait us in other directions (sorry I’m not sorry for that pun). Other reviews have pointed out the improbability of the book’s ending, but I really think we all need to get over this craving for “plausibility” in storytelling. While some of Bate’s characters are delightfully quirky and well-imagined (Hannah herself, her wonky think tank boss, her landlord who peppers sentences with nautical puns), the stories and themes are well worn ones. The “follow your dream instead of your parents’ dream” trope in particular could have benefitted from a bit more nuance or edge; do the chick-lit publishing Gods allow that?

Cheese-o-meter: Jarlsberg from the Dupont Circle farmer’s market on crackers.

Writerly lessons: Sometimes it’s OK to write a predictable story with an ending that’s smothered in pink cream cheese frosting, if you’ve got delicious characters and a real feel for the worlds they inhabit. Oh, and if you give readers all the recipes featured in the book at the end. Yup, even the Kindle version doubles as a cook book (thanks, Dana!) I’m more inspired to make my own bacon-wrapped dates than ever before.

 Sad Desk Salad gets the cheese-o-meter treatment…coming soon!


Experimenting, Fiction, On Writing

The Writers Guide To Confidence (or This Is How You Fall In Love With Junot Diaz)

In theory, I’m going to review “chick-lit” novels in this space, dissecting the good from the way-too-Stilton-cheesy. But before I do that, I can’t help myself in writing a little about one of the things that 13503109inspired me to write a women’s fiction novel for NanoWriMo in the first place, and that something is a 40-something dimunitive Dominican anointed genius.

“But wouldn’t The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Bridget Jones’ Diary make pretty strange bedfellows?” you ask.

Yes. Yes they would. Although now that I think about…that’d be a fun little writing exercise for another blog post…

I had put Junot Diaz‘ Wao down about midway through a month before I stumbled into his tent at the National Book Fair in September. I enjoyed Diaz’ bilingual wordplay and the book’s Dominican history lessons. But for some reason, I’d bored of the book’s narrative. After hearing him read aloud from his newer book, “This Is How You Lose Her” at the book fair, I picked up “Wao” again and finished it promptly: Diaz is just that engaging. Listening to him read from his books is visceral in a way reading the text is not: Oscar and Yunior’s cadences and rhythms and heart must be spoken to be fully realized, and only their creator can truly deliver. Diaz has a way with an audience, too; he allowed Q&A to take up the entirety of his allotted speaking time after the reading. At one point, a high school-aged girl took the mic and told Diaz that she was an aspiring writer, but she worried that everything she wrote sounded like somebody else.

Diaz dismissed her worries. All writers are derivative of someone else, he said. Then, he said — I’m paraphrasing very liberally here — “You have to read things and study them and you find yourself thinking ‘I can do this better or I can do this just as badly’.”

I can do this better or I can do this just as badly. It was kinda how I felt whenever my friends suggested I write chick-lit. I certainly don’t have that thought about say, Nora Ephron or Helen Fielding or Jennifer Weiner. I’d be lucky to write anything a fraction as well any of them. But some (not all)  women’s fiction on the shelves and on my Kindle today relies on cliches and tired tropes and unsophisticated narration. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, which makes trying a bit less intimidating.  I could do this just as badly.  Surely, I can’t be the only one who reads things and feels this way (right?)

And about a week or so ago I read a profile of an actress in a women’s magazine, and thought, I could do this better. Sure, I was biased because I like the actress and her work. But, really, a lot of us can do better than the standard intro describing the hotel lobby where writer meets celebrity, standard nut graph about the celebrity’s current hot projects, next standard graph about how “Oh my gosh she’s a size 2 but just ordered truffle fries and a Diet Coke!” and so on? (Note to any women’s mag editors who probably aren’t reading this anyway: Can we puh-lease change this tired formula? Kthx).

But once that phrase was in my head: I can do this better or just as badly, it seemed many things were at least worth a shot. Not every published writer is Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith or can write celebrity profiles like Chris Jones. But why not try, at least at first, to be among the not-so-great? It’s a little less scary. Once you’ve got some words on the page, once some work is done, then you try to be better.

To paraphrase the most beautiful line of “This Is How You Lose Her” — the half life of mediocrity doesn’t have to be forever.