Wednesday, July 27, 2016


            #GIRLBOSS* flashes its bold letters on stands, displaying an edgy Sophia Amoruso for all to see. Amoruso embodies the American dream: she’s a self-made woman who founded the small-time eBay store Nasty Gal at age 22, which is now—10 years later—worth 280 million. Same.

            Amoruso does seem to want the same for you…kind of. The book is part autobiography, part female empowerment manifesto. It details Amoruso’s rocky past, replete with dumpster diving, a stint in professional stealing, and resistance towards conventional institutional demands (like high-school). It also speaks to her innate work ethic and ability to hustle hard even when everything works against you. The resounding theme throughout her story: she is different and she achieved success via her own winding, eccentric path. I don’t want to demean her accomplishments—she’s done a whole lot more than I have, and who am I to downgrade her girlbossishness? I will say, that from a literary perspective, her rebelliousness reads cliché. There’s so much emphasis on her uniqueness that she becomes an obvious archetype of “the weirdo”.  I kept thinking, we get it; you’re so uncool that you’re actually too cool.
            This is where I get confused. The book advertises itself as an inspirational guide to exceptional entrepreneurship—read this and realize that you too can follow your dreams, if you just set your mind to it. Yet, as an autobiography, it hones in on so many specifics of Amoruso’s life that you see her situation is an exception, not the rule. Sure, her story can still be inspiring, but don’t expect to be able to model her approach. Her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like it’s better than yours; damn right, it’s better than yours, she can teach you, but she has to charge. So, she does charge, by selling her book. Your milkshake is inferior.

I was initially wary of this book for the same reasons I generally steer clear of girl-powery, flowery fluff. I’m totally into women supporting women, and I think that it’s necessary in a male-dominated society; but I’ve heard too many speeches and read too many books where things get really cheesy really quickly. Cue the basic platitudes, like “abandon anything about your life and habits that might be holding you back” and “out of the bajillions of things in this universe that you can’t control, what you can control is how hard you try” (Amoruso, 14 and 235). These suggestions might be helpful to some; for me, it led to a lot of no duh moments. I don’t need a book to tell me to just go out and make things happen—that’s not exactly hard-to-come-by advice.

What do I like about this book? She’s funny, and that comes across loud and clear in her writing. She uses a conversational tone, which entertains me even if it doesn’t necessarily rouse me. Amoruso eats, sleeps, and breathes Nasty Gal, and her enthusiasm is impressive. If you want to read a sassy go-getter comically explain how she went and got stuff, then this is for you. If you want to soak in concrete counsel for how to bring your business into reality, then look elsewhere.

“A #GIRLBOSS is someone who’s in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it” (Amoruso, 11). Luck doesn’t really fit into the equation, which in my opinion seems a little tone-deaf. Overall, I’m a little too cynical to fully get behind her generic advice; at the same time, I appreciate the piece for what it is: a good story about one successful person told in a funny manner. Between the two, Amoruso’s book balances at 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Amoruso, Sophia. #GIRLBOSS. New York: Penguin Random House, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Everything Is Illuminated

“Everything is illuminated!” I triumphantly exclaim as I embrace my rosy future, filled with laughter and butterflies and Chili’s. Or so I wish. In lieu of this ambitious epiphany, I read Everything Is Illuminated* by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The novel is a little less clear than its title implies. There are two main characters: Alex and “the hero”, who happens to be the author himself. The book flows between three narratives involving said characters:
  • Alex talks about his voyage to Trachimbrod—a Jewish village in Poland that was destroyed during the Holocaust. “The hero” commissions Alex’s family to guide him through the area in search of a woman who helped his grandfather during the war.
  • “The hero” gives a fictionalized account of Trachimbrod’s history, imagining the detailed lives of his lineage.
  • Alex writes letters to “the hero”, giving feedback on his writing.  
Part of the reason I review books is so that readers know what to expect in a general sense. I don’t want to give away plot points, but I do think it’s helpful to hear about an author’s voice in order to determine if that voice seems appealing to you. When Alex speaks, I listen. He’s an honest and captivating young man, and we proudly watch him grow into himself. Furthermore, he’s both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious. He’s Ukrainian, and his command of the English language is comically poor. He says, “You clutch how rigid it was” when he means, “You grasp how hard it was” (Foer, 23). He quips, “Enough of my miniature talking” when he means what everyone wants to say at the office—“screw the small talk” (Foer, 53). You get the idea. The clashing of culture leads to miscommunication, which leads to misunderstanding, which leads to quirky mishaps and intriguing vulnerability. 

When “the hero” speaks, I’m a little less compelled. His passages are more poetic, and he's capable of painting a beautifully poignant picture. But they’re less consistent, and sometimes they’re downright confusing. Weaving in and out of so many storylines can be effective—it keeps us guessing and maintains our attention. It can also be annoying—I want to see some things to completion, and I don’t appreciate the interruption. Foer creates brooding characters, but sometimes their significance is lost amidst a busy backdrop with so many moving parts.

My impression is that this novel takes the good portions of some of my favorite books and patches them together. But the final quilt doesn’t sit right with me. Foer’s lyrical interludes compare to that of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The balance of comedy and tragedy strikes a pathos chord similar to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Alex explores how sometimes writing non-truths actually more effectively gets at the truth, much like Tim O’Brien’s reasoning in The Things They Carried. Foer gives elaborate, omniscient recounts on his ancestral history, as the narrator in Middlesex does. Individually, these devices are brilliant at driving a story. All together, they overwhelm me.

I can tell that “the hero” is talented, even if this novel didn’t live up to the hype of Foer fandom. I’m amazed that it is as good as it is considering he was 25 when it was published. I’m 25, and if I wrote a novel, it would be about how much I love my dachshunds, not the physical and emotional voyage of reconciling my current life with historical events. Foer is a force to be reckoned with, and I intend to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. However, standing alone, Everything is Illuminated gets 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. Print.