It’s all been downhill since Lauren Weisberger’s successful 2003 bestselling debut novel The Devil Wears Prada (whose film adaptation is even more successful and beloved than the novel—or supposed roman a clef—was). Her second novel Everyone Worth Knowing was fun and readable though hardly substantial, but her third novel Chasing Harry Winston is quite possibly her worst book to date (even more so than the drivel that is Revenge Wears Prada). However, as terrible as the book Harry Winston is in textual form, a curious thing happens when you listen to the audiobook: it becomes highly entertaining and engaging!
Chasing-Harry-Winston-275375The audiobook is voiced by Lily Rabe, who is singlehandedly the reason the book is so successful in this format. Rabe dives into the story, bringing unique voicing to the trio of women who serve as protagonists for the novel. Her Emmy is squeaky and unsure of herself going into her thirties as a recently dumped single woman. Adriana comes off as chic and confident and endlessly entertaining with Rabe’s deep, throaty, sultry voice for the character—sounding like a completely different person. And Leigh, in Rabe’s “normal voice,” is the stubborn one whose struggles with her impending marriage and her job as an editor feel the most fleshed out and relatable. Overall, Rabe sounds like she is having so much fun acting out the story that you can’t help but enjoy it, even at its most eye-roll-inducing.
And Harry Winston induces eye-rolls in spades. The crux of the novel involves these three women make a pact to change their lives—through anonymous sex or hunting for a serious relationship—which sounds like the beginning of any romantic comedy ever. And the story’s devolution into a mash-up of clichés merely begins there. While blessedly spared of extraneous details and dialogue that make reading the book so tedious, the abridged audiobook actually feels too short and quick. That’s how incredible Lily Rabe is. She actually leaves you wanting more from Entertainment Weekly’s “#1 Worst Book of 2008.”
I will forever love and read Lauren Weisberger if only for the nostalgia of when I first read her novels and loved them with all the joy of a guilty pleasure. But her novels translate better into audiobooks, letting strong actresses (like Merritt Wever!!) bring out the best, entertaining aspects of the novel. And Chasing Harry Winston is such a treat as an audiobook.


Book vs. TV: THE RETURNED Conundrum

17182421What if your dead loved ones returned to your life? Such is the premise of Jason Mott’s The Returned, inspired by a dream he had of his mother. Throughout the world, people—or whatever they are—reappear, causing global strife. Where they return and which dead ones return appears random, and leaves even more questions for the newly created International Bureau of the Returned.

The story opens itself up to all aspects of supernatural/sci-fi storytelling. Undead people, mysterious circumstances—Stephen King could knock out a 1,000-page book about it, easily. But Mott’s novel does not concern itself so much with uncovering the facts of these bizarre aspects and, instead, focuses on how it affects the small town of Arcadia and the quiet lives of the people therein.

The novel’s main perspective jumps between the aging Hargraves. Harold and Lucille lost their son Jacob about 50 years ago, and when he appears on their doorstep—thanks to Bureau Agent Bellamy—neither of them knows what to make of it. As the Returned’s presence sparks strife throughout the world, the Hargraves try to reconcile what Jacob’s return means to them. But circumstances grow increasingly dangerous as Arcadia reacts to being invaded by both the Returned and the government.

If this story sounds familiar, then you may have been one of the few viewers of ABC’s recent drama Resurrection. That show was adapted from Mott’s novel, expanding his world of characters to better suit a TV series. And, in fact, the series improves upon Mott’s novel (perhaps thanks to his consultation on the show?), with characters actively seeking answers to the riddles of the Returned.


While the show (at least for now) lacks some of the global expansiveness of the novel, it is far easier to get drawn into its world. Mott’s writing has a slow, contemplative pace that is punctuated far too frequently with Southern colloquialisms. You practically hear a Southern drawl as you read his words. The series matches the contemplative, slow boil storytelling but foregoes most of that treacly Southern charm which grates the reader in the novel.

The Returned and Resurrection address thoughtful issues of religion and human rights and do so in a tactful, grounded way. But Mott’s novel never seems to quite get to where it needs to be, distractingly lacking a certain verve (my mind strayed far too often when reading it). But Resurrection excels at improving upon its source material and creating an urgency in its storytelling. Blessedly, it’s been renewed for a second season, which gives you about a year to breeze through the series’ first eight episodes.


Sidebar: How Enraptured Are We with the Rapture?

TheReturned_CompleteIf the title The Returned sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve been too busy watching the French series The Returned (aka Les Revenants), which also deals with dead people returning to their homes. The series’ existence necessitated the title change for the TV series adapted from Mott’s novel, even though the title The Returned was perfect for it. And, in case that isn’t enough, A&E is adapting the French Returned (which has aired in the US on the Sundance channel) into an American series, also titled The Returned—in a frightening trend of adapting perfectly delightful international series into American ones (even if all that’s changed is the name of the city and everyone’s accents—I’m looking at you Broadchurch/Gracepoint).

left-behind-bookBut all this Returned business is punctuated by the increase in the opposite premise occurring as well. The Leftovers, one of HBO’s summer shows (based on Tom Perrotta’s novel), focuses on the lives of those left behind after a significant (and random) chunk of the population up and disappears. While that lacks the religiosity of the Rapture, Nicolas Cage is starring in a mainstream reboot of the highly Christian (and highly addictive) Left Behind novels.

Someone seems to think audiences are currently captivated by the Afterlife—in one way or another—but how much of this can we really handle before it becomes passé? (And whom do you despise more: Nicolas Cage or Kirk Cameron, who originated the role that Cage is taking on?)

Short Stories: The Best (And Least) of THE BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING 2011.

517cPqAMibLEvery year The Best American Series publishes a group of books anthologizing short fiction in every form of genre. While delving into the year’s best short fiction or short mysteries is always a treat, The Best American Nonrequired Reading always provides the most interesting gems of writing from the year. Below I chronicle some the best of the best (and the least of the best) of 2011’s nonrequired reading.
• The “Best American Profile of an International Pop Star” was Gary Shteyngart’s GQ profile of M.I.A. The 7,000-word article gives intriguing insight into her personal life while also giving the reader context for her music. While you may not have thought about her much recently (except for that weekend when “Paper Planes” was playing everywhere), this piece will have you trying to get your hands on any of her albums.
• That isn’t the only profile that paints a fascinating portrait of a real person. Chris Jones’ Esquire piece “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” tells the melancholy story of Ebert’s last years alive. His impact on film criticism is undeniable, and Jones gives us a glimpse of how Ebert approached it while also depicting his heartbreaking battle with cancer.
• Clare Beams’ “We Show What We Have Learned” (from Hayden’s Ferry Review) takes a simple story about an elementary teacher and her students and turns it on its head. To say more would ruin the surprise, but it’s a story that uses its language in a playful way.
• A story that is equally playful but far more insufferable is Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” (taken from Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine). The story is taken from a “Confidential Police File” and only contains the written responses of the subject’s response to the investigator’s questionnaire (leaving you to guess what the question was in the first place). It’s a story steeped in magic realism, and will undoubtedly please any fan of Gaiman. However, this story (my third time reading something written by him) officially made me give up on ever liking him as a writer.
• “Solitude and Leadership” is taken from The American Scholar and is a speech originally delivered by William Deresiewicz to a plebe class at West Point. It’s a speech that will connect with anyone going through a job transition or feeling frustrated with promotions at work, among other situations, as Deresiewicz lays out what kind of people become leaders.
• Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Hole in the Head” (from The Kenyon Review) is a meandering thriller about cosmetic surgery. It’s notable not only for its author but also because it’s a captivating story. Yet, when it was over, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There were so many directions the story could have gone that I felt cheated when it didn’t address them. But then again, maybe that’s what really good short fiction is all about?
• Another story that could have gone in many fascinating directions but didn’t is “Pleiades” by Anjali Sachdeva (from Gulf Coast). It briefly chronicles the life of a girl who was born as a septuplet as an experiment by geneticist parents. There could instantly be a TV show born out of that idea (and might resemble Orphan Black) but Sachdeva merely hones in on just a few moments while telling this bittersweet tale.

There are, of course, far more short pieces of fiction and nonfiction alike dispersed throughout this book (as well as a list of notable pieces that didn’t quite make the cut, leading to infinitely more reading). I encourage you to pick up the book and explore it for yourself. You never know what story might inspire you.