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Unabridged Chick has commented on (10) products.

Mademoiselle Chanel by C W Gortner
Mademoiselle Chanel

Unabridged Chick, April 2, 2015

The luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a historical novel before. Her hist fic debut comes from C.W. Gortner, whose sublime The Queen’s Vow humanized Isabella, and this novel has set the high water mark for any future reads that attempt to tackle the notorious Chanel.

Born at the end of the 19th century in abject poverty, Gabrielle Chanel was turned over to a convent where she mastered sewing. Rather than taking vows to become a nun, Gabrielle instead became a seamstress and more daringly, a club singer -- where she earned her nickname Coco. Quickly, through her skill, ambition, and some fortuitous relationships, Chanel managed to project herself to fame over the decades as her once radical designs -- corset-less, trim, daring, modern -- set the standard for chic fashion. Weathering World War I and II, as well as devastating heartbreaks and notorious love affairs, Chanel lived a life that knew deprivation and luxury in equal part.

While the subject of this book is fascinating -- not just Coco herself, but the world she lived in -- the novel is made by Gortner's writing. Occasionally, I eye-roll when biographical novels use the first person viewpoint, as I find it makes the narrative all tell and no show, and allows the author off the hook when it comes to thornier details.

In Gortner's hands, however, Coco articulates her life with the spare, artistic verve of her designs. (He took his hand away. Not with harshness. His fingers just unraveled from mine, like poorly spun threads., p11) Even more delightfully, Coco's voice grows as she does, rather than remaining static throughout the book.

And the clincher: Gortner dealt with the ugly stuff. I was most curious about how Gortner would handle the allegations that Coco was a Nazi collaborator and spy. It's obvious from this sympathetic novel that Gortner admires Chanel, and his suggestion of how the fashion designer became embroiled with the Nazis is sympathetic. But he offers characters who question her motives, her contradictions, allowing the reader to voice their doubts, too -- and like Coco's friends, we have to decide if we believe her. I found Gortner's articulation of Coco so solid that while I clucked at her choices, I understood why she made them.

This makes my second top ten read of 2015. Even if you're not a fan of fashion, consider grabbing this book, as it really is the story of a self-made woman, a visionary who imagined the way women wanted to live that differed from what society said. There are tawdry details brushing shoulders with heavier themes, armchair escape to early 20th century France, and some delicious name dropping that sent me into Wiki rabbit holes. At this point, I want Gortner to tackle every fashion designer -- like Chanel's nemesis, Elsa Schiaparelli -- but regardless of who he tackles next, I'm there.
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Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb
Rodin's Lover

Unabridged Chick, February 3, 2015

Webb's second novel focuses on a less well known figure, French Belle Époque sculptor Camille Claudel, and this novel surpasses her first (which was pretty fabulous!).

Camille is a bit of a savant, a self-taught sculptor with immense talent and a matching ego. Driven to pursue her art, she receives tutoring in Paris from one of France's preeminent sculptors, but her family is split in their support of her passion. Camille's father supports her while her mother rages against the unorthodox behavior of her daughter. While her mother tries to arrange a marriage, Camille is instead drawn to her newest tutor, the much lauded Auguste Rodin.

Lest you fear this is just another hist fic focusing on a lady with a famous lover, let me reassure you this is a far more complicated, rich, and eventful story. Camille is a hard heroine to love: prickly, confident to the point of obnoxious, and single-minded. In Webb's hands, she isn't softened nor does she turn flat the moment she falls into her lover's arms.

In fact, Webb's emotional sensitivity is something I've come to admire in her books as the dramatic events unfold without veering into melodrama. Webb doesn't shy from the hard, heartbreaking parts of Camille's life (I'm being vague about these parts for those unfamiliar with Camille's story, but there's nothing fluffy here!) and intense moments are touched with humor, bittersweet sadness, or irony, making it impossible for this reader to shake Camille's story.

I sometimes find books about artists tricky; it can be hard to render into compelling narrative endeavors that depend on other senses. But Webb managed to evoke the tactile experience of sculpting as well as describing the various sculptures and pieces of art without sounding like a text book. I "saw" the works even without having to google them (although google I did!). I have to give a particular shout out to Joshua DeLillo, who sketched three of Camille's works for use in this novel. They look like photographs, they're so finely rendered, and were a welcome addition to the story.

This is the second novel I read since having my baby (and the second for 2015), and it was a knockout -- well worth stealing time to read. It's a fabulous read for those who enjoy biographical novels; I'm particularly reminded of Melanie Benjamin, who I also think takes shocking, notorious lives and renders them realistically, tenderly, and with empathy. Enjoy this one with espresso or cocoa over a snowy weekend.
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The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman
The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner

Unabridged Chick, January 10, 2012

This is an irreverent yet avowedly geeky look at the canon of Western European literature. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with the Modernists, Newman provides pithy summaries of famous works with humorous ratings (by importance, accessibility, and fun).

Ranking books is pretty subjective, no matter how objective the criteria, and I'm honestly not usually a fan of this kind of non-fiction (I like forming my own opinion, thank you!). But Newman's sense of humor is much like mine -- geeky, sarcastic, feminist, wry -- and so reading her was a bit like riffing with my nerdy Lit major girlfriends. However, you don't need to be an armchair academic to appreciate Newman's thoughts on the greats of Western literature. Her pithy biographies and summaries give a snapshot of a particular work or writer, and a suggestion of why one should read or not read said work/writer. A super fun, snappy, and easy-to-digest guide to Western literature, that will provoke nods of agreement and a few gasps of horrified disagreement. And lots of laughing. Way more fun than my 10th grade English class!
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Far from the Madding Crowd (Modern Library Classics) by Thomas Hardy
Far from the Madding Crowd (Modern Library Classics)

Unabridged Chick, October 13, 2011

I was pretty head-over-heels for this book after the first page but by the time our heroine Bathsheba Everdene appeared, my love was sealed. (How fabulous is that name?!)

There's a vaguely soap opera feel to the story, with the mix of rural drama (honestly, I had no idea there were so many ways sheep could die!) and a love pentagon (two women, three men) and yet, this isn't some fluffy pastoral farce. The romance in this book is hardly romantic: even the passionate points feel a bit grim, as we and the characters understand the implications of each overture and pass. Someone will be hurt, someone else buoyed, and one night makes all the difference in a life. The setting is described with poetic loveliness, but as we see with Farmer Oak's constantly imperiled sheep, rural life is hardly peaceful and bucolic. At times, it is nearly savage, and pretty, clever, fiery, passionate Bathsheba seems to be the personification of the lovely-yet-wild (and fickle!) landscape. She captivates, frightens, and mystifies the men around her, and despite her sometimes over-the-top emotional fits, she manages her own farm and her own courtships with savvy determination.

This book had it all: a heroine I loved, a story that captivated me, and writing that begs to be lingered over!
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)

India Black and the Widow of Windsor (Madam of Espionage Mysteries) by Carol K Carr
India Black and the Widow of Windsor (Madam of Espionage Mysteries)

Unabridged Chick, October 5, 2011

I've been waiting for this book pretty much from the minute I finished the first one, and I'm thrilled to say it's a happy reunion. Everything I loved from the first book -- the humor, the banter, the historical detail, the action scenes, India -- was in this book and I gobbled it up.

Again reprising her role as a Victorian Bond Girl, India is enlisted to go undercover to Balmoral, where Queen Victoria is spending Christmas (rather unusually). Prime Minister Disraeli (another returning character I was amused to see again) thinks Scottish nationalists will try to assassinate the Queen, so India and dreamy-but-cool government agent French go undercover to protect Victoria and figure out who's trying to do her in.

I found myself describing this series to a friend as a slightly risque take on the 'cozy mystery'. Instead of a yarn shop or small-town bakery, you've got a brothel; rather than a pet groomer or retired grandmother, you've got a madam. But the elements one enjoys in a cozy mystery are found in this one: reassuringly familiar characters, slightly ludicrous plots that are enjoyable nonetheless, a vague romantic entanglement, and a satisfying conclusion. If the rest of the series keeps this up, I'll be a very happy girl.
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