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Review: The Chiffon Trenches by André Leon Talley

Have you ever wondered how accurate The Devil Wears Prada’s portrayal of working at Vogue under Anna Wintour was? Are you curious about which major designers do the most cocaine? Have you ever considered how Princess Diana would react if you spilled red wine on her ballgown during dinner? Do you daydream about what it would be like to share a private jet with Naomi Campbell? Would you like to know whether Karl Lagerfeld’s cat had its own personal maid and dentist? Have you ever questioned how many times one can use the words “resplendent” or “sangfroid” within a single chapter?    

If the answer to any of the above questions is “duh”, then good news, dear reader: you’re in the right place. The answer to all my queries and more can be found within the pages of André Leon Talley’s new memoir. 

The memoir starts with a bang. The introduction reflects on Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover, which featured her own writing instead of a traditional interview and the work of the first Black photographer to ever shoot a Vogue cover. Talley, a Black American man, reflects on the power of this quiet statement made by Beyonce and connects it with his own personal history. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, when being a young Black boy with a love of Vogue magazine, Jackie Kennedy and imaginative fashion choices was no walk in the park. Talley writes, “it’s a dangerous and perilous tightrope walk, and yet you must rise to meet the day.”

The book follows Talley’s upbringing in his grandmother’s house, his education in French studies at Brown University, his introduction to the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, his work at Interview Magazine under Andy Warhol, and then his success at major fashion magazines: WWD, Vogue, Ebony. Talley brushed shoulders with the biggest names in fashion early on and made a lasting impression. He credits his deep knowledge of fashion, sense of style and, above all else, his excellent Southern manners for his acceptance into the ranks of Karl Lagerfeld, Andy Warhol, John Galliano, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blanhik, Paloma Picasso and many others.   

Is the narrative tinged with some grandiosity? Of course it is. Talley spent years being told that he was influential, important, an insider. As he writes, for a time he was the most important man in fashion journalism. It’s understandable that he sees himself this way and writes about himself this way. He writes about all expenses-paid trips around the world with designers and models, nearly always securing a front row seat at a fashion show and being considered an expert on style choices by many an elite New Yorker or Parisian.  

There are also some heavy moments within the book, although they are scarce and given only a few pages at a time. Talley writes about childhood sexual abuse, losing friends to the AIDs crisis, and his struggles with binge eating. He also writes about the devastation of decades-long friendships ending, most notably with Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. Perhaps it’s deliberate that Talley only affords these experiences a few words. It seems likely, to me at least, that at 70 years old Talley is tired of reflecting on the sadness and cruelty he experienced in his life. 

The photographs featured in this book deserve their own rating to be honest. The photos are shot by heavyweights like Arthur Elgort and Jonathan Becker, and they are absolutely incredible. Talley selected beautiful shots that show old Vogue photoshoots, Met Ball red carpet moments, portraits of influential fashion elite and ‘casual’ photographs with his designer friends. 

Overall, the book is good. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. It was heavily advertised as a “tell all” and it was implied that there would be a lot more gossip about Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld than actually appears. Most of the information provided is already known publicly. Anna Wintour is a cold, decisive business woman who rarely shows concern for other’s emotions? DUH. Karl Lagerfeld was extravagant with money, difficult to be around and quick to cut off friendships? DUH. There are rumours that the man left his fortune to a cat. Of course he’s a little eccentric and impossible to understand. I will concede that there are some incredible anecdotes in the book, particularly at the beginning of the story, in Talley’s twenties. But is the book the drama-fest that some eager fashion fans were anticipating? No, not really. Is it a well written masterpiece? No, not really. Talley writes some sections beautifully, but then repeats certain words and phrases so much that he starts to sound like a parrot. As I said, it’s good, not great. 

I’ll attempt to put it in fashion terms: I was expecting Chanel but got J. Crew instead. 

Pairs well with: couture Chanel, The Devil Wears Prada, a burgeoning career in feline dentistry.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

“For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” 

It’s not often that I read a book that persistently permeates my thoughts after I’ve finished it. I can think of three, maybe four, other instances. I’m happy to announce that my shortlist of unforgettable books now has a new addition in its ranks. Simply put, A Gentleman in Moscow is a modern masterpiece. 

Our protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, is 33 years old in 1922 when a Bolshevik tribunal takes all of 12 minutes to determine that he has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class. For that crime, he is sentenced to live the rest of his life confined to the walls of the Metropol hotel in Moscow. The Count is warned that if he ever steps foot outside again, he will be shot. It is with this sentence that the Count’s world of travel, leisure, glittering balls and liberal arts education is abruptly terminated. Instead, upon his return from the trial, he is moved to a small room in the hotel’s servant’s quarters, where he is allowed to keep few of his possessions and is thrust immediately into a brand new world.  

We get to know the Count quickly, and we learn a great deal about his past and personality through the first few chapters. The Count is a true gentleman: he’s learned in the arts, he’s multilingual and well traveled, he has manners that would charm the Queen, and he’s wickedly smart. He seems to have read every book, listened to every composer and studied every political theorist. He has an incredible knowledge and appreciation of food and wine. His sense of humour is unparalleled and he seems wise far beyond his 33 years. 

One of the most incredible aspects of the Count’s character is that he quickly proves he isn’t as easily defeated as we would suspect someone in his position would be. He takes his socio-economic demotion at the hands of the Bolsheviks in stride and always maintains his gregarious, charming persona. He appears to hold no grudge toward his captors. Instead, he treats this change in fortunes as a new challenge and adventure. As we witness the next 30 years of his life unfold on the page, he becomes an even more interesting character. He maintains his genteel manners and habits (enjoying delicacies in the hotel restaurant, contemplating themes from major poets with his friends and mingling with the VIP guests that stay at the hotel) but he also becomes immersed in the lives of the Metropol’s staff. He learns to sew from the hotel’s seamstress, he becomes a server and works closely with the head chef and maitre d’ and becomes fast friends with a precocious nine year old resident of the hotel. 

Through the Count, Towles reminds us of an ultimate truth: if one does not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them. 

Are you a fan of George Eliot? Good, so am I. I knew we had a lot in common. If you liked Silas Marner, you’ll appreciate some of the themes found in this book. At one point, Towles mirrors some aspects of Eliot’s work and, in my humble opinion, does so expertly. I want to avoid spoilers, so that’s all I will say on that note.  

This book displays Towles’ incredible mastery of the English language. Each word feels intentional and important, and although it’s a large book, it doesn’t feel drawn out (which is often how I feel about other 400+ page novels). As a matter of fact, I found myself wishing for an extended version, a sequel, or at least a tweet from the author telling me what happened next. Anything to satisfy the burning desire to learn more about these incredible characters and this fascinating moment in history.  

A Gentleman in Moscow is like a decadent chocolate cake, or a perfectly seared steak, or an exquisite bottle of wine shared by lovers. It is designed to be enjoyed slowly. Please heed my advice and don’t speed through this one. Savour it, for it’s a one in a million book. 

I’ll finish this review with one last quote. I read it three or four times, because I had the distinct feeling that this was a quote that must be remembered in the midst of so much chaos in our world.

“He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life we had been meant to lead all along.” 

I told you this was a damn good book. 

Pairs well with: a 2018 Chablis, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, your best dinner attire (velvet optional but strongly encouraged).  

Review: Theory by Dionne Brand

I was about to start this review with the line, “I really enjoyed this novel, but I’ll warn: it’s not for everyone.” Ugh. Who has quarantine made me become? That’s such a trite thing to say. 

Let me try again. I really liked this book, when I was in the right headspace for it. It’s not a beach read, nor a curl-up-on-a-rainy-day read. It’s a book you have to be tuned into to enjoy. 

Our narrator is an unnamed and ungendered (more on that later) late 30s PhD student who has spent at least a decade toiling away on their ambitious and amorphous thesis. They’re brilliant, funny, slightly narcissistic and deeply melancholic. Our narrator tells the timeline of their attempts to complete the thesis through the lens of the major relationships that consumed them throughout the decade. Fittingly, three of the four sections of the book are named after the women in these relationships: Selah, Yara and Odalys. 

Each woman our narrator has dated is fascinating in her own way, but for me, the more interesting aspect of these chapters is the way in which the narrator acts within these relationships and the ways in which the narrator uses the women as either a muse or an anti-muse for the thesis. While our narrator seems to believe that these women deserve at least partial blame for the unfinished thesis, they also believe that these women have deeply shaped the thesis and the narrator’s course of study. 

About that unnamed and ungendered note above – depending on who you ask, the narrator is either an unnamed and ungendered late 30s PhD student, a woman named Teoria, or an ungendered person nicknamed Teoria. Confused? I warned you, you have to be on your A game with this book. 

One of our narrator’s love interests does call them Teoria throughout her chapter (although the narrator does note that Teoria is not their given name). A lot of people read the character of Teoria as a woman, as I originally did. I think the author’s ambiguity on the narrator’s name, gender and race is curious – Brand, a Black Canadian author, is well known for writing about gender, sexuality and race. To leave a question mark in the place of these identifiers is an interesting choice. 

The final of the four chapters is entitled, “Teoria/Theory”. Fittingly, it’s a chapter dedicated to the narrator’s relationship with theirself, their family, and their life’s work: the thesis. This was the chapter that was the hardest to get through; it felt convoluted and scattered, and it seemed to consistently lose focus throughout. Perhaps that’s intentional – perhaps it shows how lost Teoria got in the search for academic superiority. Or perhaps it’s because, for even the author, it’s hard to maintain focus when discussing a thesis for too long. 

Pairs well with: grad school applications, ordering unnecessary office supplies from Staples.

Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I’m conflicted. I liked a lot of this book – I thought that our narrator’s relationships with her parents, her friend Tracey and employer Aimee were well written. I enjoyed their characters as well – I felt like I got to know Tracey and Aimee really well over the course of the book. I really enjoyed the split locations between West Africa, London and New York, and I thought the writing itself was impressive. The problem? The book needed a better editor. There are characters that are thrown in for a chapter and then never heard from again, some bizarre events that seem unrealistic based on the story that Smith has laid out for us and a whole lot of waffling. 

Smith is ambitious with Swing Time – she takes on race, gender, voluntourism, celebrity culture, poverty, education and opportunity against a story of two brown girls from the public housing estates in London and their shared love of dance. I wish Smith had narrowed her focus a little and in the process cut out about 100 pages. I felt myself growing impatient at times, wanting to tell Smith to hurry up and get back to the “main point”. Maybe that’s a good sign, in a way, because it means that when the book was good, it was good

Our story takes place over the our narrator’s childhood and well into her thirties. We see her friend Tracey, the girl with the real talent for dance (and for getting into trouble), end up on a West End stage. The dream, right?! Well, not exactly. Tracey faces a lot of hardship throughout the story, which is ultimately further compounded by her toxic attitude and thorny exterior. Our narrator comes from a slightly more stable background than Tracey, and navigates a difficult friendship with her until her university years, after which their interactions become sparse, but no less challenging. 

Here’s the difficult truth: you either know a Tracey, or you are a Tracey. I knew a Tracey, and for many, many years, I thought that she wasn’t such a Tracey, just misunderstood. Smith clearly has known a Tracey or two – you aren’t able to write one so well without having been entangled with one.  

After university, our narrator becomes a personal assistant to celebrity singer Aimee (think: Madonna) for nine years. Through Aimee, our narrator is introduced to the wild world of riches and fame, and remarks that it is her job to make the world easy for Aimee, who throughout the story makes the world increasingly difficult for our narrator. Aimee becomes everyone’s least favourite kind of celebrity: she has way too much money, not enough common sense and a massive white saviour complex.

Overall, I found that I really enjoyed the clearly very skilled writing, the storylines involving Tracey and Aimee, and observations that Smith makes throughout the book. It was also very enjoyable to read the descriptions of the locations of this book – I felt like I was back in London during some chapters. I think that with a great editor and maybe one less theme for Smith to tackle, this book would have been a 5 star recipient. 

Pairs well with: leaving (or entering) a toxic friendship, practicing the dance from the Vogue music video, taking a cheeky smoke break. 

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to My Sister, the Serial Killer, you definitely should. I mean, look at that cover!! The colours! The font! Lame joke alert: it’s a killer cover. 

Korede, a Nigerian nurse, is always there for her younger sister, Ayoola. She’s like any good big sibling: she’s responsible, level headed and always there to help Ayoola dispose of the bodies of the men she’s killed. Ayoola is a beautiful black widow: she dates desirable men who fall easily for her beauty and charm. She’s vibrant and fun and a great girlfriend, until she ends up murdering her partner. We all have our flaws. 

Korede dutifully helps her sister clean up these murders and seems to accept this lot in life, until Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, a handsome doctor at Korede’s work. Korede is in love with Tade and, as Korede’s luck would have it, Tade falls for the wrong sister. Now Korede is faced with a dilemma: should she reveal her sister’s dirty secret to save the man she loves? 

Pairs well with: killer sarcasm, a social media cleanse, unrequited love.