Thursday, November 06, 2008

Up for Renewal

Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over
by Cathy Alter
(Atria Books / Simon & Schuster / 978-0-743-28840-8 / 0-743-28840-8 / July 2008 / 322 pages / $24.00)
Your friendly book critic curmudgeon had been reading several long, serious books, and I had a positive intuitive feeling about this new release when it popped up through the Amazon Vine Program a few months ago. This review has been delayed due to the many technical difficulties I have been experiencing with my computer systems over the past couple of months. Clicking the Amazon link in the title will take you to my earlier review, but you have to search for it deeply into the more than a hundred reviews of this book by a familiar author. Although it is a book clearly aimed at those who sometimes wear skirts, I certainly was not disappointed at all by the pervasive quality of Up for Renewal.
My Amazon review was one of the more complimentary ones. I attribute this to the fact that I was impressed by Ms. Alter's very polished, concise writing style. I would guess that most of the other Amazon reviewers were either Vines looking for free new releases or critical women scrutinizing the plotline in comparisons with their familiar tonnage of chicklit. Maybe Up for Renewal did pale for them under the harsh light of realism, but I didn't view the storyline quite that way. I saw a silly premise deftly underlined by a writer who had already scored gobs of professional experience within the plot she was composing. This is only Cathy Alter's second book, but she has been contributing to women's magazines for years, and her intense knowledge of what she has written rips off the pages of this delightful little book.
The plot may be ridiculous on its surface, but Ms. Alter carries it brilliantly. She decided to set up a passel of magazine subscriptions, follow their advice religiously for a year, and report the results. The premise gains a little depth when you realize the author is honestly approaching her life choices with at least a little more analysis than the subtitle indicates. Cathy is a mature woman and she acts out her fantasy intelligently. Anyone who has ever read the cover of Cosmopolitan knows what drivel lies within, but Cathy has managed to seek the high road in both her life and the silly plot long before the last chapter has been read.
There is one negative aspect I want to mention, and that is the fact that Cathy Alter has obviously led a very comfortable existence all of her life. The effect is somewhat like watching an episode of Friends when you know those youngsters could not possibly afford the NYC apartments that serve as the show's set. Of course Ms. Alter could get away with some of the nonsense she describes in the book simply because she has never known anything less than a socially and economically sheltered upper-middle-class existence! Any whining at all from Ms. Alter should be tossed aside by the reader as being completely without merit. She's a wonderful writer, but she doesn't deserve a scrap of sympathy for any of the petty annoyances or bad choices in her life.
The reason I am so impressed with Up for Renewal is that Cathy Alter composes her material in exactly the same manner as I have tried to write my own books, maximizing the impact of the material with tight editing and as little verbosity as possible. Cut to the chase. Show us the DNA. Tell us what we really need to know about the subject. Provide the reader with much to ponder long after the reading has been completed. You can see where Cathy has been providing tautly edited articles for magazines. It's as if she has made every word count, and I think that is a highly valuable commodity in a writer.

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