"What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life" and "Lit"

Kim Johnson Gross's "What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life: Ageless Secrets of Style" has a terrific title; that and the author's resumé (co-author of the Chic Simple book series) sounded promising. The promise, though, was hollow as a cheap silver cuff.

What you
will get is warmed-over style advice sprinkled through a most restrained breakup memoir. As I read, I could hear the marketing wheels turning: "Menopause? Breakup? What to wear? There's a book in that."

A better breakup story

Wading though Johnson Gross's pallid account of the end of her marriage, I was reminded of John Irving's advice to aspiring writers: "Just because it
happened to you does not mean it's interesting."

For an immeasurably superior memoir, read Mary Karr's "Lit". Karr writes the harrowing daylights out of her story. "Lit" is short on style advice–Karr being a stilettos-and-red-lipstick-solves-anything gal– but a dip into Style.com will fill the gap.

Not Johnson Gross's fault that she wasn't a certifiable nutbar like Karr, the kind of mother who swills whiskey alone on the back porch instead of reading bedtime stories to her son, but it doesn't make the pages fly or the woman who wrote them leap to life.

Johnson Gross falls apart when her mother tells her to lose weight after she sees her in a two-piece swimsuit. Mean Mummy!

Karr's mother, Charlie, is another order of difficult. Karr invites the hardscrabble Charlie to her wedding to a son of a socially prominent family, only to find Mom getting high with the hairdresser when they should be en route to the church. Confronting her mother about decades of dysfunction, she asks Charlie to name one good quality. "I'm be fun to be with?", her mother offers hopefully.

Better style advice

Most style books offer little fresh material, and "What to Wear" repeats familiar ground: play up your assets, buy quality, cull your closet.

If you're looking for guidance should you be invited, as the first wife, to a party at your re-married ex's, rent the DVD "It's Complicated", which opens with the same scenario and at least shows you Meryl Streep's terrific clothes.

Johnson Gross has
one tip I'll use: If you aren't wearing an item, move it to the front of your closet and force yourself to wear it. If, after two months, you still aren't wearing and liking it, pass it on.

Repetition abounds: multiple mentions of the same Kazuko wire-wrapped heart (her signature piece) and descriptions of her fairly classic wardrobe.

There's a fleeting reference to the error of drowning her sorrows and deliverance via therapy and gratitude, but she comes across as a tightly-wound woman who has figured out what clothes work for her.

The most disturbing aspect is her continual reference to a 20-pound menopausal weight gain (in her case, on her stomach) as The Alien. She spends many paras hating The Alien, disguising The Alien, exercising like a madwoman to lose The Alien, who does not diminish by a single ounce despite her triathalon.

This self-loathing of her no longer skinny body saddened me. Not many women welcome midlife weight gain, but it's far healthier to learn to dress around an altered figure than to denigrate your fleshier middle with a negative name.

If you want precise style advice there are many better books (Kendall Farr's "The Pocket Stylist, for one) and blogs (Inside Out Style).

If you are interested in an unstinting memoir of devastation, fearless examination and a hard-won, wary peace, "Lit" delivers provocation, poetry and lashings of mordant humour.


Sevenbeads said…
Some pieces will be moved up to the front of the closet today. I love that tip ... clothing on death row gets an appeal instead of instant execution.
M said…
On your recommendation, I looked up "Lit" at amazon online and this is what I read: "Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner's descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness--and to her astonishing resurrection."
Forget the style advice, I'm going for the gritty memoir. Thanks for the heads up.
Unknown said…
Great timing - I finished Lit on my Kindle last week. Loved it. Mary Karr did sound like a hellion to live with when she was drinking, but she never disappoints as a writer. And I share your dismay with books by women, for women, that are a lot of self-loathing and worry about superficiality. We can, and should, do better.
diverchic said…
I started at the beginning last week with "Liar's Club" and loved Karr's bio of her roller coaster early years. I learned a lot from it that I never understood before - not for discussion here - and am eager to have a run at "Lit". Thanks for the timely recommendation.
LPC said…
I read Liar's Club. And while I enjoyed the colorful tales, I never felt I would like Mary all that much. Maybe she got better with age. It's also possible that having just read Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, which is an even more excoriating story of alcohol and life, Liar's Club felt imitative. Which it wasn't in fact, just an accident of my reading pattern.
Toby Wollin said…
Calling her weight gain "The Alien" makes me think that what the writer was doing was playing a little game with herself. "See -- what can I do? This is something outside of myself, something that was done to me, that has nothing to do with me. I'm still the young, vibrant, fecund..."
No, actually, you aren't. That's what menopause is all about. Get over it - time to move on.
materfamilias said…
Thanks for the reviews -- always helpful to get some help sorting out the wealth of books out there, and if I can get that one useful tip without wading through a lot of nonsense, even better!
I realize I've followed exactly that advice over the past few months, but hadn't articulated it to myself as a principle -- and it truly works. I've pulled items into rotation that I'd loved in the shop, then got intimidated by in my closet. The death row approach, as Splurgie puts it, is a great motivator!
Belle de Ville said…
I'm working my way towards my own Alien, and I'm not happy about it. I'm glad to hear that a triathalon won't help because I loathe the idea of training for one.
Frugal Scholar said…
Thanks for the review. I remember seeing an article somewhere or other by Gross on the same topic--hated it, for similar reasons. I never found those Chic Simple books very helpful--a great concept, like the concept of the current book--but useless in execution.
I have read a few books on dressing and appropriate age fashion and I agree that some are like milque toast...or worse, a regurgitiaion of an already published book.

I'll see if I can rework an unused garment, maybe the fact it moves is enough of an inspiration to get it working again.
Duchesse said…
Splurgie: This tip yielded 2 trash bags of clothes. But you may have more stays than I did.

M: "Black belt sinner"- what a great term.

Artful: Surprised her husband stuck around as long as he did, but he too admired her talent.

diverchic: I'm working backwards, Lit was my first.

LPC: Mary gets religion, you gotta read it.

Toby: Whoo hoo, tell it, sister!

materfamilias: This tip yielded two trash bags so far and that;'s just spring/summer. So I guess that's worth $25 (and besides, i shared the tip) UNLESS I just go out and replace the stuff.

Belle: When I think of my mother and her friends at my age, they all had tunny/hip spread except for a few who were naturally reedy. The difference is they all corseted themselves, and I refuse.

Frugal: Chic/Simple books were visually appealing, like the Dorling Kindersley, the illustrated reference publisher. They did lack substance (unlike DK) but were so pretty they turned my head.

hostess: I am growing ever more strict with myself about not wearing things- and far more disciplined about shopping in stores where I can return.
Not in the slightest interested in reading confessional stories of descent and redemption - there is a religious subtext there that galls me greatly.

Hmm, I see the "Alien" as akin to people with a disease and how they refer to it (I'm thinking of a couple of specific examples, of people with cancer and MS). Ageing isn't a disease, but as it does eventually lead to death there is no reason we should be happy about it, though dwelling on it is pointless. Triathelon no, but most people in our societies are too sedentary.

Toby, I'm no longer young, and probably not fecund any more despite occasional visits from that old friend the red sea, but the day I'm no longer vibrant I'll stick my head in a gas oven. Fortunately I know people a good 30 years older than I am who are still vibrant and creative. Look at Louise Bourgeois - she was still creating until she died at 98. Or Dr Natalie Zemon Davis, cited in this blog not long ago.

I'd actually much rather read practical stuff on how to dress, but most of the books are fluff; this blog and the ones it links too are far more useful and interesting. Most of the books fall into the trap of trying to fit people into neat little categories and responding with formulaic solutions. Or else, like the How Not to Dress series, tend to make women into fashion victims with gaudy clothing and hairstyles ill-suited to their lives and personalities.
Duchesse said…
lagatta; I expected to be put off by Karr's conversion, especially b/c she converted to a faith I was born into and have parked in a very distant lot. But she was a vicious drunk, and now she's sober. Whether people find god or clean up through a secular route, they are doing it, and it is ongoing work. Karr too wonders how faith came to her.

While there are many vital older people (and hope we'll be among them), Johnson Gross's book reads like someone mourning lost youth rather than embracing the richness of maturity.

How is your venture into grey going?
Tiffany said…
Great reviews, Duchesse. I have to say I loved your 'hollow as a cheap silver cuff' analogy ...
I find 'The Alien' thing very disturbing also - you can't separate bits of your body and have a healthy relationship with it!
I'm about to bite the bullet and ask mon coiffeur for a cut - and not a colour. I have a good excuse - there are a couple of small, even dark moles on my scalp where my hair parts itself which I must have checked out. I'm not worried about them as they are even and haven't budged, but I must have a doctor look at them. I'll tell coiffeur that I can't have any colour until that is seen to (which is the Bible/Koran or whatever truth!) and ask him to take off several inches while conserving my bob.

The silver coming in is very nice. So far nobody has been nasty or patronising to me, but I'm not averse to going back to colour rather than humiliation.

Oh, I've known some vicious drunks - including one I worked alongside who also did cocaine as the upper (he is a journalist) and could work well for quite a while that way but wound up making death threats against his estranged wife. But unfortunately more than a few vicious drunks become nasty and judgemental sober people once they've taken the pledge, and the fundie religion doesn't help - fundie religions have probably killed more people than any chemical substance.

I guess that kind of story is simply not my cup of tea.

Mourning lost youth IS a rich literary vein, from the Italians to Shakespeare at least, and the Romantics later on. But I guess there is a difference between expressing these feelings in literature and wallowing in them IRL. Michelangelo, who was a poet as well as a sculptor and painter, wrote many such verses, but he lived and worked until an unsuallly ripe old age for his time.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Most interesting about your hair, so far, so good.

Just b/c someone gets sober does not make them nicer, or more mature. In fact, their psychological (and some would say spiritual) development is pretty much on hold while they are using, so they have the dual task, if they undertake it, of staying sober and growing up.
Duchesse said…
tiffany: That's it exactly, she disowns part of herself. The same general area that bore two children she loves.
Susan B said…
Thanks for these reviews! I hadn't known about either book, but may pick up "Lit" sometime in the future.

I agree that it's sad that women so often disparage what were once considered to be normal signs of aging. I think beyond trying to eat healthfully, staying physically active (in whatever format makes our minds and bodies feel best) we need to let go and learn to dress ourselves to play to our assets. Life is short, too short to waste a lot of time on hating the changes our bodies go through.
Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree more Duchesse- your review was right on! Great Blog BTW
Duchesse said…
Anon@12:57: Thanks, and feel free to comment re what you think are better style books.
Susan said…
I'm afraid I couldn't get into Liar's Club at all. Mary Karr's experiences and writing style are just not for me.

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