“Challenge Accepted!” by Celeste Barber

In the life of every social media celebrity, there comes a moment when someone finds it a great and original idea to have that celebrity put out an autobiography. If one is extremely lucky, the outcome is funny, witty, or at least interesting. Most of the time, luck has other places to be, and the reader is stuck with something that could best be described as “meh”.

For quite a while, I was a fan of Celeste Barber’s Facebook page, on which she regularly posts photos of herself spoofing outlandishly ridiculous photos of outlandishly photoshopped models in ridiculously outlandish poses. Of course, Ms. Barber looks nothing like an undernourished, photoshopped model, but she’s doing this primarily for fun (often with the assistance of her husband, who is best known by his handle #hothusband), and that’s why fans laugh with her and love her.

When the book was first announced, bearing the same title as the most famous hashtag on the page, #challengeaccepted, I was rather hoping to get a kind of “Best Of” collection of photos, perhaps some outtakes, perhaps some anecdotes. Instead, I got a collection of swearword-peppered, stream-of-consciousness stories that somehow apparently make up enough content to be sold as a biography these days.

Now, generally speaking, cussing doesn’t disturb me much. One of my favorite cookbooks is Thug Kitchen, after all. I just think that overusing language like that is like those drawn-out car chases in movies: mainly filler.

Ms. Barber opens with a reality-lit-type recollection of her son’s birth*. I am one of those seemingly rare women who don’t particularly care to be regaled with blood-and-goop-stained vignettes of childbirth. A couple of chapters later, we delve into Ms. Barber’s school years. I don’t really think it’s funny or cool or inspirational to tell young people who might be reading this book that being bullied isn’t a big deal, because, well, the author was able to laugh it off and now feels like a stronger person for it. And just in case some of that even later stuff in the book was brought forth by some subconscious pang of guilt about writing insensitive remarks like that, devoting an entire intermission to proclaiming how much you love the gay community doesn’t vindicate anyone. Sorry.

It’s a sign of our times that I feel it necessary to sidetrack to tell you that I am not implying that dedicating a chapter to your love of your friends and fans is somehow wrong. It is, like a lot of things in this book, unnecessary. Ms. Barber talks early on about one of her close friends who happens to be gay, and what she says about him should make her feelings clear to any but the dullest of readers. There, glad we’re past that.

Anyway, the bullying incident really rubbed me the wrong way, and I very nearly decided not to finish the book at all. I did, though, and it wasn’t complete rubbish. It also wasn’t particularly funny, or witty, or inspiring, and I really don’t see the point to it. Somehow it has an odd tang of being aimed directly and primarily at an American audience. What version do the Aussies get? Or do they already know everything there is to know about Celeste Barber?

My take on “Challenge Accepted!” is this: if you love her because of her self-deprecating humor and the way she casually skewers advertising, decide if you primarily do so because of her photos. If the answer is yes, this is a challenge you do not need to accept. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the life of an Instagram celeb who is more like you than most, go for it.

“Challenge Accepted!” is published by Amazon Publishing. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review, although I’m sure someone is regretting that decision right now. All opinions are, unless otherwise stated, my own.

*if there is no such category as reality-lit, someone’s been snoozing at the helm.challenge

Review: “The Girls of 17 Swann Street” by Yara Zgheib

When I lived in Baltimore, I took Russian in college for two years. Unlike many of my fellow learners, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One benefit was working with a language tutor. Mine was a young woman named Helen. We got friendly and occasionally hung out together. Once, we went shopping at the mall. It was then I first began to suspect that there might be a problem. Helen was willowy, slender, with big, brown eyes and gorgeous dark hair. She could have grabbed anything off the rack and worn it without having to think about it. And yet, here she was, spending two hours trying on skirts in various shops, never quite satisfied with how she looked. Not with how the skirt looked on her, but how she looked in the skirt. In the end, she put a couple of things on hold, but told me later she never went back to pick them up.

Another time, she very excitedly confided in me that she hadn’t had any food at all that day but had been running on cappuccinos alone. The caffeine kept her going, and in her mind, the froth and milk provided all calories she needed for whatever she was doing. Uncomfortably munching on my Chinese food, I wondered how she managed to dance and work out like she claimed she did on basically nothing but water and air.

When Anna collapses in the bathroom of the apartment she shares with her husband, Matthias finally realizes that he needs to be the one to seek help. This help is to be found at 17 Swann Street, a live-in facility for women with eating disorders. Told from Anna’s point of view, the novel takes the reader by the hand and leads you up close to the faces of these women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, who at some level know that things are not well and yet cannot bring themselves to admit that they are not in control of their lives at all.

If you have never lived with or next to a person with an eating disorder, this behavior may seem strange and hard to understand. Why would someone not be able to see what damage they’re doing to their body, to their relationships? Meeting Anna, Emm, Valerie, and the other residents of 17 Swann Street will give the reader reasons, situations, and circumstances, reveal the struggles, triumphs and failures, the denial, shame, and secret hopes of those who have lost their own voices to their disease. The book is written in a straight-forward manner: as Anna fights to save herself and her marriage, the reader is drawn along; pity is neither necessary nor wanted, empathy is. This novel is a sensitive guide to Anna’s journey. I found it spellbinding and recommend it highly!

Yara Zgheib is not new to writing; in fact, she is rather prolific and quite eloquent. Despite this, nobody seems to have bothered to interview her yet. You can read her own blurb on her book here and find more of her writing at Womanscape.

“The Girls at 17 Swann Street” is published by St. Martin’s Press. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. All views, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

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