Review: Cupcakes and Cashmere

The thing I love best about this book is its name. Cupcakes and Cashmere brings to mind a frothy femininity, a combination of childlike delight and sophisticated luxury. I am always up for defining my style, reinventing my space and entertaining with ease, so this book shot to the top of my “must preorder” list. Emily Schuman’s blog is a charming combination of fashion, decorating, cooking, and all the usual blogging arts. This seemed like a sure thing!

Alas, it’s the kind of book you give an awkward preteen so she learns to put on eyeshadow correctly without looking like a raccoon. (Except it also talks about spiking Kool-aid with tequila, so don’t actually give this to a kid.) The advice is painfully basic. If we didn’t know that evening sandals are more formal than sneakers, Ms. Schuman lays this out in a chart for us. We also learn how to put on our lipstick, blow-dry our hair and paint our nails. (“I usually try to do one [coat] down the middle and one on either side,” she coaches.) Perhaps in a future volume she’ll share secrets on tying our shoelaces or brushing our teeth.

Well, perhaps I’m being unkind. I’m obviously not the intended audience for this book. The photography is lovely, if a touch blurry. I was pleased to see a section on handwritten thank-you notes, and I enjoyed the section on posing for photographs. The colors are soft and lovely throughout, as you’d expect from the pretty pictures on the blog. Ms. Schuman comes across as a sincere girl-next-door who genuinely wants to help bring out the best in others. I also liked that this book isn’t overly brand conscious; you won’t come away feeling like you have to rob a bank if you want to live the lifestyle presented here.

The real issue is that Ms. Schuman is not extraordinarily good at any of the things she writes about. She is pretty and dresses well, but she hasn’t got the experience to walk other people through a top-to-bottom makeover. Her makeup and hair look fine, but she hasn’t got any pro tips to share. The simple recipes are undoubtedly delicious, but she’s hardly a chef. (“Summer pasta with tomatoes, basil and brie” sounded so promising, but the instructions are basically: cook pasta. Add tomatoes, basil and brie.) The author simply is not an authority in any of these areas, nor does she have that special spark that can make a novice perspective fresh and enchanting. She gives instructions where she should be giving insight and advice; this book is all what and no why. There is a play-it-safe timidness throughout.

By the way, cupcakes do make an appearance towards the end; they’re made from a box mix. “I always keep one yellow and one chocolate on hand,” she confides. I think that pretty much sums it up!

Review: Living in a Nutshell: Posh and Portable Decorating Ideas for Small Spaces

Living in a Nutshell cover
I’m no stranger to small spaces, having spent much of my adult life in a string of shoebox apartments from Boston to Osaka. There’ve been several books about decorating small rooms, and my main criticism is usually that the author and I have different definitions of ‘small’. (I’m looking at you, Better Homes & Gardens.) The advice is usually given by someone who does not really understand what it’s like to live in a small space day after day and is only guessing at what might be helpful for those who do.

Janet Lee’s book is a refreshing change. The spaces shown are genuinely cramped with few architectural merits – finally! This isn’t one of those glossies that hype small-scale minimalism by showing off white-on-white rooms with a murphy bed and a wall-to-wall view overlooking Rio. It is likely that at least one of the 100+ ideas in this book will work for your space if you give it a chance.

Living in a Nutshell, inside

Now, this isn’t for the faint of heart. The colors are vivid; if you like Jonathan Adler’s Happy Chic books then you’ll love the colors here. If you were hoping for something more neutral… well, give color a try anyway. Many people stick with pale tones thinking it’ll make their tiny room look bigger, and buy small neutral pieces that won’t overpower. This results in a perfectly fine room with as much personality as a dentist’s office. If you’ve done your best but your little home still looks wilted, get this book. Even if you don’t want to do every project, it might spark some ideas.

Still, I have mixed feelings about this one. Though quirky and vibrant, there’s a kitschy shallowness. Part of me says it’s not pretentious because nobody will really believe your logo-stamped jute rug came from Hermes or that Louis Vuitton monogrammed your filing cabinet. Anyone who takes it too seriously just isn’t cool enough to get the irony, right? But grown-ups with aesthetic influences that extend beyond pop culture and designer labels may find the couture tributes a little trite.

The styles are on trend, barely. The Hollywood Regency details work, and your hipster staples are covered: repurposed paint-by-number art, Pantone boxes, letterpress blocks, etc. Spray-painting trophies is apparently a Thing now. But I’m pretty sure that ornately framed posters of chandeliers were on their way out when Moraccan motifs began to replace damask print, and everyone who wanted a Keep Calm reminder has twelve by now. And surely chalkboard paint is over – or is that wishful thinking?

You’ll pick up some good tips if you read the text, which is a shame because the smug writing starts to wear thin by page 8. It’s written like a collection of perky magazine blurbs, and there’s only so much of that I can take in one sitting. I half expected to see weight-loss tips and horoscopes in the back. Special hints are highlighted in chartreuse boxes that say, “Look, there’s more!” As much as I tried to unsee them, I was begging, “Make it stop!” by the end of the book.

Living in a Nutshell, Look there's more!

The subtitle is “Posh and Portable Decorating for Small Spaces.” Portable? It’s been awhile since I had a landlord who’d let me paint the living room black; many small spaces are rented and some of the ideas just aren’t practical. Two different look-there’s-mores tell us to apply fabric to wall/cabinet surfaces and “peel it off without a trace” when we move, but neither example does this. One involved removing stucco and wallpapering, and the other involved sanding and mod podge. If the starch idea is good enough to mention twice, why wasn’t it used once?

Still, do check this one out if you like what you see in the preview. The book itself is prettily hardbound and delightfully arranged. It’s a thick volume that feels good to hold and look through. The printing could be a touch better, but the images pop and the text is easy to read. This is definitely a gift-worthy book and would make a perfect present for a budding fashionista or someone moving into her first apartment.

Update: Adding a star. Several times I’ve found myself thinking, ‘now where did I see that idea for…?’ and it’s been this book. Also, I forgot to mention that the resource section in the back is brilliantly useful. The author shares all her secrets: both how to make the projects and where to buy everything else.

Review: Advanced Style

Finally, a book that celebrates the poise and vivacity of women who have spent decades refining their personal style! This is one of the better `book of the blog’ types that I’ve received, but you certainly don’t need to be familiar with the Advanced Style blog to enjoy the book. The women in this book look amazing, and I don’t mean `for their age’, I mean just totally amazing in general. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the freshest and most inspiring fashion book of 2012.

This book is 98% photos, page after page of lovely women wearing the most beautifully put together outfits. There’s a range of looks from quintessential elegance to total bohemian. What’s striking is how much of the wearer’s personality shines through. Usually when I look at street snaps, I’m focused on the clothes and haven’t got much interest in the wearer. But the women in this book seem like they’d be good for conversation over a cup of tea. I wish I knew more about them, what their homes look like or what paths their lives took that made them get through the years and looking more vibrant and beautiful than woman half their age.

The book itself is somewhat small for a photo book but thick and printed on good heavy paper with a nice sheen. The headings are set in a typeface that can be hard to read, but those with imperfect sight will be pleased to see that most type has been set quite large for easy reading. Overall it’s an easy book to look through.

Personally, I’ve never been a very conservative dresser. When I was younger, people would tell me, `wear that while you can,’ meaning that one day I’d be working in a cubicle somewhere in a navy suit with pantyhose and 2″ pumps. Now in my 30s I find myself looking for style inspiration from women my age or older who aren’t content to spend the rest of their lives shopping at LL Bean. Am I supposed to give up on personal style now that I’m all grown up? I didn’t think so, but having this book of concrete examples to the contrary is certainly an inspiration.

Unlike most fashion books, this one will make you feel good about getting older. This book would make a wonderful gift for anyone interested in fashion, young or old.