Book Review
Title: "The Bag Lady Papers: The Priceless Experience of Losing it All"
Author: Alexandra Penney
Publisher: Hyperion, 2010; 220 pages; $23.99

This time last year, many an economist was heralding the recession as having ended sometime in 2009, a sentiment with which many an American consumer begged to differ.

Now, though, many feel that the recession may truly have ended or be ending, but this is a begrudging acknowledgment, accompanied as it is with the realization that this next four or five years might very well look like what we once thought of as recessionary, in that home prices, jobs and available credit will grow — if at all — very, very slowly in the coming years.

Even with that understanding, though, there are many, many people out there making the decision and taking the steps to grow and evolve their lives in spite of the lingering market doldrums, some even inspired by the very recession that knocked their lives off-kilter in the first place.

If that describes you, or you are seeking inspiration for your own recession recovery efforts, you might just find it in an unlikely place: "The Bag Lady Papers: The Priceless Experience of Losing it All," by former Self magazine Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Penney.

Penney, a magazine industry maven turned visual artist, lost her entire life’s savings to the white-collar shenanigans of one Bernie Madoff, and retells her experience of losing everything and regaining her sanity and life’s direction thereafter.

The book reads as a journal of Penney’s life "AMF" (After Madoff, to whom she refers throughout as "MF," which I hope needs no further decoding), from the moment she began receiving worried phone calls from friends and relatives who were watching the breaking news of the ultimate Ponzi scheme break on television in December 2008, to the time she published the book.

Throughout are tales of kindness from Penney’s decidedly posh friends (one of whom offered to pay for her to keep her highlights, uh, "highlit"), many days and nights Penney spent terrorized by uncertainty of whether she’d end up on the streets, and many episodes of planning and strategizing she spent listing and selling her homes and seeking paying work after years of living off her once-ample, now-nonexistent savings.

Penney tells about the horrors of watching Madoff repeatedly get out of jail and go home to his penthouse while she was upset over the $20 Domino’s charged for two pizzas when she misread the fine print under a buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Penney writes of blogging for a living in the days immediately after she realized she was broke, and of the raving, hateful comments left by readers who thought her stupid (for having fallen for Madoff’s fraud) and spoiled (for ever having had a three-times-a-week housekeeper, three homes and an art studio to be worried about losing in the first place).

And interspersed throughout are Penney’s flashbacks on a lifetime of self-sufficiency as a single mom, author, artist and career woman, ranging from leaving a cushy editorial job at Glamour magazine to work as a fishmonger so she could spend more time with her son and her art, to first positioning herself for financial security by penning a couple of books that (though she was hesitant to write them due to their subject matter: sex) both hit the New York Times bestseller list and eventually, reluctantly landing the editor-in-chief position at Self Magazine.

Penney also flashes back on all the smart and less smart, but overwhelmingly frugal, money moves she made in her life, earning and losing money by turn with the fates of the market and ultimately acknowledging the irony that the very psychotherapist-cum-beloved father figure who she credits with saving her from the despair of a troubled childhood thought he was continuing to protect her best interests when he introduced her to Madoff and vouched for her to get her onto Madoff’s exclusive client list.

The book is a very quick read, by turns entertaining and horrifying, with overtones of "The Devil Wears Prada" in its Conde Nast anecdotes. On occasion, Penney’s endless abbreviations – PoRC for Person of Reduced Circumstances, WoCA for Women of a Certain Age, MLS for Major Life Saver friends — and over-concern with listing off-brand names of possessions past and present irritate and threaten to belie the savvy smarts the reader knows Penney must possess to have had the career and lived the life she has.

However, the message is ultimately inspirational while still being very real and human.

This is no positive-thinking puff piece; rather, it is a documentary piece on the horrors of losing the financial security and many of the assets you’ve worked your whole life for in your 50s (or thereabouts — Penney’s not telling her precise age, and I don’t blame her). And it also documents the process of getting over it and getting on with things.

Penney starts the book with the little-known fact that many wealthy women — including herself, when she was still on top, financially speaking — harbor bag lady nightmares.

In fact, for years she suffered from the nightmare that she would lose everything; that was one of the terrors that sent her into therapy in the first place. But Penney ends "The Bag Lady Papers" with the realization that when "your worst nightmare comes true, you discover valuable things about yourself and your world."

And that’s the ultimate takeaway for everyone who reads this book in the wake of their own money-losing, career-resetting, recessionary drama.

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