Sunday, August 20, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Graze

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

Subscription boxes are all the rage now. From Stitch Fix for clothes (which I use) to Birchbox (beauty samples), to BarkBox (treats for doggies), even the Book Of The Month Club has made a comeback. (Anyone else remember Columbia House back in the 1970s, where you got "8 CDs For A Penny"?)

I recently decided to give Graze a try. Graze sends the subscriber a box of healthy treats, eight in a box, for $8.99. The first box is free, which I tried and liked, and soon my first box of eight arrived.

I volunteer at The Book Cellar three to four days a week, a used bookstore located in the Webster Branch of the New York Public Library. The volunteers all share a love of books and lunch four days a week, where the interesting conversation runs the gamut from family to books to current events.

For lunch, I usually bring a yogurt, (Chobani is my yogurt of choice, both for the delicious variety of flavors and the fact that I like the politics of the immigrant owner of the company), maybe a BabyBel cheese, and some sort of snack, like a fruit or cereal bar.

That's where Graze comes in. I tend to get in a rut food-wise, so Graze is a solution to that challenge. I went to the Graze website, and scrolled through the available choices, marking "Trash" (those items I wouldn't eat), "Try" (those you'd be willing to try), "Like" or "Love" for each snack.

Then my box arrived. Each snack comes individually wrapped, and the box contains a Nutritional Fact insert, with the information for each snack, along with a complete ingredient list and allergy information. You can also earn free boxes on Graze, which is a plus.

I brought two of my snacks for lunch this week. The first was White Chocolate Dip and Wild Bluberry Toasts, which was delicious, and only 130 calories. I also tried the Cinnamon Pretzel, which I liked for the contrast of the sweet and salty.

This is a photo of my first box, filled with the snacks I rated highly on the Graze website.

We travel frequently to Florida, and these Graze snacks will also make a perfect treat for the plane. (You never know how long you can be stuck in an airport or on a plane.) I usually stick some fruit cereal bars in my carry-on bag, and they tend to get smushed. These Graze snacks will hold up much better in my bag. As time goes on, I'll know if Graze is for me.

If you are interested in trying Graze, you can use this reward code  W3CX76DTP on the Graze website here.

Have you tried Graze or any other subscription box? Let me know in Comments below.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Daughters of ireland by Santa Montefiore

The Daughters of Ireland by Santa Montefiore
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062456885
Trade paperback, $15.99, 576 pages

Some books catch you immediately, while others take a little more time. Santa Montefiore's The Daughters of Ireland falls into the second category. The hefty novel is a sequel to The Girl In The Castle, which I have not yet read, and if you have read that one, you will be ahead of the game. (I will be reading it soon.)

There are a lot of characters in The Daughters of Ireland, and Montefiore helpfully has two family trees at the beginning of the book to help orient the reader. There are the London Deverills of Deverill House, and the Ballinakelly Deverills of Castle Deverill in Ireland. I referred to these family trees frequently at the beginning to keep everyone straight.

In 1662, Lord Deverill of Ballinakelly in Co. Cork Ireland was cursed by Maggie O'Leary, a woman accused of being a witch. Maggie cursed Deverill's family for all eternity, and now as the story opens in 1925, we find that there was huge fire that burned down Deverill Castle and cost people their lives.

Bridie Doyle grew up as the daughter of one of the cooks of Deverill Castle and played as a child with Kitty, whose family owned the castle, and Kitty's cousin Celia, from the London Deverill family. The three girls were best friends until circumstances drew them apart.

Bridie disappeared to America, and became Bridie Lockwood, wife (and now widow) of a wealthy man. But she is haunted by the loss of her baby, a young son who is now being raised by Kitty and her husband Robert. Bridie decides to come home to Ireland and plots to steal her son JP away and take him to America.

Kitty adores little JP, as does Robert. But Kitty is still in love with Jack O'Leary, and they plan to take JP and run off to America to start a new life.

Celia has married well, and is determined to buy Deverill Castle and create the most beautiful home anyone has ever seen. She sees this as a chance to bring the families back together.

It took me a long time to really get a foothold of the story and characters here, but when I did, I found myself racing through the pages to find out where the stories were going. Montefiore takes us from Ireland to New York City to Johannesburg, South Africa, and each place is lovingly detailed and each story fascinating.

In addition to the main characters, there are so many interesting secondary characters. I loved the subplot about Grace's playboy father and his courting of 'the Shrubs'- Laurel and Hazel, two elderly sisters who both fall for him.

There is a lot going in The Daughters of Ireland, there is heartbreak and history, and the novel comes to a rather abrupt end, which sets up the continuation of the many subplots for Montefiore's next novel, which I await with great anticipation. Montefiore picks up where Dickens left off, writing epic novels with many intriguing characters. If you like big books, filled with with multiple storylines and terrific characters, The Daughters of Ireland is for you.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Santa Montefiore's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 15th: Book by Book
Wednesday, August 16th: Reading Reality
Thursday, August 17th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Friday, August 18th: bookchickdi
Monday, August 21st: Art @ Home
Tuesday, August 22nd: Reading is My Super Power
Thursday, August 24th: BookNAround
Monday, August 28th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Tuesday, August 29th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, August 30th: A Literary Vacation
Thursday, August 31st: Always With a Book

Thursday, August 10, 2017

On Broadway- Hello, Dolly!

My sons and their girlfriends got me the most thoughtful gift for Christmas- a ticket to see my all-time favorite Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! The tickets are hard to get, especially since Bette Midler, who won the Tony this year for her spectacular performance, recently announced she will be leaving the show in January.

I had read all the rave reviews and sometimes that makes me feel like it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. I'm happy to say that Hello, Dolly! is even better than you have heard. It's been said that this is the perfect show for these turbulent times, and I agree with that as well.

Everything about this show is glorious. The performances, the sets, the songs, the choreography, and the costumes (oh, those stunning costumes)- they all work together to create an unforgettable theatrical experience. You truly lose yourself in the show.

Bette Midler and Dolly Gallagher Levi are the perfect pairing of performer and role. You just can't imagine anyone else as Dolly. Midler is as hilarious, sly and even poignant as any Irish widowed matchmaker could be.

She has one scene where she is eating a huge turkey leg that just goes on and on, building in laughter until everyone, including actors on stage, can't help but giggle. It reminded me of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners. 

The highlight of the show is the title song, where Midler comes out in a radiant red dress, complete with headdress, and sings and dances with the men onstage with such joy, it brought tears to my eyes and gave me goosebumps. She earned a rare midshow standing ovation for that. (And I have found my Halloween costume for this year.)
Oh, that red dress! (Photo by Julia Cervantes- from Hello, Dolly website)

David Hyde Pierce is amazing as Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers businessman looking for a wife who doesn't stand a chance against Dolly's machinations. Gavin Creel won a well-deserved Tony for his role as Cornelius Hackl, finding love and freedom. I've seen him in more a few shows, and I just think he is wonderful.

Beanie Feldstein turns in a star-making comedic performance in her first Broadway show as Minnie Fay, we will see her again for sure. Kate Baldwin was not performing the day that I went, and Analisa Leaming was terrific as Irene Malloy. Midler brought her out for a special bow at the end, which was so special. Jennifer Simard has a small but unforgettable role as Ernestina, I only wish we had seen more of her; she is comedic wonder.

The choreography for "The Waiters' Gallop" must be mentioned as well. Choreographer Warren Carlyle created a take on Gower Champion's original choreography that left me breathless.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that this production of Hello, Dolly! is one of the greatest joys to ever hit the Broadway stage and I hope that they will tape this production so that people all over the world have the opportunity to experience it for themselves.

Tickets for Midler's performances are scarce, but if you can find them, this is a must-see. And one final note- please don't take photos during the show. So many people were doing that, and it endangers the performers. The orchestra pit is downstage, so there is a hole in the floor that the performers must avoid. The flash from your cameras can distract them, and one misstep can cause an injury.

The website for Hello, Dolly! is here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

New in Paperback- Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 9781616207373
Trade paperback, $15.95, 384 pages

Author Caroline Leavitt took an event that happened to a high school classmate of hers as a jumping-off point for her incredibly riveting novel “Cruel Beautiful World”. Charlotte and Lucy were just young girls when their parents died tragically and they went to live with a distant older relative Iris.

In reality Iris is their much older half-sister, a fact Iris conceals from the girls. Iris never had children of her own and she grew to love the girls. Set in the late 1960’s, during the time of great social and political upheaval, Leavitt drops the reader into the time of hippies and free love and the frightening Manson murders that gripped the nation.

When Lucy is sixteen, she falls in love with William, the cool teacher at her school. She runs away with William to a dilapidated old farmhouse, where William gets a job teaching at a school that basically has no rules, while Lucy stays hidden at the farmhouse, all alone except for the chickens.

Lucy’s disappearance devastates Iris and Charlotte, who is ready to go off to college. Iris fears that something terrible has happened to Lucy, and the police are of no help as they tell her that so many teenager girls are running off nowadays and that she will probably return.

Charlotte goes off to college, which is much more difficult than she thought. She excelled in high school, but at college, the classes are much harder and she spends all her time studying. She has no real friends and travels home frequently to check on Iris.

Iris is getting on in age and eventually she must face the fact that for her own safety, she has to move out of her home and into an assisted living facility. Leavitt does a beautiful job with the character of Iris, and some of the most compelling parts of the story belong to her.

We see her as a young woman during WWII, who falls in love and marries the man of her dreams, a young soldier. She believes she will finally have the simple, happy life she longs for, but a secret builds a wall between her and her husband.

When Iris is in the assisted living facility, she is unhappy. She mourns the loss of her freedom to choose when to eat and what to eat, and the ability to go where she wants, when she wants. 

Lucy’s life is not turning out the way she had hoped either. William has isolated her, and she isn’t even allowed to let her aunt and sister know that she is alive for fear that William will be arrested.

What Lucy believed to be a romantic life ahead turns into a nightmare. William is gone all day at work, and when he comes home he is unhappy because his teaching job is not what he thought it would be. She is expected to cook dinner, but William insists on a very specific all-natural diet and Lucy doesn’t know how to cook.

One day Lucy takes a walk and ends up at a farm stand. There are lots of people there and she befriends the owner, Patrick, who gives Lucy a job. Lucy is overjoyed at having someplace to go and something to do.

Patrick is kind to her, and he is interested in what she thinks, something William is not. Patrick is hiding out from his past too, a tragic loss that he has not yet overcome. 

Halfway through the book something happens that changes the lives of all the characters. It is a real blow to the reader as well as to all of the characters, something that made me literally gasp out loud.

By that point we are so invested in these characters and their stories, we feel like we know them as real people. Leavitt has written terrific books, “Pictures of You” and “Is This Tomorrow” among them, but “Cruel Beautiful World” is her best book yet. She has taken her writing to an entirely new level, and she has garnered so much deserved praise for this one.

“Cruel Beautiful World” is the simply the best novel I have read in a long time, and if you enjoy a story that you can lost in, this is the one for you. The characters are simply unforgettable and I give it my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Doubleheader- Two Great Books About Female Spies

I read not one, but two, fabulous novels about female spies recently- the seventh book in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal, The Paris Spy, and the newest pick in Reese Witherspoon's Book Club, Kate Quinn's The Alice Network.

You don't need to have read any of the previous books in the Maggie Hope series to enjoy her latest, The Paris Spy. (That being said, anyone who has read the series will find this exceptional.) Maggie Hope is working as a spy in WWII Paris for the SOE, Special Operatives Executive, under the direct orders of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

She is working with two other operatives, Sarah, posing as a ballerina, and Sarah's husband Hugh, posing as a musician, both with the Paris ballet. Maggie's cover as an Irish socialite shopping for her wedding trousseau in Paris brings her into contact with famous designer Coco Chanel, who plays an important role in this fascinating and heartpounding story.

Maggie is looking for her half-sister Elsie, hoping to bring her home to England, when she gets caught up as a female operative goes missing, along with important information that will help England decide where best to land in France as a final push to destroy the Nazis and win WWII.

MacNeal does an impressive job with her research into the use of female spies in WWII, used because it was felt that the Nazis would not suspect that women would be involved. (Indeed, it was an international violation to send women behind enemy lines during war.) She helpfully lists the books she used as research at the end of the book for anyone who wishes to learn more.

We also get a look into the British war effort, complete with warring factions in the espionage agencies and the mistakes that were made that endangered not only the operatives, but the war effort itself.

There is so much tension in The Paris Spy, I found myself gasping out loud more than once, and if this were a movie, I would peeking between my fingers at certain points. Maggie Hope is one of the most interesting characters in mystery series, and the crisis of conscious she is faced with at the end of the story is one that will propel the next entry in this most interesting and informative series. I give The Paris Spy my highest recommendation, and I read it in one sitting.

Kate Quinn's The Alice Network also deals with female spies, but is set in WWI and the aftermath of WWII. Young, pregnant and unmarried in 1947, Charlie is traveling with her mother to Switzerland to end her pregnancy. She makes a detour in London to search for her cousin who has been missing for three years in France.

Charlie finds Eve, a middle-aged woman, who is drunk, angry and has a gun. Charlie convinces Eve and Eve's Scottish driver/assistant Finn to help her find her cousin. Eve reluctantly helps, but she has an ulterior motive- she wants to find the man who tortured her during WWI and kill him.

The story shifts in time to WWI, where Eve is working as a spy in France with the Alice Network, run efficiently by Lili, a small woman of large talents. Eve works as a waitress in a restaurant frequented by Nazis, where she is able to gain information useful to the British government.

But getting this is information comes at a high price for Eve. She becomes involved with a French collaborator, and this relationship will haunt her for the rest of her life.

As with The Paris Spy, The Alice Network is a pulse-pounding read. Eve's mission is dangerous, and she and Lili risk their lives more than once. Also like The Paris Spy, The Alice Network is based on true events- there was an actual Alice Network, a spy ring run by women in France. The characters are brilliantly drawn, and although both stories are intriguing, Eve's story is truly astonishing. I can't get her out of my mind.

If you're looking for two amazing books about strong women, you like history, and your heart needs a good workout, check out The Alice Network and The Paris Spy now. 

The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal- A+
Published by Penguin Random House ISBN 9780399593802
Hardcover, $26, 320 pages
Susan Elia Macneal's website is here.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn- A+
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 9780062654199
Trade paperback, $16.99, 528 pages
Kate Quinn's website is here.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Tom Perrotta At Barnes & Noble

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Published by Scribner ISBN 9781501144028
Hardcover, $26, 307 pages

The first book I read by author Tom Perrotta, like many other people, is Little Children, about an affair between a stay-at-home mom and a stay-at-home dad who meet at the playground. Perrotta had young children at that time, so the novel's characters were at the same place in their lives as he was.

Now Perrotta is in his fifties (as am I), and he is facing empty nest syndrome as is the main character in his latest introspective novel, Mrs Fletcher. Perrotta visited Barnes & Noble's 86th Street store on the Upper East Side to talk about it, and other things, last week.

He began by reading a chapter Trouble In Sunset Acres, which is told in the voice of Eve Fletcher's young coworker Amanda, events coordinator at the senior community center where they both work. (The best line in that funny chapter is when Amanda says that "when you are an events coordinator there is always someone to make you miserable." I used to be an events coordinator, so I can totally relate.)

Perrotta then took questions from the audience, which were particularly insightful. One questioner commented on the topic of gender appropriation, as Perrotta wrote from the perspective of Eve. As Perrotta mentioned, it is usually a question of race appropriation that is brought up, but since sex and identity is a major theme in Mrs. Fletcher, it was a good question.

Perrotta responded that "novels can't exist in a world where a writer's imagination is limited". He believes that identity "is at the heart of what divides us as a culture", and that it is "important to find the balance between appropriation and inclusion".

In Mrs. Fletcher, Eve and her college freshman son Brendan are both struggling with identity. Eve is a single mom, now all alone, and after she receives a sexually explicit text message from someone calling her a MILF, she Googles MILF and falls down a rabbit hole of pornography.

She starts a habit of searching out MILF pornography almost every night, and the night class that she takes at the community college on Gender and Society is taught by Margot, a transgender woman who used to be Mark, a college basketball standout, so sex and identity is explored in this intriguing novel.

Perrotta said that he has a fascination with the cultural discourse of sex and gender, and that he wanted to write about pornography because everyone is affected by it, but we don't talk about it. He wanted to embed it in the normal suburban world he knows about.

A question was asked about why he wrote son Brendan in the first person, but Eve and the others are written in the third person. Perrotta responded that he knows that "young man jock" voice well, and thought that it would be more jarring to hear Brendan speak, thus showing the sense of the different worlds that Eve and Brendan inhabit.

What I found most interesting about Mrs. Fletcher is that Perrotta really seems to inhabit each of these characters- Eve, Amanda, Brendan, Amber, Margot, Julian. They are all distinct and feel like people you would meet in this town and college campus.

He also nails the pervasive feeling of loneliness: of a mom whose only child is now gone to college, the jock who goes to college to party and finds that it is not what he expected, the young woman starting a career and looking for friendship, a young man who falls apart after he is bullied in high school.

I have to say that the end of this book truly surprised me. I thought he may be going in one direction, and he went a different way (which I liked). I asked him if he knew the ending before he wrote the book, and he said no, the characters take him to where the story will end.

Perrotta also spoke of his experience working on HBO's The Leftovers, which recently ended its three year run on a high note. He loved the experience, and we discussed how the show will probably be treated more kindly by people as the years pass. (Maybe like The Wire?)

Mrs. Fletcher is a fascinating look at a moment in time when gender and identity are being explored by so many in our culture. Social media and the easy availablity of the internet allows people to be exposed to people and ideas that we may never have been before, in the privacy of our own home. Perrotta places his story in everyday suburbia to emphasize that fact.

I highly recommend Mrs. Fletcher; it's funny, poignant, thought-provoking and yes, even a little provocative, everything you want in a good novel.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Visiting CineBistro in Sarasota

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

On our last trip to Florida, we ran into Tropical Storm Emily so we decided to get out of the rain and go to a movie. We both wanted to see Dunkirk since I reviewed the book (here), and we headed over to the CineBistro in Westfield Siesta Key.

When I was in high school and college, I worked at a mall cinema, and it was the best job a young person could have, but that was many years ago. The CineBistro we visited was a stunning sight to behold, and nothing like where I used to work.

After you buy your ticket (or in our case get our Fandango ticket scanned), you enter a huge full bar area, with plenty of seating for those who are having dinner. You don't even have to go to the movies to hang out at the bar.
The bar area

To the left of the bar is a small private dining room that you can rent to have a birthday party. It really seemed like more of an adult place to have a birthday party, rather than for kids.
Party Room

You then walk down a long hall, and you'll see a cart in front of the theater where the next movie starts. On the cart are bottles of wine from Francis Ford Coppola's vineyard (where else?), and samples of the Chef's Menu for the day. Today's menu featured Mojito Chicken Flatbread, Grouper and Guava Empanadas.
The Food Cart

You can order food to be delivered to your seat up to thirty minutes before showtime. Each seat is a huge recliner, with a food tray that swivels in and out for access. We didn't get there in time to order food, so we got popcorn from the concession stand. The popcorn is served in a white ceramic bowl, and the sodas are served in actual glasses. How very grown-up!

Ad we ate our popcorn and watched the coming attractions with our feet up, we decided that this is the only way to see a movie. We will do all of our movie-going at the CineBistro, even if we have to fly to Florida to do it.

By the way, Dunkirk is an amazing movie. I'm not big on war movies, but this is really the British counterpart to America's Saving Private Ryan. Writer/Director Christopher Nolan is sure to get an Oscar nomination for this incredible cinematic achievement, and my favorite actor, Mark Rylance, is wonderful in this movie as well. I highly recommend you see Dunkirk at your local cinema. And if you have a CineBistro near you, give it a try. Their website is here.