Monday, December 1, 2014

The Most Compelling Reads of 2014


Reprinted from The Citizen 

This is my favorite time of the year, when publications and websites create their Best of 2014 lists. As is tradition, I present my list- The Most Compelling Reads of 2014, books that stayed with me long after I finished reading them.

A book set in 1686 Amsterdam wouldn’t normally be something that would appeal to me, but I found Jessie Burton’s debut novel, “The Miniaturist” riveting. It tells the story of young woman who finds herself married to a mysterious businessman. She is tested by events that occur in her new home and finds strength she didn’t know she had. 
The Miniaturist
Matthew Thomas’ debut novel, “We Are Not Ourselves” is an emotional book about the daughter of Irish immigrants who lives in Queens, New York, and whose goal is to become part of the middle class. She is on her way, until her husband’s illness derails her plans. 
We Are Not Ourselves

Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead” in which an elderly Iowa minister is writing his history to his young son. Her new novel, “Lila” gives us the sad back story to the minister’s quiet, much younger wife Lila. The goodness in the people in Gilead gives one hope for humanity. 
Lila
Emily Arsenault’s “What Strange Creatures” combines a murder mystery with an adult brother-sister relationship at its center. Theresa’s brother is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and she must clear his name. The sibling relationship is beautifully done here. 
What Strange Creatures
Liane Moriarty tops her juicy last novel, “The Husband’s Secret” with her latest novel “Big Little Lies”. Set in the world of an affluent school in an Australian beach community, it also combines a whodunit with a story of helicopter parents and the secrets they hide. It’s like eating a bag of potato chips; you can’t stop reading it. 
Big Little Lies
 “The Orphans of Race Point” by Patry Francis is a gorgeous novel that I have recommended to so many people.  Hallie and Gus are best friends as children and date as teenagers. An unfortunate incident changes their relationship, and we see them grow away from each other, but something pulls them back together. I never wanted this book to end. 
The Orphans of Race Point
“The Golem and the Jinni” is another book I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards. Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel shares the story of a golem who loses her master and must hide her identity at the turn of the 20th century in New York. She meets a jinni hiding from forces who want to do him harm, and they are drawn to each other, spending nights wandering the city together, fearful that someone will find their secrets. It is a unique novel. 
The Golem and the Jinni
I love it when I find a novel that is under the radar and I can bring attention to it. Susan Schoenberger’s “The Virtues of Oxygen” is one of those. It centers on a young woman who contracts polio and lives in an iron lung. Her small upstate New York community helps care for her, and it is also a story of this town and how it deals with the changes in economic circumstances. 
The Virtues of Oxygen
Four non-fiction books made my list this year. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” deals with something our society wishes to avoid- how do we handle with the aging process and our own mortality? He uses examples of people and institutions trying to cope and improve our understanding, and this is a thought-provoking book. 
Being Mortal
Roz Chast writes about a similar theme in “Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Using the graphic novel form, she details her experiences with her aging parents and their reluctance to accept that they can’t live alone anymore. It’s heartbreaking and eye opening. 
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
 Todd Glass is a comedian I first heard about when he was on TV’s “Last Comic Standing” years ago. In his memoir “The Todd Glass Situation”, he shares his story of being learning disabled and coming to terms with being gay and trying to hide it from his fellow comedians, family and friends. His description of coming out on Marc Maron’s podcast is riveting, but the best part of the book is when he brilliantly answers people who say that things were better “back then.” 
The Todd Glass Situation
 Kelly Kitell’s memoir "Breathe" will break your heart. Her toddler son was killed when his teenage cousin accidentally ran him over with a car, and soon after, Kelly lost her baby at childbirth. The faith that she and her husband had in the wake of these awful losses, not to mention to the family rift it caused, is astounding.
Breathe


Monday, November 17, 2014

Beach Club Book Club- GI Brides by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi

GI Brides  by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-232805-2
Trade paperback, $14.99, 361pages

After talking to her grandmother Margaret about her experiences as a GI bride, author Nuala Calvi knew that there was a book in that. Along with Duncan Barrett, they did much research and from that came the book GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love. 

The focus of the book is on four British women- Margaret, Lyn, Rae and Sylvia. The story begins in the days of WWII in England, where these young women worked and volunteered in the war effort. They each met an American GI, fell in love, and married their soldier.

When the war was over, the men went home, and their new brides soon followed. Our Beach Club Book Club received copies of the book from The Book Club Girls, and we discussed it yesterday over breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien before doing a little Christmas shopping at the Winter Village at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan.
At Bryant Park

One of the topics of discussion included the incredible number of British women who married U.S. soldiers. At the end of the war, over 70,000 women had to be transported to America to begin their new lives. We all marveled at the sheer logistics of doing this, and how the U.S. government, along with aid from the Red Cross, was able to get these women on ships and to their new husbands.

As expected, the adjustment to their new lives was difficult. Along with cultural differences, many of these women didn't know exactly what they were getting into. They only knew their husbands briefly before marrying them, and we wondered if they married so quickly because of the shortage of young men in England (so many were killed during the war), or because they realized that life was short and you couldn't let it pass you by.

We admired the bravery of these women, leaving their families and homes and traveling thousands of miles away. When things got difficult- one husband was an alcoholic, one was a gambler, one was a philanderer, one had mother issues- these women didn't have much of a support system to rely on to help them. And going home was not an option.

Rae's bravery impressed us. She left her cheating husband and found a job as a live-in nanny with a wonderful family. She loved the family, and they loved her, but she knew eventually she would have a build a life of her own, which she did.

Sylvia ended up in Baltimore, living with her husband Bob and his family. Bob had a gambling problem, and his family enabled him, even encouraged his behavior. Sylvia later found support by joining groups founded by other GI war brides.

Lyn ended up with her husband Ben in California. Ben's Italian family were very close, and his mother was a stereotypical Italian mother. She washed and ironed her son's clothes perfectly, and cooked elaborate Italian meals. Lyn could not meet her mother-in-law's impossible standards, and was very unkind to her non-Italian daughter-in-law, and that caused much conflict.

Margaret and the charismatic Lawrence had three daughters, and Lawrence's alcoholism deteriorated into domestic violence. Having nowhere to turn, Margaret moved to Ireland, where her abusive mother took in her and the children.

All of these women showed an amazing ability to overcome tough times and difficult marriages. They made the best lives they could, and eventually thrived and even found happiness.

We all agreed it took awhile to get into the book, and it was difficult to keep the women and their husbands straight at first. But as we read, it became easier and we found each women's story so interesting. We thought that either a chart in the beginning with each woman and her husband and children and family would have helped, or perhaps telling each women's story in their own section as opposed to in chronological order may have solved that issue.

rating 4 of 5

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN 9780062306814
Hardcover, $26.99, 416 pages
A great historical novel can transport you to a completely different time and place, a place you are unfamiliar with. Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist does just that. Set in 1686 Amsterdam, we meet young Petronella Oortman, who has just arrived at the home of her new husband, wealthy, influential merchant Johannes Brandt.

Brandt is not there to greet his bride, but his sister, cold and imperious Marin is, along with the young maid/cook Cornelia, and Otto, the dark-skinned manservant to Johannes. Petronella is unhappy to find that her husband is gone and his return is unknown.

When Johannes does show up, he shows no interest in his new bride. Nella is confused, but to appease his young wife, he gifts her with an exact replica miniature of her new home. He tells Petronella that she may order furnishings from the miniaturist to fill her new replica home.

Johannes and Marin argue about Johannes' business. He has agreed to sell a large quantity of sugar for Frans and Agnes Meerman, a married couple with whom Marin and Johannes have a complicated relationship. The book is told through Nella's eyes, so we find out the history of this relationship as she does.

When a package arrives from the miniaturist, it contains the items Nella ordered, along with a note that reads EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE. Nella is puzzled by this, and by the fact that there are more items than she ordered in the package. Exact replicas of two chairs, with the same carvings on them as the ones in the salon, along with a cradle, and replicas of Johannes two beloved dogs are also inside.

Nella is shocked by how the miniaturist would know what the chair and dogs look like, having never been to her home, and what the cradle means. She sets out to find the miniaturist for an explanation, but is unsuccessful. And then more packages with cryptic notes continue to arrive.

A scandal befalls Johannes and he is imprisoned. When Otto disappears after an altercation with a man who works for Johannes, that leaves only the women to carry on. Marin and Nella must pull together and find a way to sell the Meerman's sugar to get money to save Johannes.

I loved watching Nella grow in strength. She began the story a young, naive woman, who knew little of the ways of life in Amsterdam, yet like the famous Eleanor Roosevelt saying- "Women are like teabags- you never know their strength until they are in hot water"- she rises to the occasion when it becomes necessary.

We learn so much about the trading business, life in Amsterdam, the food they ate, how the people lived, their prejudices and laws, I found it so fascinating, even though I would have said before I read this book that I wasn't particularly interested in this time period.

The Miniaturist is a book that kept me reading on the treadmill just a little bit longer each time I read it, unwilling to put it down. There are strong female characters, a bit of the supernatural in regards to how the miniaturist knew what she did about the family, and a suspenseful plot that propelled the reader to continue on.

Burton shares her research at the end of the book, which was extensive, and she includes a photo of the actual miniature house that belonged to the real Petronella Oortman that resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. You can bet I will be looking for information on the real Petronella Oortman.

The Miniaturist will definitely be on my list of Most Compelling Reads of 2014- it's brilliant and breathtaking, and the fact that Jessie Burton is a debut author is astonishing.

rating 5 of 5
Jesse Burton's website is here.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Weekend Cooking: The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

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.

The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 9780312382278
Trade paperback, $15.99, 384 pages

From the time she was a young girl, Portia Cuthcart loved cooking with her grandmother. Her grandmother had a special touch, knowing exactly what to cook to make someone feel good before they even know that they needed it. Portia inherited that unique talent.

Portia was happy living in Texas with her husband, a politician, until the day she discovered her was sleeping with her best friend. Distraught, divorced and with no money, she headed to New York City to the garden apartment her aunt left her.

Her sisters Cordelia and Olivia lived in New York as well, so Portia had a support system there. She discovered that the man who bought out Cordelia's and Olivia's apartments in her aunt's building also wanted to buy hers, but she did not want to sell.

Gabriel is a Wall Street big money man, a widower with a two daughters. He is brooding and pushy and sexy, and he wants Portia to sell him her apartment, which Portia refuses to do. You can probably guess where this is heading.

Running low on funds, Portia decides to open a restaurant with her sisters called The Glass Kitchen. Portia works her food magic, cooking dishes that come to her. She begins by selling them out of her garden apartment home, until the health department shuts her down.

Gabriel hires Portia to cook for his family, and she becomes close to his younger daughter Ariel, who misses her mother terribly and was in the car when her mother had the fatal car accident. Ariel is looking for answers to questions about her mother.

The descriptions of food in The Glass Kitchen will drive you into your own kitchen to recreate the recipes that Lee has helpfully put in the end of the book. You can create an entire six course meal with the recipes for Crab and Sweet Corn Chowder and Fried Chicken with Sweet Jalapeno Mustard, making this a good book for a book club meal.

The Glass Kitchen has some very hot sex scenes, great descriptions of food, a terrific sister relationship and some memorable characters (the elderly neighbor couple were my favorite). It's a wonderful book to while away a Sunday afternoon and then create a delicious Sunday dinner. (And the cover art is absolutely irresistible.)

rating 4 of 5 stars

Friday, November 7, 2014

Books Make Great Holiday Gifts For Everyone On Your List

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

Now that Halloween is in our rear view mirror, stores go all out to decorate for Christmas and people begin to think about putting together their gift lists. The great thing about giving books as gifts is that they always fit, they are never the wrong color, and they open up minds.

Let’s start with the kids. Actor/writer B.J. Novak, whose adult book of stories, “One More Thing” drew critical praise has written a unique book for children. “The Book With No Pictures” is just that- a book with no pictures, but children are delighted with all the silly words and sounds that adults make reading this clever book.
The Book With No Pictures

Baseball superstar Derek Jeter has written a children’s book (ages 8-12) about his life as a Little Leaguer. “The Contract” describes how his parents had him sign a contract stating the rules for his behavior if he wants to play baseball. Every young baseball fan (and their parents) will love this book.
The Contract
“I Am Malala” by 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai is a children’s version of her story of defying the Taliban to get an education. She’s a recent Nobel Prize winner and great role model for children too.
I Am Malala
Older teens will adore Allie Condie’s latest YA book, “Atlantia” set in a fascinating underwater world she created, about sisters and their bond.
Atlantia
For people who appreciate humor on your list, standup comedian Jim Gaffigan’s newest book is “Food, A Love Story” which shares his love of junk food in his own funny way.
Food: A Love Story
Around the Table
Speaking of food, the cook on your list will be happy that Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa is back with “Make It Ahead”, which gives the reader recipes to make meals ahead of time and reheat. Country singer Martina McBride follows in the steps of  Trisha Yearwood with her cookbook “Around the Table”.
Make It Ahead

Horror fans will be happy to know that Stephen King has returned to his roots with is newest big novel, “Revival” about faith, addiction, redemption and humanity, with a crazy, heart-stopping ending.
Revival
Thriller lovers will rejoice at the return of Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles detective, Harry Bosch, in his newest novel, “The Burning Room”. On the mystery side, Irish writer Tana French continues her brilliant Dublin murder squad series with “The Secret Place”.
The Burning Room

Romance is always in the air, and some of the favorite writers in the genre have Christmas-themed books out. Debbie Macomber’s “Mr. Miracle” features a guardian angel who takes the guise of a community college teacher to help a young woman get her life back on track.
Mr. Miracle
Sherryl Woods’ “The Christmas Bouquet” is the 11th book in her popular Chesapeake series featuring the O’Brien clan and their various friends and romantic partners.
The Christmas Bouquet
Nora Roberts has written over 200 books, and her latest is “Blood Magick”, the last in her Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy. Set in Ireland, Branna O’Dwyer, the owner of The Dark Witch Shop, a tourist shop that sells lotions and soaps, is looking for love; will she find it?
Blood Magick
For the more literary fiction fans on your list, there are lots of wonderful books available. Former Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley begins an ambitious series about 100 years of life in the American Midwest with the first novel, “Some Luck”. It takes us from the 1920’s to the 1950’s through the life of a farm family. It has been long-listed for the National Book Award.
Some Luck
For people who prefer true stories, Atul Gawande has written “Being Mortal” a thought-provoking book that looks at how Americans deal with the end of life. It discusses nursing homes, hospices and how our culture has trouble with this difficult part of life.
Being Mortal

Many history buffs were glued to their TV sets this fall with PBS’s series “The Roosevelts” about the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The companion piece to the series is a gorgeous book, filled with beautiful photos, “The Intimate Roosevelts” by C. David Ward and Ken Burns, and will look wonderful on every coffee table or bookshelf.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

For the sports fan, Harvey and Fredric J.Frommer has written a terrific book about the heated New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox rivalry over the years, “Red Sox Vs. Yankees: A Great Rivalry” .
Red Sox Vs. Yankees
And don’t forget that Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim will be signing copies of his new book, “Bleeding Orange” at Downtown Books & Coffee on E. Genesee St. on November 13th. Contact the store at 515-3411 to preorder your copy.
Bleeding Orange


Now that you can cross off your Christmas gift list, you can plan your Thanksgiving dinner.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

New In Paperback: Johnny Cash-The Life by Robert Hilburn

Johnny Cash- The Life by Robert Hilburn
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN 9780316194747
Trade paperback, $20, 688 pages


LaRue: 'The Life' chronicles Johnny Cash vividly : Diane Larue


“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. If you remember hearing that phrase in that iconic baritone voice, then Robert Hilburn’s comprehensive new biography, Johnny Cash: The Life is one of fall’s not-to-be-missed books.

Hilburn was the editor and pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1970-2005, and his meticulous research and flowing writing style elevates this biography from good to great.

The book takes the reader through Cash’s entire life, from his days as a child, living with his family in Dyess, Arkansas, picking cotton on their land and singing gospel songs his mother taught him.

When John’s brother Jack died tragically in a farming accident, it devastated the entire family. John admired and loved his older brother and was destroyed when his father said aloud that it was John’s fault Jack died, even though there was no basis in fact for that.

Jack’s death colored the rest of John’s life; he never got over it. John loved music and after a stint in Germany in the military where he began to write songs and wrote to a young girl, Vivian Liberto, whom he met back home.

John courted Vivian, and when he came home they married and ended up in Memphis. There he met two other men, and they played music together. When Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio in Memphis, they began to get serious about a career in music.

Hilburn interviewed many people for this book, and at the end, he lists chapter by chapter with whom he talked. Over the years, he had interviewed Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, so he had a personal knowledge of his subject, which adds a great deal to this book.

This is a big book at 688 pages, but Cash led a big life, and calling Johnny Cash- The Life is more than apt. From the successes and good times to the pervasive drug use and infidelities, not only with June but with other women, and dwindling sales and creative dry spells, this book covers an amazing American life.

There are so many fascinating stories, and many of them have been covered before in other books and the terrific movie 2005 “Walk the Line”, but there is a depth here that gives a much more complete picture of his life.

After the success of the late 1960’s with the incredible “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison- Live” album, Cash hosted a successful variety show on ABC. He clashed frequently with ABC executives about the format of the show; he wanted to feature interesting musical guests and themed shows revolving around gospel music and folk music, they wanted circus themes and popular country music stars.

The 1970s and 80s were less kind to Cash. He recorded dozens of albums, few of them successful artistically or commercially. He was dropped by Columbia Records and moved to Mercury, but his slide continued.

Cash was supporting a large entourage, and June spent money extravagantly, so he had to tour hundreds of days a year to make enough money to support everyone. It was exhausting, and the drug use continued, much to the dismay of people close to Cash.

At the end of Cash’ career, he met iconoclastic producer Rick Rubin, best known for his collaborations with hip hop and rap artists. Rubin spoke extensively to Hilburn, so this part of the book is especially vivid. 

Cash did four CDs with Rubin, and it revived him artistically.  Although his health was deteriorating to the point where he couldn’t see or walk, his sessions with Rubin were a high point creatively. He won multiple Grammys, and was even nominated for an MTV Video of the Year Award for his video “Hurt”, which is now considered by many to be one of the finest videos ever made.

Hilburn brilliantly conveys the life of an American icon. From the Depression-era impoverished family life to musical superstardom to eventual decline to phoenix-like rise at the end of his career, from a failed first marriage to finding lifelong love with June and becoming a good father, from drug use to failing health and losing his beloved wife, this is a book not only for Johnny Cash fans, but for everyone who likes a good biography.

If you weren’t a fan before reading this, you will be after, and you’ll be searching out Cash CDs as well. This is simply one of the best books of the year, I give it five stars, and it made my list of the Most Compelling Reads of 2013.

You can read an excerpt from Johnny Cash- The American Life on Hilburn’s website at roberthilburnonline.com.


Bloggers Recommend review is here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming
Published by Dey St. ISBN 978-0-06-222506-1
Hardcover, $26.99, 288 pages

Alan Cumming is an actor who can be unrecognizable from role to role. Today, for instance, he has a costarring role as tightly-wound political operative Eli Gold on the excellent TV drama The Good Wife. At the same time, he is starring as the let-it-all-hang-out Emcee in Broadway's Cabaret.

He is incredibly talented, and a very funny presence on TV talk shows. His dressing room at Cabaret is a nightly dance party, one of the hottest invitations in New York City. He is happily married to his husband Grant, and they split their time between New York City and Edinburgh in Scotland, his home country.

In his memoir, Not My Father's Son, Cumming divides his story into then and now. Then describes his difficult relationship with his sadistic father, a man who terrorized his entire family, saving particular wrath for his younger son Alan. The family lived on pins and needles, waiting every night to see what would set the father off on a violent rampage.

Cumming describes one particularly horrific scene where his father dragged Alan into the barn and chopped his hair off with clippers used on sheep. You can feel the terror on the page as Cumming shares this incident.

Now tells the story of Cumming's 2010 participation on a BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, which explores the genealogy of a famous person. Cumming wanted to know what happened to his maternal grandfather, who had fought in WWII in Singapore. His grandfather stayed in Singapore after the war, leaving his wife and children behind in Scotland. In 1951, he died from a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances.

The juxtaposition of the two stories form the basis for the beautifully written, emotionally moving memoir. Cumming writes very openly about the horrors of his childhood, and how that affected him and his older brother Tom, as well as his mother.

As Cumming grew older, he had no relationship with his father, and had no contact with him until the week when he was scheduled to film Who Do You Think You Are?. His father contacted Tom and told Tom that he had something to tell Alan, something that would perhaps explain his behavior towards Alan.

I have always admired Cumming as an actor, and now I admire him as a writer. His book shows how through pure dint of will, hard work and love, one can overcome a horrible childhood. If memoir is a genre you enjoy reading, put Not My Father's Son on your to-be-read list today. I hope Cumming shares more of his story in a future book.

rating 4 of 5