Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Summer of Good Intentions by Wendy Francis

The Summer of Good Intentions by Wendy Francis
Published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks ISBN 9781451666427
Trade paperback, $15, 294 pages
As the dog days of summer wind down, Wendy Francis' The Summer of Good Intentions is the perfect book to read at the beach or on the porch.

A family reunites to spend their annual July vacation at their summer home on Cape Cod. Maggie is mom to three, married to a great guy, and the organizer of the family. Jess is a high school principal, struggling to balance her demanding job, her children and a husband who is more interested in his job than his family. Virgie is the single one, a career-driven reporter trying to get a job as a TV news anchor and just staring a promising relationship.

Their parents have recently divorced, and their mother Gloria is bringing her new boyfriend to the house. This makes their dad, Arthur, a mystery book writer, very sad as he doesn't understand why their marriage fell apart.

Maggie fears that her life will become empty as her children get older and need her less. She wants to bring a foster child into the family but must first convince her husband. Jess' marriage woes have led her to place that could destroy her marriage and Virgie's work stresses have made her physically ill.

I just fell into this story, reading it in two sittings. The sibling relationships felt so real, and the story of the three marriages facing different challenges was so engrossing. I felt like I was in the family vacation home, watching these people interact around me.

We are privy to the secrets and feelings that each character has, and just like in life, things happen that can bring people together or tear them apart. Wendy Francis brings to life this interesting family, one just like our own, and she does so with heart and compassion that we can't help but want them to be happy even as the sad things that life inevitably brings each us do their best to bring us down.

This is the second book I have read that features a character who is a hoarder (the other being Mary Pflum Peterson's upcoming memoir White Dresses), and it has given me more compassion for people who suffer from this disorder and for the family members who try to deal with them and the physical and emotional mess they leave behind.

I loved The Summer of Good Intentions, and give it my highest recommendation. If you've ever sat on the beach talking with your sisters, this is the book for you.

My review of White Dresses is here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Montpelier Tomorrow by Marylee MacDonald

Montpelier Tomorrow by Marylee MacDonald
Published by All That Matters Press ISBN 9780990715818
Trade paperback, $16.69, 308 pages

A family dealing with the devastating diagnosis of ALS is the subject of Marylee MacDonald's intense novel Montpelier Tomorrow. Colleen Gallagher is a suburban Chicago kindergarten teacher and mother of three adult children. She raised her young children on her own when her husband died in a car accident years ago, and spent the last few years caring for her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother who recently died.

When her daughter's husband is diagnosed with a fast-moving form of ALS, Lou Gerhig's disease, Colleen rushes to her daughter's family in Washington DC to help care for Sandy, (who just gave birth to baby boy Ben) three-year-old Josh and son-in-law Tony.

Sandy and Colleen's relationship is not the perfect mother-daughter one. I found Sandy's need for order and control and the rude way she expresses that need to her mother unsettling. Sandy constantly berates her mother and even throws Tony's parents out of her home for a minor offense.

Tony deteriorates quickly and Colleen comes to stay with the family and help during her summer vacation. Sandy has to work as a lawyer to support her family now that Tony is housebound, so Colleen not only cares for the children, but she reluctantly becomes Tony's caregiver as well.

The characters in Montpelier Tomorrow are different from other books of this type in that they are not the let's-everyone-pitch-in-and-make-it-better people. Sandy is resentful of her husband's illness, Tony is self-centered and self-pitying, and Colleen just wants to return to her own life back in Chicago. Tony's parents' idea of helping is to let Colleen do the actual, difficult physical care of their son while they pop in from time to time.

MacDonald provides a realistic look at the tough day-to-day living as a caregiver to an adult with ALS. She pulls no punches at the frustrations, the anger and the punishing physical toll it takes on Colleen, who steps up when no one else will.

Colleen and Sandy's relationship is a tough one to read about, but eventually we discover what is behind Sandy's resentment. It reinforces that parents don't always know what their children are thinking as they grow up, and the same is true of children about their parents. We tend to ascribe motivations to each other because we don't really understand each other.

There is a sad twist at the end of the story that comes on suddenly and changes everything. I admit to not seeing this one coming and it felt like a punch to the gut. Montpelier Tomorrow is a tough read, and MacDonald does a terrific job putting you in the shoes of this family in crisis. You make not like all of them but you will feel their pain. Colleen is a wonderfully complex, unforgettable character, and I for one would love to see more of her story.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Marylee MacDonald's tour. The rest of the tour stops are here:

Marylee’s Tour Stops

Monday, August 24th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, August 26th: Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, August 31st: BoundbyWords
Monday, August 31st: A Bookish Way of Life
Friday, September 4th: Queen of All She Reads
Friday, September 4th: Back Porchervations
Tuesday, September 8th: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, September 9th: Raven Haired Girl
Thursday, September 10th: Time 2 Read
Tuesday, September 15th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Wednesday, September 16th: Thoughts On This ‘n That
Thursday, September 17th: Seaside Book Nook
Monday, September 21st: The Reading Cove Book Club
Tuesday, September 22nd: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Wednesday, September 23rd: Diary of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
Thursday, September 24th: Ace and Hoser Blook

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Weekend Cooking- Our Week On The Lake

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.

Every year we go back home to the Finger Lakes region and rent a house on Owasco Lake. My family spends the day with us, and we grill hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch, a treat that we sorely miss living in Manhattan.
Our view of Owasco Lake

At night, I make a big dinner, where salt potatoes are on the menu. How I miss salt potatoes in the summer! You can't find them here in the big city.  And leftover salt potatoes make fantastic breakfast potatoes the next day with peppers and onions.

Leftover salt potatoes make great breakfast potatoes
I made some of our favorite recipes that I found on Pinterest: Red Wine Marinated Flank Steak, Italian Mac and Cheese, Broccoli Salad, Strawberry Pretzel Jello, Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip,  SoCal Fajita Dip, Cream Cheese Cookies (2 batches) and Peanut Butter Crack Brownies. Two recipes paid homage to the area; I made Chicken Spiedie Sandwiches and Utica Chicken Riggies, both family favorites.

I tried a few new recipes too- New York Deli Nachos and Cobb Dip that I made for our friends' party and a tasty party beverage, White Zinfandel Peach Sangria. Everybody wanted the recipe for the sangria. It was light and crisp and perfect for a summer evening. The New York Deli Nachos were delicious, but a bit too messy for a party, and I personally liked the Cobb Dip the best.
Cobb Dip

Our friends always bring treats to share and this year we had a lovely fruit cobbler made with seasonal fruits, pumpkin cookies (my family loves these) and the popular Barbara's Famous Birthday Cake. Someone was pouting that he didn't get any cake the next day, so I had to make a cake when we got home.

Since it's blueberry season, I made a Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake that disappeared pretty darn quickly. (I made it when we returned home too, that's how great it was.)
Buttermilk Blueberry Breakfast Cake

I also made S'mores Bites, which tasted terrific, but alas, I left them under the broiler a tad too long so they didn't look very appetizing. (The perils of using an oven I was not used to.)

Every year people ask for the recipes, so I create a Pinterest board with all of them and shared them with everyone who wanted them. The board is here:

We love our time back home, it's so relaxing and it's a nice treat for me to cook in a spacious beautiful kitchen. And of course, I made my pilgrimages to my beloved Wegmans. I can't wait until they come to Brooklyn.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White Dresses by Mary Pflum Peterson

White Dresses by Mary Pflum Peterson
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 9780062386977
Trade paperback, $15.99, 352 pages

Mary Pflum Peterson opens her emotionally moving memoir White Dresses as she is frantically searching through her mother's closet for the white dresses that marked the most memorable days of her life, such as her Communion dress, and her high school graduation dress.

But her mother's closet was not like most of our mother's closets. Mary's mother Anne Diener Pflum was a hoarder. For over twenty years, she didn't throw anything away. The home was filled with broken appliances, bags of trash, dead animals, piles of clothes, newspapers and years of unopened mail. Mary could barely make it up the stairs to get to the closet.

Like most hoarders, there was a mental illness behind Anne's hoarding behavior. Mary sets out to discover what in her mother's life caused her to become a hoarder, and she writes her mother's story with such a compassionately clear eye that White Dresses is one of the most compelling memoirs I have ever read.

Anne grew up in a strict Catholic family, with a father she wanted attention from and a mother who only wanted the attention of her husband. Anne's mother had five miscarriages after she had had five babies in six years, Anne being the oldest.

The first trauma in Anne's life came when her mother decided it was time to throw away young Anne's security blanket. Anne considered the blanket her friend and couldn't believe that her mother took it away from her.

Anne was a good student, and was excited to be able to go away to college. She thrived there, studying hard, making good friends and finding a boyfriend she adored. Then her boyfriend transferred to a different school and Anne fell into a terrible depression and returned home.

Her parents didn't know what to do with her, other than pray, and soon Anne decided to enter the convent like her younger sister did. Her family was shocked, but they let her go.

Life at the convent was very difficult, and not a good solution for a young woman suffering from depression. Anne became seriously ill, and if not for the intervention of a young priest who insisted that the nuns take Anne to a hospital, she would have died.

Eventually Anne left the convent and returned to college. There she met Dale and as she was getting on in age and wanted a family, she ignored signs that she shouldn't have, and she married Dale over the objection of the priest who saved her life.

Anne and Dale had two children, Mary and Anthony. Life as a family was difficult, even more so when Dale finally told Anne that he was gay and wanted a divorce. Left with two young children, Anne began her hoarding behavior that would only worsen over the years.

Mary talks to her aunts and uncles and learns things about her mother that she didn't know. One thing that White Dresses will encourage you to do is to talk to your parents to find out what their life was like before they became your mom and dad. It reminds us that they had interesting, and sometimes sad, lives that we may know little about.

Mary Pflum tells her mother's story and her own through the white dresses that mark the major milestones in their lives. Wearing white meant a new beginning, a cleansing for your life. Saving those dresses was important to Mary because even if she couldn't save her mother from her hoarding behavior, she could at least save the dresses they shared.

You can feel the sadness and frustration that Mary feels about her mother, but you can also feel her love and compassion as well. Mary loves her mother and even when she is disappointed in her behavior, that love is evident. I give White Dresses my highest recommendation and it would make a wonderful book to share with your mother and with your book club.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Mary Pflum Peterson's tour. The rest of the tour dates are here:

Mary’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 18th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, August 19th: 5 Minutes For Books
Thursday, August 20th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Friday, August 21st: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Monday, August 24th: Novel Escapes
Tuesday, August 25th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, August 26th: BookNAround
Friday, August 28th: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, September 2nd: Raven Haired Girl
Thursday, September 3rd: Thoughts on This ‘n That

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weekend Cooking- The Cherry Harvest by Lucy Sanna

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 Beach Club Book Club chose Lucy Sanna's debut novel, The Cherry Harvest, as our next book. The story is set in Door County, Wisconsin in 1944. While most of the young men are off fighting WWII, the migrant workers who usually work picking the cherries on Christiansen farm are working in munitions factories making more money.

Charlotte Christiansen fears that they won't be able to bring in the cherry harvest and that they could possibly lose everything they have worked for. She tells her husband Thomas that they must convince the town leaders to use Nazi prisoners of war being housed nearby to help them pick the cherries.

Many of the townspeople are opposed to this, and although Charlotte's son Ben is off fighting in Europe, she believes this is the only way for them to survive. The conflict between the townspeople and the farmers grows more contentious when one of the prisoners working on the Christiansen farm goes missing.

The Cherry Harvest is a wonderful book, drawing the reader into this world. I read it in two sittings, totally engrossed in the story and the difficult, very physical life of a farm family. It makes you respect the work it takes to provide food for all of us.

There are many food references in The Cherry Harvest, and I particularly enjoyed this paragraph, describing Charlotte making her delicious pies to sell at their farm stand.
"Charlotte might make fifty or sixty or even one hundred pies, but she made them one at a time. When people asked for her recipe, she gladly gave it. It wasn't about the ingredients, however; it was in the handling of the dough. The secret was to handle it as little as possible, fingering it just enough to break up the fat, adding the smallest amount of ice water, a drop at a time, then quickly rounding the dough into a ball the size of a large orange to chill in the icebox. The perfect dough for rolling the perfect crust, thin and flaky. It was the touch that made it special. And Thomas' prize-winning cherries, of course."
I grew up where are many orchards and farms in the surrounding area, and so I had great interest in The Cherry Harvest. It will have you craving a homemade cherry pie after reading it. I will post a full review after the Beach Club Book Club discusses it.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

 Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781476789637
Hardcover, $25, 338 pages

The one blurb that publishers want on their novel is "Better than Gone Girl!", which is getting a little ubiquitous lately. I'm not a big suspense fan, and Gone Girl wasn't my favorite book, but I have read other books compared to it, like The Girl On The Train.

Jessica Knoll's suspenseful novel Luckiest Girl Alive even has 'girl' in the title. It begins with Ani FaNelli shopping for items to put on her bridal registry. She picks up a Wustof knife and wonders how it would feel if she slid into her fiance's stomach.

Something is off about Ani. She has a fabulous job at a woman's magazine (think Cosmo), and is engaged to a great catch, a man with a great job and who is socially connected. But there is something in Ani's past, something that happened when she was in high school.

Ani grew up on the wrong side of the tracks outside Philadelphia. Her mother wanted Ani to meet the right people and so sent her daughter to Bradley, a private high school for blue bloods. Ani didn't fit in at first, she sat at the misfits' table at lunch.

Until one day, she caught the eye of one of the popular guys at school. Soon she was eating lunch with the cool kids and even attending their parties where, of course, everyone was drinking.

Something bad happened at Bradley, and the reader is not told what. A documentary crew wants to interview Ani about the incident, but Ani's fiance doesn't want her to do the interview. What exactly happened?

The reader is given clues, but when we finally find out what happened, about halfway through the book, the story really takes off. I have to admit that up until that revelation, I was not really taken with the story. But once we get to the incident, Knoll's writing is so tight and tense, I felt like I didn't take a breath for the entire chapter.

I have to admit, I guessed wrong as to what really happened, and so the surprise was shocking, even though as we got closer to the reveal, there are clues given if you want to pick them up.

Knoll's characters are well developed, and anyone who went to high school (which is most of us) felt many of the things Ani did- isolated, fearful of not fitting in, and hoping to make friends. Knoll taps into those feelings so well.

Ani has problems, and in the early chapters when she talks about her sexual desires, I admit to thinking that maybe this book just isn't for me. But I'm glad I continued on, because I was rewarded with a nail-biting story. Ani has to look inside herself to discover who she really wants to be, and her journey to get there is fascinating.

I liked Luckiest Girl Alive better than Gone Girl and better than The Girl On The Train, because Jessica Knoll does a great job of creating suspense and empathy for a troubled character. And even after reading it awhile ago, just thinking about now it is giving me heart palpitations and a dry mouth.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three Books By Funny People

I recently read three books by funny people: Comedian and actor Brad Garrett's (Robert from TV's Everybody Loves Raymond) When The Balls Drop, Adam Resnick's (a former writer for David Letterman's The Late Show) Will Not Attend, and comedienne and actress Ali Wentworth's Happily Ali After.

When the Balls Drop by Brad Garrett
Published by Gallery Books ISBN 9781476772905
Hardcover, $25, 288 pages

Brad Garrett's When The Balls Drop is a comic treatise on what it's like to be a 50-year-old man whose body is falling apart. It is clearly geared towards men of that age, and as a woman of that age, I am not the target audience. Garrett spends too much time complaining about his ex-wives and how much money he had to give them. For my taste, it was a little off-putting.

I most enjoyed his stories about growing up with funny with his interesting family, and opening up for Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. Garrett has had a long stand-up comedy career, and those chapters were fascinating to me. I think he has a whole other book about this area of his life.

He spent nine seasons as Robert, the much put-upon older brother in Everybody Loves Raymond, but he doesn't share many stories from those days, other than Marie Roberts, who played his mother, could drink everyone under the table, and Peter Boyle, who played his father, had a gas problem. Again, I would have liked more of this. The book has many bursts of just laugh-out-loud stuff, just like his I can't-believe-he-really-said-that stand-up act.

Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick
Published by Blue Rider Press ISBN 9780147516213
Trade paperback, $16, 272 pages

The premise of Adam Resnick's Will Not Attend is that he is very anti-social and would much rather stay home than participate in any family dinner, much less go to Disney World with his nemesis, his wife's sister Diane, and her family.

Resnick's sister-in-law is one of those people who like to control everything, and Adam does not like to be told what to do and when to do it. Their epic blow-up in the middle of a Disney vacation where every slight was brought up was uncomfortable (though, I admit, kind of funny to see someone put in her place) to read, I can't imagine seeing it in person. After reading this, I was hoping that Diane was a purely made-up character because how he could have any relationship with her after this is unfathomable.

The language in the book is pretty rough at times, there is a lot of swearing here, so if you don't mind that, you may enjoy it. Again, I don't think I am the target audience for this book.

Happily Ali After by Ali Wentworth
Published by HarperCollins ISBN 9780062238498
Hardcover, $25.99, 240 pages

I read Ali Wentworth's first memoir Ali in Wonderland that hilariously dealt with her years trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood. Her very funny voice shone through each page. In her new book, Happily Ali After, Wentworth shares her adventures as a wife (to ABC newsman George Stephanopoulis) and mom to two young daughters.

I loved this Happily Ever After even more than Ali in Wonderland, probably because I can relate more to Ali the wife and mom than Ali the struggling actress. She tells great stories about trying to stay young-looking, her husband's poor driving, and her daughter's sex-education questions.

One of the stories that I most loved involved a trip the family had planned to Spain. Ali was in charge of making all the preparations, and when they got to the airport to take a late-night flight, they were told that the girls' passports had expired and they were going nowhere that night.

George was furious at Ali, and the girls went back and forth from one parent to the other asking if they were going to get a divorce. The car ride home was uncomfortable, and when they got home, Ali told George how so very sorry she was. As they lay in bed, he kissed her and told her he knew she she was sorry and that it was OK. Every couple has had that potentially huge fight, and could relate to this big oopsy that Ali committed.

Ali's story of a girl's weekend at a friend's California home with a psychic as entertainment was hilarious too. We all have our girlfriends, and her description of that party had me guffawing.

Reading Happily Ali After is like sitting in your funniest girlfriend's kitchen and listening to her crazy stories about her husband, her family, her job, her life. If I ever see her on the streets of NYC,  I will invite her over for a glass of wine just to hear her stories.