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.

Monday, July 27, 2015

New in Paperback- Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro
Published by St. Martin's Griffin ISBN 9781250068408
Trade paperback, $15.99, 336 pages

When I began reading Julia Fierro's debut novel Cutting Teeth, I thought it was going to be a novel about a bunch of whiny, overprotective, rich, Brooklyn parents and their spoiled (yet gifted or challenged) children. I didn't see how I could relate.

Then as I read the book, I saw how Fierro brought these characters I probably would not befriend to vivid life in her novel. It begins with something I wish more multi-character novels would have - a chart explaining the who the characters are and how they relate to each other. This is so helpful when you begin a book, and if a book is as well-written as this is, you find you don't need it to keep track of the characters, you are invested enough in them to know who is who.

They came together as a playgroup for their four-year-olds. Nicole, who has OCD and is afraid that the world is coming to an end this Labor Day weekend, has invited the four other couples and their children to her parents' Long Island Sound vacation cottage. Nicole's husband is rapidly tiring of Nicole's OCD behavior and her fears, her constant monitoring parenting of message boards, and has trouble relating to their son Wyatt and his behavior issues.

Leigh comes from a wealthy family who has lost much of their fortune in the economic downturn. Her husband works for her family's business, so their livelihood is in jeopardy, which causes Leigh to do something that could cost her everything she holds dear. Her son Chase may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and she has pinned all her mothering hopes on her baby daughter, who was conceived in vitro.

Rip is the stay-at-home daddy in the group. He is an earth father, making his family organic homemade foods and loves caring for his son Hank, who is shy and wants to dress like a princess. He wants another baby but his wife refuses to consider it. She has a difficult time relating to Hank and Rip.

Rip is attracted to Tiffany, who runs a music class for children and whose daughter Harper, the only girl in the group, is a Queen Bee. Harper orders the boys around and expects them to do as she tells them. Tiffany likes to stir up trouble in the group, and when we get her backstory we see why.

Susanne and Allie have twin boys, Levi and Dash, and Susanne is now hugely pregnant with another baby. Allie is an artist, a photographer, and Susanne has started a home business renting strollers and car seats to parents. Their relationship is strained at the moment.

Maybe the most interesting person in the novel is Tenzin, a Tibetan political refugee who fled her home country leaving behind her loving husband and three children. Tenzin is nannying for Leigh, and Tiffany is trying to bully Leigh into sharing Tenzin with her. Tenzin loves and understands the children and seeing these people through her eyes in a brief chapter is interesting. I wish we had more chapters narrated by her.

There are tensions, sexual and otherwise, among the parents and between various couples, and anyone who has vacationed with a big group may recognize these scenes being played out. The weekend culminates in one big uncomfortable scene where the underlying problems bubble to the surface and explode.

Cutting Teeth is a character study of contemporary parenting in an urban setting. The competitiveness of getting your child into the right preschool, maintaining a expensive lifestyle, trying to sustain a marital relationship in the midst of all this, making friends, and the helicopter parenting that has led to children being labeled and over scheduled is all examined in this terrific novel that fans of Tom Perrotta's Little Children will enjoy.

rating 4 of 5

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Weekend Cooking- Two Winning Pinterest Recipes and One Dud

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.

Last week I decided to try a new Pinterest recipe for Cheesecake Copycat Chicken Madeira. Many Cheesecake Factory recipes have way too many calories and a high fat content, but perusing this one, it seemed to be fairly easy to make and not loaded with calories.

The only thing that gave me pause was that it called for three cups of Madeira wine in the sauce. That seemed like a lot to me, and instead of following my instincts, I followed the directions.

The result? The wine overpowered the sauce, and the dish lacked flavor for me. The entire dish just didn't gel for me. I deleted that pin so that I wouldn't accidentally make it again.

Undaunted, I pushed forward and tried two new recipes one week later. This time it was Chicken Milanese with a Sage-Lemon-Butter Sauce from Food & Wine magazine, which I paired with a Creamy Parmesan Rice from the blog South Your Mouth.

Using a recipe from Food & Wine is pretty foolproof as they test their recipes themselves. I usually make Bobby Flay's Chicken Milanese recipe, but the Sage-Lemon-Butter Sauce sounded good to me, and boy was it ever. The sauce added a big jolt of flavor to the chicken and the rice dish. It was easy to make, and after adjusting the seasonings at the end, it was perfect.

The recipe received a five star rating on the Food & Wine website, and I highly recommend it. You do have to simmer the sauce for about 20 minutes, so this recipe does take almost 45 minutes to prepare. The link to Chicken Milanese with Sage-Lemon-Butter Sauce is here.
Chicken Milanese with Sage-Lemon-Butter Sauce
(photo from Food & Wine website-ʩ Fredrika Stjärne)

To go with the Chicken Milanese, I found this Creamy Parmesan Rice recipe on Pinterest from South Your Mouth. The biggest difference is that you cook your rice in a mixture of water and milk, which  made for a much creamier rice dish that worked wonderfully with the chicken dish. I didn't use a quick cooking rice, and that really makes a difference. Simmering the rice while you are cooking the Sage-Lemon-Butter Sauce for 20 minutes means that everything is ready at the same time. The recipe for Creamy Parmesan Rice is here.

Have you made anything from Pinterest lately? let me know in comments.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Broadway's Something Rotten at Barnes & Noble

The cast of the fabulous Broadway show, Something Rotten, made an appearance at Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side in NYC to promote the CD release of the cast recording of the show. They sang three fantastic songs from this amazing show, and then signed CDs.

The cast of Something Rotten

I saw the show last month and it is the one show I would recommend to everyone. The premise is that Nigel (John Cariani) and Nick (Brian d'Arcy James) Bottom are brothers who are playwrights in England at the same time as Shakespeare. Nick doesn't understand why everyone thinks Shakespeare is so great, and Nigel worships the man.

The Bottom brothers need a hit, and Nick goes to visit Nostradamus (the fabulous Tony-nominated Brad Oscar) to see if he can find out what kind of show he needs to write to have a hit show. This results in the show-stopping tune A Musical that contains snippets of songs from some of the most iconic Broadway musicals of all time (Annie, Rent, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Phantom of the Opera-you get the idea). The audience gave this number a middle-of-the-show standing ovation, something I've only seen once, for the Genie in Aladdin, played by Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart.

Shakespeare in the show is portrayed by the brilliant Christian Borle, who won the Tony for his portrayal of Shakespeare as a combination of Prince/James Brown/Mick Jagger. He was born to play this role, similar to his other Tony-winning performance as Black Stache in Peter and the Star Catcher. (He's  a nice guy too. And Brian d'Arcy James has the most beautiful eyes and the kindest smile.)

Other standouts in the cast include Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick's wife Bea, Michael James Scott as Minstrel and Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah.

At Barnes and Noble, they opened with another great number, God, I Hate Shakespeare, which highlights the terrific talents of Brian d'Arcy James (Nick) and John Cariani (Nigel). These guys have a great brotherly chemistry.

Cariani and Kate Reinders sang the next song, the sweetly comedic I Love the Way.

Christian Borle finished the performances with the Queen-sounding Hard to Be the Bard, which is also a favorite from the show.

This is the perfect show- funny, great songs, and a fantastic cast- and it is a must-see even at full price.
The Something Rotten website is here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Two Books That Transport You To A Different Place and Time

Reprinted from the Citizen:

At The Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
Published by Penguin Random House ISBN 9780385523233 
Hardcover, $28, 368 pages

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Published by Knopf ISBN 9781101875049
Hardcover, $27.95, 416 pages

One of the great things about books is that they can transport you to a completely different place and time, a place you can visit right from your chair. Sara Gruen’s novel, “At The Water’s Edge” and Judy Blume’s “In The Unlikely Event” are two of those books.

Gruen’s best known for her hugely popular book from a few years ago, “Water For Elephants” that was made into a movie with Reese Witherspoon. Set during the Depression, it was a love story set in a circus, and it is one of those books that you will find featured prominently in new and used bookstores.

“At The Water’s Edge” is also set in the past, mostly in Scotland in 1944. Maddie is married to Ellis, the son of a wealthy family from Philadelphia. Ellis, Maddie and their best friend Hank spend their days and nights and Ellis’ family money going to parties and getting drunk most nights.

Maddie’s mother had a questionable reputation, and Ellis’ mother has not made Maddie welcome in her family. Maddie and Ellis are spoiled, with maids and cooks to care for their every need.

Years ago, Ellis’ father was in Scotland to prove that the Loch Ness Monster was real, and he was accused of faking photographic evidence to do so. After Ellis has a fight with his father, he decides to go to Scotland to prove that what his father was unable to- that the Loch Ness Monster is real.

Of course Maddie and Hank tag along, even though Scotland is in the middle of WWII, with bombings from the Germans a frighteningly common occurrence and rationing of food in effect. They are so oblivious it never occurs to them that this is a bad idea.

They end up in a small Scottish town at an inn run by a gruff man who is not happy see these spoiled Americans show up on his doorstep expecting to waited on hand and foot, as if at a five star hotel. 

Over the course of their stay, Maddie becomes involved with the people who work at the inn, while Ellis and Hank spend their time drinking and trying to find the monster. Maddie begins to see how little character Ellis and Hank have, how cruel they can be to anyone they consider beneath their station, even her.

Watching Maddie evolve and grow over the course of the story, becoming a stronger, more caring woman gives “At The Water’s Edge” its heart, and she is an unforgettable character. I liked “At The Water’s Edge” even more than “Water For Elephants”, I found it to be a deeper, richer story and I highly recommend it. 

Judy Blume, known mostly for her classic children’s books, bases her new adult novel “In The Unlikely Event” on events that occurred in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951-52 when she was a teenager. 

In the space of less than two months, three passenger planes crashed over the city of Elizabeth, killing many. Blume brilliantly takes this true story and we see how the crashes affect the people of the city.

She includes real characters and adds her own, and we see the story mainly through the eyes of teenage Miri, who lives with her single mother (she never knew her father) and her loving grandmother.

Miri is going through all of the usual teenage angst, meeting her first love, hanging out with her best friends, when the first plane crashes. Miri sees it happen, as the plane nearly crashes into the school where she is at a holiday party.

The crash stuns the city, and when a second plane from Syracuse crashes near a school, crazy conspiracy theories begin to be discussed. Some teens have heard that aliens are crashing the planes, looking for children to abduct.

When a third plane crashes, just outside an orphanage, there are survivors and Miri’s young boyfriend is a hero who rushes to save people trapped in the plane. 

Blume does an amazing job creating her story around the real events. Through Miri and her friends and family we see how these events frighten people, making them uneasy. Given the unsettled nature of today’s world, with terrorism on the rise, “In The Unlikely Event” , although set in a simpler time, can feel contemporary.

But Blume’s theme here is a good one, as spoken by Miri’s mother to Miri when Miri expresses her fear of flying. She tells Miri “you don’t want your fears to limit your possibilities”. That is good advice indeed, and “In The Unlikely Event” is a book worth waiting for from Judy Blume.

“At The Water’s Edge”- A
“In The Unlikely Event”- B+