Thursday, May 21, 2009

Elizabeth Edwards



After seeing Elizabeth Edwards on Oprah, the View, etc., I was curious to hear her speak at a book signing for her new book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities.

All any of the media wanted to talk about was the betrayal of her husband and how Elizabeth was dealing with it. The interviews were awkward, and she clearly did not wish to speak about that part of her life.

I have to admit, I am puzzled by the hate-filled comments made about her by so-called respectable media people. Her book is so much more than her husband's betrayal, that is but a small part of it. Yet it is all anyone in the media wishes to discuss. Why? She has so much more to say on more important topics.

I was pleasantly surprised after hearing her speak at Barnes & Noble. She was relaxed, and she had a lot to say about her book, which I was able to read while waiting for her arrival.

The book is her personal story about how she was able to cope with some bad things that happened to her. In the middle of her happy, almost charmed life, she lost her sixteen-year-old son in a tragic car accident in 1996. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, where her husband John was the vice-presidential nominee, she found a cancerous lump in her breast. In 2007, her cancer returned and had spread. She was given a terminal diagnosis.

She arrived at the book signing a little late, after having taped The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She read the first chapter of her book, about her father's stroke in 1990, and then she answered questions from the audience.

The audience was clearly supportive of her, asking interesting questions about her health, her family, and how she coped with the tragedies of her life. She is working with a group to promote health care reform, and given her many experiences with the American health care system, she is more than an expert on the subject.

She is an articulate and thoughtful person. She spoke with each person who wanted a signed book, listened to their stories, and took photos with them. Although she has been on a whirlwind book tour, and had another engagement that evening, she appeared in good health and not fatigued at all.

The book is similiar to her previous book, Saving Graces, a book I read, reviewed and chose as one of my top ten nonfiction books of the year. She covers much of the same territory in this book. It is not so much an advice book, it is more a record of how she dealt with her tragedies, and perhaps the coping mechanisms she used can be helpful to others.

The pain of losing her son is palpable on those pages, every parent's nightmare. While reading her story, one can't help but think, how would I deal with it? She coped with father's death, and her mother's Alzheimer's, something many baby boomers also face.

Reading Resilience, one is able to credit Elizabeth for making her way through the pain and sadness, and it also gives hope that if she can make it through her tragedies, maybe there is hope for all of us. It's a good book to give to someone who is hurting.

Rating 3.5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Swine flu has nothing on the superplague


With the news filled with talk of the swine flu, Fiona Maazel's debut novel Last Last Chance, and its storyline of the release of a superplague, seems prescient.

Lucy is a thirty-year-old drug addict with six failed rehab stints behind her. Her mother is a wealthy business owner and crack addict, her twelve-year-old half sister dabbles in disease, cutting herself and fundamental Christianity, and her scientist father committed suicide after a deadly superplague created in the government lab where he worked disappears.

Not exactly a feel-good novel, but one that is brilliantly plotted and written. Maazel states in the author's conversation at the end of the book that she "love(s) the craft of storytelling", and it shows.

She writes sentences that are so amazing, they take your breath away. You simply have to go back and reread and savor them. She states that "every sentence feels like its own universe, and so I think long and hard about how to put that universe together." An example of one of my favorite sentences (and there are many) is "If my mother had a secret life, maybe I could forgive the one she led in front of us."

She also states that Cormac McCarthy is a writer she admires, and while I was reading her book, it put me in mind of him as well, both in the beautifully crafted sentences, and the subject matter of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. Whereas The Road is post-apocalyptic, Last Last Chance is pre-apocalyptic, and does have an element of gallows humor to it.

There is so much stuffed into this novel, it almost defies description. Characters who have died and been reincarnated, or are waiting for reincarnation, narrate some chapters. This can be confusing at first, but stick with it, and you will be rewarded.

The ravages of drug addiction are compared to the panic and illness of a world plague. The self-absorbed behavior of a drug addict is mirrored by the panic and self preservation that people exhibit when faced with a plague at their doorstep.

The characters are not entirely likeable; indeed it is hard to feel sympathy for people who have much, but still fall into drug (and self) abuse. Yet the author gets you to root for these people. Lucy and her mother attend a drug rehab in Texas, and in group therapy they hear the heartbreaking stories of how some of their fellow residents became drug addicts; it is stark contrast to their own lives.

Maazel manages to keep all her balls in the air, with many settings and characters to keep track of and move along. Her characters, and there are many, seem fully realized, and though you know them well, you leave wanting to know even more about them.

This is a big novel, with much to contemplate and savor. It is a book that does not grab one right away, but once involved, it is something you cannot put down. If you are willing to commit to it, you will be richly rewarded. I highly recommend it and look forward to Maazels' next effort.
Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking for a home in NYC ain't easy


Mary Elizabeth Williams, her husband and two daughters's search for a home in New York City is recounted in Gimme Shelter- Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.

Timing is everything, and Mary Elizabeth and her husband started their search in 2003,at the height of the home buying insanity. After living in a cramped apartment with one daughter and another on the way, she convinced her husband it was time to look for a home of their own.

If there is anything harder than finding an affordable rental unit in NYC, it's finding an affordable condo, co-op or home to buy. Williams places her story in the perspective of the national experience. Many of her friends were buying homes across the country, and she tells their different stories- from San Francisco to post-Katrina New Orleans to St. Louis to Minnesota.

Williams and her husband lived in Brooklyn, and they loved it there, so it was there that their search began. She figured they could afford a $350,000 mortgage, but everything in that price range was awful, filthy with missing stairs, sagging porches and a home that had mushrooms growing inside the house.

Brooklyn was becoming as expensive as Manhattan, as Manhattanites were spreading over the bridge and making real estate prices skyrocket. Getting a mortgage was a scary proposition as well. While Williams and her husband had excellent FICO scores, they did not have the 20% required for a down payment.

No problem; this is where the creative ideas of mortgage brokers come in. They could get a no-doc loan. This type of loan requires no pesky checking by the bank to see if the information provided by the prospective buyers on salary and credit history is accurate. Williams humorously described this type of loan as the banking industry's version of "don't ask, don't tell". While Williams and her husband were good credit risks, other people who received no-doc loans were not; thus created the housing crisis that tanked our economy.

For three long years, Williams and her husband looked at condos, co-ops and houses. They finally found a co-op they liked in a neighborhood that, although far from Brooklyn, had a big park, a grocery store, decent schools, and most importantly a nearby subway station. (Anyone who lives in New York understands how crucial that is.)

There is as much suspense as in a Stephen King novel as they wait for approval by the co-op board in a timely manner in order to get the low interest rate they need to afford the bank loan.

This is a timely book, as Williams shares her personal story of looking for the American dream of home ownership in the context of the beginning of the housing crisis. It is immensely readable, reading almost like a novel, and if you have ever bought a house, you will relate to her story.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm Sorry You Feel That Way


is the catchy title of Diana Joseph's book of essays about her life. Subtitled The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, Joseph recounts incidents from her life that made her the woman she is.

The book is an honest, funny and touching look at Diana's life. Her father, a man who preferred to be sans shirt most of the time, gave his twelve-year-old daughter some advice on boys: "Don't be a pig". Translation: Don't be a slut. She didn't take his advice, and frequently her choices in men were questionable.

She calls her now-teenage son 'the boy', and her description of raising a son mostly on her own reminded me of Anne LaMott's writing on the same topic. Single moms trying everyday to do their best, but struggling with not having enough money, exhaustion, depression and loneliness. She is not a martyr, just a human being.

Joseph is remarkably honest in her assessment of herself and others, and that is the strength of her book. She has the ability to see the good and bad that exists in all of us, and expresses that in her unique way.

The last essay of the book, 'Ten Million, At Least', is the most moving. Joseph lives with literature professor Al, a good guy who loves her and her boy. They love each other, but they also have their differences, which makes it difficult at times to cohabitate. If you don't tear up at the last two pages, you simply aren't human.

Diana Joseph has spent much of her life around men- her dad, her brothers, lovers, and her son- and that has colored the way she sees the world. Her book is an honest look at how a modern woman deals with bad habits, depression, sex, love, crummy jobs, poverty, pets, loneliness, rock and roll and family. It's humorous and moving, just like life. If you are a fan of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, add Diana Joseph to your reading list.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Love, Italian Style via Greenwich Village- with shoes!



Author Adriana Trigiani captured America's heart with her Big Stone Gap series of books. The town of Big Stone Gap was as important a character in the novels as its protagonist, Ave Maria.

Trigiani's first novel in her next planned trilogy, Very Valentine has as some of its most important characters not one, but two, settings- Greenwich Village in New York City and Italy.

Valentine Roncalli is a single thirty-something woman from an Italian family. She lives and works in Greenwich Village with her beloved grandmother Teodora Angelini at Angelini Shoes, which has been in the family since 1903. They design and create lovely custom shoes, many of which are worn by brides on their wedding day.

The humorous opening to the novel, at Valentine's baby sister's wedding, sets the tone for the joyous, loving, heartbreaking story to follow. Anyone who has ever attended an Italian wedding will recognize the characters, the food and the decor described. And if you have been a single woman at an Italian wedding, you will commiserate with Valentine's plight.

Trigiani lives in Greenwich Village, and brings to life this vibrant section of New York; from the breezy Hudson River Park to the Buonitalia bakery in Chelsea Market to cobblestone sidewalks to the newly established tiny restaurants run by the hottest new chefs, this is a place one must visit after reading this novel.

Valentine reluctantly opens her heart to Roman Falconi, a chef with a new restaurant in the Village. They both have demanding careers, working long hours to make their dreams come true, and they struggle to balance those demands with the loving relationship they want to create.

Teodora is a vibrant older woman, but she is not free from the restraints of aging. She discovers that her late husband mortgaged the business to keep it alive, but now the time has come to make a decision- sell the building to a broker who will give her enough money to retire comfortably, or try to keep a business going in an increasingly tough economy.

She takes Valentine to Italy on her annual trip to purchase stock for the shop. It is there, in that beautiful country, that Valentine learns something about her grandmother which helps her to see the situation in a new light.

Trigiani is a marvelous writer. She does her homework, and the reader learns, along with Valentine, how to design and build beautiful shoes. I'm not a shoe person, but this made me wonder what I am missing.

She paints a picture of Italy so gorgeous, it makes you want to hop a plane and move there, or at least visit for a month or so. The scenery, the people, the food, the romance, the Isle of Capri- it all sounds so delicious.

Her characters feel like people you know; I especially liked Valentine's mother and father. The family relationships are so real, you have to wonder if Trigiani's family members are reluctant to be in her presence for fear their words will end up in one of her books.

It feels like you are spying on real people when you read
Very Valentine. People struggling with finding and holding onto love, with balancing their career dreams and family, these are things with which we all struggle. If only we could all do it in the scenery that Adriana Trigiani lovingly paints in this funny, sweet, touching novel. I'm definitely looking forward to the next two books in Valentine's saga.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

Saturday, May 16, 2009

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Another tale of Irish immigration


Like Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, The Walking People, the debut novel from Mary Beth Keane, deals with the story of Irish immigrants. Whereas Brooklyn recounted a few years in the life of Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey, The Walking People looks at the total life experience of Michael and Greta Ward, who came to New York City in the early 1960's.

The prologue of the book opens in 2007, as we watch the last day at work for Michael Ward. He has been a sandhog, digging tunnels underground in New York City for 35 years. It has been a physically difficult job, he has suffered hearing loss, and was nearly killed in a bad accident years ago. Now it is loss of memory that he is battling.

The book begins in 1956, in Ballyroan, Ireland, a rural area bordering a river that has lost much of its population over the years. The Cahill family struggles to earn a meager living, and to avoid starvation, father James Cahill and his three sons illegally catch and sell salmon from the river.

Johanna and Greta Cahill are the sisters. Johanna is anxious to get to a bigger city to live, and eventually sets her sights on going to New York City when she meets a woman visiting Ballyroan from New York.

Greta is as shy as Johanna is determined, but eventually they make the trip overseas with Michael Ward, a young man who is a traveller, also known as gypsies.

The book started slow for me, recounting too much of their life in Ireland. While I did find the description of Irish life interesting, it went on too long for my taste. The book sparks to life when the three arrived in New York City and began to build their lives.

The author took great care in crafting characters that the reader cares about, particularly Greta. Keane's vividly describes Greta as looking like a goose-
Lily noticed Greta peering over at her, peering with that look she had so often, her features drawn together in a clump at the center of her face, her neck stuck out ahead of the rest of her body. Greta the Goose, as children often called her.
It's a strong visual that perfectly places Greta's character in the reader's mind.

She clearly did a great deal of research on the lives that immigrants led, and her description of life in 1960's New York City fascinated me. I could see all of the places she described in my mind, feel the heat of the summer, smell the ethnic food from the delis.

Part III of the book consists of letters that young Greta sends home to her mother, along with letters that Michael sends to his father. It is one of the strongest sections of the book, recounted in the first person, and brings the reader right into the minds of these young immigrants, trying to be strong for their family, but clearly missing them as well.

I enjoyed reading of Greta's job at Bloomingdales, and Keane gives the reader an intimate look at how people coming from another land with no money and few skills applicable to city life work to build a life for themselves and their children.

There is an aura of suspense as Michael, Greta and Johanna keep a secret from their family, one that is destined to have repercussions for a long time. At its core, this is a story of how people form a family, and the strength that it takes to come to a new country and build a life. Watching Greta grow from a scared little girl to a strong woman, working in a big city and raising a family with her husband, touched my heart. It is a wonderful read, and fans of Maeve Binchy and Alice McDermott will enjoy it.

Rating 4 of 5 stars
Thanks to BookBrowse.com for providing me with a copy of this book.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin



As someone of Irish descent, I found Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, a fascinating look at how one young girl makes her way from her small town in Ireland to the big borough of Brooklyn.

Shy Eilis Lacey lives with her widowed mother and older sister Rose. Rose has a good job, supports her family, and has an active social life. Work is difficult to come by in the 1950's in Ireland, and Eilis works part-time as sales girl in a small grocers.

An opportunity in the form of Father Flood arises. He can arrange for Eilis to come to Brooklyn where he lives, she can find steady work, and go to college to get an accounting degree and a better life. Eilis fears leaving her mother and sister, but Rose convinces her it is for the best.

Leaving everyone she knows far behind, Father Flood arranges for Eilis to work at a department store by day, and attend college by night. She lives in Mrs. Kehoe's boardinghouse, along with several other single women. It is a lonely life for Eilis, and although she is successful as a shopgirl, she finds it tedious.

She concentrates on her studies, working hard to get good grades. On Friday evenings, she goes to the dance at Father Flood's church. There she meets Tony, a handsome plumber from a big Italian family. Tony pursues Eilis, and slowly, Eilis comes to care deeply for him.

Tony wants to marry Eilis, and they plan a future together. When Eilis gets bad news from Ireland, she returns home and finds that the life she left there still has a hold on her. Her dilemma grabs at the heart.

Toibin has been compared to Alice McDermott, and he mines the same territory to similar effect. The reader is immediately drawn into Eilis's life, and feels empathy for her. The reader feels the fear of leaving one's home, traveling overseas where you know no one, and trying to build a new life. Eilis's story is one that many of our ancestors lived, and her story feels authentic.

The characters are interesting, particularly Eilis and Tony. Toibin gets you to care deeply about these characters. The boardinghouse life, and the desire of immigrants to work hard to make a better life is explored with great skill by the author.

You won't easily forget Eilis, or her fascinating story. Rating: 4 of 5 stars








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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enter to win this book!


Courtesy of The Novel Bookworm, you can enter to win The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Win this book!


You can win Mating Rituals of the North American Wasp, courtesy of the Novel Bookworm.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

BAM! Emeril LaGasse at Borders


Just saw Chef Emeril LaGasse at Borders Wall St. store in NYC. I was surprised that there weren't that many people there when I arrived an hour early, but he ended up with a good sized crowd by the time he started. It was just a signing, no discussion, so I just met Emeril, shook his hand and got my book signed. I would have enjoyed hearing him speak.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Celebrity Sighting of the Day



While walking in Central Park with my younger son, we saw Alexander Chaplin, who starred in Spin City with Michael J. Fox. He played James Hobert, the young aide to the mayor.

I would have taken a photo, but he was with his young daughter, and I didn't want to disturb them. I think he knew that we knew who he was, and was waiting for us to say something, but the moment passed. (Alexander is on the bottom left in the baseball hat)

Another Real Housewife of NYC


Bethenny Frankel, the best of the Real Housewives of NYC, made an appearance at Borders Columbus Circle on May 5th promoting her new book, Naturally Thin: Unleash Your Skinnygirl and Free Yourself from a Lifetime of Dieting.

She is skinny, but she is so funny you are willing to overlook that. It happened to be the night that the season finale of the show was set to air on BravoTV. She answered questions about her life, did her killer impression of her friend Jill (yes, they are still friends, even after the blowout at the charity party), and gave advice to those seeking to get into the food business.

She promoted her SkinnyGirl cocktails, set to go to market next month and is working on a cookbook as well.

Everybody there was on Team Bethenny, with some people suggesting that Kelly should be bounced from the show, but one gentleman seated next to me stated that he believed the rivalry between the two made good television, and Bethenny has clearly become the fan favorite in that battle.

The party for Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People was being held at the Time Warner Center, so we got to see some of the red carpet attendees- NBC News Andrea Mitchell, fashion designer Stella McCartney with Liv Tyler and Kate Hudson who both looked gorgeous, and JJ Abrams, creator of my favorite TV show, Lost. No Oprah or Michele Obama, though.

Just another night in NYC- special shout-out to Rick and Alex for keeping me company that evening.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Enter to win Follow Me


The Burton Review is giving away three copies of Joanna Scott's novel Follow Me.
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Garage Sale A Success


Thanks to all to came to our big garage sale this past weekend. We had to clean out the house, and sold lots of stuff. Sadly, I had to sell most of my books, but I know they went to people who love to read, and that makes me happy. I saw so many people who knew me from my Book Report column in the Citizen and from running the Book Bonanza. It was great to see everybody!

The Book Bonanza to benefit St. Joseph School was the recipient of the leftover books for the sale on the second weekend of July at the Fingerlakes Mall in Auburn. If you are spring cleaning and need to get rid of books, don't forget to drop them off at the mall for the sale.

Special thanks to Trish for bringing us a delicious lunch from Wegmans, and Mom for the tasty taco salad. It was so thoughtful, and we so appreciated it.