Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas in NYC

Christmas in NYC is truly magical. I love to go visit all of the amazing holiday window displays, and there is always free entertainment to enjoy.

Lord & Taylor had their window unveil with a song from Broadway favorite, the adorable Kristin Chenoweth, currently performing in Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes. She sang a lovely version of Silver Bells,  backed by the Youth Choir of New York. She was great with the kids, posing for pictures, really bringing them into the performance. Those kids were terrific, and it was like a cool episode of Glee. 


Kristin singing with the choir


Youth Choir of New York
Kristin being interviewed for TV


John Legend performed at Bloomingdales window reveal and he wowed the crowd with seven songs, including fan favorites Green Light, Save Room for My Love, Ordinary People, Christmas classics The Christmas Song, and This Christmas, as well as two songs from his new CD, Wake Up! and the song he wrote for the documentary Waiting for Superman called Shine On. Legend is very handsome, and he has many fans here in the city. 
Opus 118, a group of student musicians from the Harlem School of Music, played some lovely holiday music before Legend came on. They were awesome, and I loved their mashup of Santa Claus is Coming to Town/Jingle Bells. 
Opus 118, string musicians from The Harlem School of Music

John Legend at the piano


Everything Is Going to Be Great

Everything Is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert
Published by Harper Perennial
Trade Paperback $13.99


If you've ever dreamed of traveling to Europe with no money or any real idea of how you are going to live, this is the book for you. If you have a young daughter who wants to do that, do not read this book, it will scare the hell out of you.

Subtitled An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, Shukert recounts her many adventures traveling around Europe, first as the member of an acting troupe with a sketchy agenda, and then on her own, courtesy of an unstamped passport which allowed her to travel unfettered throughout Europe.

Shukert is a very funny, albeit somewhat vulgar, writer. I read this on the city bus traveling around Manhattan and found myself keeping the book as closed as possible so as not to offend any Upper East Side matrons who may be trying to sneak a peek at what I was reading.

She writes very freely of her many sexual exploits, which often coincided with her drinking to excess. One really crazy night had her doing her best to avoid participating in a three-way with some very scary, excitable Italian men she did not know well. It was a scene a young, Jewish Lucy Riccardo might find herself in, all that was missing was Ethel, and Shukert had me laughing like crazy as she described extricating herself from this potentially dangerous situation.

I loved her mother, whose favorite pastime was to send Rachel "large manila envelopes containing scraps of information that she feels need to be brought to my attention: notices culled from the local newspaper reporting that my high school boyfriend has once again been imprisoned for car theft; excerpts from the latest sermon torn from the synagogue bulletin; photocopied magazine articles detailing gruesome diseases from which she believes I might be at risk."

On one card, her mom wrote- "Remember- having multiple sexual partners significantly increases your immediate risk of developing cancer of the cervix. Please consider." Hilarious!

Shukert includes in the text helpful tips for living abroad, including what to do "When Someone Mistakes You For a Prostitute", "Are You About to Be Sex-trafficked?" and "Snappy Comebacks To Loaded Questions" such as
1. Why are Americans so fat?
2. Are Americans religious because they are stupid, or just ignorant? and
3. Why do Americans cruelly refuse to provide public health care for all?

There is lots of heart in this memoir, and I liked Shukert's adventures in Amsterdam, living with her friends, Jeroen and Mattis. She gives the reader a good flavor for what it is like living in a foreign city: the loneliness, the difficulty in getting a job, the joy of riding a bike as a means of transportation.

Everything Will Be Great will appeal to mostly a younger crowd, and for those lucky enough to have traveled to Europe, they will chuckle with recognition.

Rating 3 stars of 5





Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine



The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover $25
352 pages

I read Maggie O'Farrell's novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox a few years back and found it a haunting story. I looked forward to reading her next book, The Hand That First Held Mine.


It's not a book that grabbed me right away, but I'm glad I stuck with it because the resolution of the story was heartbreaking. O'Farrell expertly weaves two stories together, and I didn't know where she going with it until about three quarters of the way through, and then I was devastated.

The story alternates between Lexie, a young girl who leaves her family in the country to move to the big city after she meets a mysterious older man on the road outside her house. Innes Kent becomes her lover and mentor as she works for his magazine. Innes is married, but that doesn't stop them.

Years later we met Ted and Elina. Elina has just gone through a traumatic birth, losing four pints of blood in the process. She has a difficult time caring for the baby, but Ted must go back to work as an editor. He worries about Elina and the baby, and then he begins to have blackouts. The birth of his child has triggered something in him, something he has repressed.

Ted tries to put together what happened in his childhood that could be causing his troubles today. He remembers a lovely woman holding his hand, but it isn't the hand of his mother, who is a cold woman. As Ted tries to put the pieces together, the story lines meet.

O'Farrell is a marvelous story teller, and one passage just flat-out knocked me out. A mother, upon knowing she is drowning and will not see her young son grow thinks,
"She would not see him grow as tall as her then taller. She would not be there when someone first broke his heart or when he first drove a car or when he went out alone into the world or when he saw, for the first time, what he would do, how he would love and with whom and where. She would not be there to knock sand out of his shoes when he came off the beach. She would not see him again."
As a mother, those words just devastated me. It is every mother's nightmare.

I liked the character growth of Lexie, and that surprised me as I didn't like her at first. I also enjoyed that I didn't see where this book would end up, that is unusual for me, and I think that shows the skill of the author.

Rating 4 of 5 stars.

Rainn Wilson & SoulPancake at Barnes & Noble

Rainn Wilson is known by many people as Dwight Schrute from TV's The Office. He is also involved in a really cool website called SoulPancake, where people are encouraged to "Speak your mind. Unload your questions. Figure out what it means to be human."

He and the SoulPancake team, Devon Gundry (who also sang two songs), Golriz Lucina and Shabnam Mogharabi put the website into book form titled (what else?) SoulPancake- Chew on Life's Big Questions. It is a celebration of humanity, art and spirituality, and it was a very joyful party last night.

Wilson spoke for awhile, answered questions, made people laugh, and played the tambourine while Gundry and Andy Grammer sang a rousing version of A Man of Constant Sorrow. I think that many people came to see Dwight Schrute, and Wilson was gracious as he answered questions about the show, even though he came to talk about his other project.

Rainn's dad, Bob Wilson, was there last night, and Rainn said such lovely things about his dad that the audience "awwed" when he gushed about how much he loved his dad.

It was a wonderful event, lasting over an hour, and the joy that these creative people have for life was contagious in that room. I think they made quite a few converts to their philosophy of life. SoulPancake- Chew on Life's Big Questions is a great book to share with family, friends at a party, and especially college students. It will stimulate your mind and get you to think about things like Art & Creativity, God & Religion, Science & Technology (all chapter titles), in a new way.

 (Postscript- Rainn kept talking about his friend David, who was sitting in the back of the room so I couldn't see him. At the end of the program, David walked up to the table, and I saw that David is David Costabile. He was fantastic as a bad cop in season one of TV's Damages. When he walked by me, I told him how fantastic he was in that show. He creeped me out every time he was on screen!)


Andy Grammer has a terrific voice
Rainn, Devon & Andy
SoulPancake team

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nothing beats an evening with Adriana Trigiani

I'm always excited about a new book from Adriana Trigiani. Not only do I know that I will enjoy her writing, but I wait with great anticipation for her book tour dates to be posted so I can plan to hear her talk.

You know that the evening will feature her pointing out her favorite people in the audience: her sister Toni, her hardworking assistant Kelly, her editor Lee, various team members from Harper Collins, and several friends (including a late-arriving Richie, who informed us he was "on the lamb"), cousins ("Hi, Antonia!") and former coworkers ("There's Terri Guaneri who I worked with on The Cosby Show. Please don't bother her- she's important!")

Trigiani says she could introduce most people in the audience, and that is true. She scans the audience looking for people she has met, and she remembers them even if she's only met them briefly. She looked at me and said- "You're the blogger from BEA!"

No other author shows such affection to her fans. She spotted a young man with a slouchy hat sitting in the front row, and said "Jake Gyllenhal- what are you doing here?" He looked out of place, but she knew she must know him. She prodded him until he told her his first name, and she said "You're the writer!" He had been in email communication with Adriana, and even never having met him, she knew him right away.

She pointed at some ladies in front and asked them if they were from New York. When they said yes, she said they she could tell they had that New York attitude- "I'll cut ya".

Then Adriana launches into her talk, which can cover many topics, including:

  • A woman who gave her a jar of Fire & Ice pickles at an event in Vero Beach. They were so good, she put the recipe on her website. http://adrianatrigiani.com/recipes.html
  • Her visit to the beauty parlor, where she saw this woman who looked so sensational, Adriana had to find out her secret. (Her husband left her, and after the initial shock, she realized she was finally free and lost 20 pounds.)
  • "I'm Catholic. I'm Italian. I LOVE a good raffle!"
  • Daughters-in-law NEVER get jewelry left to them. "If they're lucky, they get a cracked platter."
  • A hilarious story illustrating the importance of blood family to Italians, told to her about a woman whose daughter was having surgery. When the surgeon brought papers to be signed by the next of kin, the woman's husband of 42 years, the angry mother said "Hey, I'M her mother. I'm her family, I'll sign the papers. Who is he to us?"
Finally, we got around to the topic of Adriana's new book, Don't Sing at the Table: Life Lessons From My Grandmothers. It's her first non-fiction book, and she spent three years working on this charming book. 

She lovingly tells the story of her two Italian grandmothers. Lucia, called Lucy, came over from Italy with her father, and ended up in Chisholm, Minnesota. Lucy was a seamstress, and her husband Carlo was a shoemaker. They had three children, but Carlo tragically died when he was 39 years old. Lucy raised her children on her own, owned her own business, and never remarried. 

Viola worked in a clothing factory in Pennsylvania when she was fourteen. By the age of sixteen, she was the forelady. She met her husband Michael at the plant, and they married and eventually bought their own factory to manufacture ladies' blouses.

Both women were successful in business, and had an amazing work ethic, which they clearly passed on to their granddaughter Adriana. When asked which grandmother she identified with most, Adriana said Viola, because "she took no prisoners".

But it is Lucy's advice she follows most closely. Lucy told her "Nobody has to see how many times you rip out the hem", which means that no matter how hard you have to work at something to make it perfect, no one has to see how hard you labored at it. 

Both of her grandmothers told her to never retire, and they never did. After Viola sold their factory the year after her husband died, she went back to work at the factory for the new owners.  Viola enjoyed the fact that at the age of 72, she no longer had to pay income taxes. Lucy worked right up until she moved to a nursing home.

The book is not only a love letter to her grandmothers, both fascinating women, but is as Adriana says,  "on a deeper level, a primer on how to live." She distills her grandmothers' advice into different chapters, such as "Security", "Sex and Marriage", "Children" and "Belief".  

Don't Sing at the Table is the perfect book to give to young women just starting out in life. Adriana's grandmothers were remarkable women, and the way they lived their lives is such a wonderful example for women. They worked hard, loved their husbands and their families, and had self-respect. They are the people who made this country great, and they overcame adversity through their sheer will and shining character. 

Being reminded of that during these difficult times is important, and the timing of this book couldn't be better. Read it as a gift to yourself and give copies of it to the women in your life as a gift to them. It will also encourage you to talk to the remarkable women in your life to hear their stories. 

Rating- 4.5 of 5 stars

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Financial Lives of The Poets is emotional, poignant

The Financial Lives of The Poets by Jess Walter
Published by Harper Perennial
Paperback $14.99


I have to admit, a novel titled The Financial Lives of The Poets is not something I would normally rush to read. Why would I care about finance and poets? But since people I respect raved about this book, I gave it a try.

I'm so glad I did! Jess Walter has written a dazzling story of a young suburban family in the throws of the national economic crisis that threatens not only their financial stability but their very existence as a family unit.

Matt left his job as a business writer at a newspaper to follow his dream- a website devoted to financial news, with advice columns written in poetry. Even in the best of times, this sounds like a risky venture. Matt and his wife Lisa take another mortgage on their house to invest in the company, and then the housing market crashes.

Matt goes back to his job at the newspaper, only to be laid off when newspapers begin to lose advertisers and readers. Lisa works at a boring job she hates for little money and expresses her dissatisfaction by buying collectibles that she hopes to resell on Ebay. Now their garage is filled with boxes of junk she is unable to unload.

Their house will soon be in foreclosure, and their children will be forced to leave their lovely Catholic school and go to the dangerous neighborhood public school. Matt's father, who suffers from dementia, has moved in with them after he met a stripper who stole all of his money, and Lisa is contemplating an affair with her old boyfriend. What's a man to do?

After Matt meets up with some young potheads at the 7-11 one night, he becomes enmeshed in their lives. He hangs out with them hoping to forget his troubles. Eventually, as sometimes happens when under the influence of pot, a plan is created that Matt hopes will solve his money problems.

The author writes well for his characters. The disintegrating marriage of Matt and Lisa is sad to watch.
"We're in a perpetual stalemate here; lost. I can see how we got here- after each bad decision, after each failure we quietly logged our blame, our petty resentments; we constructed a case against each other that we never prosecuted. As long as both cases remained unstated, the charges sealed, we had a tacit peace; you don't mention this and I won't mention that, this and that growing and changing and becoming everything, until the only connection between us was this bridge of quiet guilt and recrimination."
While Lisa and Matt fall apart, Matt's relationship with his dad is so touching. Anyone who has someone in their own family with dementia will relate to Matt and his dad, the loving patience Matt shows his father, the loss of a once-proud man's self-reliance.

Fans of Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You should run to get this book. As a woman, I find this glimpse into the male psyche fascinating.  (The cover is even reminiscent of TV's Mad Men opening credits with the falling man.) Matt's poetry is cleverly sprinkled throughout the book, adding an extra dimension for the reader. Walter's look at the economic crisis through the prism of this one family is an emotional, poignant ride.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

Thanks to Erica at Harper Perennial for providing a copy of this book for review