Sunday, January 19, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Published by Flatiron Books ISBN 9781250209764
Hardcover, $26.99, 400 pages

Sometimes when I hear that a book has a lot of buzz around it, I am cautious about reading it, fearing it can't possibly live up to the hype. At last year's Book Expo America, one of the books that was getting a lot of buzz was American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins.

Set in Mexico, it tells the story of Lydia, a bookstore owner married to a journalist, and mother to their eight year-old son Luca. The book opens with five pages that hook and horrify the reader. Lydia's entire family is brutally murdered by a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca, hiding in the shower, are the only survivors.

Lydia knows that she must take Luca and run. Javier, the head of the cartel, will be after them as well now. She doesn't know whom to trust, and therefore cannot trust anyone. She cannot mourn her family or worry about how Luca is feeling- "She doesn't ask if he is okay because from now on that question will carry a weight of painful absurdity."

The story flashes backward so we see how Lydia came to be in this situation. Her family had a good life, she loved her husband, and they were happy. But if you end up in the crosshairs of the drug cartel, you are in danger.

Lydia decides the fastest, safest way to get to the United States border is to hop a train. They meet two teenage sisters, Soledad and Rebeca, who show them how to drop from an overpass onto the top of the train, where they find an entire community of migrants fleeing danger and poverty.

Their journey is long and dangerous. They must hide from the cartel and the police. Javier has tentacles that reach far into Mexico, and there is a bounty on Lydia's head.

There are many people who show the migrants kindness. At one shelter for the migrants, a nun offers Lydia advice and a place to stay for a few days, and warns Lydia to be careful who she talks to. At many points along the way, there are kind people who offer them refuge, food and kindness.

But there are also people who will take advantage. Lydia has a good sum of money with her and she is warned that at some point she will be robbed. Women are particularly vulnerable, and Lydia becomes protective of Soledad and Rebeca during an frightening encounter. The humanity of some people versus the inhumanity of others is a thought-provoking concept here.

Cummins writes a heart-pounding and heartbreaking story. She combines a propulsive thriller with a timely take on an issue that gives the reader a look into people who are forced to flee their homes to save their lives. Their resolve and resourcefulness is amazing.

American Dirt is simply one of the best novels I have read in a long time. Lydia and Luca are unforgettable characters, and you will furiously turn the pages to find out what happens to them. If you only read a few books this year, be sure one of them is American Dirt. I give it my highest recommendation.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday 5ive- January 17, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention during the week. The weather here as everywhere has been crazy- 68 degrees on Sunday to 20 degrees today.

1) I heard such great things about the movie Little Women so I bundled up and walked 15 blocks to go to the nearest theater showing the movie. It was fantastic! The performances, from the Oscar nominated Best Actress Saoirse Ronan to Best Supporting Actress  nominee Florence Pugh (whom I have never seen before and she knocked me out), Timothy Chalamet (wonderful as Laurie) to the veteran actors Laura Dern (Marmee), Meryl Streep (Aunt March), Tracy Letts and Chris Cooper (he'll make you cry as Mr. Lawrence) are all brilliant. Greta Gerwig should have nominated for Best Director, she does a phenomenal job here. Every detail is perfect- the cinematography, the production and set design, the costumes- it is all gorgeous. It takes a skilled director to take the story back and forth in time and not once confuse the audience, and Gerwig does it beautifully using color palettes and hairstyles. If you only see one movie this year, see Little Women.  Take your mom, sister, aunt, daughter, sons, husband, and girlfriends too. (And don't forget the tissues.) Find showtimes here.

2) When I go to the grocery store in NYC, I carry my big, sturdy Costco bag that can hold a lot of groceries, but sometimes I go out and can't carry a bulky bag. My sister-in-law gave me this sweet cloth bag with a book design, and it rolls up small enough to fit in my big wallet that I carry everywhere with me. Today I used it when I stopped at the new Target store after my movie theater trip and it is perfect.
My new bag

3) The New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th birthday this year with a new library card honoring the most checked out book in their history- Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day. I fondly remember my mom reading that book to us as kids, and I loved reading it to my boys too.  (We had a lot of snowy days in central New York.) I also learned from our Book Cellar historian Dorothy that Ezra Keats drew a self-portrait that is hanging in our Webster branch of the NYPL. Keats gave it to a woman who founded the Friends of Webster Library years ago, and they gifted it to the branch. It's hanging right inside the door of the library.
Keats' self portrait

4) While shopping in Agata & Valentina, our local Italian specialty shop, I saw an interesting new item- Black Spaghetti. It's made with squid ink. I've seen it on restaurant menus, but never in a grocery store. I'd like to try it, but I'm not sure someone else would be as adventurous. Has anyone made this?

5) What I'm reading this week- I read Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods, the true story of a young man who one day just left his car by the side of the road and disappeared into the woods of Maine for 27 years. He built a tented domecile, and didn't interact with another human being all that time. He broke into vacation cabins to steal batteries, food, books, and propane tanks, and although he never hurt anyone, he made the people in the area very uneasy as you can imagine. It is an unusual story, made more so by the fact that he lived on someone's property and was so close other people but was not caught for 27 years.  People who like true stories will want to read this one.
The Stranger in the Woods

I'm in the middle of a debut novel, Adequate Yearly Progress, by Roxanna Elden, which is billed as "the Office but set in an urban high school" by The Washington Post book reviewer. The setting is a high school in Texas which has a flashy new superintendent who hires a consultant who turns things upside down with all kinds of "improvements" that have long acronyms of nonsense. The more the teacher characters are developed, the more I'm liking it. I think my teacher friends will relate. I'll have a full review when I'm finished.  It publishes February 11th. 
Adequate Yearly Progress

Stay safe and warm my friends!


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Most Compelling Books of the Last Decade

Every year since I had my Book Report column in the Citizen newspaper, I have written a year-end column called the Most Compelling Books of the Year. Since we have hit the end of a decade, I decided to review those columns and create the Most Compelling Books of the Decade, pulling one book from each of my annual selections, along with their orginal descriptions. These are books that still today evoke such strong feelings in me, I hope they will in you as well. (Click on the book title under the photo for more information.)

2010- Mary Karr's memoir Lit- This is Karr’s third in a series of memoirs (Liar’s Club and Cherry being the first two), and for my money it is the best of the three. It deals with Karr’s life as a wife, mother, literature professor and alcoholic.  She is a poet, and her prose is so beautiful and deeply felt. Her attempts to get and stay sober are touching, but it is her search for religion that really moved me. Some of this book is set in Syracuse as she teaches at Syracuse University, and the local angle is interesting. 

2011- Jennifer Haigh's novel Faith- Jennifer Haigh wrote one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Kimble, a few years ago, and this year her novel Faith made my list. Set in Boston, a sister tells the story of her half-brother, a priest accused of a crime by a woman he befriends. It is a story not just of faith in religion, but faith in your family. Beautifully written, it will make you think. My full review is here.

2012- Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker's WifeAdriana Trigiani has written her most epic novel to date, The Shoemaker’s Wife. It takes us from the Italian Alps in 1907 to New York City and the Metropolitan Opera and ends up in Minnesota, sharing the stories of Ciro and Enza and their lifelong love. It is based on Trigiani’s grandparents, and pays respect to the immigrants who built this country. My full review is here.
The Shoemaker's Wife

2013-  Mary Beth Keane's Fever- Mary Beth Keane’s Fever takes the Irish historical character Typhoid Mary and brings her to vivid life. The characters, the setting, Keane gets all of the details right, and we see how immigrant women, particularly those who were not servile in attitude, were looked upon with suspicion.  My full review is here.

2014- Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves- 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. My full review is here.
We Are Not Ourselves

2015- Jeff Hobbs' The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace- The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace tells of Jeff Hobbs’ quest to learn what happened to his friend from college. Peace was a young black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of hard-working blue-collar worker who sacrificed so her son could go to a good private school and on to college and a drug-dealer who was convicted of murder. Peace was torn between these two worlds and this is an eye-opening book, a must-read for everyone. (My full review here.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

2016- Lisa Fenn's Carry On I didn’t read much non-fiction this year, but two titles in that genre made the list, including the one book I was most moved by: Lisa Fenn’s Carry On. Fenn, a producer at ESPN, was looking for a good documentary subject when her father told her about two high school wrestlers — one was blind, the other lost both legs in an accident, and both lived in poverty. Fenn becomes involved in trying to help these young men make better lives for themselves. It restores your faith in humanity and helps you to understand the world better. My full review is here.
Carry On

2017- Ayobami Adebayo's  Stay With Me- The best book I read this year is Stay With Me a debut novel by Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo. It tells the story of a young married couple in Nigeria who are having trouble conceiving a baby. When the husband’s family insists on bringing in a second wife, it begins a downward spiral. I cried throughout this stunning novel, and when someone asks me what to read, Stay With Me is it.  My full review is here.
Stay With Me

2018- Tayari Jones' An American Marriage- And finally, the book that everyone from Oprah to Michelle Obama has been talking about: Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. It’s the story of Celestial and Roy, married for a short time when Roy is falsely imprisoned. It’s about loyalty, love and faithfulness set against the subject of mass incarceration. It’s better than everyone says it is, a true American story. My full review is here.
An American Marriage

2019- Lisa Grunwald's Time After Time- I’m not usually drawn to books with a time travel feature, but Lisa Grunwald’s Time After Time utterly captivated me. Set in 1937, a young woman named Nora returns every year on the same day to the place where she was killed in a train accident at Grand Central Station in 1925. When she meets Joe, a railman, they fall in love, but the fact that she disappears complicates things. It is a love letter to Grand Central Station, and a love story for the ages. It asks the question, what would you sacrifice for love? My full review is here.
Time After Time

Monday, January 13, 2020

When Life Gives You Pears by Jeannie Gaffigan

When Life Gives You Pears by Jeannie Gaffigan
Published by Grand Central ISBN 9781538751046
Hardcover, $28, 303 pages

If you're familiar with comedian Jim Gaffigan, you know from his standup routines that he has five children and an amazing wife Jeannie. In addition to parenting their five children Jim and Jeannie write together- his standup comedy specials and books, and they created and produced his sitcom, The Jim Gaffigan Show, based on their family life, that ran for two seasons on TV Land. (You can watch it here- it's fantastic.)

In 2017, while Jeannie had coralled the children to their pediatrician for a visit, the doctor noticed that Jeannie has troubling hearing out of one ear and recommended that she see an ENT doctor. What the doctor found was that Jeannie had a brain tumor the size of a pear.

Jeannie describes what happened next in her memoir When Life Gives You Pears- The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People. She takes the reader along on her medical journey, through the fears and pain, and yes, because she sees everything though the lens of comedy, the laughter too.

Jeannie Gaffigan is a woman of strong Catholic faith, and she relied on that to help get her through this frightening event. Being the mother of five young children and living in New York City, she is also an extremely organized woman. (Just trying to get the children to their various schools located in all the different corners of Manhattan is a Herculean task.)

And even though the Gaffigans were able to find and afford the best doctors, things can go wrong. After a successful surgery to remove the tumor, Jeannie aspirated and got life-threatening pneumonia in both lungs.

Jeannie's road to recovery would be long and difficult. She and Jim had to rely on neighbors, family, and friends to help care for the children, and for Jeannie when she came home. She takes us through the various nurses, doctors and therapists who helped her get better to get home to her family.

A Shift Schedule was created so that Jeannie wouldn't be alone in the hospital. Her mom flew in to stay with the children. Her many siblings left their own families and jobs to come help out. As the oldest child of nine, Jeannie helped raise some of her siblings and they came to help her in her time of need becasue that's what families do.

I highly recommend When Life Gives You Pears. Jeannie Gaffigan is a terrific writer; her organizational skills, her humor, and her humanity shine through the pages. Most of us will go through some kind of medical episode either ourselves or with someone we love, and we'll be able to relate to Jeannie's journey. I put this one on my annual list of the Most Compelling Books I Read in 2019 (and I read nearly 100), and you should read it in 2020.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Most Compelling Books of 2019

Reprinted from

The end of the year means a time of reflection, and for me that means reviewing all of the books that I read and compiling my list of the Most Compelling Books I Read in 2019. They are books that made me think of them long after I finished them, books that affected me deeply. (Click on the title under the book cover for more information.)

I’m not usually drawn to books with a time travel feature, but Lisa Grunwald’s Time After Time utterly captivated me. Set in 1937, a young woman named Nora returns every year on the same day to the place where she was killed in a train accident at Grand Central Station in 1925. When she meets Joe, a railman, they fall in love, but the fact that she disappears complicates things. It is a love letter to Grand Central Station, and a love story for the ages. It asks the question, what would you sacrifice for love? 
Time After Time

Cara Wall's debut novel, The Dearly Beloved tells the story of two young couples. Both husbands are ministers, and share a pastoral appointment to a Greenwich Village church in New York City in the 1960s. One man feels his calling is to support social justice and he is married to a traditional pastor’s wife, while the other man prefers to tend to his own flock, and is married to a woman who has little use for religion. It’s a deeply moving portrait of faith, friendship and marriage. 
The Dearly Beloved

Mary Beth Keane’s third novel, Ask Again, Yes  also tells the story of two intertwined families. Two Irish NYPD officers move their families to a small town in upstate New York. The son of one and the daughter of the other grow close until a tragedy tears the families apart. It follows the families through the years, and it talks of family, love and forgiveness, and the writing is gorgeous. 
Ask Again, Yes

In another story about family and forgiveness, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House brilliantly tells the story of a brother and sister who lose their mother when she deserts the family, and when their father dies, their stepmother banishes them from the only home they have known. The sibling relationship is moving. 
The Dutch House

Another family drama is J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, about two sisters, one of whom inherits their’s father’s land and becomes a hugely successful beer maker, while the other struggles financially. The granddaughter of the less successful sister discovers a talent as a craft beer maker, can it bring the sisters together?
The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Laura Lippman takes us back to 1960s Baltimore in her mystery, Lady in the Lake about a housewife who leaves her family and becomes a reporter for a newspaper. She wants to find out the truth about why a young black woman was murdered and no one seems to care. It’s Lippman’s best book yet. 
Lady in the Lake

Lisa See takes us to world many are unfamiliar with in The Island of Sea Women. On the island of Jeju in South Korea, the women are the breadwinners, diving for fish to sell. Two young girls become friends and See tells their story over the span of their lives. It begins during the Japanese occupation of Korea, through the Korean War, up til 2008. It is harrowing and heartbreaking. 
The Island of Sea Women

Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016, but I read it this year. In this masterpiece of writing, Towles creates a character of a man under house arrest at a luxury hotel in Moscow for a transgression against the state. He lives his entire existence within the walls of this hotel, and although it should feel small, it feels so big.
A Gentleman in Moscow

A lighter book is Linda Holmes’ Evvie Drake Starts Over about a young widow in small town Maine who takes in a boarder- a major league baseball player who has lost his mojo. It’s a sweet, tender story, and watching their relationship grow is so lovely. 
Evvie Drake Starts Over

I have two nonfiction titles on my list. The first is actress Kate Mulgrew’s How to Forget about the life story of her parents- how they met, fell in love, raised a family and eventually became ill. Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and her father had cancer. It’s a realistic look at family, beautiful written. 
How to Forget

Jeannie Gaffigan, mother of five young children married to comedian Jim Gaffigan, finds that she has a brain tumor in When Life Gives You Pears. Her story is scary, and yet she manages to find the humor in her situation. 
When Life Gives You Pears

I hope you read some great books in 2019 and will read many more in 2020.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Friday 5ive- January 10, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention during the week. It's back to NYC and work for us this week, so it's been all about catching up- with mail, bills, taking down our Christmas tree and decorations- you know, the fun stuff.

1) Last year, our family all got Peleton bikes- between our family and friends, we have nine bikes! It's fun to ride together and it keeps everyone on their toes (if they are out of the saddle, as it's called.) This year, everyone got Nixplay digital photo frames. Years ago we had a digital photo frame that you had to put a memory card in. The new technology uses WiFi, and the great feature is that you can instantly send a photo to other people's Nixplay. It's fun to see a photo pop up from a family member, and we get so much enjoyment from watching ours and remembering all the good times. We got my mom one for Christmas and I had a blast loading up family photos- it's so easy too, just click on your desired photo on your Iphone and the option to send it to the Nixplay app pops right up. Our extended family now has ten of them. You can find more information at their website here.
A Nixplay photo from our son's wedding

2) A new year means setting new goals, and readers are big on doing that. TaviaReads (the host of the BookClubGirl podcast) on Instagram posted this graphic where people can share their #TBR2020 (To Be Read) goals, and mine is below. So far I have read 5 books, including the first Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend. I'm off to a good start, I'll keep you posted on my progress. You can go here to get your copy of it on Instagram, just follow the instructions.

3) The royal family of Great Britain is in the news this week, so I guess we may have been prescient when we created a royal family display at the Book Cellar two weeks ago. (Thanks to the people who donated the three beautiful royal family photo books.) Now I have to catch up on The Crown on Netflix, I'm only in the middle of season two.

4) My husband and I are big fans of CBS' Bob (Hearts) Abishola. It's a funny sitcom about a 50 year-old man who owns a family-run compression sock business. When he has a heart attack, his nurse is a younger Nigerian woman, Abishola. Bob (played by Billy Gardell from Mike & Molly) is smitten with Abishola (played by Folake Olowofoyeku, with a fabulous sense of timing and deadpan humor), and she likes him too. Their romance is sweet, and the supporting characters are wonderful, including the amazing Christine Ebersole as Bob's mother, a woman who speaks her mind. In trying times, it's good to have a little lightness. Give it a try, it's on Mondays. 

5) I finished two books this week- Matt Norman's Last Couple Standing, about a group of eight friends from college, who all paired up and married. Now years later, three of the couples are divorced, and Jessica and Mitch are the last couple standing. They fear for their marriage and decide that the best way to avoid divorce is to have sex with other people- with strict rules. You can imagine it doesn't work out quite the way they hoped. I liked Norman's novel, Domestic Violets, and had high hopes for this one that he more than lived up to. It publishes in March, I'll post a full review then. 

I also finished the first book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend, the first of four books about a lifelong friendship between two women- Lila and Elena, in Naples, Italy. Everyone I know has read this series, so I thought I'd better catch up. It took me along time to get into this book, but about 100 pages in and I was hooked. The characters are indelible and the writing is superb. I hope to finish all four this year. (It's also an HBO series.)

One of the most highly promoted books at the Book Expo this past May was Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt, about a woman who has to leave her native Mexico for the United States with her young son after her family is killed by a drug cartel. Stephen King blurbed that "I defy anyone to read the first seven pages and not finish it" and he nailed it. The first chapter is so harrowing, and 100 pages in and it is heart-pounding and heartbreaking. This book lives up to the hype so far, I can't wait to finish it. It publishes January 21.

Have a good week, I hope your 2020 is off to a great start.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Friday 5ive- The First Friday of 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly (sort of) blog post where I share five things that caught my attention this week. On this first Friday of 2020, we are in Longboat Key, Florida for a much-needed vacation after the craziness of the holiday season. It seems we just run, run, run from Thanksgiving to Christmas, so it's good to relax in the sun.

1) We started our vacation by visiting a new-to-us restaurant in Sarasota- Caraguilos Italian American in downtown Sarasota. It's a casual Italian, family-owned restaurant and we loved it! The food was fantastic, we had a great bottle of wine, and my dish of Fazoletti & Short Rib Ragu was amazing. The short rib was so tender, and the carrots and mushrooms were cooked to perfection. I can see why it s one of their most popular dishes on the menu. Our server Julie was top-notch, and one of the owners, Rob Caraguilo, came over and we had a nice chat. We'll definitely be coming back for the Buy One Pizza, Get a Second for 31cents night on Tuesdays during the off-season.
Fazoletti & Short Rib Ragu

2) We made a quick stop at the University Mall and saw this Lamborghini at the valet parking- with a baby seat in the passenger seat. That made us laugh.

3) When we were in Italy, we ordered a ceramic table from a craftsman for our lanai in Florida and we finally got to use it this time. It's so cheery and bright and reminds of our fabulous trip to Ravello.

4) We also caught up on some entertainment- we went to an actual movie theater and saw Richard Jewell, which was really good. The performances by Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell were fantastic. Richard Jewell is based on the true story of a security guard at the Atlanta Olympics in 1986 who saves many people when a bomb goes off, only to find himself the target of the FBI investigation. 
We also watched Chernobyl on HBO, a miniseries based on the nuclear explosion there in 1986 and the coverup by the Russian government. It's a gripping drama.  

To continue with our theme of based on true events, we watched The Two Popes on Netflix. Jonathan Pryce is outstanding as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins is equally terrific as Pope Benedict. You get a real sense of both of these men, I highly recommend it. Both men are talked about as Oscar contenders for their performances. 

5) I got a lot of reading in this week. Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen Whites's third collaboration, All The Ways We Said Goodbye  (which publishes January 14th) is their best one yet. With three times settings- WWI, WWII and 1964, they seamlessly tell the story of three women and how they are connected through the years and what secrets are revealed through their connection to the Ritz Hotel in Paris. I love that the story contains characters from their two previous collaborations- The Forgotten Room and The Glass Ocean. A complete review will follow soon.

Kiley Reid's debut novel Such a Fun Age is Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine Book Club pick and it's a great choice. It begins with a young black woman who takes the young white girl she babysits for to a grocery store late at night and is accused by a security guard of kidnapping the child. It's a thought-provoking book about race and privilege and class and it's very good. 
Since I went to Italy over the summer, Alexander McCall Smith's My Italian Bulldozer, about a food and wine writer who travels to Tuscany after his girlfriend leaves him, was a good read for me. It's a lovely book and if you have ever visited Tuscany, you'll love it. 

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that 2020 holds great things in store for you.