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Friday, April 29, 2011

Molly Jong-Fast Live at Barnes & Noble UES

Molly Jong-Fast drew a standing only crowd at her book signing for The Social Climber's Handbook at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble on April 27th.

Jong-Fast is the daughter of author Erica Jong, who sat beaming in the front row like the proud mama she is. The crowd was made up of many family and friends of Jong-Fast, as evidenced during the Q&A session, where she called on all the questioners by name. At one point, she called on someone and said "Hi- a person I don't know!" Then dejectedly, "Oh, I do know you."

Not only was Erica Jong in attendance, but author (and also a daughter of a literary lion) Susan Cheever asked the first question. Then singer Judy Collins walked in the door. I felt like I was a guest at a very chic Park Ave. party; how I got an invitation, I'm not quite sure.

The novel tells the story of Daisy Greenbaum, an Upper East Side socialite who turns to murder when her financial wizard husband is on the verge of losing his job, and therefore their comfortable lifestyle, following the beginnings of the financial meltdown.

It is a satire, and from what I have read so far, a wickedly funny one. Jong-Fast has a quick, cutting sense of humor, one I was introduced to when I began to follow her on Twitter. She is funny in person too, not just on the page.

When someone's cell phone rang in the front row, she asked if it was her stepfather's, and then warned all of us that if a cell phone rings, "I WILL say your name and talk about you."

The idea for the book came when she and her husband were at a school application meeting for their child that went on for over six hours. It was 2008, an when they went in the Dow was at 8000. When they left six hours later, it was at 7200. This gave Jong-Fast the seed of an idea for her book.

She read a scene from the book inspired by The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of her favorite books. The scene featured Daisy's husband walking their 8 year-old daughter to school and trying to explain to her exactly what it was he did for a living. The audience howled with laughter  of recognition at the description of his friend, a 60 year-old man walking his child from his third marriage to school down Park Ave.

Then she read a scene where Daisy kills someone because, "since she's actually a murderer, so I'll read a part where she murders. Because deep in her core, Daisy was a murderer in the best possible way."

When someone said that she'd done such a convincing job writing Daisy as a murderer, Jong-Fast said that she wrote it "cover up her own crimes." She also said that we'd be surprised at how much crime occurs in the Upper East Side, adding, "but not by me."

Erica Jong asked if Jong-Fast thought that satire could improve the world. She replied "I'd be really shocked if my book brought down the banking system, but if that helped sell books, then yes."

Jong-Fast says that she doesn't think of herself as of the upper class, as her protagonist Daisy is, but more as "the servant class, a journalist. Not a part of the society I satirize, but as an accessory."

It was delight to meet Jong-Fast, she's very down-to-earth, and someone you could enjoying dishing with over a long lunch. I can't wait to finish her book.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My review of Fire on the Horizon, a great book about the Gulf oil spill

Fire on the Horizon, by John Konrad and Tom Shroder, is a fantastic read about the BP oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico. My review from the Citizen newspaper is here:

The Maisie Readalong Concludes with A Lesson in Secrets

Book Club Girl's  Mad For Maisie Readalong concludes with the eighth novel in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, A Lesson in Secrets.

We've followed Maisie from her days as a maid in Lady Rowan Compton's estate, through her schooling and tutelage under the brilliant Dr. Maurice Blanche, her WWI service as a nurse in France, opening up her own private investigations/psychologist office, and now working undercover for the British secret intelligence as a university instructor in the current novel.

Maisie takes on the job working to discover if there are any terrorists at the University. She hesitates at first, but remembers her late mentor Maurice's words to her that she needs to be open to the unexpected. While at the school, the dean is murdered, and Maisie finds herself assisting the police in their investigation as well.

The dean had written a famous children's book about soldiers putting their weapons down and refusing to fight. There were rumors that this book had caused a large mutiny in France during WWI, with British and German soldiers laying down their weapons. This book plays a big part in the mystery, one that is intriguing indeed.

I liked how this novel not only took Maisie out of her comfort zone of work, but forced her to face personal challenges as well. Her friend Sandra lost her husband, and Maisie took Sandra into her home and offered her a job. Sandra uses her position with Maisie to investigate her husband's death. I would like to see Sandra stay on as part of Maisie's office staff.

Maisie worries about her father's health, and his refusal to move in with her at Maurice's home frustrates her. It is ironic that Maisie is so in tuned with other people's secrets and feelings, yet her father is able to hide something big from her.

Billy Beale, her faithful assistant, is stubborn as well. Maisie has offered Billy a downpayment on a new home, one that will change his family's life forever and for the better, but Billy is hesitant to accept. The men in Maisie's life are frustrating her.

And then there is her boyfriend James Compton, son of her benefactor, Lady Rowan. He is supposed to be away on business in Toronto, but Maisie finds out he has been in London. Is their relationship in trouble?

I always learn something of historical interest in these novels, and in this one, we learn that women played a big part in wartime intelligence.  Over 10,000 women worked for the Secret Service in London during the war, reporting troop movements, sabotaging the German enemy, and consorting with the enemy to get information. I will definitely be looking for information on this subject.

The rise of the German Socialist Party, the Nazis, is on the horizon, and we see the beginning of the debate between the Brits who, weary of the lingering WWI problems, do not to wish to get involved in Germany's issues, and those Brits who see the dangers of the Nazi Party and Hitler's rise. I can't wait to see where Winspear  takes this in future books.

I really enjoyed reading the Maisie Dobbs series; I like Maisie as a strong female character, one young ladies can look up to. Not only is Maisie interesting, but the secondary characters are as well, and Winspear introduces many new ones in each book, rather than just relying on the ones we already know.

I've learned much about Britain following WWI, an era I was unfamiliar with. It seems that while the methods of war have changed over the decades, the effects of it on the people who fought it, and those who love them, remain the same.

If you like historical fiction with a strong female protagonist, and cozy mysteries, I highly recommend the Maisie Dobbs series. Thanks to Book Club Girl for hosting this fun, rewarding challenge.

I give A Lesson in Secrets 4 of 5 stars, the same score I give the entire series.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good People on Broadway

Good People, a play with a limited run on Broadway ending May 29th, has not gotten the hype of some of the other shows that recently opened, yet I found it to be the strongest of the plays I have seen recently.

Frances McDormand brilliantly plays Margie, a single mother with a developmentally disabled adult daughter to care for. She works minimum wage jobs in South Boston, and lives in a crummy apartment. For entertainment, she plays bingo with her friend and her landlady.

With no one to care for her daughter, she is frequently late for work, and when her understanding boss (Patrick Carroll)  is forced to fire her, she doesn't know what to do. Her high school friend, played by Becky Ann Baker, suggests that she contact her high school boyfriend who is now a successful doctor. She even suggest that maybe Margie claim that he is the father of her daughter, which Margie rejects.

Margie goes to see Dr. Mike, (Tate Donovan in a fantastic performance) after he does not return her phone calls. She shows up at his office and asks him if he has a job for her. Mike senses her desperation, but he says he has nothing available. He is  uncomfortable at being reminded of where he came from, but
he bristles when Margie suggest the same.

Margie finds out about a party Mike's wife is throwing for him and their home, and she dares Mike to invite her. He reluctantly does so.

Renee Elise Goldsberry plays Mike's younger, African-American wife Kate. It's not easy to shine when you are playing opposite the tremendous McDormand, but Goldsberry is terrific. When Margie shows up at the party after it was cancelled, Kate invites her to stay. That is when the play gets really interesting. The interaction among these three strong actors is fascinating; the scene crackles with tension. Kudos to writer David Lindsay-Abaire for this, and Daniel Sullivan for the tight direction.

Goldsberry, Donovan and McDormand all deserve Tony nominations for this show, and the great Estelle Parsons does her usual wonderful work as the landlady. The themes of race, class, and sacrifice are examined and the ending has a surprising twist, one that will have people debating which side they are on and what other good people would do in the same situation. It is the best new play of the season.

That Championship Season on Broadway

Jason Patric signing autographs after the show

Kiefer Sutherland greeting fans after the show

I'm surrounded by men in my life- my husband, two sons, even our late, great basset hound Malcolm was male- so stories about men and what they think have great appeal to me.

The Broadway revival of Jason Miller's 1972 Pulitzer- Prize winning play, That Championship Season, has five weeks left in its run, and it is a show that really gives insight into the male mind.

Kiefer Sutherland (terrific in his Broadway debut), Chris Noth, Jason Patric, and Jim Gaffigan all play men who twenty years ago won a high school basketball state championship under their gruff coach, brillantly played by Brian Cox.

The play takes place in 1972 in a small town in Pennsylvania. Gaffigan is the affable mayor readying himself for a re-election campaign. Sutherland is his campaign manager, a man who would like it to be his turn to be in the political spotlight. Patric is Sutherland's drunken brother, returning home after wandering the country. Noth plays a variation on his Mr. Big (Sex and the City) and Peter Florrick (The Good Wife) characters as the successful car dealership owner who may not support his teammate in his re-election bid.

At first, the men share good memories and alcohol, but things take a turn, and some ugly truths come out. Patric's drunken brother stumbles around, but he generally is the truth-telling instigator. Patric (son of playright Miller)  does a good job with this role. Noth's character is a bit slimy, and Gaffigan shows off a serious side in his role. He shows good range as the fun-loving glad-hander who turns angry at a betrayal by a friend.

Cox has the showy role of the Coach, a man anyone who has participated in organized sports will recognize. He loves to recall the winning of the big game, even if it may not have happened exactly as he and the others will admit.

It is Sutherland who is a revelation in the show. He is a man who takes care of everyone- his drunken brother, his mean father, his wife and kids- and now it is his time to shine. The anger and resentment builds in him and he explodes in a powerful scene. His performance is the best in a strong cast.

The time is 1972, and there is some language that some will find racist and misogynistic, (the audience groaned at some language) but that was the accepted language at the time as anyone who remembers Archie Bunker can attest. The cast really works well together, and they are believable as men who are approaching middle-age and the reality that their dreams may not come true, while confronting a past that is based on a lie.

The show made me think, and at times brought me to tears. Go see it if just for the strong performances, especially Sutherland's. Following the show, the cast signed autographs, with Sutherland staying the longest and posing for photos; he's a nice guy who's good to his fans.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Korean Deli an American story

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Company 
Hardcover $24

As someone who married a man who owned two fast food restaurants, I really related to Ben Howe's story. He perfectly captures the craziness, the back-breaking work, insanely long hours, the horrible bureaucratic obstacles and yes, the occasional rewards of owning your own small business in America.

Howe tries to balance his work as an editor at the Paris Review, and the contrast between that world of the Upper East Side in NYC and the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Korean deli is located perfectly mirrors the patchwork of life in New York. His vivid portrait of his boss, George Plimpton, is so intriguing. What I know of Plimpton has mostly come from his reports of his own adventures (Paper Lion, etc.), so this look at him from Howe's point of view is fascinating.

Then there is Howe's Korean mother-in-law, Kay. Howe's wife  Gab wanted to buy a deli for her mother to thank her for the sacrifices she made to educate Gab, sending her to college and law school. While WASPy Howe doesn't quite get this, he supports his wife, and they extend their living in his in-law's basement to buy the deli for Kay. Kay and Ben clash immediately while trying to find a deli to buy, and when they do buy one, Ben is way too slow to pick up the nuances of working the cash register. He is relegated to stocking shelves.

The deli is a meeting place for various characters in the neighborhood, some who hang around all day and night. Howe usually worked the late shift, so his customers were the creatures of the night. He grew to tolerate, and respect, these people, even while they exasperated him. One employee, an African-American man named Dwayne, came with the store, and while he was a good employee, always showing up for work, he frequently offended customers of the store with his language. In a book filled with colorful, interesting people, Dwayne is perhaps the most interesting. He knows everyone and everything about the neighborhood, and is a single dad trying to raise his daughters.

Immigrants are the backbone of this nation, and Howe tells Kay and her husband's story with honesty and respect. Where they came from, how hard they worked to get to America and make something of themselves, it is a tribute to the people who work long, hard hours, doing work that many people refuse to do, that explain how many cultures come here and make a success of themselves for their families.

Howe nails the difficulties of owning your own small business- the strain it puts on a marriage, the constant money worries- it's a 24/7 responsibility, much like having a child, which Ben and Gab are also struggling to do. His tales of the deli, what it means to the neighborhood, to his family, and eventually to him, give the reader a real appreciation of small business owners. I loved his story of Gab trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn during a horrible snowstorm, and of keeping the store open during the big blackout.

Howe is a gifted writer, and this book is one I would highly recommend. It's a great American story.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Baby, It's You! Sure To Be A Smash

Last night I had the opportunity to see the new Broadway musical  Baby, It's You! What a show! If you combined Jersey Boys with Memphis, you'd get Baby, It's You. It tells the story of Florence Greenberg, a housewife from Passaic, New Jersey who discovers the Shirelles and founds a record company (or two or three).

I knew nothing of Greenberg, and hopefully this show will make her a household name. She is an early proponent of girl power, albeit she pays a price in her personal life as many driven people do. I read that Bette Midler had hoped to do a TV movie based on Greenberg in the 1990's, but couldn't get the license for some of the early music. What a shame, it would have been a perfect vehicle for her, and more people would know what a contribution Greenberg made to pop music.

Broadway vet Beth Leavel plays Florence, and does an amazing job. (Tony, anyone?) At first I found her Carol-Burnett-as-Eunice-from-Mama's-Family's wig unnerving, but when she makes her transformation from Jersey housewife to New York music executive, I got the point.

Leavel has such a powerful, beautiful singing voice, I wished she had more songs to sing. She sang "The Dark End of the Street" with Allen Louis, Geno Henderson and Christina Sajous, their vocals blending together heavenly. I also enjoyed "Don't Make Me Over" and "Walk On By", songs she sang with Erica Ash (wonderful as Dionne Warwick) and Louis.

But the highlight was "Dedicated to the One I Love", which is for my money one of the best pop songs ever written. When the Shirelles (Sajous, Ash, Kyra Da Costa and Crystal Starr Knighton) sang that song, they gave me chills. The ladies voices were pitch perfect, and the enthusiasm they displayed was contagious. And the speed at which they made costume changes must be a record!

The audience for this show was the most involved I've ever seen at any Broadway show- people singing, humming, dancing in their seats, and squealing with joy as they recognized their favorite songs. At the end of the show, the cast sang "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Shout/Twist and Shout" and the entire audience gleefully joined in the celebration.

Louis looks like Billy Dee Williams in his "Lady Sings the Blues" days, and his character's romance with Leavel and the issues that an interracial couple faced in the early 1960's is a solid storyline in the show.

The costumes are beautiful, they look more vintage than like costumes created for the show. The staging is inventive, and I can see this show having a long national tour and regional theater run following a LONG Broadway run.

The music, the costumes, the acting, the singing (Henderson's "Since I Don't Have You" is a standout)- it calls come together to create an unforgettable night of theater. If you liked Jersey Boys, you will love Baby, It's You!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Mapping of Love and Death

I'm up to the seventh novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, The Mapping of Love & Death, for bookclubgirl's Mad About Maisie Readalong.

There are some dramatic changes in this novel for Maisie. Following the death of her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, Maisie is his heir and now lives very comfortably without any money worries. Having this money enables Maisie to help her assistant Billy and his family move to a more hospitable home, one that will give them a new start after the tragedy of losing their daughter.

She also has a new love in her life, James, the son of her benefactor, Lady Rowan. This is a surprising turn of events, one of the reason I enjoy the Maisie series so; the author constantly surprises the reader with new characters and unexpected relationships- much like life itself. Maisie and James make such a lovely, companionable couple, I'm rooting for them to be happy together.

We also see a new side to Maisie in her interactions with Detective Caldwell. He makes some snide comments about Maisie moving up the ladder because of Lady Rowan and Maurice, and Maisie gives it right back to him. Usually Maisie is more circumspect with her words, but she spars with Caldwell and I found this side of Maisie intriguing.

The character of Khan, a wise man who Maurice introduced Maisie to many years ago, is reintroduced here. He has many words of advice for Maisie, including
"Extremes live within us all. What is given will be taken, what we have is often only of value to us when it is gone."
"Anger is a conduit for wonder, a tool for adventure. But it is also an instrument of power- and like all things, power has two faces."
Maisie's case takes us back to the war once again, as she investigates the death of a American cartographer who fought with Britain in France. We get another valuable history lesson about mapmakers and their contribution to the war effort. I did not realize how valuable their skills would be in war, and it was interesting to read about it.

Seven books down, one more to go in the series so far. I really think that Maisie is such a terrific role model for young ladies, and these books would be wonderful gifts for high school girls.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Monday, April 18, 2011

Caroline Kennedy at Barnes & Noble

April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, Barnes & Noble Union Square hosted Caroline Kennedy, who discussed her book, She Walks in Beauty- A Woman's Journey Through Poems. Poet Sharon Olds, whose two poems Socks and High School Senior are in the anthology, discussed poetry with Ms. Kennedy.

The inspiration for the book came when, for her 50th birthday, three friends gave her poems. Kennedy was clearly touched by the gift, and thought that a collection of poems celebrating all of the different aspects of being a woman would make a great book.

Kennedy spoke of a renewed relevance for poetry. Poems are short and intense, and in today's communication of Twitter (140 characters) and text messages, people have become used to getting information in bite-sized pieces. She said that "poetry can be a way of creating community", and spoke of her work with an after-school poetry club in the New York City Public Schools.

She wanted "a book of poems for middle-aged women, a book that speaks of women's experiences through poems." She said there are many poems about love and solitude, not so many about friendship. Kennedy looked for "poems that turn ordinary moments into extraordinary ones."

Sections of the books include "Falling in Love", "Making Love" (which her children were not thrilled with), "Marriage", "Work" "Beauty, Clothes and Things of the World""Friendship" and "How to Live". Each section has poems that illustrate the chapter title, and features both poets familiar- Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Blake- and those new to the casual poetry reader, like Ellen Hagan, Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton.

Kennedy read W.H. Auden's Leap Before You Look, joking that it had special meaning for her following her ill-fated attempt at senatorial politics a few years ago.

Poet Sharon Olds also spoke of Auden's poem, saying that you could "feel the joy of music in his poem", and how much she liked that the repetition creates expectation and suspense.  She also read her own poem, High School Senior, written from the perspective of a mother whose daughter will soon be leaving the nest for college. It is readily identifiable for those of us moms who have experienced those same feelings.

I enjoyed the evening, although I think it may have been better to have an experienced moderator asking the questions of the women; at times, the program seemed to lack a little focus. It was nice to meet Kennedy, who signed copies of her book. I got to finally tell her that we have something in common- we both gave birth to our first-born children on the same day.

She Walks in Beauty- A Woman's Journey Through Poems is a lovely book, one that would make a wonderful gift for Mother's Day or a birthday. Kennedy's introduction to each chapter is insightful, and I liked the way the chapter headings follow a woman's actual journey through life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Strings Attached

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell
Published by Scholastic
Hardcover $17.99

I haven't read much YA, but this book intrigued me.  Its setting, alternating between Providence and New York City in 1950, is unusual for this type of book. The protagonist, 17 year-old Kit Corrigan, has set off for New York to make it big on Broadway. She is a triplet, but the book is not all about her relationships with her siblings, which would have been the easy way to go.

Kit broke up with her boyfriend back home, Billy, who promptly joined the army with Kit's brother Jamie. Billy's dad Nate is a mob lawyer who finds Kit and offers to set her up if she will reconcile with Billy and keep him informed. He entices her with a job and an apartment, and Kit mistakenly thinks she can handle all this without getting involved in mob business.

The setting of 1950 New York, with the nightclubs, the air raid sirens and the beginnings of the McCarthy era is well done, and is probably not known to many readers. The relationships among the characters, Kit, Jamie and Billy echo the relationships among Kit's father, her aunt and Billy's father. The unraveling of the truth about the past colors the future of the younger generation.

As the story progresses, Kit makes bad decisions that she will eventually pay for, but you can see why she made them. Raised in poverty, she strives to achieve the American dream. She is willing to work hard, but seduced by Nate's offer she ends up in a web from which she cannot escape.

The author creates interesting characters, and I liked Kit's young neighbor and her Aunt Delia best. But the story rests on Kit's shoulders, and she is a character that high school girls will relate to. Her dreams of stardom, her tormented love life, the loneliness of life in a big city, all these make for dramatic story telling.

Strings Attached is well written, with strong characters in a unique setting. It will appeal to high school girls, but as an adult, I enjoyed it as well.

Rating 3.5 of 5 stars

Bottom of the 33rd

Bottom of the 33rd- Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game by Dan Barry
Published by Harper Collins- ISBN 978-0-06-201448-1
Hardcover, $26.99

Major League Baseball just opened up another season, so the perfect book to read this week is Dan Barry's Bottom of the 33rd- Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game.

The game took place on April 18, 1981, Holy Saturday, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Triple A League Pawtucket Red Sox hosted the Rochester Red Wings. The Sox had future superstar Wade Boggs on their team, the Red Wings had the incomparable Cal Ripken Jr. at third base.

But Barry wisely does not put those superstars at the center of his story. What makes this narrative interesting are the not-so-famous people. The Pawtucket owner, Ben Mondor, a wealthy businessman who grew up poor in Pawtucket and made it big, took the team at its lowest point and restored it to its former glory.

He prized loyalty above all, and when Budweiser refused to sell him beer because the former owners owed them money, he remembered that for a long time. Miller sold him beer, and even though Budweiser was the fan favorite, and Budweiser eventually begged him to buy their beer year after year, Mondor stuck with Miller because they were loyal to him.

Mondor put together a small but hardworking front office team, and they turned the bankrupt team into a success by "keeping prices low, making the stadium safe and family-friendly and emphasizing that the Pawtucket players on the field were the Boston Red Sox of tomorrow."

One of the most unforgettable characters is pitcher Win Remmerswaal. He is from the Netherlands, and "doesn't seem to accept basic social customs, such as adherence to the law or value of currency." His car license plate was a "piece of cardboard with a few meaningless numbers scribbled on it." At the end of one road trip, it was discovered that he was missing. He showed up several days later, explaining that he had never seen the nation's capital, so when they had a layover in Washington, he took a few days to sightsee. He is hilarious!

Triple A baseball is the last step before the major league team, so there is an interesting dynamic on those teams. There are the young players destined for future glory, like Boggs and Ripken. There are 'old guys'- the 25 and 26 year-olds- who have kicked around for awhile, and this is their last shot at making the big team. Some of them get called up to play in September on the parent club, only to be sent back to Triple A next spring to try again.

The agony of working to see your dream come true, knowing that there is a short time limit on it, is palpable in this book. First baseman Dave Koza has dragged his wife Ann from Florida to Pawtucket to Wyoming every year in pursuit of his dream. Ann finds some kind of factory work wherever they land, and she goes to every game. She is one of the 19 people who watched all 32 innings of the game, lasting until 4am on Easter morning when it was finally called. They are the heart of this marvelous book, and the end to their story is so moving.

The longest game, which is finally finished two months later in Pawtucket, is told in detail, alternating with the stories of the people who participated in it. I grew up in Auburn, NY, which has a Single A baseball team, and this book really resonated with me. I know my entire family will want to read it.

Barry gives the reader a close-up look at our national pasttime, and what that means for the cities where it is played. He tells the stories of the participants with honesty, humor, and heart. If you liked the movie, Bull Durham, this book is for you. It is a must-read for every baseball fan.

rating 5 of 5 stars