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Friday, May 20, 2011

Love You More by Lisa Gardner

Love You More by Lisa Gardner
Published by Bantam Books ISBN 978-0-553-80725-7
Hardcover $26 356 pages

I'm not big on thrillers or "women in jeopardy" books or movies (sorry, my friends who like Lifetime movies- you know who you are), but Lisa Gardner's book I Love You More had me tearing through the pages to get to the end of a crackling story.

Tessa Leoni, a Massachusetts state trooper is accused of murdering her husband and probably her missing daughter. Boston police detective D.D. Warren and her partner Bobby are assigned the case. D. D. herself may be pregnant, so finding the missing six-year-old girl hits home with her.

By all accounts, Leoni is a devoted mother; why would she kill her daughter? As Warren digs deeper, she finds that the dead man had a big gambling problem. Is this related to his death? Warren discovers that as a teen Leoni had killed a man who she claimed had tried to rape her, did she kill again?

I enjoyed how the author slowly unraveled the mysteries of the story, giving the reader morsels of information a little bit at a time. Warren is certain that Leoni murdered her daughter, and when Leoni offers to take them to where the body is buried, the resulting scene is full of tension, and the story really takes off from there. It is action-packed.

This is a book that is a real page-turner, with an interesting storyline. The two female protagonists are fascinating, especially Leoni. She is one tough cookie, and more than a match for the veteran detective. Their scenes together are very dramatic, and would be great roles for two actresses. (I kept seeing Angelina Jolie in my head as Tessa in the movie version.)

This is the fourth novel featuring D.D. Warren, but it reads just as well as a stand-alone. It did encourage me to go read the previous novels, Live to Tell, Hide, Alone and The Neighbor. If you like mystery/thrillers with terrific female characters, this one is for you.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Faith by Jennifer Haigh
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-075580-5
Hardcover $25.99

When I first read Jennifer Haigh's debut novel, Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/Hemingway award, I was just stunned. She revealed the life of Mr. Kimble by telling the stories of his three wives. I bought many copies of the book and gave them as gifts.

In her two subsequent books, Baker Towers and The Condition, Haigh lived up to the promise of her first novel. When I saw that her latest book, Faith, was publishing in May, I put that at the top of my TBR list, and am I glad I did.

Haigh sets her story in Boston in 2004, shortly after scandal began to rock the Catholic diocese. Many priests had been accused of sexually abusing young people, and the large Catholic community was devastated.

Sheila McGann tells the story of her half-brother, Art Breen, a priest accused by an eight-year-old boy's mother of molesting her son. There is an element of mystery to the novel as Sheila attempts to discover whether the charges are true.

Art's mother, a devout Catholic, believes her son could never do what he is accused of. Sheila's brother Mike, a former cop and father of three young boys, is disgusted, believing that no eight-year-old boy could lie about being molested. Sheila supports Art, but has her doubts.

The title of the book, Faith, is brilliant, for this is a book not about religious faith, but more about faith in your family. Sheila says to Mike,
"Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe." It was a thing I'd always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice.
I love those lines, because faith really is an active thing. You can grow up attending mass every week, participating in the sacraments, but to really have faith, you have to choose to believe in something.

Family is at the heart of this novel, and Sheila's family has its troubles, like most. She says:
We are a family of secrets. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.
I suspect that Sheila's family is not as unlike other families as she believes. I think many people reading this book will relate to the McGann/Breen family.

What I like about Haigh's books is that the characters are so real, you think that you actually know them. Father Art is the most well drawn. He is a lonely man, even as a youth; perhaps being a stepson and stepbrother added to that sense of being different.

As a priest, Art cannot marry or have a family of his own, and this isolation hurts him. His loneliness is palpable, and when he meets the young boy and his drug-addicted mother, he feels a sense of family and belonging.

The least well drawn character is Art's mother. Sheila and Mike do not like their mother, they make many cutting comments about her, but I was never clear exactly what she had done to warrant this dislike. She seems to be very distant from her children, and perhaps the author made her character less clear to her children to emphasize that distance.

Faith is an emotional ride, and it affected me deeply. Days later, I find myself still thinking about Father Art, my heart aching for him. The writing is superb, the characters are so real. It is simply the best book I have read this year. It ranks up with Emma Donoghue's amazing Room in the emotions that I felt when I read it.

I grew up in a Catholic family, and that part of the story resonates with me, but you do not have to be Catholic to appreciate the richness of this story. If you have siblings, you will understand the feelings here.

Rating 5 of 5 stars.

Thanks to Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours for the preview copy. 


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My New American Life by Francine Prose

My New American Life by Francine Prose
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-171376-7
Hardcover, $25.99

Book description from the publisher's website:

Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman living surreptitiously in New York City on an expiring tourist visa, hopes to make a better life for herself in America. When she lands a job as caretaker to Zeke, a rebellious high school senior in suburban New Jersey, it seems that the security, comfort, and happiness of the American dream may finally be within reach. Her new boss, Mister Stanley, an idealistic college professor turned Wall Street executive, assumes that Lula is a destitute refugee of the Balkan wars. He enlists his childhood friend Don Settebello, a hotshot lawyer who prides himself on defending political underdogs, to straighten out Lula's legal situation. In true American fashion, everyone gets what he wants and feels good about it.
But things take a more sinister turn when Lula's Albanian "brothers" show up in a brand-new black Lexus SUV. Hoodie, Leather Jacket, and the Cute One remind her that all Albanians are family, but what they ask of her is no small favor. Lula's new American life suddenly becomes more complicated as she struggles to find her footing as a stranger in a strange new land. Is it possible that her new American life is not so different from her old Albanian one?
Set in the aftermath of 9/11, My New American Life offers a vivid, darkly humorous, bitingly real portrait of a particular moment in history, when a nation's dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies, and fear. Beneath its high comic surface, the novel is a more serious consideration of immigration, of what it was like to live through the Bush-Cheney years, and of what it means to be an American.

My New American Life is whip-smart funny. Satire is not always easy to pull off on the written page , and Prose does it amazingly well.  Her writing, especially of Lula's thoughts, had me cracking up, like this one:
"Lula knew that some Americans cheered every time INS agents raided factories and shoved dark little chicken-packagers into the backs of trucks. She'd seen the guys on Fox News calling for every immigrant except German supermodels and Japanese baseball players to be deported, no questions asked."
Lula wants desperately to grab a hold of the American dream, but her job as a nanny to an 17-year-old young man leaves her bored and stuck in the suburbs with no friends and nothing to do. Prose makes you feel her stifling suffocation. When the wanna-be Sopranos Albanians show up and ask her to "hold on to" a gun for them, Lula does as she's asked, even though she knows this could lead to trouble for her and her employer and her deportation. Yet, strangely, she cannot say no to them; and besides, it's a little excitement.

I usually identify with at least one of the characters in a novel that I read, but I could not identify with anyone in this book, yet that did not stop me from enjoying it. I live in New York City, a city that runs because of its immigrant population, and this book gave me a new perspective on the people who leave their families behind to start a new life elsewhere.

Lula misses her homeland; she cries
"for her once-beautiful homeland now in the hands of toxic dumpers and sex traffickers and money launderers. She cried for missing her country, for not missing it, for having nothing to miss. She cried for the loneliness and uncertainty of her life among strangers who could still change her mind and make her go home."
All of the characters are interesting: sad sacks Mister Stanley and his friend Don (both divorced and lost), young Zeke (I just wanted to hug him and tell him it will be all right), the Albanians (a riot!) and Lula's friend Dunia, who hits the immigrant lottery by finding a rich man to marry.

There are so many fantastic scenes-  at the restaurant where Lula gets a celebratory citizenship dinner with Zeke, his dad, Don and his caustic daughter, Lula's date with Alvo, the college trip- all are sharp and memorable.

Prose successfully combines the comic and the tragic, and throws in some politics, like Don's work with detainees at Guantanemo. Her portrait of American life soon after 9/11 (through Lula's eyes) is vivid and thought-provoking.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Harper for providing a review copy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sutton Foster at Barnes & Noble

Broadway fans know how talented Tony winner Sutton Foster is. She has appeared in Shrek: The Musical, Young Frankenstein, The Drowsy Chaperone and Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which she won the Tony for Best Actress.

She is currently starring in the frequently sold-out revival Anything Goes, playing the iconic role of Reno Sweeney, made famous by such legends as Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone. Once again, she is nominated for a Tony award.

Last year she had a sold-out week of shows at the Cafe Carlyle, and that performance was captured on a CD titled appropriately, An Evening With Sutton Foster Live at the Cafe Carlyle. To promote it, she made an appearance at Barnes & Noble 86th St. store in NYC.

She was scheduled to appear at 5pm, but had to push it back to 6:15, explaining that she was taping an episode of Sesame Street with Elmo. She was very excited to be asked to be on Sesame Street, and honestly, who wouldn't be?

To make it up to the crowd, she did an extended Q&A session.  She  said that Reno Sweeney is her most challenging role yet and that when she was asked to do it, she immediately said yes, then thought, "wait" and was on the fence, but she said that her fear of the role is why she must do it.

She watched lots of '30s movies with Barbara Stanwyck and Betty Hutton to get into the speech patterns of the role. She cited Carol Burnett as someone whose career she admired, and she struck me as very much like Burnett. She's quirky funny, can sing, act- she can do it all, and she has Burnett's down-to-earth charm. She's pretty, but naturally pretty, like the girl-next-door, not glamorous movie-star beautiful. And she has an All-American girl smile that lights up her face.

I saw her last year in 2nd Stage Theatre's drama Trust, where she played a completely different dramatic role as a dominatrix. She told us that she did do some research for that role, and it was crazy. She was very good in the role, proving that she can do just about anything.

When asked what roles she'd like to play, she said Mama Rose from Gypsy, and the Baker's Wife from Into the Woods.  She'd also like to play a Disney princess, and she'd be a terrific one.

Last year was a big year for Foster, playing in Trust, performing at the Carlyle and on tour, and in the Encores five show performance of Anyone Can Whistle. She said that the experience of singing There Won't Be Trumpets with Stephen Sondheim sitting in the front row was unforgettable for her.

She sang two songs from the CD- John Denver's Sunshine On My Shoulders (one of my husband's favorites and a perfect song for the glorious weather we had that day in NYC) and a funny Down With Love. I regret not seeing her last year at the Carlyle, and when she performs there again, I will get tickets. She is one of the most talented performers on Broadway, and she will have a career like the great Bernadette Peters. Her CD is wonderful, perfectly capturing her sense of humor and crystal clear, lovely voice. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good music.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Rob Lowe's Stories I Only Tell My Friends

Me and Rob Lowe at Barnes & Noble 5th Ave. store NYC

I met Rob Lowe at a book signing at Barnes & Noble, and he is very handsome- and very tan. He was engaging to everyone, even the woman in line who was a little stalker-ish and had to be gently nudged away from the table by security.

I told him that my son and his friend became interested in politics thanks to his Sam Seaborn character on TV's The West Wing, but when I lamented that my son is a Republican, Lowe laughed and said "We need them too!"

The book is a fast read, and Lowe drops names likes he's carrying them in overflowing wheelbarrow. He's kind of like a Hollywood Forrest Gump, meeting famous people at every turn, starting when he was eight-years-old and talked his way into Liza Minnelli's dressing room at a theater in his hometown in Ohio. It's a charming story, and foreshadowing of more famous meetings  to come.

His mother moves the family to California, and he ends living near the Sheen family. He and his brother Chad hang out with Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, and become best friends, often going on auditions together. (There's a great picture of Lowe and Martin Sheen in the book from this era.)

The most interesting part of the book recounts Lowe's experience auditioning for and getting a big part in Francis Ford Coppola's movie The Outsiders. The cast of the movie included Estevez, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze. This movie was the stepping stone for most of these actors' careers, but Lowe was devastated when his role was severely diminished in the final cut.

His recollections of these guys and that movie is fascinating, especially for people my age who loved the book and movie. Cruise is driven and focused, Dillon is a laid-back ladies man, and Swayze could do anything and everything (ballet, gymnastics, carpentry, horseback riding, motocross and of course, dancing) superbly.

Fans of The West Wing will be disappointed that he devotes only one small chapter to that time. He left after four years, and it wasn't on the best of terms. It appears that he was isolated from the rest of the cast, most of whom were relatively unknown (except Martin Sheen).

Lowe dated many women (including Demi Moore, Melissa Gilbert and a whirlwind romance with Princess Stephanie of Monaco). One funny anecdote has Robert Wagner saying to Prince Rainer, Cary Grant and Gregory Peck "Ya know, guys, I think that kid's banged every one of our daughters." Funny, RJ, and probably true.

Lowe struggled with fame, with the difficulties of being the It-Boy, then making bad career choices, the sex scandal with an underage girl when he was 22, and eventually alcoholism. When he decided he wanted to get sober, he went to a serious rehab and did it. (He's been sober for over 20 years).

He eventually finds true love with Sheryl, a makeup artist he meets on a movie set. He recounts their courtship and his declaration of his love for his wife of 20 years is so moving.
"And in the most surprising fact of my life, one that at one point I thought I was incapable of feeling and unworthy of achieving: I am still in love with my wife. After almost twenty years of marriage, I look at her face and see her radiant light; I hold her and feel our hard-earned and sometimes difficult history passing between us, enveloping us in a urea of comfort, gratitude, and profound attraction."
Lowe's book reminds me of Cloris Leachman's autobiography, Cloris. She knew and worked with everybody, including her good friend Marlon Brando.  Like Leachman, Lowe presents a snapshot of Hollywood during a certain time period, and he is a good writer. If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, this book will bring back memories.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, May 5, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Sanaa Lathan as Vera Stark

2econdStageTheatre's new production, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is the latest play by Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009 for Ruined.

Ruined was a very heavy drama, and Meet Vera Stark has more of a comedic touch- at least during the first act. Vera is an African- American maid working for actress Gloria Mitchell (the wonderful Stephanie J. Block), once America's little princess, now desperately trying to hold on to her career in the 1930s.

Vera, played by the luminous and brilliant Sanaa Lathan, is an actress too, but parts for her are more difficult to come by. And the only ones available are for maids or slaves. When Gloria auditions for a big Southern epic (ala Gone With the Wind), Vera sees an opportunity for her to play the important role of the maid/best friend to the protagonist, and asks Gloria to help her, which Gloria brushes aside.

It is hinted that Vera and Gloria have a closer relationship than employer-employee, and that is developed more deeply in Act II. Act I is more of screwball comedy from the 1930s or 40s, with gorgeous dresses, the helpless, self-involved star, an African-American friend of Vera's (the versatile, funny and gorgeous Karen Olivo) passing herself off as a Brazilian actress to date the director of the movie, Kimberly Hebert Gregory playing a friend of Vera's who frequently breaks into a version of "Let My People Go", and Vera exaggeratedly acting the part of the subservient Southern maid to get the role in the movie.

I saw the show with an audience filled with high school students, and they enthusiastically reacted, laughing and applauding at the action on the stage. They especially liked Gregory's performance, perhaps because they know women just like her sassy character.

Act II has a much more serious tone. It is present day and three academics discuss Vera Stark's career. They review Vera's last appearance in 1973 on The Ben Donovan Show (think Mike Douglas/Merv Griffin). The show-within-a-play is an intriguing concept, and it works well here.

Vera is much older, and Lathan is remarkable in this Act. She plays a defiant, tough, possibly drunk  Vera in Act II, as opposed to the sunny, lively, younger Vera from Act I.

We see how difficult it was for Vera to find good work after her breakout role, and when Gloria shows up, the contrast between their lives and careers is stark. The only difference between them is their skin color, but that difference made all the difference in Vera's life. We learn more about Gloria and Vera's past connection as the academics debate about what really happened to Vera Stark.

The play is brilliantly written by Nottage, who transitions from comedy to drama to great effect. It has a lot to say about what it meant to be black in America at that time, and the price one pays in deciding whether to or not to be true to oneself.

The roles for women in this play are layered and rich and,  Lathan, Block, Gregory and Olivo make the most of them, with Gregory and Olivo playing multiple, diverse roles. The use of film in the show is well done, as we get to see part of the film, The Belle of New Orleans, at the center of this story.

I would say that By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a nearly-perfect piece of theater. It succeeds on so many levels, and leaves you with much to contemplate as you leave the theater. It runs through May 29th at 2econdStageTheatre on 43rd & 8th Ave. If you love good theater, do not miss this one.

Moonface: A True Romance by Angela Balcita

Moonface: A True Romance by Angela Balcita
Published by Harper Perennial ISBN 978-0-06-153731-8
Trade paperback $13.99

From the publisher's website:
The moving and hilarious true story of a young woman who found romance and laughter in the midst of illness
At the age of eighteen, Angela Balcita had reached a point in her life when her health could not keep up with her optimistic personality. After suffering kidney failure and after her body's rejection of the kidney her brother donated to her, she was in desperate need of a transplant.
Lucky for Angela, she had found the ultimate partner in crime: her boyfriend, Charlie. Although they had known each other for only a short period of time, Charlie offered Angela his kidney. The ensuing story is unforgettable, with readers following Angela and Charlie's journey through preparations for their respective surgeries; the procedures themselves, difficult yet emotionally riveting; the process of recuperation through the relapses; and the eventual healing—both inside and out—that greets this undeniably powerful duo.
Expanded from Angela's unforgettable "Modern Love" column in the New York Times and by turns funny, bittersweet, and heartwarming, Moonface will make readers laugh, cry, and, above all, appreciate the importance of unconditional love.

I remember reading the "Modern Love" column that inspired this terrific book and thinking, "Wow- that is true love!" When I heard that the column was expanded into a book, I had to read it.

I have a very good friend who has also undergone the same transplant. She has had kidney problems for over 20 years, and I didn't truly understand everything that she had gone through until I read Angela's book. 

It's hard to believe that people like Charlie exist: a boyfriend who is willing to give up a kidney for his girlfriend. But what is more surprising is the number of other people that Angela knew who were also willing to donate a kidney. 

Donating a kidney is not like giving your friend your car; it's a major surgical procedure and there can be serious complications.  It renews your faith in humanity, and certainly says something about what a good person Angela is to have so many people willing to sacrifice for her.

At the heart of the book is Charlie and Angela's love story. Charlie's family was understandably wary of this because Charlie was willing to give Angela a kidney, but they did not want to get married.  I loved the scene where Charlie tells his family that he is giving Angela a kidney, they reacted like any family would.

Charlie's recovery from the surgery is difficult, and at a followup doctor visit, the doctor asks him if he would do it again. Charlie says no, he wouldn't, and this devastates Angela. 

Angela decides that she would like to have a baby, and although many doctors tried to discourage her, she finally found one who believed she could do it. Again, Charlie supports her, although he worries about her. 

 Moonface is such an honest book, filled with love and joy, humor and pain. Charlie is almost too good to be true, but he is also human. Angela perseveres, not letting her lifelong illness stop her from going after things she wants. They are kooky, sharing a similar goofy sense of humor that gets them through difficult times. 

I also loved her parents, and can't imagine how hard it was for them to live through this, especially her dad, a doctor who couldn't fix his baby girl. 

Balcita writes a crisp book, filled with emotion and I found her quirky chapter titles like "The Celebrated and Adored Royal Filipino Mind Reader" and 
"The Woman Who Swallows Fire and Exhales Angels" amusing. 

It's a beautifully moving true love story that will touch your heart and make you laugh. It would make a wonderful anniversary gift for a young couple. 

rating 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Harper Perennial for providing a copy of the book.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Grandma's Recipes

Adriana Trigiani's first non-fiction book, Don't Sing at the Table: Life Lessons From My Grandmothers is fabulous, one I gave to several people for Christmas. (If you haven't gotten Mom a Mother's Day gift, this is perfect!)

TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins Publishers are teaming up to offer lunch and a walking tour of Greenwich Village with Adriana Trigiani during BEA (Book Expo of America) and to win, you have to blog about a recipe your grandmother gave you.

I discussed this topic with my husband and we both laughed because, between us we could only remember one recipe each from our respective grandmothers. Apparently culinary skills were not prized in either of our families. (We don't have Italian grandmas- we're Irish, English, Scottish and French/Canadian, maybe that explains it.)

My husband remembers his nana making hotdogs with her famous "Michigan Sauce" on top. Every summer, his grandparents would drive their Airstream trailer up from Florida to upstate New York and spend a week or two with them. Nana had a small kitchen in her trailer, so hotdogs were an easy recipe to make.

The recipe came from Clair and Carl's Restaurant in Plattsburgh, and my husband and his siblings have such fond memories of this tasty lunch special. My husband was thrilled that I made it for him for this blog post, although he said his Nana's tasted sweeter- maybe she added a pinch of cinnamon or sugar to the sauce and didn't tell anyone. I'll try that next time.
Hot dog with Nana's Michigan Sauce

Michigan Sauce for Hot Dogs
1 lb. hamburger (finely ground)
2 tsp. cumin powder
4 shakes of hot sauce
3/4 tsp. garlic powder
8 oz. can tomato sauce
6 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. minced onions
2 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste
Put hamburger in medium pot, add water until meat is covered. Use a masher to blend until fine. Cook over medium heat until meat starts to brown, the add tomato sauce and rest of ingredients. Simmer for one hour on low.

Whenever one of our birthdays rolled around, my Grandma Hubbard always made her famous "Crazy Cake". She lived in a small town about ten minutes away from us, but for some reason we thought we were taking a "big car trip" whenever we went to see her. I can remember how excited I was the first time I got to watch her make the cake, I was mesmerized. She combined the dry ingredients, made three 'holes' in the cake mix (which she let me do), then poured vegetable oil in one hole, vinegar in the second and vanilla in the third. She poured water over it all and mixed well.

I was amazed when a real cake came out of the oven, and she didn't use eggs in the recipe. Sometimes this recipe is called "Depression Cake" because it was popular during the Depression, and my grandma got the recipe from her mother.

When the cake cooled she'd frost it and then put it in her white Tupperware container, and carefully hold it on her lap for the trip to our house, where the lucky child got to make the first cut. The cake is so moist and tasty, you almost don't need frosting.

Crazy Cake
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. white vinegar
2 cups water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine dry ingredients (flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, baking soda) in a mixing bowl. Make three wells in the mix, add oil in the first well, vanilla in the second, vinegar in the third. Beat until smooth. Pour into an ungreased 9x13 pan, bake for 30-40 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Frost with canned frosting or make your own favorite frosting. For this cake, I used my neighbor Barbara's recipe:
8 oz. Cool Whip
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 cup milk
4oz. package of box INSTANT pudding
Mix together sugar, pudding and milk. Fold in Cool Whip. Frost cooled cake.

Writing this post brought back lovely memories of our grandmothers. My husband's grandma passed away last year and mine lives five hours from me, so this was a nice reminder of them so close to Mother's Day.

Happy Mother's Day to all- may your special day be filled with love!