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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Last Letter From Your Lover by JoJo Moyes

The Last Letter From Your Lover by JoJo Moyes
Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking ISBN 9780670022809
Hardcover $26.95

I'm going to be honest and say that until I finished this novel, I wasn't sure I was going to like it. The Last  Letter From Your Lover by JoJo Moyes is the kind of book that you think, OK, this book is all right, and since I read it everyday on my Kindle on the treadmill, I just stuck with it.

I'm glad I did, because the manner in which Moyes ties everything together in the end is so rewarding and there is one moment that is so jawdropping, I almost fell off the treadmill; I did not see that one coming. (And I like to think that I have read so many novels, there is not much that could surprise me.)

Moyes begins her story in London in 1964, where Jennifer is in a hospital recovering from a horrible car accident. She has no memory of her life and doesn't know her own husband. When her memory doesn't return, she lives in a kind of nowhere-land, only knowing what her husband and friends tell her about her life.

Until the day she finds a love letter to her from a man named B. Apparently she was in love with him, and they were planning to run away together. She has no memory of him or this letter, but she feels something inside that tells her it is true.

This story is intercut with Ellie, a young writer for a London newspaper, unhappily involved with a married man. She is on the verge of losing her job when she finds B's love letter to Jennifer and believes that there is a story there.

Even though almost 50 years has passed, Ellie tries to track down Jennifer and B, and her hope is that they have been together all this time, thereby proving that true love is possible.

There are so many writers who use the conceit of two different stories in two different times, sometimes it can be, "oh, no, not again", but Moyes uses it to tie her novel together in a meaningful way that serves the story well.

B and Jennifer's love story is star-crossed to say the least, and the mystery of will they get together or not propels the plot forward, and I couldn't wait to find out the answer.

The characters are well-rounded, the writing seductive and the style of dress and copious drinking from 1964 is very Mad Men-like and trendy now. Moyes took awhile to entrance me with her love story, but when the book ended, I wanted to stand up and applaud. Well done, indeed!

rating 4.5 of 5

Everything We Ever Wanted by Sara Shepard

Everything We Ever Wanted by Sara Shepard
Published by Harper Collins Paperbacks ISBN 978-0062080066
Trade paperback, $14.99

Reading this insightful novel by Sara Shepard made me uncomfortable at times. The self-destructive behavior of some of her characters may hit a little close to home for some readers, and I think that many readers may recognize themselves in some of the characters.

Sylvie is a wealthy recent widow, and mother to two grown sons: Charles, her birth son and Scott, adopted when he just a few years old. Charles always felt that he disappointed his father, that he wasn't the son his father wanted. Scott is an angry, sullen young man whom everyone feels they have to tiptoe around lest they set him off. Charles recently married Joanna, a young woman from a different side of town, whose troubled mother is always visiting the ER complaining of various illnesses.

Sylvie's grandfather ran a local boarding school for children from wealthy families. Sylvie adored her grandfather, even living in his home and serving on the board of the school. A scandal at the school involves Scott, who works as a wrestling coach.

I found the fact that no one in Sylvie's family ever really communicated honestly with each other led to bad decisions, or worse, no decisions at all. I wanted to shake them all out of their stasis, yet at the same time, understood their reluctance to face their problems head on. It is a part of human nature we can all relate to.

Shepard's characters are authentic and heartbreaking. She really gets into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a newlywed, a mom, a widow, a son. The title of the book refers to what happens when you think you have everything you ever wanted: Joanna has Charles, whom she has dreamed of meeting since she was a young girl, Sylvie has her work at the school and her good, respected family name; Scott grew up in an intact, wealthy family with every monetary advantage; Charles has a lovely wife and a brand new house. But once you have everything you want, you may realize that it may not  be everything you hoped it to be.

This is a novel that will make you squirm a little bit, and maybe even encourage you to be a little more introspective about your own life.

rating 4 of 5

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 9780061988349
Hardcover $26.99

I don't read a lot of WWII history books, but when I heard that Lost in Shangri-La: The True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff featured a WAC from Owego, I became intrigued.

I grew up near Owego in central New York, and my dad has older sisters who served as WACs during the war. I always found that interesting, and so dived right into this incredible story.

On May 13, 1945, a group of 24 American servicemen and WACs went on a sightseeing mission in New Guinea. They wanted to see this valley that "time forgot", and hoped to see the rumored "race of giants" tribesmen that they had been told existed there.

When the plane crashed, only three survived- John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash, Kenneth Decker, who was badly burned and injured, and Margaret Hastings, who also was badly burned.

The three managed to make it to a tribal village, and instead of giants, found a village filled with people who lived in a long-ago time. They had stone tools, wore gourds and skirts made of sticks, and had never seen a white person before.

The book recounts the horrifying crash and the efforts of a group of paratroopers who parachuted in to try and rescue the survivors, and even more difficult, figure out how to get everyone out of a valley where no plane could land.

Zuckoff had lots of primary source material, including the journals kept by Hastings, who caused quite a stir of interest from the tribesmen, and Captain C. Earl Walter, the man in charge of the paratroopers. They told their amazing story of the day-to-day life in the valley, working and befriending the tribespeople, and planning a way to get out.

Unbelievably, a documentary filmaker also parachuted into the valley to document the effort to rescue the survivors. He is quite a character himself, and the fact that he was allowed to do this sounds like something out of the TV show MASH, yet it happened.

Zuckoff's story is filled with photos of the survivors, paratroopers and tribesmen. The writing is superb, and the tension is palpable on the page as the survivors meet the tribesmen and try to communicate with them.

There is also humor, as when the daily supply plane keeps dropping cases of Kotex for Hastings, but not one extra pair of panties that she had requested, a typical bureaucratic bungle.

As I was looking at a photo of the servicemen and the tribesmen all working together to push a glider into position, I was struck with a thought: I think that everyone in Congress and the White House should read this book.

How is it that two disparate groups of people who do not speak the same language and have little in common were able to come together to work towards a common goal, yet the people we have elected and paid to work for the American people to solve the major problems that face us all seem unwilling to work together?

I can't believe that this story hasn't been made into a movie yet; it is made for the cinema (or maybe an opera?). I enjoyed the epilogue, where Zukoff follows up on the lives we have gotten to know, and he uses extensive endnotes to document each chapter. Zuckoff's website  has video and photos from the mission.

World War II history buffs will be thrilled with Lost In Shangri-La, as will readers who just enjoy a crackerjack true story, filled with interesting people in an amazing situation. It's better than any fictional thriller you could read.

rating 4 of 5

Recipes for Life: My Memories by Linda Evans

Recipes for Life: My Memories by Linda Evans
Published by Vanguard Press, ISBN 978-1593156430
Hardcover, $24.99
Publication date: October 11, 2011

Hollywood memoirs are a dime a dozen, some salacious, some introspective. Linda Evans, who has been on the radar since her days as ingenue Audra Barkley on TV's The Big Valley in the 1960's, has written a unique memoir titled Recipes for Life: My Memories, that incorporates her love of cooking with her tales of living and working in Hollywood.

I was a big fan of The Big Valley and later Dynasty, which was a monster hit in the 1980s, and always thought that Evans was not only beautiful but also talented. This delightful book has fifty recipes interspersed throughout the book, along with many photos and memories.

She begins the book with her childhood, and includes a fantastic photo of her parents who were professional ballroom dancers in the early 1940s. When times were tough, her mother made Hot Dog Stew, the first recipe in the book. (It's actually two recipes, as she shares her version and her sister's version.)

Evans' memories of her co-star Barbara Stanwyck enthralled me, as I am a fan. Stanwyck was a big star, and she gave much advice to the young Evans during their Big Valley days, in her inimitable way, as only she could do. Evans shares a recipe she created called Missy's Hobo Fillet, based on Chasen's Hobo Steak, a Stanwyck favorite. I'm definitely going to try this one.

John Derek was Evans' first big love, and she was devastated when he left her for 15 year-old Mary Cathleen Collins, soon to be known to the world as Bo Derek. Evans had many romances after that, and they are recounted here with stories and photos, along with recipes from parties she hosted and attended. There are many recipes from friends; whenever she ate something she liked, Evans always asked for the recipes, including three from John Wayne himself.

She shares memories of famous friends and colleagues, like Steve McQueen, Richard Burton, and a long time friendship with David Janssen of TV's The Fugitive, along with wonderful spontaneous photos of them at parties.

Evans' made a lifelong friend, Bunky, who eventually became her assistant and traveled with her on jobs around the world. Bunky is quite a character, and brought out the silly side in the usually reticent Evans.

One of the unique things that I remember about Evans is her friendship with John Derek's ex-wives. Ursula Andress, Bo Derek, first wife Pati and her daughter Sean, and Evans all became good friends, and spent a lot of time together, even celebrating his birthday all together.

The Dynasty days are covered, and Evans and screen hubby John Forsythe became good friends. Evans spent a lot of time with John and his wife, dining and vacationing together. She does address the Rock Hudson issue. He was guesting on Dynasty as a love interest for Evans, and was reticent to kiss her in a big scene. Soon she found out it was because he had AIDS. Reading her recollection of the story illuminates the feelings of that not-so-long-ago era.

This is a terrific way to write a memoir; Evans loves to cook (she even finished first on Hell's Kitchen, a London TV cooking competition show) and so wrapping her memories around recipes and fabulous  photos is a natural.  She shares her own recipes, and recipes of famous chefs like Julia Child and Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, and many of them sound mouthwateringly delicious. The book is so beautiful, I will have to take care when using it in the kitchen; I don't want to get anything on the pages!

Recipes for Life is a great gift for anyone who loves Linda Evans, as well as anyone who enjoys cooking. Some of the recipes are definitely challenging, but there are some simpler ones in there as well. It reminds me of Paula Deen's autobiography from a few years back- a fascinating life remembered in recipes.

rating 4 of 5

Monday, September 19, 2011

Playdate by Thelma Adams

Playdate by Thelma Adams
Published by Thomas Dunne Books ISBN 978-0-312-65666-9
Hardcover $23.99
Since I moved to New York City a few years ago, I have read a lot of fiction set there. So when an opportunity to review a book set in San Diego arose, a city I visited a few years ago and loved, I was happy to do so.

Playdate by Thelma Adams, who lives in upstate New York and is the film critic for US Weekly magazine, tells the story of Lance, Darlene and their ten-year-old daughter Belle. They have just moved to Encinitas from Barstow because Darlene is opening a  restaurant with a new partner, Alex, who lives in their new neighborhood.

Lance gave up his job as a TV weatherman in Barstow, and now he takes care of Belle and runs their new household. Darlene is spending a great deal of time with the demanding Alex, who has a plan to turn Darlene's Diner into a chain of restaurants like Marie Callender.

Belle is not happy with the move. In Barstow she had friends and spent time out in the great outdoors. Encinitas is the "land of playdates, where every encounter is staged and scheduled". There are mean girls, led by Jade, who make her life very difficult. Jade and her friends even make fun of Lance because he is a stay-at-home dad and he runs the Girl Scout cookie drive.

Lance is happy spending more time with Belle; they have a very close relationship that feels authentic. But his marriage to Darlene is suffering. She is all about work, and while Lance is home all day, he has strayed into a series of "playdates" with Wren, his neighbor and Alex's wife.

The best part of the book is Lance and Belle's relationship. They are a loving father and daughter, and these two characters are the most well drawn of all. I can't say the same of Darlene; I felt like I didn't know her as well, maybe because the story centers more on Lance and Belle. I didn't really understand her very well at all.

The only secondary character that had much dimension to her was Wren's nanny Julia, who has the hots for Lance. Julia has a hard edge to her, but at least she was interesting. You could really feel Lance's discomfort at Julia's aggressive attempts at seduction.

I wouldn't give Playdates my highest recommendation, but it was worth reading for the warm, loving father-daughter relationship between Lance and Belle. It's not one you see very often.

rating 3 of 5

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck

I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN 978-082119919
Hardcover, $24

Lily Tuck's I Married You For Happiness is a quiet, lovely look at the marriage of Nina and Phillip after Phillip dies unexpectedly. The writing is sparse, beautiful, sad and packs such a punch. The hardest parts to read are when Nina puts her hand in her husband's coat pocket after he dies and pulls out bills, a to-do list, tickets- all the stuff that accumulates with life, and when Nina realizes the little things that will change. Who will open her jewelry safe? Now she can throw away the rowing machine in the basement. No one will care if she brings the bottle of wine in the bedroom. Those little things just pierced my heart.

It is written in Nina's stream of consciousness, her memories coming out in dribs and drabs. The day their daughter was born and Phillip was stranded in Miami and missed the birth. Secrets about an expensive purse purchased, infidelity, an abortion, that he will now never know. She'll never know the entire truth about the girl killed in Phillip's car when he was in college.

Phillip was a mathematician and Nina an aspiring artist, two people who come from different mindsets, yet they made a life together in spite of their differences. They met in Paris and vacationed in France every year. You will get more from this novel if you read French, as both characters speak it occasionally. Phillip references mathematical theories that would more interesting to me if I understood them, but Nina doesn't either.

I think that anyone who has been married for many years will read this remembrance of a marriage and recognize themselves in Nina and Phillip. And one line that keeps coming back to me is "time is what prevents everything from happening at once."

Although this is a slim book, it will stay with me for a long while.

This is the second book I have read recently from Atlantic Monthly Press, the first being Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, and I think that I will definitely have to look deeper at their catalog; they have great literary fiction that require the reader to think.

rating 4 of 5

Jackie Collins at Barnes & Noble

Jackie Collins writes the perfect beach read book, and fans of her Lucky Santangelo series will be so happy that her latest book, Goddess of Vengeance, is about Lucky once again.

Collins made a signing appearance at Barnes & Noble 86th St. store in NYC on September 13th. There was quite a diverse crowd there- young and old, gay and straight, men and women- Ms. Collins has some very faithful fans. And those fans know their Lucky; I overheard more than a few conversations with people referencing many characters and plotlines from previous Lucky books.

I was surprised to see that Ms. Collins didn't have an entourage with her; she has written over two dozen bestsellers, but all she had was an assistant and her editor. She lives in Hollywood, yet she was very down-to-earth (although her jewelry looked stunning and expensive). I liked how she related so easily to her fans.

When she announced that she was working on a YA (young adult) book about Lucky, the crowd roared their approval. She will have to leave out her trademark steamy sex scenes in the YA book, though.

Collins read from her new book, a married sex scene between Lucky and husband Lennie. (I have always said that if only husbands would give their wives Jackie Collins books, everyone would be happy.) She wanted to read the elevator scene, but said "it would be too much, it would get you too turned on!", to which everyone laughed. She also mentioned the elevator scene to Matt Lauer on the Today Show, so I'm going to have to look for that in the book.

After the reading, she turned to Q&A, asking "who will ask the first question, will it be provocative?" She answered questions about writing to soul music, she likes Usher and Drake, and likes to use Itunes to find new music.

She spoke about her writing process; she writes in longhand, and it takes her nine months to write a book. She says that she never knows what her characters are going to do, that they take her over. Her latest book features a despicable man, born of an American showgirl mother and Middle Eastern king. She read a New York Times story about a woman who was buried up to her neck and stoned for adultery, and that is where this is where the character came from.

She says that "every woman she meets wants to marry Bobby", Lucky's handsome son, and they all  "want to be Lucky", whom she sees as Angelina Jolie.

One woman asked when Ms. Collins' next book was coming out, because she likes to stretch out reading each book until the next one comes out so she always has a Jackie Collins book to read. Collins responded "I'm writing as fast as I can!"

The next book is titled Power Trip, about a Russian millionaire and his supermodel girlfriend. They invite five couples onto their yacht, and of course the characters are all familiar to pop culture fans. A couple like the Beckhams, a Latin gay pop singer (Ricky Martin), a sex-crazed politician (Anthony Weiner), a maverick journalist who travels the world (Anderson Cooper) and a 50-something male movie star who dates waitresses (George Clooney). Half the fun in reading Collins' books is figuring out who each character is based on.

She spoke about possibly bringing back some of her favorite characters from previous books, like Chris  Phoenix and Nick Angel, which set the crowd into peals of joy. She mentioned that in the first Lucky Santangelo  miniseries, Sandra Bullock played Lucky's doomed mother and Elisabeth Moss of TV's Mad Men, played Lucky as a young child.

Collins says that she gets lots of information for her books from drivers, stylists and hair and makeup people to the stars. She laughingly said that she lives next door to Al Pacino in Hollywood, "but he tells me nothing!"

I asked what authors she reads, and she responded "Mario Puzo- I loved The Godfather!" and even said that she sees Bobby becoming a little like Michael Corleone; something will turn him to violence because she "loves vengeance!" She also likes Robert B. Parker (author of the Spencer series) and finds Chelsea Handler very funny.

Collins is also working on a play called Hollywood Lies, and a cookbook based on Lucky. Each recipe will feature a short scene from Lucky's life with it. All the recipes will be "good, fun and easy".

When I got my book signed, I told Ms. Collins that I enjoy her on Twitter, and many of her tweeps were in the audience. She seems like the kind of woman you could go to lunch and gossip with, and I can't wait to read Goddess of Vengeance. I'll post a review when I finish.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press ISBN 978-0802119773
Hardcover, $24
I wasn't sure that I would like Alice LaPlante's debut novel, Turn of Mind. The main character, Jennifer, is a middle-aged surgeon suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. When her neighbor and long-time best friend Amanda is brutally murdered, Jennifer is the main suspect.

I was concerned that the story would exploit the diagnosis of Alzheimer's as a convenient plot device for a standard murder mystery. It is very sad to see Alzheiemr's rob someone of herself, and I didn't know whether the author would be respectful of that or not. The situations that Jennifer runs into will be familiar to anyone who has a family member suffering from this debilitating disease.

The novel is told from the first-person point of view, like Lisa Genova's brilliant novel about a female researcher suffering from early onset Alzheimer's, Still Alice. That novel was one of my favorites in recent years, and while this book did not move me as much, the added angle of the murder mystery is expertly woven within the storyline of a character who may have committed a horrible crime, but doesn't remember.

Jennifer is not a warm woman; she spent most of her life building a career. She had two grown children: Mark, a son who has persistent money problems, and Fiona, a daughter who has spent the last twenty years looking for herself. Her husband James is dead.

Jennifer and Amanda had a complicated relationship. As the story unravels, we see that Amanda had a cruel streak, and Jennifer remembers things that Amanda did to purposefully hurt her. Is is possible that she really did kill Amanda and expertly sever her finger?

In order to keep things straight, Jennifer has been writing in a journal things that happen each day. When friends and family come to visit, they write in the book as well. When she gets confused, she can read the journal to see what she has forgotten. Jennifer's caretaker also urges her to write about the herself, to tell her own story.

A female detective has doubts that Jennifer is the murderer, but she is a good detective and will follow the case where the evidence leads. She is respectful of Jennifer and her illness, but dogged in her pursuit of justice. I liked her character.

Turn of Mind turns the murder mystery genre on its head. The story is told by a narrator made unreliable by Alzheimer's, a woman who can remember things from her past, but not whether she killed her best friend. If she didn't do it, who did? The conclusion to the mystery may be predictable, but not very satisfying.

This is a well-written novel, one that slowly weaves its story, and the fact that we only see the characters from Jennifer's point of view, adds to the mystery.

rating 4 of 5

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When Parents Text

When Parents Text: So Much Said...So Little Understood by Lauren Kaelin & Sophia Fraioli
Published by Workman Publishing ISBN 978-0-7611-6604-7
Paperback, $10.95

If you have kids, chances are you have texted them. My kids got cell phones when they were in high school, and it became so easy to stay in touch with them via text. They didn't have to interrupt what they were doing or act like their parents mattered to them in front of their friends.

Two twenty-something women, Lauren Kaelin and Sophia Fraioli, started talking about the goofy (dorky?) text messages their parents would send them, and so they started a website- When Parents Text. They encouraged other people to submit texts from their own parents, and the site became so popular, they now have compiled a book When Parents Text- So Much Said...So Little Understood.

This book had me laughing all the way through it; it reminded me of S@#* My Dad Says. They organize the texts by categories, like "N00bs", which are texts that make no sense (usually done by parents just learning to text and unable to clearly see what they are texting), "Master Class", which consists of texts done by expert texters, complete with fancy emoticons, and "Pets", which the authors have determined have become very important to parents who suffer from "empty nest syndrome".

The emoticons really floored me. I had no idea that there were so many parents out there who spent so much time creating elaborate emoticons, which do nothing more than exasperate their children.
)8( is an angel sent to watch over one mom's adult child.
Bow tie man :-)8 is big one too.

My favorite though is Booty Shake- (_/_) (_\_) (_/_) (_\_) (_/_). Thank goodness there is handy glossary at the end to guide newbies through the new language.

This one, titled I.Found.u., hit home for me.
MOM: It's 3am where r you?
(20 minutes later)
MOM: Please let me know what's going on. R u OK?
(5 minutes later)
MOM: I. Found.u. You r in bed. I didn't hear u come home. I was so worried! Glad we R all safe and sound. Love u.
This is funny to me because when my son was a senior in high school, I sent this same text. I received a reply that he was sound asleep in his bed and had been home for HOURS. Oops, my bad.

I'm telling you, I LMAO reading this book. (Look it up if you don't know). This book will appeal to parents and grandparents, (there is chapter on grandparents texting too), as well as the kids they text. You will know who is reading this book in your house because you will hear bursts of laughter coming from whomever has the book.

I have to admit that I am afraid to check out the website in case any of my texts are there. I have sent some really crazy ones while walking around NYC without my glasses on.

rating 4 of 5

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anything Goes

I finally went to see the Tony-winning revival of Anything Goes last week. Sutton Foster, who won the Tony for her performance is just amazing!

Some people thought she was miscast as Reno Sweeney, the tough talking, swinging, singing and dancing dame. (She has made her career playing sweet ingenues.) But I saw her in the dramatic play Trust last year at the 2nd Stage where she played a dominatrix, and so I knew she could play Reno.

She is tremendous, as is the rest of the cast. John McMartin is hilarious, and Colin Donnell and Laura Osnes (who has left the show to play the lead in Bonnie & Clyde) are delightful as the star crossed lovers. And of course, it is always great to see Joel Grey on stage. His duet with Foster on Friendship is a delight.

The highlights of this show are the two show-stopping numbers: Anything Goes, which features some incredible tap-dancing from Foster and the company (and I can't believe how she could sing after all that dancing!) and Blow, Gabriel, Blow. The choreography by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, will make you cheer; I dare you not to tap your feet.

While the show is a bit corny at times, (it was written in the 1930s), the music by Cole Porter is lovely and the enthusiasm of the cast make it seem fresh. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are visually stunning too.

You will leave the show humming and dancing and in awe of the very talented Miss Sutton Foster, who in my book, is one of the best performers on Broadway. It was joyful experience!

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman
Published by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-206511-7
Trade paperback, $14.99

One of life's greatest pleasures is reading a debut novel and absolutely loving it. It's thrilling to discover a new talent and be able to proclaim to everyone you know- "You MUST read this book by this new author. It's fantastic!"

A lot of people have been talking about Matthew Norman's debut novel, Domestic Violets, and since they were people whose judgement I trust, I was hopeful. I opened the book and read the novel in two sittings. It lives up to the hype, a delightful surprise for me.

Tom Violet works for a soul-crushing corporation as a copywriter. He hates his job, except for the crush he has on a hot young copywriter that is veering toward the inappropriate.

He loves his wife, but is having problems in the bedroom department. She has been patient, but he fears that sooner or later, she may seek attention elsewhere. (It doesn't help that his young daughter has drawn a picture of Mommy, herself, her friend and her friend's Daddy, who is now Mommy's "friend").

His father, literary icon Curtis Violet, (who has sold millions of books and finally won the Pulitzer Prize) has come to stay with his son for awhile. Curtis is a great character, a Norman Mailer type figure. He drinks too much, and has cheated on every wife he has had.

The setting of the book is at the beginning of the financial crisis, and the company that Tom works for is in a constant state of laying off employees. Although Tom hates his job, he needs it. The funniest parts of the book take place in the office. Tom constantly needles Greg, the Director of Communications, who in response, files complaints about Tom with HR, including the following:
Dear HR: Tom Violet insists on smiling and saying hello to me every time he sees me, even in the men's room. However, I know that these sentiments are not sincere, and only succeed in undermining me in front of my team and fellow employees.
(Greg kind of sounds like Dwight Schrute from The Office.)

Tom has a manuscript for a novel, but he is too afraid to let anyone read it. He fears he cannot live up to his father's success. He hasn't even let his wife read it.

This sign of a good book is that I have so many pages noted for future reference; Domestic Violets has dozens of notes stuck in my book. It is uproariously funny and touching, with unforgettable characters and situations. Tom Violet has quickly become one of my favorite literary creations.

I really enjoyed the PS section at the end of the book. Norman talks about book signings, and he lists books that influenced him, including Justin Cronin's Mary and O'Neil, which I loved.

If you liked Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You (and if you didn't, I'm not sure I want to know you), you will scream for Matthew Norman's Domestic Violets. It is one of the best books I have read this year; you MUST read it!

Norman also has a hilarious blog http://thenormannation.blogspot.com

rating 5 of 5

Half a Life by Darin Strauss

Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Published by Random House ISBN 978-0-8129-8253-4
Trade paperback, $13

Darin Strauss was a high school senior just about to graduate when he hit and killed a fellow student with his car. The aftermath of that accident and how he lived with it are recounted in his evocative memoir Half a Life.

As the mother of two young men, this book was really a punch to the gut. Strauss was cleared of all legal responsibility for the accident in which a young girl turned her bicycle into the path of his car, but the moral responsibility lingered on for many years to come.

One of the hardest chapters to read was the one where Strauss and his father attended the funeral for Celine, the girl who was killed. His mother did not attend, and Strauss was not sure why. It was a brave thing for him to do.

He spoke to Celine's parents, and they seemed kind to him. Celine's mother did say something that would linger with him for almost twenty years. She made him promise that "whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well. Because you are living it for two people".

The accident changed his life in so many ways. He became "squishily obliging", hoping that by being overtly kind to everyone he met that when they found out what he had done, they would think that he was so "decent and kind", and that it was terrible that something so awful happened to such a nice guy.

Celine's parents sued Strauss, an event that dragged on for five long years. Strauss didn't really know Celine very well, so he tried to learn everything he could about her, including why she turned into his car.

He took her mother's plea to heart, and tried to live his life for two people. Every experience he had, he thought of Celine while it was happening. It was emotionally draining, and he developed a severe stomach ailment.

There are so many moving stories in the book: attending his high school reunion, telling his wife on their fifth date what happened, returning the scene of the accident so many years later. Strauss writes so beautifully and honestly about the pain this incident caused and how it affected every single thing that happened to him afterword, it is impossible not to be moved.

This book reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking; it's about how death so deeply affects the lives of those left behind, whether you loved them or hardly knew them.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Last Weekend of Summer

We have been away for a few weeks in August, so for the last weekend of summer 2011, my husband wanted to have a whirlwind weekend of activities right here in NYC.

Friday night we met for dinner at Desmond's , a relatively new restaurant near Bloomingdales because I had voucher deal for $60 from Google. It was early, and we were the only ones in the restaurant. It was kind of odd. The food was decent, but my husband did say that they make the best Grey Goose and tonics he has had in the city.

Saturday he went on a group bike ride upstate; it was 70 miles roundtrip. I enjoyed my last day of the season at the rooftop pool reading Part Three of Gone With The Wind for  The Heroine's Bookshelf's readalong.

We had dinner at the member's dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It overlooks Central Park and has a lovely view. They had a special Farm to Table menu, which was delicious. It started with corn chowder, and I would have been happy if all four courses were the chowder. Yum.

The second course was a 'slightly warm' salmon, with a mango salsa topping that was seasoned perfectly. Braised short rib and a tasty monkfish on top of a creamy polenta followed by a fig crostata for dessert rounded out the meal. My husband also got the wine flight, which included Finger Lakes Riesling and Ommegang Abbey Ale from Cooperstown. He really enjoyed the Belgian ale.

Sunday we attended the Yankees/Blue Jays game. It was "a beautiful day for a ball game" as Michael Kay would say, but we sat in front of a man who insisted on describing play-by-play everything that was happening on the field to his 5-year-old-son. (Note to Dad- it might be better to just choose a few things to tell your son; there is no way he comprehended everything you were telling him. And you were not in a cone of silence- EVERYONE around you was annoyed.)

We got to see Derek Jeter (El Capitan) hit a three-run homer and Nick Swisher (Swisha-licious) hit one too. The right field fans love themselves some Swisher. It was good to see Jesus Montero, the hot Yankee prospect get two hits.

We ended the evening at Dizzy's Coca-Cola Jazz Club in the Time Warner Center, overlooking Central Park. Dion Parson and the 21st Century Band played a jazz/Caribbean set that was terrific. I especially liked "Lullaby for Belle"- so lovely.

Their prix-fixe dinner sp├ęcial was a Caribbean-influenced menu, with beef brisket sliders on sweet cornbread, a sea bass with a mango/cilantro salsa and a mango snowball of shaved ice making for a tasty meal.

Monday my husband rode his bike upstate with his nephew, and then we hit the American Natural History Museum because I got a great $5 deal on tickets. We saw the Tornado Alley movie, narrated by Bill Paxton (RIP Bill Henrickson). It was pretty interesting, but the rest of the museum was not really my cup of tea.

Many of the exhibits look like they haven't been updated in 30 years. I liked the Human Origins room and the Dinosaur exhibit is pretty cool. The giant blue whale is extraordinary too.

We ended our weekend at Isabella's restaurant near the museum. (And if you watch Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO, you'll recognize it as the restaurant he, Jeff and Suzie ate at outdoors this week). My husband had the steak frites, which he gave a thumbs-up to, and I had the fusilli pasta carbonara with peas and proscuitto, which was very good.

The best part of the meal though was dessert. If you ever get to Isabella's on the Upper West Side, you must order the Dark Chocolate Bag, filled with raspberry mousse, whipped cream, strawberries, and blueberries. Oh my goodness, it was incredible.

And that was our tourist's weekend in NYC!