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Monday, December 31, 2012

The 12 Most Compelling Reads of 2012

Reprinted from the Citizen
The end of another year means a time of reflection; since this is a book review column, that means it’s time for the 12 most compelling Reads of 2012.
These are books that I got lost in, books that transported me to new places with characters who still live in my thoughts long after I finished their stories. They are creative, inventive books that challenged me to think in new ways.
Erin Duffy’s debut novel, “Bond Girl,” takes us inside the financial industry in New York City from the perspective of a young woman just starting out in her career. She maneuvers her way in this grueling job dealing with tough bosses, a locker room mentality, sexual harassment from clients and an unreliable boyfriend. 

Adriana Trigiani has written her most epic novel to date, “The Shoemaker’s Wife.” It takes us from the Italian Alps in 1907 to New York City and the Metropolitan Opera and ends up in Minnesota, sharing the stories of Ciro and Enza and their lifelong love. It is based on Trigiani’s grandparents, and pays respect to the immigrants who built this country.
Laura Moriarty takes us back to the silent film era in her novel “The Chaperone,” which tells the story of Cora, a married woman from Kansas who accompanies a teenage Louise Brooks (before she was a movie star) to New York City to attend a summer dance program. Cora is trying to find out more about her birth mother, and her journey is fascinating.

Amanda Coplin’s debut novel, “The Orchardist,” is set in the orchards of the Northwest at the turn of the 20th century, and her main character of Tallmadge is unforgettable. A taciturn man, living alone since his younger sister walked into the woods and never returned, he finds two young pregnant girls hiding on his property and vows to protect them.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s novel “And Laughter Fell From the Sky” is a homage to Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” telling the story of a young Indian woman living in Ohio who is torn between the expectations of her family and her desire for independence and finding true love. It is remarkable.

It’s back to post-WWI Australia in M.L. Stedman’s haunting novel “The Light Between Oceans,” about a young couple working at a remote lighthouse. When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby, they decide to keep the baby — and the consequences of that decision are heartbreaking for all.

“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter is about as perfect a novel as I have ever read. How he intersects the stories — a man running a remote inn in 1950s Italy who falls in love with an American starlet, a cutthroat Hollywood film producer who is now reduced to creating lousy TV reality shows, the producer’s young assistant and the former Hollywood starlet now living a quiet life — is truly stunning. Oh yeah, and Richard Burton is a supporting character.

Laurie Frankel’s “Goodbye For Now” is an inventive, emotional novel about a computer geek who creates a program that allows people to continue a virtual relationship with loved ones who have died. This book has a lot of heart, and you will tear up as you read it.

Barbara Kingsolver has created one of the most intriguing characters ever in Dellarobia Turnbow in her latest novel “Flight Behavior.” She is a young mother living on the edge of poverty in Tennessee with her husband and two young children who makes a discovery that combines issues of global warming, corporate greed and the desire to better one’s life. I didn’t want this gorgeously written book to end.

In nonfiction, Lynn Povich’s “Good Girls Revolt” recounts the discrimination lawsuit filed by female staffers at Newsweek magazine in the 1970s to get equal opportunities for advancement. I couldn’t believe that I never knew about this, and at times it reads like a great suspense novel.

Susannah Cahalan shares her frightening true medical story in “Brain on Fire.” A young reporter at The New York Post, she has an illness that is at first thought to be some type of psychosis, but is actually a physical illness. Her descent into the horror of her disease and the support of her loving family and boyfriend combines science with a medical mystery with a love story.

And lastly, Will Schwalbe writes of his truly incredible mother who is battling cancer in “The End of Your Life Book Club.” As he takes her to her chemotherapy appointments, they spend the time in their own two-person book club. This is a love letter to an amazing woman, as well as to great books. It may be the best book of the year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Weekend Cooking- A Pinterest Christmas Recipe

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

This year we were home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so of course I cooked. For Christmas Eve, we had a fresh ham that I bought at the Greenmarket in Union Square. I have to visit there more often, there are so many amazing vendors there and you can get every kind of fresh meat, produce and breads that you can imagine- even ostrich eggs!

We had a Pinterest favorite, Crack Potatoes, and one of my sister-in-law's favorites Green Bean Bundles, along with a cheesecake from Two Little Red Hens for dessert. The Daily News and Serious Eats have both called this cheesecake New York City's best and we agree. (The photo below is from The Daily News' Jacob E. Osterhut)

For Christmas morning breakfast, I tried a Pinterest recipe for Strawberry Cream Cheese Coffeecake. My older son is not a chocolate fan, he likes berries, so I searched and found this from Food Wanderings in Asia. It was very moist and tasty, although I would probably refrigerate it even though it doesn't mention that in the recipe. (I found it got a little soggy the next day.)

For Christmas dinner my husband made a succulent prime rib roast, and I made Rachael Ray's Oh So Easy French Onion Soup, Emeril's Twice Baked Potato Casserole, old standby Broccoli Casserole and Two Little Red Hens Red Velvet Cake for dessert. It was all so good, but very rich. Thank goodness New Year's is on the way and with it a healthier eating plan.

I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas- I'd love to hear what you made for dinner in the comments section below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New in Paperback- Cristina Alger's The Darlings

The Darlings by Cristina Alger
Published by penguin Books ISBN 9780143122753
Trade paperback, $16, 352 pages

Summary from the publisher's website:

A sophisticated page-turner about a wealthy New York family embroiled in a financial scandal with cataclysmic consequences.
Now that he's married to Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries: a Park Avenue apartment, weekends in the Hamptons, bespoke suits. When Paul loses his job, Carter offers him the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund. Thrilled with his good fortune in the midst of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Paul accepts the position.
But Paul's luck is about to shift: a tragic event catapults the Darling family into the media spotlight, a regulatory investigation, and a red-hot scandal with enormous implications for everyone involved. Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties lie-will he save himself while betraying his wife and in-laws or protect the family business at all costs?
Cristina Alger's glittering debut novel interweaves the narratives of the Darling family, two eager SEC attorneys, and a team of journalists all racing to uncover-or cover up-the truth. With echoes of a fictional Too Big to Fail and the novels of Dominick Dunne, The Darlings offers an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society-a world seldom seen by outsiders-and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions.

I read this novel expecting it to be a take on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. To a certain extent it was, being about a family whose work and family lives were entangled in a financial scandal.  Carter Darling employed both of his sons-in-laws, one of whom was just along for the ride and one, Paul, who just came aboard after losing his job as an attorney at the beginning of the recession.

Not  many of the wealthy characters are very likable in this book, except for Paul and Merrill. Although Carter came from a working-class background, he was now one of the 1%ers. He spoiled his wife and daughters, and lived a lifestyle to which most people cannot relate. 

While reading this book, I thought that there were too many tangential characters. They didn't seem to be moving the story along, I didn't know why they were there. By the end of the story, Alger had put all of the pieces of the puzzle together so cleverly I had to admire her skill. Every character leads to something important.

I also enjoyed her descriptions of characters, like this one: 
"Theresa Frankel was a middle-aged woman who looked as though she resided permanently at the intersection of boredom and disinterest."
One sentence and you knew immediately who Teresa was.

The Darlings is a well-crafted story, and even if you don't like most of the characters, you'll want to see where this story is going. And Alger throws in a twist at the end that is a game-changer.

rating 4 of 5

Friday, December 21, 2012

Weekend Cooking- A Holiday Guest Post From Chef Michael Smith

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

This Weekend Cooking post is from Chef Michael Smith, who wrote one of my favorite cookbooks from this year, Chef Michael Smith's Kitchen- 100 Favourite Recipes (my review is here). Smith shares a special holiday memory of a dish his mother made for Christmas morning, Apple Pie Pancakes with Caramel Syrup. 


  One of my favorite parts of Christmas was breakfast! We’d all get up and discover a beautiful tree and my mom would cook her heart out for us before we even got to opening presents. She was famous for her pancakes, and on Christmas morn they just might arrive tasting like Apple Pie.

Apple Pie Pancakes with Caramel Syrup

Stirring grated apple and cinnamon into my standard whole grain pancakes upgrades this breakfast staple into an a.m. treat. The recipe can easily be doubled. Serves 4

For the caramel syrup

1 cup (250 mL) of sugar

For the pancakes

1 cup (250 mL) of all-purpose flour
1 cup (250 mL) of whole wheat flour
1 cup (250 mL) of any kind of rolled oats
2 tablespoons (30 mL) of baking powder
1 tablespoon (15 mL) of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) of salt
2 eggs
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) of milk (cows, rice, or soy)
1/4 cup (60 mL) of melted butter
2 tablespoons (30 mL) of brown sugar
1 teaspoon (5 mL) of vanilla
3 cups (750 mL) of grated local apples
A splash of vegetable oil

To make the caramel syrup, pour 1 cup (250 mL) of water into a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the sugar, evenly distributing it over the water and taking care to avoid the inside edge of the pan. Simmer the mixture, without stirring, until the water evaporates and leaves behind pure sugar syrup. The temperature will rise, and in a few minutes the syrup will begin to lightly brown. Swirl the pan gently and continue cooking until the syrup is golden brown and fragrant. Carefully pour in 1/4  cup (60 mL) of water to stop the cooking. It will sputter and sizzle. Continue heating, stirring until the water and caramel dissolve into caramel syrup. Pour into a jar and refrigerate until cool and thickened.
Preheat your largest frying pan over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the
all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, oats, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt, evenly distributing the finer powders among the coarser ones. In a second bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, butter, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in the grated apples, then pour the wet mixture into the dry one. Stir with a wooden spoon just until
a smooth batter forms.

Pour a splash of vegetable oil into your hot pan and swirl the pan to evenly coat the bottom with a thin film. Spoon the batter into the pan, forming your choice of large or small pancakes. Cook, turning once, until deliciously golden brown on each side, about 5 minutes in total. Serve with the caramel syrup.

The key to great pancakes is the right pan temperature—high enough to brown the outside but not so high that the exterior burns before the inside finishes cooking. Your preheated pan is at the perfect temperature when water drops dance on it without immediately evaporating (too hot) or just sitting and simmering (too cool).

Thanks Chef Michael for sharing your Christmas morning recipe. Every Christmas Eve, I make Scotch Pecan Pull-Aparts, set them out to rise and then pop them in the oven for Christmas morning while we open presents. What does your family have for Christmas breakfast? Please share your traditions in the comments section and have a very Merry Christmas.