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Monday, January 23, 2012

A Visit to the New York Public Library

When I travel to other cities, I always try to take a tour and visit a bookstore or library. I've been in New York City for a few years now, and finally got around to taking the New York Public Library Tour at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

The building is just gorgeous, with the two lion statues, Patience and Fortitude, standing regal guard outside. Our guide was Robin, a library docent. She took us first to the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Reading Room, which has several paintings of famous publishing houses. It is so gorgeous there, with warm wood on the walls, and the golden glow of the table lamps.

The Dewitt Wallace Periodical Reading Room
The Rose Reading Room

The ceiling is wooden in the Reading Room

We walked through the marble walled halls, and Robin told us that the main library on 5th Ave. & 42nd St. is a research library; only the children's library is a circulating library, where you can check out a book. She showed us the stacks, hidden from the public, which go vertically for seven floors up and four floors below Bryant Park.

When you need a book for research, you fill out a call slip in the Rose Reading Room, give it to the librarian. An assistant will take the slip, find the book in the stacks and return it to the desk for pickup. It generally takes 1/2 hour, unless the book has to come from another place; then it can take up to 48 hours.

We also saw the marble from the Croton Reservoir, which was originally on the library site. 

Upstairs there are several collections, featuring such items as a desk and two chairs, owned by Charles Dickens, items from Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf and other literary lions.

There is an exhibition of items celebrating the 100 years of the New York Public Library, founded by Samuel J. Tilden, who donated $2.4 million to build the library. The collections of of James Lennox and John Jacob Astor were donated to begin the library, and there is a display dedicated to these three men.

The exhibition is fascinating, with such items as cuneiform tablets from 2400 BC, the first Guttenberg Bible brought to America, a gorgeous huge book of bird illustrations by John Audubon,  two copies of Shakespeare's King Lear from the 1600s, an early copy of St. Augustine's City of God, Virginia Woolf's walking stick and her journal, open to the last entry she made days before she committed suicide, and too many more to name. 

I took the exhibition tour too (12:30  & 3:30 weekdays), which shares highlights of the 250 items. I want to go back to visit it more in detail on my own. The 100 year exhibition ends March 4, 2012.

On the way out, Robin directed us to look at the plaque on the floor near the entrance honoring Martin Radtke. He was an immigrant who came to this country from Germany, worked as a gardner on Long Island, and frequently took the train into the city to visit the library. He wanted to learn about stocks, and he made so much money trading stocks, he donated a large sum to the NYPL. Learning can make you rich in more ways than one, kids.

If you ever find yourself in NYC on a rainy or snowy day, consider taking the library tour; it was so interesting and informative. And the building is gorgeous to boot.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday Gravy and Macaroni

When we lived in Auburn, I used to make a big pot of this homemade sauce with meatballs and sausage; my husband and sons loved it, and it was perfect for a big Sunday family dinner. (I told my younger son I was making tonight and he said "oh, I love that" wistfully; poor guy is  2 1/2 hours away at college.)

As I am not Italian, my mother did not teach me how to make 'gravy', or sauce, as we non-Italians called it. This recipe came from Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Get-togethers cookbook, and it is truly easy and tasty. Once you've made your own homemade sauce, oops gravy, you'll never go back to store-bought.

Now I pair it with fresh made penne pasta from Agata & Valentina, and that ups the taste level too.
Since it's supposed to be cold and snowy tomorrow, I'm hoping there will be leftovers for meatball subs for dinner the next day.

Rachael Ray's Sunday Gravy and Macaroni- from Food Network


  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan, for both meats and sauce
  • 3 thin cut pork loin chops, 1/2-inch thick, cut in 1/2
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 each sweet and hot Italian sausage links
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, for moderate to spicy marinara
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped, 3 for sauce, 2 for meatballs
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, a couple of handfuls of leaves
  • Several leaves fresh basil, torn or chopped, a handful
  • 1 pound meat loaf mix, ground beef, pork and veal combined, from butcher counter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 2 handfuls, plus extra for tossing pasta and to pass at table
  • 1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs, 3 handfuls
  • 1 loaf crusty Italian bread, for serving


Heat water for pasta to boil. Salt and cook pasta 7 to 8 minutes, to al dente.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Heat a deep skillet or medium heavy bottomed sauce pot over medium high heat. Season pork chops with salt and pepper. Halve sausages. Add 1 tablespoon, 1 turn of the pan, extra-virgin olive oil to pan or pot. Place chops in pan or pot and brown 2 minutes on each side, remove. Add another tablespoon oil, 1 turn of the pan, and sausages. Brown sausages 2 minutes on each side and transfer to plate with pork. Add pepper flakes, 3 cloves chopped garlic and onion to the pot and saute 1 minute. Add broth to the pan and scrape up drippings. Add tomatoes and herbs and bring sauce to a bubble. Add meats back to the pot and reduce heat to simmer. Simmer sauce until ready to serve, 12 to 15 minutes.
Combine ground meat, egg, remaining 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1/3 cup cheese, and bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper and roll into balls, 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Place balls on nonstick cookie sheet. Roast meatballs 10 minutes, then slide into Sunday sauce and turn off oven. Add bread to oven to crisp crust.
To serve, place pork, sausages and meatballs on serving dish. Pour 1/2 of the sauce into a serving dish to ladle over pasta and meats at the table. Toss cooked spaghetti with remaining sauce in sauce pot, adding a few handfuls of grated cheese to the pot as you toss it. Transfer pasta to a serving dish.

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!

Friday, January 20, 2012

First You Try Everything by Jane McCafferty

First You Try Everything by Jane McCafferty
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-621062-9
Hardcover, $24.99

Ben and Evvie have been together since college and married for many years. They are Bohemian kind of people; music is an important part of their lives, and they used to own a pushcart, from which they sold organic food.

Now in their early forties, Ben has an 'adult job' and wears a suit to work. Evvie volunteers at animal shelters and protests the war. She can't seem to get motivated to follow-through on anything. This marriage is on a collision course that Ben sees, but Evvie doesn't. Early on, Evvie is playing a song over and over again while Ben is trying to pay the bills. He asks her to turn it off, because he is "trying to get things in order." This is symbolic, as Ben is moving to get his life in order, but Evvie is happy just to do the same thing over and over again.

Ben tells Evvie he is leaving her, and she cannot comprehend what is happening. He has met a woman at work, and begins an emotional affair with her that turns physical once he leaves Evvie. Evvie can't accept that her marriage is over, and does crazy things to try and get Ben back, including dragging a ladder from her home to his new apartment and climbing in his bedroom window. She gets more and more desperate, and sets in motion a dangerous plan that threatens them both.

I didn't really like the characters in the story. I couldn't relate to Evvie at all; she seemed a bit crazy, and I understood why Ben wanted out. The story is told from alternating perspectives- Ben, Evvie, and for some reason, Ranjeev, the Indian man who works at the convenience store and whom Evvie is fascinated by, gets a chapter of his own. Some of the minor characters, friends of Ben and Evvie and Lauren, the woman Ben falls in love with, seemed more interesting to me than Ben and Evvie.

That said, the writing itself is elegant. I liked some of her observations, such as, "People forget that another person is a complete mystery...People start figuring each other out, solving them like a puzzle, then getting mad or bored. I mean, people should never be solved."  A friend of Ben's talks about how difficult life with kids is by saying "let's just say I feel like most of me is shelved away at least half the time."

At one point, Evvie tries to face what has happened. "This is your life Evvie", and she froze in the rocking chair and understood that life had happened without her. She had somehow lived the life but had not been present for any of it, and now it was over. She rocked in grief that could not be contained by her body."

This is a sad book, about the end of a marriage between two people who loved but grew apart. If I had identified more with the characters, I probably would have felt more empathetic. I did like that the ending tied things up, showing us Ben and Evvie in the future.

rating 3 of 5 stars

For another look at a long term marriage that ends suddenly, read Lily Tuck's I Married You For Happiness

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess

I was on my way to see Justin Kirk, whom I have deemed 'the nicest guy in show business' in Other Desert Cities on Broadway, when I stopped by the TKTS booth because there was no line at 11am on Wednesday. Gotta love January.  They had Porgy and Bess at 40% off, and since I really wanted to see Audra McDonald on Broadway,  a change of plans was in order.

I have never seen Porgy & Bess; not on stage, not the movie version. I kinda knew the basic story, and that there has been some controversy over this incarnation of the show, and that probably added to the 'must-see' factor for me.

The story takes place on Catfish Row in Charleston, North Carolina in the 1930s. Catfish Row is a community of African-Americans, fishermen and cotton pickers. The opening song, "Summertime", sung by Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry, is iconic, and they set the tone for this wonderful show.

The ensemble break out into song and dance, "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing", "Crap Game" and "Gone, Gone, Gone", their voices filling the theater, communicating to the audience their sense of community.

What struck me was the similarity between Porgy & Bess and the last show director  Diane Paulus brought to Broadway- the revival of Hair! In both shows, the ensemble plays a key role. Community is important; the band of hippies in Hair! and the residents of Catfish Row in Porgy & Bess are both a large family for people on the outskirts of the mainstream society.

The casting is perfect. Audra McDonald gives such a raw, stunning performance as Bess, and her voice is awe-inspiring. Bess is a character who has such a dramatic arc- from drug-addicted tramp to loving companion and friend to traumatized victim and beyond- and you see all of these embodied in McDonald's face and body and voice. It is a performance for the ages.

Norm Lewis, who has one of the finest voices around, plays Porgy as a man transformed and tormented by love. Porgy also has a long, tortured journey, and Lewis amazes the audience with his interpretation.

I knew that David Alan Grier could act (I last saw him in the Broadway play Race), but I did not know that he had such a powerful singing voice. His "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" brought down the house. He played the character of Sporting Life like a well-dressed snake in the Garden of Eden, tempting Bess as if she was Eve. He earned his standing ovation at the end of the show.

There are other wonderful performances- Philip Boykin, who played the brutal Crown was so evil, he actually got booed at curtain call. The actors who played the white policemen who harass the residents and beat Porgy also got booed. I have never seen an audience so into a serious show as this one that they booed the bad guys. Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row, was played powerfully by the amazing NaTasha Yvette Williams.

The dancing was fabulous too; I overheard someone say it reminded them of Alvin Ailey, and I second that description. I especially enjoyed the opening number of Act Two. It was so joyous!

The classic music, by George and Ira Gershwin, is performed by a joyous, pitch-perfect cast. When McDonald and Lewis sing "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy", I teared up (and I wasn't the only one.) I knew I was witnessing something special, something I would never forget.

Whatever the controversy, I was moved by the story, the music, and the luminous performances, and to my mind, that is what great theater is all about. Go see it for yourself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Pittsburgh Steelers - The Official Team History by Abby Mendelson

The Pittsburg Steelers- The Official Team History by Abby Mendelson
Published by Taylor Trade Publishing ISBN 978-1-58979-668-3
Soft cover, $29.95

With the Superbowl but a few weeks away, today's book review is The Pittsburgh Steelers- The Official Team History  by Abby Mendelson. The Steelers have won six Superbowls, more than any other franchise in history.

I'm not a huge football fan; usually I read and cook dinner while the guys watch the games on Sunday. But one of my son's is a Steelers fan, and I do remember back in the 1970s when I was a kid, how exciting it was to watch Terry Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain play.

Mendelson was a sports reporter in Pittsburgh, and this book is pretty comprehensive. He starts out with a chapter on Art Rooney, called the Chief, the man who purchased the Steelers franchise (then called the Pirates, like the baseball team) for $2500 during the Great Depression.

The Rooney family still owns the Steelers, and Rooney's son Dan followed in his footsteps. Art Rooney became a beloved figure in Pittsburgh, but he retained his common man touch. If anyone needed a few dollars or a kind word, he gave it. Yet he was tough with his own children, believing in corporal punishment.

Mendelson paints a vivid portrait of the fascinating Rooney, interspersing photos and anecdotes throughout the text. He doesn't seem to meet an anecdote he doesn't like about Rooney, filling the text with several similar anecdotes about his various kindnesses to players and others. Less could have been more in this regard.

The Steelers are unique in that the same family has owned the franchise since 1933. That quality also extended to the coaches for the Steelers; they tended to stay a long time as well. Two successful coaches for the Steelers- Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher- are also profiled in great detail.

Although both coaches were successful, each winning Superbowls, they had very different coaching styles. Noll was a product of the 1950s, and he expected that his players would go out and do their job, without much praise from him. Noll "was all business; he came to get the job done, he came to win". He coached the Steelers from 1969-1991, through some disastrous seasons and some legendary years.

Cowher followed Noll in 1992, but he was a much more emotional coach. He believed in talking to the players, getting to know them.  Like Noll, he believed that having a good work ethic was key, that practices were important, and getting the most of out each player would lead to success.

I particularly enjoyed the section on the 1970s Steelers, when they dominated the league with such incredible talent as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene, and Rocky Bleier. There is a very shocking photo of three linebackers- Andy Russell, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert- who each weighed about 220 pounds. Today, high school linebackers weigh 250+.

I also liked the section on the Steeler fans, especially on the bars near the stadium that cater to them, places like Froggy's and Owney McManus'. They are die-hard fans, and some of those anecdotes about them are priceless.

This is the fourth edition of the book, but it seems like the latest incarnation of the Steelers, who won the Superbowl XL in 2006, get short shrift. Mendelson does recap every game of that season, but the 2006-2010 Steelers only get one chapter. We don't really get to know Coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Rothlisberger as well as their predecessors.

The Pittsburgh Steelers- The Official Team History overall does a great job documenting one of the most legendary franchises in all of sports. From their rocky start and many losing seasons to the record-breaking six Superbowl trophies, from the fascinating owner Art Rooney to incredible coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher to unforgettable players like Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Ben Rothlisberger, this book covers it all with amazing photos, anecdotes and a storied history. It's a must-have not only for Steeler fans, but for all football fans.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Superbowl Snacks

We spent New Year's in New York City this year, and I went all-out on the cooking. Our college aged-sons cook for themselves, so I thought I'd make some some great snacks for New Year's Day. But these snacks would be perfect for Superbowl Sunday.

I saw Jamie Oliver make Sausage Rolls on Live With Kelly, and so I made them. They turned out great, perfect with a nice mustard dipping sauce. The link to the recipe is here.

I also made an old favorite, Hot Reuben Dip. One of my sons is a big corned beef fan, and this really hits all those flavor notes. I got it from a woman who brought it to a holiday party, where it was a big hit.
Hot Reuben Dip
1 1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese
3/4 cup sauerkraut
1/2 cup Thousand Island Dressing
4 oz. cream cheese
 5 oz. corned beef, chopped
Mix all ingredients in a crockpot and cook on low for 1 1/2 hours. Serve on top of crackers or on rye or pumpernickel cocktail bread.

I had leftover ingredients, so a few days later, I made
Mini Reubens
Preheat broiler. Place cocktail rye or pumpernickel slices on baking sheet. Top each with 2 teaspoons Thousand Island dressing, a slice of folded corned beef, a bit of well-drained sauerkraut, and some shredded or 1/4 slice Swiss cheese. Broil 3 minutes or until cheese is melted.

My sister-in-law makes Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip, which tastes just like a Wegman's Joey Sub, and came from Food Network Magazine. I also made this for a neighborhood party, and it was big hit there
1 med. onion
2 pickled pepperoncini peppers
1/2 head iceberg lettuce
 1 large tomato, halved and seeded
1/4 lb each- deli-sliced genoa salami, deli-sliced ham, deli-sliced prosciutto, deli-sliced turkey, deli-sliced provolone cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 ts. dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 round loaf Italian bread
hoagie rolls for dipping
Chop onion, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomato into bit-sized pieces. Dice meats and cheese.
Combine chopped vegetables, meats and cheese in large bowl. Add mayo, olive oil, oregano, basil and red pepper flakes and stir til everything is well mixed. Refrigerate til ready to serve.
Cut center of round loaf out to make a bowl, cut scraps of bread into bit-sized pieces. Serve dip in bread bowl, with bread and hoagie rolls on side.
Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip

For our main entree on New Year's Day, I made Food Network chef Robert Irvine's
BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches
4 lbs. pork shoulder roeat
5 whole cloves
3 Tbsp. BBQ rub (I used Penzey's Galena Street Chicken & Pork Rub- a gift from sister-in-law- but you can use any dry BBQ rub you like)
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 cups water
16 oz. BBQ sauce (I used Dinosaur BBQ, a family favorite, but again, you can use any BBQ sauce you like)
Stud the roast with cloves and rub with BBQ rub. Put roast in crockpot and top with onions. Cover roast with water and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. Remove pork, discard cloves and layer of fat as well as any water and grease left in crockpot. When pork has cooled, shred it with two forks. Return meat to crockpot and top with BBQ sauce. Heat for 1 to 2 hours. Serve on rolls.

Do you have any favorite Superbowl Snacks you'd like to share? Share them in comments below!

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!

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Published by Random House ISBN 978-0-385-34408-1
Hardcover $25

I put The Homecoming of Samuel Lake on my Most Compelling Books of 2011 list. The story begins with the patriarch of the Moses family killing himself at the annual family reunion. Set in Arkansas in the 1950s, Samuel Lake is a preacher who has once again lost his job and retreats back home to his wife Willadee's family to regroup.

Samuel and Willadee have a wonderful marriage, they are very supportive of each other. They have three young children, Swan being the only girl. Samuel used to date Bernice, who later married Toy, Willadee's brother. Bernice is still in love with Samuel, and decides to use her beauty and feminine wiles to get Samuel back.

Samuel sets up a tent revival, hoping to get enough people to come and perhaps getting a permanent preaching job out of it. Willadee works during the day at her father's bar, Never Closes, which is attached to their home, and also houses the grocery store that Willadee's mother runs.

Swan and her brothers find Blade, a mysterious young boy, hiding in their barn and discover that he has been badly abused by his father, Ras Ballenger. Ballenger is evil personified, and every time he makes an appearance in the novel, I got chills. He beat his wife, sons, and the horses that he was supposed to be training. He is one bad, bad man.

When Swan's family takes the young boy in, Ballenger swears vengeance against the Moses/Lake family, and waiting for his plan to take place ratchets up the tension in this heartbreaking, beautifully crafted novel. I finished the book on the treadmill and almost had to get off because I was sobbing so hard.

I loved the characters in this book, with Toy being my favorite. He is man of few words, so when he speaks it is powerful. He also has a sense of sadness about him. Seriously injured in WWII, there is a question of whether or not he killed a man involved with his wife while he overseas. He forms strong bonds with the children, and his tenderness with them melts your heart. His evolution is moving, and Toy is a truly unforgettable literary creation.

So many of the characters are well-drawn- Willadee, Swan, Samuel, Blade, Bernice, even Ras. The way the Lake family lived their faith was inspirational. They loved God and each other, and tried hard to embody their faith everyday. I liked the way that Wingfield wrote how important it was to the family and the story.

The difficulty of being married plays a large role in the book. Willadee and Samuel's marriage is tested, but is strong. Contrast that with Toy and Bernice's unhappy, lonely marriage and the sadness that Willadee's mother feels about how the last years of her marriage unfolded. I think the author is saying that marriage is something that needs to be cared for and tended if it is to survive.

My favorite lines from the book are from Willadee and Toy's mother, about Blade's effect on Toy:
"She had no idea that Swan was also doing something special for Toy, or that Toy's life was changing in ways he could have never anticipated. All she knew was that this little boy was doing a kindness for her own little boy- the man who had been her little boy- and her gratitude knew no bounds."
As a mother of two sons, those lines killed me.

I could go on and on about this book, but all I really need to tell you is that if you love beautifully crafted books, with a compelling story and characters that feel so real, you will love The Homecoming of Samuel Lake.  I almost wish I were reading again for the first time.

rating 5 of 5

If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, you will like this book.

Kickin' It Old-School With The Book Seat

I know that E-readers are the thing now, (I'm actually on my second Kindle now) but I still read physical books. I probably read more physical books, as I use my Kindle only on the treadmill or when I am on the bus or waiting in line.

So this year when my sons asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told them that I wanted The Book Seat. It's a book holder that I found in Acorn, a catalogue I received in the mail. I had never seen this catalogue before, but as I flipped through it, I saw The Book Seat, read all the fabulous reviews online, and put this on my Christmas list.

Usually, my sons send me a link to whatever it is they want Christmas and I just click on the link and order it; this year I turned the tables on them and sent them this link.

I love my Book Seat! I used to get cramps in my hands and fingers from holding a book while reading it. Now my book 'sits' in its beanbag seat, with a flat plastic page holder. It works for all kinds of books- hardcover, paperback, magazines, even the Kindle. I can sit on the couch or read in bed, in total comfort. My fingers and hands are pain-free. It even has a pouch in back for reading glasses.

The Book Seat has changed the way I read! It's advertised as an aid for older people or people with arthritis, and since I'll be getting my AARP card in the mail in the next few months, I guess it's appropriate. But seriously, it makes a great gift for the bookish person in your life.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gun Games by Faye Kellerman

Gun Games by Faye Kellerman
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-206432-5
Hardcover, $25.99
Gun Games is the 20th mystery written by Faye Kellerman featuring LAPD detective Pete Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus. It is the first one in the series that I have read, and now I must keep my eye out for the other 19 books when I pop into the many bookstores and thrift stores I frequent.

I didn't really get to know that much about Decker and his wife because this book focused on fifteen-year-old Gabriel Whitman, a young man whose father is a mob scion, who among many other illegal activities, runs whorehouses in Nevada. Gabe's mother fled to India leaving her son behind.

Gabe is a musical prodigy and a social loner, living with the Deckers. One day he is harassed at a coffee house by some tough kids with a gun, and he manages to diffuse the situation with his extensive knowledge of guns and his ability to think quickly on his feet.

After that incident, he goes to a different coffeehouse and meets a fourteen-year-old Persian Jewish girl named Yasmine. Yasmine wants to be an opera singer, and she and Gabe bond over their love of music and soon fall in love. They must hide their relationship from her parents, who would never let her date anyone who was not Jewish.

Meanwhile, Lt. Decker and his comrades are investigating two teen suicides at the local private school, the same one that boys who harassed Gabe attend. Although they were labeled suicides, Decker believes that there is more going on, and his team noses around.

Kellerman knows how to write scenes that make your heart pound, but it is her characters, especially young Gabe and Yasmine, whom I found compelling. She really got into the heads of these two teens, and her description of them falling in love really hit their target.

She writes entire sections of their text messages to each other, the preferred manner of communication for today's teens. You could actually feel them falling in love with each other with each text, and Kellerman perfectly captures the all-consuming feelings of first love. The methods of communication may have changed over the years, but teen love is still a heady mix of hormones and emotions.

 I liked her characterization of the parents in her novel. The mother of a boy who was believed to have committed suicide was dumbfounded to discover certain things about her son. We all want to believe we know our children, but this book may disabuse you of that comforting feeling.

I recognized many of the parents in the scene at the police station. Some people like to complain about the portrayal of people of faith in media, but Kellerman did an admirable job with her depiction. The churchgoing parents of one troubled girl were the only ones who demanded that their child be held (somewhat) accountable. Decker and his wife regularly attend Jewish services, as does Yasmine's family. Religion is not a dirty word in this novel.

Gun Games successfully combines a cracker-jack mystery, albeit with some convenient coincidences, with a realistic depiction of teen love. (Although we don't want to believe fourteen and fifteen-year-olds have sex, many are. God help us.) If you are the parents of teens, this book will make you sweat.

rating 4 of 5

If you liked this, read Love You More by Lisa Gardner

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lemon Cream Chicken with Champagne Risotto

For dinner the other night, I made a recipe from Rachael Ray’s Big Orange Book, Lemon Cream Chicken with Champagne Risotto and Asparagus. It was the first time I made it, and it turned out wonderfully delicious.

Rachael made her risotto, but I found this packaged risotto made by Scotti at Agata & Valentina, an Italian grocery store in my neighborhood. It is so easy and tastes like the risotto you’d find at a really good Italian restaurant. So I was able to eliminate that step in her recipe. I also added the champagne at the end of cooking the risotto.

I also used regular thick-cut bacon instead of the pancetta, and it made it heartier. The dish looks so pretty plated up, and it got good reviews from my husband and younger son. It’s perfect for a special dinner and it’s going into regular rotation at the LaRue household.

It only makes two servings, so you will have to adjust to serve more. Click on the recipe below for the link to the recipe on Rachael Ray's website.

Lemon Cream Chicken with Risotto

Scotti Risotto
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!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Come to the Edge by Christina Haag

Come to the Edge by Christina Haag
Published by Spiegel & Grau ISBN 978-0385523
Trade paperback, $15- Buy the book here

Christina Haag spent five years in a romantic relationship with John F. Kennedy Jr. She recounts these years in her tender and honest memoir, Come to the Edge.  While a memoir about loving one of the most famous Americans could be lurid and gossipy, this book is remarkable in its restraint.

Haag tells a story that is relatable to many women; she loved a man, thought they were headed towards spending the rest of their lives together, but in the end, it didn't work out.

She begins with a childhood filled with games and loving Dark Shadows and Lost in Space. (I loved those too, but wanted to be Judy, not Mrs. Robinson.) Her first remembrance of being aware of JFK Jr. was seeing his photo on the wall at a barber shop. She attended Sacred Heart School with his sister Caroline, but they weren't friends.

As teenagers, their social circles intersected as they attended many of the same parties. He had the reputation as a playboy, even then breaking hearts, and friends warned Christina to stay away from him, which she did.

They both attended Brown University, and shared a house with three other students, one of whom was future journalist Christiane Amanpour. They became closer friends then, and that section of the book sheds much light on Kennedy.

Haag tells of answering the phone one day, and a man on the other end threatened to kill Kennedy. She became justifiably upset, and when the roommates finally found John, he brushed it off. It was something he lived with, but he did not let it rule his life; he lived life to the fullest.

Haag became an actress, and appeared in an off-off Broadway play with Kennedy where they had a romantic kiss that deepened their feelings for each other. He wanted to be an actor, but knew his mother would not accept it, so he went to law school.

The portrayal of Jackie shows a different side to her than most people know. She was genteel yet strong, kind, wise, and she had a bit of wicked sense of humor. She liked Christina, seeing a bit of herself in the young woman whom her son loved. After they broke up, Jackie tried to help Christina get an acting job, and even sent her a note a month before she passed away.

Haag does an admirable job of writing this memoir while still respecting the privacy of people involved. Sometimes when you read memoirs with famous people in them, it can feel like reading The National Inquirer. Not so with Come to the Edge.

Even when she has a right to her anger, such as when he married his wife Carolyn on Cumberland Island, a place that he and Christina discovered together and spent a romantic vacation, she doesn't write of how much of betrayal that was. She describes the lovely time they spent there, and then of hearing that that was where he got married. She makes her point subtly, letting the reader come to her own conclusion how that would feel.

Kennedy comes to life in this book, especially in this passage:
"We had been together more than a year, and there were things I had learned. He was chivalric and competitive, puritan and sensual. He wore Vetiver and Eau Sauvage, and when he didn't, his skin was like warm sun. He loved to cook but burned his food, and he slept with the windows open. I wore his sweaters, he ate off my plate, and we spent most nights at his apartment on Ninety-first Street. And if he was in a mood and I wanted something, a small thing- a light turned on, a fan turned off- I found that if I said the opposite, it worked like a charm... He had a theory that his occasional contrariness was due to being "bossed by so many women" when he was young."
This is more than just a celebrity memoir, this is a story of a great love. Haag writes with grace, honesty and dignity, and anyone who has ever had love only to lose it will relate. Love is difficult, beautiful, exhilarating, breath-taking and heart-breaking, and Come to the Edge describes all its facets perfectly.

rating 4 of 5 stars

If you liked this, you will like Carole Radziwill's book What Remains, about losing her husband, Anthony Radziwill (JFK Jr.'s cousin), JFK Jr. and his wife Carolyn all within a short time. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Starlite Drive-in by Marjorie Reynolds

The Starlite Drive-in by Marjorie Reynolds
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-209264-9
Trade paperback, $14.99

Sometimes a book evokes a time and a place so well, the reader feels like she's been dropped into it. That is the feeling I had reading Marjorie Reynold's The Starlite Drive-in.

Set in the hot, dusty summer of 1956 in a small Indiana town, I felt like I had to turn on the air conditioning to cool off, even though it was a cold winter day in New York City where I was reading the novel.

The book opens in the 1990s, where human remains are found at the old drive-in that Callie Anne's dad ran in the 1950s. Callie Anne, her dad Claude, and her mom Teal lived in a house on the drive-in property, and practically their entire lives revolved around around the drive-in.

For Teal, her entire life revolved around her house. Something happened to Teal a few years back; she became severely agoraphobic, unable to leave her home. This also meant that Claude and Callie Anne were stuck there too, something for which Claude resented Teal. He treated his wife and daughter poorly, yelling at them, talking down to them, calling them names; they walked on eggshells around Claude.

One day, a drifter named Memphis got a job working at the drive-in. Callie Anne, just beginning adolescence, fell hard for the good-looking, mysterious man. Memphis was a quiet man, but he had a connection with Teal. He didn't like the way Claude treated Teal, and began to fall in love with her. His presence at the drive-in changed everything for Callie Anne's family that summer.

Reynold's novel cast a spell on the reader. The characters are fleshed out and interesting, from the major ones like Callie, Memphis, Teal and Claude to the minor ones, like Teal's strong-willed sister Bliss, and Virgil, the young man who worked at the drive-in and with whom Callie begins a tender relationship. I liked how most of the characters were good at heart, but people with flaws, desires and hopes.

Although the story is told from Callie Anne's point of view, it was Teal's journey that moved me most. She went from a timid, lonely woman to someone who blossomed as she attempted to overcome her agoraphobia and open herself up to love. I loved her inner strength.

There is some action in the book, even a few scenes that will make you hold your breath. The story reminded me of The Last Picture Show (the movie, as I have never read the book), even down to the movie reference in the titles. It has a small 1950s town, characters with secrets, illicit love and a languid pace.

I think Callie summed it all up best when she said "I didn't know how to express what was really bothering me. It was tied up with loving Charlie Memphis and losing a dream and thinking life was too complicated and hard on people. There was even something to do with responsibility, but I couldn't make sense of it."

Life was hard on the people on The Starlite Drive-in, just like it is on many people. I have a feeling I won't soon forget them.

rating 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Published by Delacorte Press ISBN 978-0385344012
Hardcover, $23

I read the first Flavia de Luce novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, when it published a few years back and enjoyed it. This is the fourth installment, and the second book in the series I have read. The de Luce family, Flavia, her two older sisters Daphne and Ophelia and their father have fallen on hard financial times and must rent out their English estate to a film crew to avoid losing their home. British film star Phyllis Wyvern is in the movie and takes a shine to Flavia.

The murder doesn't take place until halfway through the novel, so when it does happen, we have gotten to know both the deceased and many of the suspects. Flavia is a British Nancy Drew, with a dash of CSI thrown in, as she has a laboratory in her wing of the estate. Although she is just eleven years old, she has helped the police before, and hopes to solve this case while everyone in town is trapped on her family's estate by a snowstorm.

Fans of Jacqueline Winspear's post WWI Maisie Dobbs series will like this series; it has some of the same sensibilities, although it strives for more humor. The setting is post-WWII, and like the Dobbs series, the war has repercussions to the story. The character of Dogger, a war compatriot of Flavia's father and Flavia's best friend, reminds me of Maisie's assistant Billy. They have both been physically and emotionally scarred by war, and they are very loyal to their bosses.

Like the Dobbs series, the author throws in lots of slang, which is fun to read. Flavia speaks of ''having a dekko of her own" (looking around), and taking a "quick jaunt to the jakes" (bathroom). I love learning new (or rather old) slang.

Flavia's family doesn't play a big part in this book, but perhaps that is because Flavia doesn't really have a close relationship to them, and the story is told from her viewpoint. I would like to know more about her sisters, especially Daphne, the lover of reading. We do learn more about her aunt, who ends up having some information important to the resolution of the murder. The identity of the killer and the reason behind it is surprising; I'm not sure anyone could guess who or why.

While this cozy mystery is not a YA book, it will appeal to young girls. They will like Flavia's unconventional personality and her ability to get herself in and out of trouble. I liked it, and it was a good little story to read by the fire on a cold winter's day.

rating 3.5 of 5

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Most Compelling Reads of 2011

After the hustle and bustle of Christmas, it’s time to sit back and reflect; and so, here are the 10 books (plus one) that I found most compelling in 2011.
Eleanor Brown’s debut novel The Weird Sisters takes its title from Shakespeare’s trio of witches in “Macbeth,” yet the main characters are not witches, but sisters who come back home supposedly to care for their ailing mother - but really, they are home to heal themselves. I love that the sisters are voracious readers.
Eleanor Henderson, an associate professor at Ithaca College, wrote her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, set in the late 1980s in Vermont and the Lower East Side of New York City.
A teenage boy loses his best friend, but remains tied to him through the dead boy’s brother and the girl he got pregnant. I did not want this book to end, and the characters worm their way into your heart. It reminded me of the classic teen novel, The Outsiders, right down to the fight scene.
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, the debut novel from screenwriter Jenny Wingfield, echoes another classic novel, “To KiIl a Mockingbird,” with its depiction of a small town in the 1950s, and the character of Swan Lake, a young girl trying to understand the world around her. I loved the entire Lake family, including the laconic and heroic Uncle Toy, and the relationship between Swan’s parents was tender and real. It also depicts the real evil that is present in the world through the character of Blade Ballenger. It is a powerful, lovely story that made me cry.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett transported me with her tale of terrorists in a South American country holding an embassy of hostages, and her new novel, State of Wonder, does the same for the Amazon jungle. It has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but here a female researcher travels to the Amazon to find her missing colleague and confronts her former mentor, a female doctor who has made an amazing medical discovery. You can actually feel the heat and bugs of the jungle as you read. I did not want this novel to end.
Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, is a dense book with unforgettable characters. Set in a small college, it tells the story of a fantastic shortstop for the baseball team, the catcher and team captain who recruited him, the college dean who has a secret relationship with another player, and the dean’s adult daughter.
Although this book is not for everyone, it speaks to the pressures placed on young adults on their journey to adulthood, what it means to be exceptional at something, and the difficulties of finding love. HBO has optioned it as a miniseries.
Jennifer Haigh wrote one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Kimble, a few years ago, and this year her novel Faith made my list. Set in Boston, a sister tells the story of her half-brother, a priest accused of a crime by a woman he befriends. It is a story not just of faith in religion, but faith in your family. Beautifully written, it will make you think.
I am not a big mystery reader, but Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was A Soldier, the latest in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries set in the Adirondacks, made me a fan again.
Fergusson is a minister and combat helicopter pilot in the reserves, recently returned from Iraq. When a returning soldier ends up dead, Fergusson and Van Alstyne investigate. The novel addresses the problems facing returning veterans in a sympathetic and realistic manner. This is the seventh book in the series, and the characters were so intriguing and the story so well-written, I have vowed to read all of the series.
The spot for male-driven comedic novel, last year taken by Jonathan Topper’s This Is Where I Leave You, goes to Matthew Norman’s debut Domestic Violets. Tom Violet hates his job writing ad copy for corporate clients, fears his wife is having an affair and has to deal with his famous writer father, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I laughed out loud several times at this sparkling story, more often than not at the interaction between Tom and Gregory, the Dwight Schrute-like obnoxious co-worker whom Tom loves to drive crazy. If you like TV’s “The Office” - give this novel a try.
On the nonfiction side, Tina Fey’s Bossypants has spent the better part of the year at the top of the best-seller list for good reason. It is hilarious, honest and brilliant (like Fey).  
She tells some of her story, from good girl growing up near Chicago to working for little pay at Second City to head writer at “Saturday Night Live” to creator/writer/star of “30 Rock.” She talks about what’s like to be married, a new mom and boss to Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin at work. Props to her for the section on the writers at “30 Rock,” including their best lines from the show. Fey is an inspiration to women and a class act all the way.
Ben Ryder Howe recounts how he and wife bought My Korean Deli and ran it with his mother-in-law in Brooklyn.
It is an interesting look at their journey, from finding the right store to getting to know everyone in the neighborhood to working with your in-laws, who are of a different culture. This book will give you a newfound respect for people who work to make the American dream come true. (Bonus points for the George Plimpton section.)
I am a huge baseball fan, and Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game fascinated me. Barry, a New York Times columnist, tells the story of the rebuilding of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the longest game ever played in baseball between them and the Rochester Red Wings. Another great book of Americana told through the eyes of baseball.
I’d love to hear your favorite
reads of the year. Email me at laruediane2000@yahoo.com.
Diane LaRue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and has a goal of reading one book each week. For more information or reviews, visit www.bookchickdi.blogspot.com. She can be reached at laruediane2000@yahoo.com.

Read more: http://auburnpub.com/lifestyles/a-review-of-s-most-compelling-books/article_574ff2ec-3345-11e1-bf14-001871e3ce6c.html#ixzz1iGVVD5GK