Powered By Blogger

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Published by Hyperion Voice, ISBN 978-1401340827
Hardcover , $25.99
I had never heard of Harvard's Red Book before I recently read Deborah Copaken Kogan's novel, The Red Book. Every five years, Harvard compiles a book filled with short essays written by  each graduate, sharing what they have been up to in the past five years.

The actual Red Book made headlines recently when infamous graduate Ted Kazcynski, the man known to the world as the Unabomber, returned his questionnaire listing his occupation as 'prisoner' and under the awards section, wrote 'eight life sentences', and his entry was included in the book, angering many people including his victims' families.

None of this has anything to do with Kogan's book, but perhaps the timely story will bring some publicity to this wonderful novel. Kogan takes the popular concept of four female protagonists (Little Women, Sex & the City, J. Courtney Sullivan's 2011 novel Maine), and adds a dash of The Big Chill (one of my favorite movies) that brought me to tears by the end of this emotional story.

Cleverly using the conceit of the Red Book, she introduces her four main characters with their 20 year entries. Sometimes books with multiple protagonists can lead to confusion keeping everyone straight, and by introducing in this manner, that problem is solved.

We are thrust into the lives, their marriages, their children, their careers, what they have been doing since college. Addison has put her career as an artist on hold to raise her three children and support her husband, a writer who doesn't seem to do much writing (or any parenting).

Clover was a huge success at Lehman Brothers, until they went under. Now she is unemployed  and trying unsuccessfully to have a child with her husband, a Legal Aid attorney.

Mia went to LA after college to try and make it as an actress. She met an older man, Jonathan, a successful director and they have four children and a good life, with homes in LA and the Antibes. She and Jonathan are deeply in love, but what she doesn't know is that they took a big financial hit during the recession.

Jane is a reporter for the Boston Globe, based in France. Her first husband was killed while reporting in Afghanistan. She has a daughter with him and is now living with her husband's best friend. Her adopted mother recently passed away after a long illness, and Jane is bereft.

The four women all meet up again at the 20th reunion, bringing their families with them, except for Clover. Clover runs into an old flame and has a plan that unwittingly involves him . Addison ends up in serious trouble for unpaid parking tickets and her old lover, a wealthy woman, comes to rescue.

Jane is trying to decide whether to move back to the United States to write a novel, and has to face infidelities from her partner. Mia wants to return to acting.

Being back in Cambridge brings back memories for all of them, and causes some of them to reflect on their regrets, the things they should have done. The story culminates at a memorial service for a classmate, and all of the emotions of the weekend coming crashing down around them.

I really liked the relationship between Mia and Jonathan. Their marriage is solid and loving, and the scene where Jonathan comforts an upset Jane is so tender and moving.

Two of the families have teenage children, and a romance between them ensues. Kogan writes the scenes with the teens with empathy and insight, and I liked that the kids weren't one-dimensional. Their story was important as well.

Some books you love right away, this was one that took me awhile to get into, but by the end, when Kogan takes a character down a road that I was not happy about, I actually said "NO!" when I saw it coming, and almost cursed her. That is how much I was invested in this story, in this particular character. I love getting lost in a good story, and I was enveloped in this engrossing book.

My husband loves movies where at the end they tell you what happens to the characters, and this novel ends like it begins: we read the 25th anniversary report and find out how things have turned out.

rating 4 of 5

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Weekend Cooking- Good Eating in Miami

My husband and I  made a trip to Miami Beach over Mother's Day weekend, and we stayed at the beautiful Fontainebleau Hotel. It is a famous hotel, recently remodeled and it reminded me of a hotel you'd find in Vegas.

Gotham Steak is located in the hotel, and it was a great start. We took the server's recommendation to try the appetizer special to share, grilled shrimp and tenderloin on vertical skewers over a bed of greens. It was served with three sauces- lemongrass aioli, sweet and sour and manchego cheese. The shrimp was delightful, and the beef was so tender.
Gotham appetizer

The next food highlight was breakfast at Vida. The buffet was included in our room rate, and normally I am not a big fan of buffets, but this one was top-notch. They had everything from oatmeal to pancakes, waffles, a large variety of fresh fruit (the pineapple was so sweet), ham, bacon, chicken sausage (another big hit), scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict and omelettes to order. I looked forward to breakfast every morning.

The highlight of lunch poolside was the turkey wrap, which was made with freshly sliced turkey. We also enjoyed the Wild Berry Blast beverage, with the just the right amount of rum.

Our next dinner was at a Miami institution, Joe's Stone Crab, where most of us had the Mahi Mahi in a corn tortilla broth, which had a zesty spicy taste to it.

We made reservation at The Forge, another Miami institution, for night three. The ambience there is so spectacular, with high ceilings, and eclectic chairs at each table. The table next to us had a chair that would have looked at home at the Mad Hatter's table.

Our server was extremely knowledgeable, and he and my husband discussed their extensive wine list. We started with a LycheeSpumante, and I liked the juxtaposition of the lychee with the champagne, topped with lychee foam.

I took our server's advice and had their famous Lobster Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich snack. It had chopped lobster, chopped peanuts and sweet onion marmalade on a toasted brioche. It tasted just like peanut butter and jelly,with lobster. It was interesting, but I'm not sure I would order it again.
Lobster Peanut Butter & Jelly

My entree was much better. Again taking the server's suggestion, I had the Grilled Shrimp Waffle. It was small, but oh so tasty. Two grilled jumbo shrimp on top of a waffle, with a basil butter sauce and caviar on top. This ranks as one of my top ten entrees ever, I just wish there were more. I had never had caviar before, and I enjoyed it.
Grilled Shrimp Waffle
Our last night's dinner was at Smith & Wollensky, which is located right on the water. We have eaten at other Smith & Wollensky, but this is worth it for the view alone. We sat at an outside table, and it was very romantic. The highlight was my prime rib, which may have been the best I have ever tasted. Cooked to perfection, it melted like butter in my mouth. I don't usually eat my entire entree, but I devoured that and left practically nothing.

Our funny waiter
The server was wonderful, and we asked him to take our photo. He took several shots from different angles, then took one of himself. It was a funny schtick, and I am certain it gets him better tips.

At Smith & Wollensky's
We had a champagne toast for my birthday (this is the LAST of the birthday celebrations, I promise), and when the waiter found out it was my birthday, he brought us a chocolate molten cake with ice cream on the house.
The birthday cake
We took a stroll along the beautiful walkway, and it was the perfect end to a romantic vacation.

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, May 25, 2012

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan

The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan
Published by Viking Adult, ISBN 978-060023165
Hardcover, $25.95
I've never read a book by Stewart O'Nan, though I have heard good things about him.  His latest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, tells the story of Marion and Art, a middle-aged married couple on their way to Niagara Falls.
They are in severe financial trouble, about to lose their home to foreclosure and have a plan to hit a casino, with Art's sure-fire system to win enough money to save them.

As the story quietly unfolds, we find that Art and Marion are planning on separating, but I wasn't clear if it was related to the finances or because Marion was unhappy. We learn that Art had an affair a long time ago, and Marion has never really forgiven him. Marion recently had an affair with a woman, but Art is unaware of that.

Each chapter begins with a statistic, like the "odds of getting sick on vacation 1 in 9", and each statistic relates to the chapter. In this one, Marion gets food poisoning. It's a clever way to tie everything into the gambling theme.

This is basically a two-person story, and as I was reading it, I thought it would make a good stage play. We spend much of time getting to know this couple, and the insight into each character is revealing, like this passage of Art describing himself:
"If, as he liked to think, his greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope, his one great shortcoming was a refusal to accept and therefore have any shot at changing his fate."
Marion says of herself:
"What had she done with her life? For a moment she couldn't think of anything. Become a wife and a mother. A lover, briefly, badly. Made a home, worked, saved, traveled. All with him. For him, because of him, despite him. From the start, because she was just a girl then, she'd thought they were soul mates, that it made them special, better than other couples they knew. She'd learned her lesson. She swore she'd never be fooled again, not by anyone, and yet she's fought for him as if he were hers, and then, having won, didn't know what to do with him."
That passage just blew me away. I found the writing to be concise, and so profound. Marion and Art each take chapters sharing their thoughts and moving the story along. The overwhelming tone of the novel is sadness, with Art hoping that his gamble can make this last trip together something memorable, that he can be a hero, and they can regain the intimacy they lost.

Marion does not appear to want to reignite their marriage, she sees this as one last reluctant fling. She is an unhappy woman, and the only time she shows any sign of joy is when they get drunk at a Heart concert, reliving her youth.

The one nitpicky thing that bothered me about this book is the character names. Art and Marion are about the same age as me, but their names make them sound like they are 70 years old. I don't know anyone my age named Art or Marion. I wonder if the author intentionally did that?

Their literal gambling to win enough money to save themselves is a metaphor for the gamble they are taking on their marriage. Can they win at either? Anyone who has been married may see themselves in certain parts of this book. It is an insightful look at a marriage in crisis, and the writing is so brilliant, you'll feel like you are eavesdropping on this couple.

rating 4 of 5

Broadway Reviews- Gore Vidal's The Best Man

I've been on a run of Broadway shows lately, and with eleven of them opening with in the last month or so, and have been remiss in posting reviews. Now that the Tony Awards are creeping up on June 12, I realized I've got to catch up.

I saw the revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man last month, and as I am a political and Broadway junkie, this show was right up my alley. I saw John Larroquette, one of the stars, on his way into the theater a week before I attended the show and I told him how I enjoyed his Tony-winning performance in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,  and he graciously thanked me (PS- he is VERY tall).

The theater is set like the interior of a political convention, the setting of the show. There is red, white, and blue bunting all over the place, and the stage has dozens of campaign signs.
The campaign signs on the stage

It looked like a convention floor inside the theater

Although the show was written in the 1960s, it is timely. John Larroquette plays former Secretary of State Russell locked in a primary battle with a young, snaky Senator Cantwell from the South, played by Eric McCormack (TV's Will & Grace).

Russell wants to take the high moral road, against the advice of others, while Cantwell is willing to play dirty to get the nomination. Both actors are good, and Larroquette is marvelous in everything he does. Candice Bergen plays his wife, reluctant to campaign because she wants a divorce from her philandering husband. It was joy to see her on stage, and the audience gave her thunderous applause when she appeared on stage. Kerry Butler is perfect as Cantwell's steely magnolia of a wife, urging her husband on to do what is necessary to get the nomination.

James Earl Jones steals the show as he eats up the scenery portraying former President, a good ol' Southern boy whose plays both sides against each other as they wait for his endorsement. Jones has the best role in the show, and he plays it to the hilt. He was rewarded with a nomination for Best Leading Actor in a play, although I felt his role was more of a featured role.

Angela Lansbury, the party Chairman of the Women's Division, plays the role beautifully. It  was a joy to see her and Jones in the play together, a real treat for the viewer.

The show cover many topics timely for today (unfortunately), such as contraception, religion and prejudice against gays. (It's sad that we are still fighting about this stuff forty years after the play was written. Have we made such little progress?)

There are some great lines from this funny, thought-provoking show. Jones says  he doesn't like conservatives because "they pour God all over everything, like ketchup."

Candice Bergen's character is the voice of reason in one fabulous scene with herself, Butler and Lansbury. As Butler takes jabs at Bergen's husband, Bergen talks about hoping that "intelligence is contagious", and says that the role of the wives is to be " interchangeably inoffensive".  I saw some shades of Murphy Brown in those readings.

Gore Vidal's Best Man is nominated for Best Revival of a Play, and I would say go see this if only for the masterful performances. It's not often you get so many terrific performers on one stage. This is a show worth paying full-price for a ticket. See it soon, it has a limited run.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Win a copy of Laura Moriarty's THE CHAPERONE

I was lucky enough to read an early copy of Laura Moriarty's new novel, The Chaperone, about a woman who accompanies a teenage Louise Brooks, before she became a silent film star, to New York City one summer. I fell in love with the book, it is one of my favorites of the year, and my review is here.

The publishers of the book, Riverhead, is offering a personalized signed copy of the book to one of my readers. To enter, leave a comment in the comments section (US and Canada only, please). You can get an extra entry in the contest by signing up to be a follower of my blog.

The winner will be drawn on May 31st.

Read more about The Chaperone at Laura's Facebook fanpage

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon
Published by Ballantine ISBN 978-0345527950
Hardcover, $26

Alice Buckle is a middle-aged wife and mother of a teenage daughter and twelve-year-old son. Her husband works in advertising, and she is a part-time elementary drama teacher. On the outside, everything seems good, but the facade soon starts to crack.

Her husband William loses his job, and their relationship has been strained of late. She thinks that her daughter may have an eating disorder and she believes her son is gay but he just doesn't know it.

One day she gets an email request to join a research project about 21st century marriage.  She has to answer a series of questions about how she met husband, fell in love and about their subsequent relationship. Alice begins to develop a on-line relationship with her researcher, and they eventually begin talking on Facebook (with fake profiles) and agree to meet.

The novel is novel in that much of it consists of email messages between Alice and her researcher, and uses Facebook status updates to convey some of the story. We get to know some of Alice's friends and family through the Facebook updates, and since my sons constantly remind me that now only "old people" like my friends and me use Facebook, this book should hold appeal for our age group.

The characters in the book are interesting and well-developed, and I particularly liked Alice's friend Nedra, a divorce lawyer who is finally marrying her girlfriend of many years. Nedra tries to be the voice of reason for Alice as she falls farther down the hole, like her literary doppleganger in Wonderland.

As a mother of two grown children, I could relate to Alice's connection with her children, and the relationship she had with her son was particularly touching.

As Alice answers the questions, she reflects back on her marriage, where it began and how it ended up where it is. I think that many women reading this may do the same. One thing I found interesting was that we saw Alice's answers, but we didn't see the questions; we had to guess what they were.

I read the book on my Kindle, and at the end of the book, the questions are given, but you had to go back through the book to match them up. This would be easier to do with actual physical book rather than an ebook, so I would recommend reading this in book form.

I have to admit that halfway through this book, I thought I saw where it was going and I was not happy about it. But I have to give to credit to Gideon, she took what could have been a cliche and skillfully created a satisfying resolution to the story.

One sign of a good book for me is that I continue to reflect upon it after I finish reading it, and weeks later, I'm still thinking about Wife 22.

rating 4 of 5

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Published by Random House ISBN 978-1400069347
Hardcover, $26

When I used to get my Newsweek magazine in the mail, I would immediately turn to the back page to see if this was the week for Anna Quindlen's column. She and her husband had children about the same age as our sons, and her politics were very similar to mine. It sometimes seemed that she was writing the same things I was feeling at that same moment.

Her fiction books are very emotional, from Oprah Book Club selection Black and Blue to the  heartbreaking Every Last One, her most recent one that tore me up. But I was thrilled to see that she had a new non-fiction book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, sharing what it's like to be a woman over 50. As I just hit that mark, I couldn't wait to read it.

I read it on my Kindle while on the treadmill, and I knew that I would be adding many highlighted passages for review later, and I was right. Quindlen has been a big reader since she was child, just like me, and what she had to say about reading touched a chord with me.
"That's what's so wonderful about reading, that books and poetry and essays make us feel as though we're connected, as though thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and nutty are sometimes shared by others, that we are all more alike than different."
I think that what makes blogging so appealing to us too, that sharing of interests with others we might not otherwise get to know.

Qunidlen and her husband have three children, and I found her advice to them really hit the mark; she "believes the single most important decision they make is not where they live or what to do for a living, it's who they will marry." She says that "the span of their years will be so marked by the life they build, day by day, in tandem with each other."  Twenty-five years of marriage to my wonderful husband bears out her wise words.

She writes of her husband,
"He is focused, diligent, and funny; I am distractible, perapatic, sometimes overly earnest. He is the first to criticize me privately and the first to defend me publicly. He has my back and he always has. That's not romantic, and it's not lyrical and it's not at all what I expected when I thought I would never want to spend a night without him."
She talks about the importance of girlfriends, and the irony of the women's movement teaching us that we can be more than caregivers, and yet today many of us are now caring for not only young children but aging parents as well. Quindlen was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school (as I did), and I found her thoughts on religion intriguing and relevant in today's society.

As we age, our health becomes a big topic of concern for us, and Quindlen addresses the changes we all go through. She lost her mother when she was barely out of her teens and that loss colored the rest of her life.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is a book that I will return to again and again, just to remind myself that there are others out there who are thinking the same things and walking the same path, and thank goodness Anna Quindlen is there to take us through it.

rating 5 of 5

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

The Darlings by Cristina Alger
Published by Pamela Dorman Books ISBN 9781101560310
Hardcover, $26.95
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

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

My review of Amanda Hodgkinson's 22 Britannia Road in my monthly column in the Auburn Citizen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Word for Word Author Series at Bryant Park

Sara Barron, Ali Wentworth, Justin Halpern at Bryant Park 

I love when the warmer weather is here because that means the return of Bryant Park's Word for Word Author Series on Wednesday afternoons. This year's kickoff was May 16th with author Sara Barron (People Are Unappealing: Even Me) interviewing author/actress Ali Wentworth (Ali in Wonderland and Other Tall Tales) and author Justin Halpern (S&*t My Dad Says and I Suck at Girls).

All three are funny people and Sara's questions were well crafted, (except for one that lost the audience and the authors). She asked the authors to describe themselves and Ali said "I'm a very elegant lady and I feel for the underdog. I can see I have my hands full with you two."

Justin said of himself, "I'm going for nebbishy Jew" to which Sara replied "Mission accomplished."

All three agreed with Sara's assertion that "writing is romanticized" as a profession, and if they are to  be believed, it's a lot of sitting around, fooling around on the internet and finally, at the end of the day, writing one good line. It must take them forever to finish a book.

Describing a "day in the life of a writer", Ali said that she gets up at 6 (her husband Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopolis wakes at 3am), gets her kids up and takes them to school, comes home and drinks lots of English tea, paces a lot, shops online, looks up plastic surgery websites, writes a line and then picks up her kids from school.

Justin says he just follows his dad around with a pencil. He "eats breakfast, farts around on the internet, writes a line, hates it, more internet" and the day is done. He wrote for sitcoms and said that "95% of the time in the writers room is wasted", so either way, he wastes a lot of time.

Sara asked what they would consider a good day of writing, and Ali said "if I don't fall asleep" it's a good day. Justin said if his wife laughs at his stuff, he knows it's good.

Sara asked about pet peeves, and Ali relates that her husband is the serious one, so when he reads something of hers and says "that's funny, but you know what would be funnier?", it makes her crazy. (She talks about that in her funny book.)

Both of their books are about their parents to great extent, and Sara asked how their parents felt about the books. Ali said that her mother "was on the brink of a breakdown" and was afraid that Ali was writing a Patti Davis or Mommy Dearest type book, and even enlisted Ali's siblings to contact anyone they knew at HarperCollins to stop the book. (It wasn't necessary, the book is really a love letter to her mother.)

Justin's dad made him sit next to him while he read the book, which was excruciating. His dad said "Page 86- when have I ever hopped into a car? I don't 'hop' into anything."

I like this series because instead of just a reading, the authors discuss their process and craft of writing. It's always an enlightening afternoon, plus it's outside and a sunny day, it's just beautiful.

The Word for Word series schedule can be found here.
I reviewed Ali's book Ali in Wonderland on the blog here.
Ali Wentworth has a web show, The Daily Shot, on yahoo that is very funny.
Sara Barron's website is here.
Justin Halpern, who owes everything to Twitter and his dad, can be found on Tumblr.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky
Published by Vintage ISBN 978-0307743299
Trade paperback, $14.95

Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, a moving, thought-provoking novel about France in World War II, was even more poignant knowing that the author died in a concentration camp before it could be published. This novel, All Our Worldly Goods, set in France between the world wars and focusing mostly on one family, was written before Suite Francaise. Young Pierre Hardelot, whose family owns the town's paper mill, falls in love with Agnes and breaks his engagement to another, more suitable woman (according to his family) to marry her. Pierre goes off to fight to WWI, and his family fears for his safety. When the fighting approaches their town, Agnes and Pierre's family must flee to safety together.

Like Suite Francaise, the scenes of the French leaving their homes are vividly drawn and harrowing. The author places the reader in the middle of the chaos, and you can feel yourself holding your breath as you read them, hoping they get to safety. You also feel the claustrophobic atmosphere as the family is forced to live together in cramped quarters during the war. As the mother of two sons, I found the passage where Pierre's mother sent her son off to war so beautifully written.

Nemirovsky is also a master of character development; I was very invested in Pierre and Agnes and their family's story. Their love story is the glue that holds the novel together, and as they age and have to send their son off to WWII, they reflect on their own experiences two decades before at the dawn of WWI.

War isn't the only conflict in the story. Pierre's grandfather, who owns the factory, cuts Pierre out of his life because Pierre defied his family's choice of a spouse. The jilted woman comes back looking for revenge, and she is a sad, angry woman. These two characters try to wreak as much havoc as the war on Pierre and Agnes.

Using the world wars as backdrop, Nemirovsky writes a masterful story of love, family and loyalty. The reader is drawn into this small town in France at a time when the world was a dangerous place. Reading this book is an emotional experience.

rating 4 of 5

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale by Lynda Rutledge

Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale by Lynda Rutledge
Published by Amy Einhorn Books ISBN 978-0399157196
Hardcover, $25.95
The cover of this book is so eye-catching, I don't know how anyone could walk by it and not pick it up. Faith Bass Darling, the elderly wealthy woman whose family founded the Texas town of Bass, has heard the voice of God and he wants her to have a garage sale and sell all of her worldly goods. This won't be any ordinary garage sale; Faith has collected hundreds of expensive antiques over the years. She pays some high school football players to haul her items out of her house and place them on the lawn.

When word spreads about the sale, and the fact that Darling is selling antique Tiffany lamps for just a $1, people race to get a deal. Bobbie Blankenship, the town antique store owner and friend of Faith's estranged daughter, is torn between shock at what she sees going on and the desire to get her hands on some of the more valuable items for herself. When Bobbie tries to talk some sense into Faith and get her to get a proper appraisal and hold a real auction, Faith brushes her off. Bobbie realizes that Faith is suffering from dementia and calls Faith's daughter Claudia to get home on the double.

As the story progresses, we meet Claudia, and John Jasper, a sheriff's deputy and former best friend to Faith's son who was tragically killed in an accident when he was in high school. When he asks Faith why she is doing this, she tells him that she killed her husband years ago.

No one can talk Faith out of giving her items away, and she can't explain to them exactly why it is necessary to do this. Through the antiques, we get the back story of what has happened to the Darling family, and why they are estranged. Some of the pieces have important stories of their own, stories that explain how Faith has gotten to this point in her life.

The writing really draws you in, and the characters seem like real small-town people that you would know. You feel like Bass, Texas is a real place, and if you went there, you'd run into Bobbie and John Jasper on your journey through the town. The story fascinated me, and one question leads to another. I liked Faith Bass Darling and how her search for the truth behind memories and the meaning of possessions and spirituality in your life comes together for her.

Amy Einhorn Books continues its streak of finding new writers with unique voices in Lynda Rutledge, and once again, I look forward to seeing more from the imprint.

rating 4 of 5

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John Smoltz- Starting and Closing

Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith & One More Year by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger
Published by William Morrow, ISBN 978062120540
Hardcover, $26.99

John Smoltz is one of the best pitchers to ever play major league baseball. For over twenty years he pitched for the Atlanta Braves, chosen eight times for the All-Star team and winning the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in 1996.

He pitched in the starting rotation for fourteen years when an injury caused him to move to the bullpen and become a relief pitcher. After three years in the bullpen, he asked to rejoin the starting rotation. Many people, particularly in the sports media, asked him why he did this. His response: Why not?

Smoltz begins the book with three things people need to know about him:
1. All he ever wanted to do was win
2. He's not afraid to fail
3. He never did anything in his baseball career just to set a record, or to be able to say that no one else has done what he has done

Smoltz lived in Michigan, and his grandfather worked at the Detroit Tigers stadium. Young John grew up going to Tigers games, and he loved the Tigers. He was thrilled to be drafted by his hometown Tigers to play baseball, and disappointed when they soon traded him to the Atlanta Braves.

His disappointed turned to happiness when he realized that the Braves were willing to work with him, that they valued their young players and worked hard to make him a successful pitcher. (The Braves are  known for their excellent farm system.)

Injuries plagued Smoltz throughout his career, and he pushed his body through the pain, hoping to avoid Tommy John surgery, which could end his baseball career. He eventually had the surgery, but with his amazing work ethic, he began a grueling rehab program and came back to pitch again, although as a closer.

As a person who worked best with a steady routine, Smoltz found it difficult to get used to the unpredictability of being a reliever. As a starter, he knew which day he would pitch, so his mind was set. He could play his favorite hobby, golf, on his off-days. He said that "by going to the bullpen, I sacrificed two things that really helped me tick; knowing what was coming and feeling like I was in control."

Besides baseball, two other things motivated Smoltz: golf and being a born-again Christian. He described the moment he knew that his relationship with God had to change, and how his life changed for the better because of it. He soon became a popular speaker at 'baseball church' gatherings, and later founded a Christian school in an Atlanta suburb.

Now that he is retired, Smoltz has set his sights on joining the Champions Tour in golf , and Tiger Woods has said that publicly that Smoltz is the best amateur golfer he has seen. Smoltz frequently played golf with his pitching teammates, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and you can feel the joy on the pages where describes their bonding over golf.

Smoltz was not re-signed by the Braves after twenty years, and he joined the Boston Red Sox for a final season. He describes the sadness he felt at leaving the team he helped to bring to 14 post-season playoffs, although with only one World Series title. I found his analysis of the toll that pitching in so many consecutive post-seasons took interesting, and I have to say it never occurred to me how damaging it could be.

Boston was a disaster, and Smoltz was happy to be picked by up the St. Louis Cardinals after the Red Sox released him halfway through the season. He was happy to be able to contribute to the Cardinals playoff run, but wistfully says that he wished he could have ended his career in Atlanta.

Starting & Closing is not your typical sports memoir; Smoltz really concentrates on his last season, sprinkling little parts of his life throughout. You get a real feel for what makes this intriguing man tick, why he was so successful in baseball although plagued with injuries, and how his changed relationship with God made him a better man and a better pitcher.

rating 4 of 5

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Weekend Cooking- The Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman

The Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman
Published by Workman Publishing ISBN 978-0-7611-6603-0
Paperback, $16.95

Subtitled 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket Solutions For All The Cooking-For-Two-Kids Dilemmas That Everyone Faces Every Day (whew- that is a mouthful!), this is a well-organized book filled with solutions to moms' problems.

Every mom wants to feed her children healthy, home-cooked meals, and Workman's book can help with that often-overwhelming process. She starts with basic information, like 5 Basic Tips for Getting Your Kids to Eat More Things, and 17 Amazing Ingredients, olive oil and canned tomatoes among them.

Each chapter starts with a dilemma- Enough with the frozen chicken nuggets is one. Then Workman gives  a number of solutions to the dilemma in the form of easy to make recipes. Some of the solutions include Roast Chicken Several Ways, Lemon Chicken, Barbequed Chicken, Homemade Chicken Tenders, and Taco Night. 

The recipes are easy to follow, and on the right margins she includes Cooking Tips (don't be afraid of the broiler), Make Ahead (broil the chicken and make the sauce a day ahead) and What the Kids Can Do (let the kids juice the lemons, combine the ingredients for the sauce, shake it up, and pour over the chicken), all for Lemon Chicken.

Another interesting aspect of the book is what she calls A Fork in the Road Recipe.  At the end of those recipes is a little box that gives you an alternative way to cook the dish. In the Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas recipe, if your kids don't like things spicy, you can cut back on the chili powder and garlic in the enchilada sauce. You can also use different baking dishes to make the enchiladas; one with enchiladas with the spicier sauce and one with the less spicy sauce.

There are so many recipes in this book that I would try, even though my kids are all grown and will eat pretty much anything. Shrimp Risotto, Fork-in-the-Road Chicken Kebabs, and Vegetable Frittata among them.

There are lots of photos, and Workman walks you through every recipe step-by-step. It's a terrific resource for those who are intimidated by cooking or think it's too difficult. (You can make nutritious meals for your family, even if you have picky eaters.) It also has appeal to the more experienced cook who is looking for easy, classic recipes. And at $16.95, it is a real bargain.

Workman has a website for this book, click here for more information.

rating 5 of 5

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!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper Perennial ISBN 978-0062049810
Trade paperback, $15.99

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto made such an impression on me, I couldn't wait to read her latest novel, State of Wonder, out in paperback on May 8th.

Dr. Marina Singh is a researcher at a pharmaceutical company sent by her employer to the Amazon jungle after they receive a letter stating that their colleague has died there. He was sent to find out why Dr. Annick Swenson, another researcher, has stopped communication with her employer.

Dr. Swenson was Dr. Singh's mentor, and an incident in their past has caused Singh great concern about their meeting again. Swenson was sent to the Amazon to work on a drug that would allow women to remain fertile well into their later years. If it was true, this would make IVF treatments obsolete and the pharmaceutical company would make billions of dollars.

Reading this novel drops you right into the Amazonian jungle. You can almost feel the sweltering heat and you may find yourself swatting furiously at insects you imagine to be biting you. Just like in Bel Canto, the setting of the novel is conjured up full-blown in the reader's mind.

The characters are brilliantly realized, and I found myself wondering who could play 73-year-old Dr. Swenson in the movie version. (I heard Cherry Jones' voice in my head speaking Swenson's lines, but alas she is too young for the role.) Singh and Swenson don't meet up until nearly halfway through the novel, and their fascinating relationship drives the last half of the book.

Some people have called this a female version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but it reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible in the way that it handles the relationship between the American doctors and the native inhabitants, and the ethical questions raised. The Americans' presence in the jungle changes the environment, as much as Dr. Swenson would like to think she has adapted to the jungle.

The story has so many twist and turns, it is the kind of book you literally can feel your heart pounding during the exciting parts. It is a book you are torn about; you want to race through it to see how it ends, yet you want to savor the exquisite writing and story.

Simply put, if you like a brilliant story set in an exotic local, inhabited by complicated characters and written by a masterful storyteller, read State of Wonder.

rating 5 of 5

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Published by Riverhead Books, ISBN 978-1594487019
Hardcover $26.95 384 pages
Publication date June 5, 2012
What does it say about a book where silent film star/siren Louise Brooks, a real character who became famous (and infamous) for her outrageous behavior that she is not the most interesting character in Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone? That title belongs to Cora Kaufmann Carlisle, the title character of this beautiful novel.

Cora lived in an orphanage in New York City near the turn of the 20th century, unsure of her parentage. She was sent on the 'orphan train' westward to be chosen by a family where she would live. The orphans boarded the train, and at each designated stop, they would get out, sing a song, smile, and hope that they would be chosen by a family.

I had never heard of this 'orphan train' before, and the custom struck me as a perversion of the slave auctions held in the 19th century. Some of the orphans ended up with families who just wanted extra free labor, but Cora was lucky; the Kaufmanns chose Cora and grew to love her as if she was their own daughter.

So Cora ended up in Kansas, where she met Alan Carlisle, a lawyer. Alan courted her and they married. Cora had a difficult labor and gave birth to twin sons. Alan was a successful lawyer, and the Carlisles had a good life. Cora kept busy with volunteer work and her friends, yet she felt somewhat restless.

Cora heard that the Brooks family were looking for a chaperone to accompany their 15-year-old daughter Louise to New York City while she attended dance classes. Since her sons are off to college soon, Cora decides to take the job, hoping that she can find the woman who left her in the orphanage years ago.

Cora was taken aback by Louise's mother's complete disinterest in her own children. It seemed like she did not want to care for her children in any matter. Cora was hired for the job, which turned out to be much more than she bargained for.

Louise Brooks is larger than life, even at 15 years of age. She can't wait to be let loose in New York, and chafes at Cora's rules; it is a classic generation gap. The world is changing, and Louise is at the forefront of the change. She wears low-cut dresses, too much makeup and flirts shamelessly with any man who can get her something she wants.

Cora is frustrated by Louise's behavior, and more than a little frightened for her. She fears that someone will take advantage of Louise, and she is relieved when she finds that the dance teacher keeps a close tab on her students.

Living in New York, I found the part of the book set there utterly fascinating. Moriarty drops the reader into a hot summer in the city in the roaring 1920s, and you can smell, taste, see, feel and hear all of the city; it is a complete sensory experience.

The summer in New York changes both Louise and Cora's lives. Louise is chosen to stay on with the dance company and she eventually becomes a famous silent star. Cora returns home, but she is profoundly changed by the experience as well.

Secrets and the damage they do are a major theme in the book. Cora longs to find out who her mother is, her husband keeps a big secret from her (which I did not see coming!), and Cora keeps a secret from her children. Louise confides in Cora, and Cora has to decide what to do with the information.

Family is a theme too; what makes a family? Is it blood or can you create a family with people whom you love? Cora has to deal with that question for her entire life, and she seems to finally come to peace with it at the end of her life.

The title of the book, The Chaperone, is the perfect title, because we get the complete arc of Cora's life from beginning to end. As her story unfolds, we get to know a unique woman, a woman who finds her voice and her strength, who dares to make a life for herself.

I fell in love with this book, and you will too. The writing is mesmerizing, the characters intriguing, the setting fascinating. The sign of a good book for me is that I want to know more. Laura Moriarty has piqued my curiosity about orphan trains and Louise Brooks, and I was so pleased that she included some of her research sources in the acknowledgments.

rating 5 of 5

Thanks to TLC Tours for including me in this book tour.