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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Weekend Cooking- The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer

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.

Gigi Levangie Grazer, author of The Starter Wife, has a new novel out now: The After Wife. It tells the story of reality producer Hannah who loses her husband in a hit and run accident. She must rely on her goofy group of friends to help her navigate her grief, while at the same time she gains the ability to talk to the dead.

It doesn't exactly scream 'this is a funny book', but it is. Grazer skewers the Hollywood lifestyle, though the book is set in Santa Monica, and she manages to take the reader from tears to laughter in the space of a few pages.

Hannah's husband John was a chef, so there are a few good food related excerpts, including this one:
"On Saturday mornings, John liked to be at the Farmer's Market on the Third Street Promenade early- before the regular customers, the crowds, the crazies- to show off Ellie to his old chef buddies, smell the fresh produce, bag some grapes, pears, figs, haggle over the price of bison, down oysters perfumed by the Pacific, and grab an espresso.
We'd be eating something amazing tonight. Something with figs. Figs, a brown sauce, a roast guinea hen? Of course, we usually ate something amazing for dinner- even if it were a simple, perfect omelet."
I read this book on my Kindle while on the treadmill,  and several times I burst out into laughter, causing people in the gym to look funny at me. Grazer's book was so good that I stayed on the treadmill longer than usual. (And no, Gigi, I did not fall off, I was very careful.)

I will post a full review of this delightful novel soon. Here is a link to Gigi's website for The After Wife.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

New in Paperback: The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
Published by Harper Paperbacks  ISBN 978-0-06-1257100
Trade paperback $15.99

The first thing you notice about Adriana Trigiani's newest novel, The Shoemaker's Wife, is the stunning cover. A gorgeous woman in a tangerine colored gown strikes a dramatic pose against a wallpapered print that evokes the beauty of an Italian village. The first time I saw it, it literally took my breath away.

I have read many of Trigiani's books, starting with the Big Stone Gap series, through the Valentine series, stand alone books like Rococco, and her non-fiction book about her grandmothers titled Don't Sing at the Table, and enjoyed them all, but all of the those books so clearly led her to write this masterpiece, her best book yet, The Shoemaker's Wife.

Some writers are better at story (John Grisham, for example), others excel at writing memorable characters; in my mind, no author is better than Trigiani at writing the setting of the story. We fell in love with the small town of Big Stone Gap in Virginia and all of the wonderful people who lived there. In the Valentine series, we were a part of Greenwich Village, and made unforgettable visits to Italy and Argentina.

Trigiani's writing is so vivid and visual, you can picture each setting so clearly in your mind, you feel like you've taken a trip there yourself. Clothing, shoes and interior design have also played a part in many of her books, and I have often lamented that there were no illustrations of the beautiful things that were being described.

In The Shoemaker's Wife, we begin early in the 20th century in the Italian Alps, both beautiful and dangerous. Young Ciro Lazzari and his older brother Eduardo are being sent to a convent following the death of their father, who was working in a mine in America. Their grieving mother was unable to to care for them.

At the convent, Ciro learned to work with his hands, doing all of the chores that the nuns needed. Eduardo took to the prayer and ritual of religious life. The relationship between the brothers is so well-written; they were very different from and yet devoted to each other.

Young Enza lived with her family on the mountain. They did not have much money, but her father scraped out a living ferrying people up and down the mountain with his horse and carriage.

Ciro meets Enza when he is sent to dig a grave for Enza's young sister who died tragically. They share time together and a special connection is made between the two. Ciro runs afoul of the local priest when he sees him in an embrace with a young girl. The priest wants Ciro gone, and the nuns send him to America.

Enza and her father also emigrate to America to make enough money to send home to build a family home. They are sad to leave their family behind, but know that if they work hard and save all their money, they will return home soon.

Ciro becomes a shoemaker's apprentice in Greenwich Village. Enza works in a clothing factory, a sweatshop where she makes a lifelong friend in Irish immigrant Laura. Over the years, Ciro and Enza run into each other, and although they both have feelings for each other, they are kept apart for many reasons.

Enza and Laura get the opportunity of a lifetime when they are chosen to work as seamstresses at the Metropolitan Opera. Enza's creativity gets her noticed, and she is thrilled to be able to design for Enrico Caruso, the international star of the Met.

This section of the novel soars. The excitement of New York City, the grandeur of the opera house, the lovely boarding house where Enza and Laura live, the gorgeous costumes they create; I was swept away with the beauty of it all.

Enza and Ciro are star-crossed lovers, but you can tell by the title of the book that they are fated to be together. They are hard-working immigrants and when an opportunity to make a better life in Minnesota arises, they take it.

These characters are based in part on Trigiani's grandparents. Reading this book will encourage many people to talk to their grandparents and great-grandparents, to hear their stories, which are probably very similiar. Isn't it funny how we never think of our grandparents as young people, in love and trying to build a life, but they are precisely the people who built our country.

Trigiani hits the nail on the head with her depiction of Enza and Ciro's marriage; it isn't always easy, no matter how much in love they are. There is one scene near the end that takes place among Ciro, Enza and their son that just broke my heart, and the beauty and sadness of it was both private and universal at the same time.

She writes so many thoughtful passages; as the mother of two sons, this one particularly touched me:
"A man need his father more as life progresses, not less. It is not enough to learn how to use a lathe, milk a cow, repair a roof; there are greater holes to mend, deeper wells to fill, that only a father's wisdom can sustain. A father teaches his son how to think a problem through, how to lead a household, how to love his wife. A father sets an example for his son, building his character from the soul outward."
The Shoemaker's Wife is Adriana Trigiani's most magnificent work yet. As beautiful on the inside as the cover is on the outside, it moved me immensely. This is the book I will put into all of my family and friends' hands, saying "you must read this!"

rating 5 of 5 stars

Monday, August 20, 2012

City of Women by David R. Gillham

City of Women by David R. Gillham
Published by Amy Einhorn Books ISBN 978-0-399-15776-9
Hardcover $25.95
Author David Gillham's debut novel, City of Women,  has an interesting premise: in WWII Berlin, the city is filled mainly with women, as the men are off to war. I found the thought intriguing, a city where the women went to work, kept the home fires burning, but also actively supported the cause of war.

Or did they? Sigrid works at a factory and lives with her miserable mother-in-law while her husband is fighting at the front. She is unhappy, and one day attends an afternoon movie and begins a torrid sexual relationship with a Jewish man hiding in the movie theatre balcony.

Sigrid grows tired of pretending to be the supportive wife, the good German who believes that what her country is doing is right. She becomes curious about Ericha, the young mother's helper in the downstairs apartment, and when she discovers that the girl is helping to hide Jews, Sigrid reluctantly becomes involved after Ericha tells her
"Compromise is the lesson of the day. It's easy to do. A pregnant woman with a yellow star must walk in the freezing rain because Jews are barred from public transport. Just don't look. A man is beaten by the police in front of his children. Don't look. The SS march a column of skeletons, in filthy striped rags, down the middle of the goddamned street. But don't look," she whispers roughly. "You avert your eyes enough times, and finally you go blind. You don't actually see anything any longer."
We've all heard about the French Resistance, but I have heard little about the Germans who were covertly working against their country. There certainly were people there who followed their conscience, at their own peril.

When Sigrid's lover disappears, she is distraught. She becomes involved with her neighbor's brother, a brutish soldier who uses his connections take advantage of others. She hopes to use him to find her lost lover. Her Jewish lover reappears and asks her to help him with something illicit. Sigrid doesn't know whom to trust.

Meanwhile, Sigrid has become more involved in hiding Jews. She becomes attached to a mother and her two young daughters, believing them to be her Jewish lover's family who disappeared.

The author gives us a real look at what it's like to live in a war zone; some of the strongest scenes take place as the residents of the apartment hide from bombs being dropped. You can actually feel the claustrophobia of all those people locked in a small space.

There are many tense scenes in the novel; several times I felt myself gritting my teeth, waiting to see what would happen. Gillham wrote some brilliant characters, and placed them in situations that had me questioning if I would have the courage that Sigrid and Ericha showed.

This is the kind of novel that has you racing through the pages to finish, and yet once you did, you wanted to sit back and contemplate what you had just read for a long while. I loved the complicated journey that Sigrid finds herself on. I think it would be a fabulous film, with many great roles for female actresses. I would love to see that movie.

rating 4 of 5

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Book Report: Shipstead's debut a promising character study

My review of Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements  from the Citizen website
Shipstead's debut a promising character study : Diane Larue

Weekend Cooking- Our Annual Summer Party

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.

For the past few years, we rent a home on Owasco Lake where we lived before moving to NYC. We spend the week with my family and on one night we have a big party inviting our friends. It's always a good time, with lots of laughter, fun and good food and drink.

Our menu consisted of some things I made; our appetizers included
Pepperoni Dip- which I also made for our Super Bowl party and
Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip- a recipe my sister-in-law found on FoodNetwork.com, and which tastes like a Wegmans' Joey Sub.

My friend Barbara made her famous Summer Pizza, which I love so much, with cream cheese and veggies, and her husband brought the most delicious tomatoes and jalapeno peppers from his garden; my sons could not stop raving about them.

For the main course, we ordered Cornell Chicken from Lascas Restaurant and I made a few trays of Rachael Ray's Italian Macaroni and Cheese, which is a perfect dish for a big group. By the end of the week I had made three trays of it and there was not a noodle left. (Sorry Rick!)

We also ordered Cheese Souffle from The Springside Inn, which is an Auburn institution, and everyone loves the dish. I also made a tray of roasted vegetables of mushrooms, green and red peppers, red onions, and zucchini. And no gathering is complete without Jello; I made Pretzel Jello.

There were lots of fabulous desserts, including Paula Deen's Frozen Banana Split, which is another one that is good for a crowd and easy to make. I made it last year for the first time, and it got so many compliments, it made a return appearance this year.
Paula Deen's Frozen Banana Split

Lots of people brought yummy desserts too; a light and lovely Lemon Cake from The Patisserie in Skaneateles from Tony and Kristi (they also brought bread and a tomato dipping sauce that was out-of-this-world from there), homemade Pumpkin Spice Cake with chocolate chips (thanks Di!), and the most gorgeous Red Velvet Cupcakes from The Chocolate Mill in Glens Falls, courtesy of Rick and Kelly. I always ask Maria to bring her amazing Pumpkin Cookies, and I still say she should sell them, they are that good.

My dear friend Trish knows me so well and always brings the perfect hostess gift. This time she gave me Philippa Gregory's new book, The Kingmaker's Daughter, and she got my husband Chad Harbach's incredible novel, The Art of Fielding, and even better, she bought them from Downtown Books & Coffee, a local independent bookstore. Yay Trish!

It was such a great party and so good to see all our friends; I only wish it could have lasted longer!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Weekend Cooking- The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D

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.

Since I have writing Weekend Cooking posts, I have become much more aware of food and cooking references in novels. As I read, I think, "oh, that might make a good post." I have been surprised at the number of books I have recently that might fit in this category.

While you might expect a book about a caterer, The Body in the Boudoir, to have some interesting food references, Chris Bojahlian's historical novel The Sandcastle Girls, about the Armenian genocide in 1915 is not one you where you might find one. I learned about Cheese Boureg, a traditional Armenian food, sort of like a pierogi.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier is a novel about Kate whose friend Elizabeth died in a plane crash. Elizabeth asked that her journals be given to Kate, with no instructions on what to do with them, which upsets Elizabeth's husband.

Kate is a mom of two young children, and an award-winning pastry chef. She is at a crossroads, not knowing if she should take a great job offer from a well-renowed restauranteur who is opening a new place. In this excerpt she recalls the pleasure of working in a bustling restaurant kitchen:
"She could see herself working there. She could imagine all the aesthetics of a brand-new kitchen: the gleaming surfaces, the stainless-steel ranges and the stretch of metro rack shelving. She could see the spread of ingredients mounded in matching bowls, the crimson of berries in pooled sauces, and her plated finished product, crust peeling in flakes like mica. She could feel the bustle of the kitchen, the brisk efficiency of some of the best professional in the world humming along and occasionally losing control. And when there was yelling and running and burning, she'd be settled in her space making beautiful things. Even the unpredictability was predictable. She missed that control in the eye of the storm." 
My husband and I owned and operated a fast food restaurant for a few years, and I could relate to the bustle of the kitchen that she described.

I will post my review of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. soon.

Do you notice food related passages in novels more now than you used to? Let me know in comments.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Best Mets by Matthew Silverman

Best Mets by Matthew Silverman
Published by Taylor Trade Publishing ISBN 978-1-58979-670-6
Trade paperback $16.95

The New York Mets turn fifty this year, and it is the perfect time for Best Mets: Fifty Years of Highs and Lows from New York's Most Agonizingly Amazin' Team by Matthew Silverman. It's just too bad that Johan Santana waited until this season to throw the Mets first-ever no-hitter; it was too late for the book.

Flipping through the book was like a blast from the past for me, seeing all of my old favorites, (Tug McGraw and Gary Carter were my all-time faves) and their exploits in print. After the introduction gives an overview of the fifty years, Silverman gets into lists, which any true baseball fan adores.

We get the Top 50 Mets, and even better, certain Mets give their Top 50 Mets (Jerry Koosman chose Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Grote, Bud Harrelson and himself.) Zipping through the list and seeing Cleon Jones, Jon Matlack, Tommy Agee, and Felix Millan made me smile with joyful memories.

Other chapters include Best Teams, Best All-Stars, and Best Games, which include a list of the team rivalries, heartbreaking losses, and best comebacks. Interspersed through the book are interesting tidbits about "Mets People", including Jane Jarvis, a virtuoso organist. On the night of the big New York blackout in 1977, amidst the chaos, looting and arrests, Jarvis kept the crowd at Shea Stadium happy and calm by singing Christmas carols.

I'm a fairly knowledgeable baseball fan, but one thing in the book stumped me. WAR- Wins Against Replacement- rankings are listed. I had no idea what WAR was, never heard of it.  "WAR looks at a player's performance based on valuable he is compared to the average Triple-A player who might be called up to replace him." (My older son told me it's a recent stat.) No surprise, Tom Seaver holds the number one ranking for the Mets.

Best Mets is a must-have book for any Mets fan. It has so much great information presented in an interesting and breezy manner, you can race through the book and then go back and savor each list, each tidbit, and it would be a terrific conversation starter when two or more Mets fans get together.

rating 4 of 5

I saw the great Bud Harrelson a few months ago at a book signing, my post on that is here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern

I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern
Published by ItBooks ISBN 9780062113375
Hardcover, $16.99

A few years ago, Justin Halpern rocked the book world with his best-selling book, Sh*t My Dad Says,  based on his Twitter feed where he just wrote hilarious stuff his cranky dad told him. The tweets turned into a book which turned into a TV show that did not do the book justice.

In my review of the book, I said that you could tell who in my family was reading the book by the burst of laughter coming from various rooms in the apartment. My adult sons and I loved the profane, funny and yes, touching book.

Halpern is back with another gem of a book, I Suck at Girls, about his (mis)adventures with the fairer sex. Once again there is plenty of wit and wisdom from his father, but also lots of heart. As the only women in a family of men, I found that this book gave me a window into the world of what boys and men really think and feel about women.

Halpern is a shy guy, and to his utter dismay, still a virgin at the age of twenty. His recounting of his prom night is a sad one, but I bet it's probably closer to many people's experiences than we are willing to admit.  High school wasn't a happy time for him, so he was thrilled to be attending San Diego State University ("Harvard, without the smart people", as his dad called it), where he hoped to get a fresh start.

About a fifth of his high school graduating class was going to SDSU, so his hope that no one would know him was dashed when he was referred to as "the guy who wears sweatpants to school sometimes." Halpern writes "Ideally, I'd like to be known as something other than that."

He and his friend Ryan work hard all summer and saved their money to go to Europe, where they had heard that the girls all want to have sex. They decide to go to Ibiza because Ryan read in a guide book that the parties there are crazy. Along the way they meet a great character, Vietnam Joe, who doesn't speak much English, but manages to get a pretty Mexican girl.

Halpern and his buddy get jobs washing dishes at Hooters, and he finally gets a girlfriend. He gets dumped and gets a job at another restaurant and dates another waitress, who is a bit crazy. Finally he meets a woman whom he think she could have a long term relationship with, but she lives in San Francisco.

I Suck at Girls is the kind of book that appeals to men and women. Men will read it and relate to Halpern's life. Women should read it to learn about the interior life of men; if you think they are all dogs, you would be well served to read it to learn about just how insecure men are and how much courage it takes to approach a woman.

And I love his dad even more after reading this book.

I have to give this book a rating of 5 of 5 because any book that makes me laugh that hard and then want to give the poor guy a hug deserves it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Broadway at Bryant Park- Week 4

Week four at Broadway at Bryant Park had something for everyone: Sinatra, skiffle, music from a show not yet open, a show based on the movie Silence of the Lambs and fan favorite Mamma Mia.

Cary Hoffman created and stars in his one man off-Broadway show, My Sinatra, the Musical, about his obsession with the man and his music. He sounds like Sinatra, even if he if he looks a little like Mel Brooks. I really enjoyed his performance of the classic Sinatra songs- The Summer Wind, I've Got the World on a String and my favorite, Fly Me to the Moon, which you can see here:

He joked that his obsession began with his bar mitzvah and ended with "my death by heatstroke, here today on this stage." It was hot out there! His show features fifteen Sinatra songs, and I think my husband would like this one.

A show that is opening next month, Chaplin: the Musical gave us a preview with three songs from stars Rob McClure (Chaplin), who performed Someone Other Than Me, Christiane Noll (Hannah Chaplin) who sang Play Your Part and Jenn Colella (Hedda Hopper) who wowed the crowd with her performance of Whatcha Gonna Do? I'm definitely putting this on my list of shows to see.
Rob McClure from Chaplin, the Musical

Christiane Noll from Chaplin, the Musical

Jenn Colella from Chaplin, the Musical

A performance from the cast of the off-Broadway musical comedy, Silence: the Musical,  (notice a theme here this week?) had us all in stitches. Based on the movie Silence of the Lambs, it skewers the movie using only dialogue from the source. The woman who played Clarisse was hilarious, although she sounded more Holly Hunter to me than Jodie Foster. David Garrison is Hannibal Lechter, and they closed their performance with the phone call from the end of the movie.
The cast of Silence, the Musical

The Broadway show One Man, Two Guvnors is not a musical, but it does have a musical group, the Craze, who perform as a kind of Greek chorus on stage. I enjoyed their skiffle music and hope to see them in person in a few weeks.

Fan favorites, the cast from Mamma Mia, had the crowd on their feet and singing along with The Winner Takes It All, Dancing Queen and Waterloo, as seen in the clip below.

Two more weeks of Broadway at Bryant Park, the calendar is here.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Weekend Cooking- Eat More of What You Love by Marlene Koch

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.

Eat More of What You Love by Marlene Koch
Published by Running Press ISBN 978-0-7624-4589-9
Hardcover, $27

I'm always the optimist when it comes to trying recipes that claim to be lower in fat and tasty too. Yet too many times I have tried them, only to be disappointed.

So it was with some trepidation that I tried a recipe from Marlene Koch's new cookbook Eat More of What You Love, which I got at BEA. I was looking for a new entree, and I came across Steak Diane in the book. It looked simple, and the accompanying photo made my mouth water.

The result was delicious! Topping filets with sliced mushrooms and diced shallots and then a sauce made of nonfat half-and-half, cornstarch, beef broth, Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce made for a lowfat but tangy and tasty dish. And it was only 265 calories per serving.

When my family raved about the meal, I looked for more entrees to try. Chicken Cordon Bleu is another favorite, and I have a recipe that I use frequently. Marlene's recipe had only 250 calories per serving, and again uses Dijon mustard and nonfat half-and-half, along with some chicken bouillon for the sauce.

You also spread the chicken breast with dijon mustard before adding the ham and Swiss cheese and rolling in flour, egg then panko crumbs. Everyone loved the chicken and this recipe will replace the older, full-fat one.

There are 200 recipes in the book, and at the bottom of the page is all the nutritional information, including food exchanges and Weight Watcher Plus Point Comparisons, which makes this book a great resource for anyone using a weight loss plan.

I can't wait to try more recipes from this book, from breakfast baked goods to sandwiches to desserts; there are so many variations on things my family already enjoys that I know they will love it.

Marlene Koch has a website with tips and free recipes, including this one for Root Beer Barbequed Chicken that is up next on my list. The cover of the book is gorgeous, and although there aren't photos for a lot of the recipes, what ones are there are lovely.

Don't think of this book as a diet cookbook; think of it as cookbook filled with new, healthier variations  of your favorite foods. Your recipes will thank you for the makeover and your family will thank you for the tasty meals.

rating 5 of 5

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet: 9 Kids, 3 Continents, 2 Parents, 1 Family 
by Melissa Fay Greene
Published by Sarah Crichton Books ISBN 978-0-374-53338-0
Trade paperback $15

At some point parents are faced with the prospect of the "empty nest syndrome". Some parents deal with it by moving to a big city (like my husband and I did- don't worry though, we told the kids and gave them our new address), some take up new hobbies, and Melissa Fay Greene and her husband met the challenge by adopting children from Bulgaria and Ethiopia, as told in No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.

The Samuels (Don is a criminal defense attorney, Melissa a writer) had four children, and their oldest of four Molly was heading off to college, when Melissa began to think what life would be like when they weren't bringing cupcakes, providing emergency phone numbers, or giving standing ovations at the school play.

The introduction to the book is hilarious, with Greene recounting her son answering the telephone and yelling "Daddy, it's for you! I think it's a criminal!" Another funny anecdote concerns Greene "helping too much with homework", and groaning "when the teacher's memo (for the science fair project) comes home, glancing at my calendar to see when I'll have time to get it done." When her sixth-grade son's friend calls late at night, she tells him "Lee's asleep. But what did you get for "How does Montesquieu show that self-interest can overawe justice in human affairs?" Lee came home a few days later and informed his mother that she got a 74 on that homework.

After having a miscarriage, adoption is discussed. Greene gets on her computer and finds several adoption websites where you can see photos of children available for adoption.
"Some adoption agencies offered "delivery." You could adopt without leaving your desk! "I'd better be careful not to hit accidentally hit Send," I told Donny. "We could open the door one day and find some little kid standing there with a suitcase."
While Greene writes with warm humor, she also writes movingly of her travels first to Bulgaria and later to Ethiopia to bring home two children. She is honest about the challenges faced bringing into their family children who didn't speak English.

She inspired her oldest son Lee, and he spent one summer volunteering in the same orphanage from where they got Helen. That chapter of the book was so lovely, this bright, caring young man sharing his talents and time with these kids who adored him. Greene was a little too inspiring though, and Lee called home and asked his parents to take in two older boys who had no one else, and whose chances for adoption were small.

The Samuels are a normal family; they love, they laugh, the fight. They went through a particularly bumpy time for awhile when two of the teenage boys were literally fighting and it affected the entire family.

Greene is a wonderful writer: honest, empathetic and funny. I fell in love with the Samuel family, no more so than when one of their biological children bemoaned the fact that if they adopted two more Ethiopians he would move farther down the list as fastest runner in the family.

This is a beautiful book, a testament to the strength of a loving family, with all the laughs and frustrations that being part of that family entails.

rating 4 of 5

Maggie Shipstead & J. Courtney Sullivan in Conversation

Maggie Shipstead & J. Courtney Sullivan

Shipstead poses with her novel

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a fascinating conversation between J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine and Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements at Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.

Sullivan began, reading from her novel about four women from one family who meet up at the family summer home in Maine. She read the scene where young, unmarried and pregnant Maggie arrives with her friend instead of her boyfriend, much to the consternation of her grandmother.

Shipstead read from chapter two of her book, where her protagonist, middle-aged Winn, remembers how his daughter Daphne, who is pregnant and getting married this weekend, wanted him to tell her she was  "his princess" when she was a young child. He was truly unable to understand his daughter.

I read the first two chapters of Seating Arrangements while waiting, and I was struck by how well-crafted her sentences were. I asked her if she did extensive rewrites to get that, but they just come to her that way.

There are some fantastic WASP-y names in her novel (Biddy, Greyson, Sterling) set on an island off Cape Cod, and Shipstead said she got them from a trophy room in a Rhode Island resort. They were on lawn bowling trophies from the 1950s.

There was discussion about a topic that has come up recently- unlikable characters. Maine has Alice, the matriarch of the family who has no qualms about saying whatever she is thinking, no matter whom it hurts. Sullivan was slightly taken aback by the many comments from reviewers and readers who didn't like Alice. I did wonder though if older women identified with Alice or if they disliked her as well.

She has great affection for Ann Marie, the dutiful daughter-in-law in the novel. I have to agree, I liked Ann Marie best, her journey in the novel was moving, and I think many people would identify with her.

Winn in Seating Arrangements is also a somewhat unlikeable character. Sullivan mentioned that Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles wrote that he loved Winn, which brought a chuckle from the crowd. Shipstead said that Winn "obeys a set or rules that he came up with and follows them."

I don't dislike it when there are unlikable characters in a novel; to me, it is better to be unlikable than boring. If I'm reading a book and the characters are just plain uninteresting, I lose interest in the book. But give me a complicated, flawed character who is interesting, and I'm buying into the novel.   I mean, Walter White from TV's Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men are not nice guys, but you can't take your eyes off them when they are on screen.

Sullivan also gave a shout-out to author Maile Meloy, who wrote two brilliant books I read a few years ago, Liars & Saints and A Family Daughter, and I almost jumped out of my seat when she mentioned her, thereby making my geekiness official. I loved those books and I was so excited to hear Sullivan give Meloy props.

Maine is now in paperback, and my review of Seating Arrangements will be in the Citizen and online at auburnpub.com on August 12th. I'll post the link when it is live.