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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Weekend Cooking- An Excerpt from Is This Tomorrow

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!

One of the best reviewed books recently is Caroline Leavitt's novel, Is This Tomorrow, published by Algonquin Books.

Set in a 1950's suburb of Boston, it tells the story of Ava Lark, a Jewish divorced mother of twelve-year-old Lewis. They are somewhat shunned in their neighborhood, their only friends being widowed Dot and her two children Jimmy and Rose. When Jimmy goes missing, the neighborhood is shattered, and Ava and Lewis find themselves even further marginalized.

The characters in this story are so well developed and Leavitt really submerges the reader back in time, when Cold War fears were at its peak. Lewis just wriggled his way into my heart and as the novel progresses in time, we see Ava tackling her fear of cooking and learning how to bake pies.

Ava was never a good cook, but one day she decided to make a blueberry pie.
She put on the radio. Ray Charles was singing that he couldn't stop loving you. "A lot of good that will do you," Ava told him. She went to the bookcase and took out her mother's old cookbook and leafed through it until she found a recipe for blueberry pie. She got out the butter, shortening, cornstarch, and flour, and some frozen blueberries she had bought. "Stop acting like an idiot," she told herself. "You can do this." And if she couldn't, she'd throw it out and no one would know. She got out a mixing bowl, tied an apron around her waist, and took a deep breath.
An hour and a half later, Ava stared in amazement at her pie. The crust was golden and when she tapped it with the edge of a fork, it flaked. 
She took a bite. The crust melted along her tongue the fruit was tangy. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good. She sat there, in her tiny kitchen, and slowly, carefully, devoured the pie. 
This success gave Ava confidence, and through that she took steps to create a better life for herself. I loved how strong Ava was, and was really pulling for her to succeed.

There are some wonderful foodie passages in this lovely, layered novel, like this one.
She began to realize that she didn't have to follow the recipes exactly, that she could use maple syrup instead of sugar and it would taste delicious, that she could add less corn starch or more fruit for a brighter-tasting pie. She worked to perfect her crimp, studying the photos in her cookbooks, laying one finger along the dough, taking her time. She remembered her mother telling her that so much of the cooking was your mood. You could have the best ingredients in the world, but if you were feeling ornery, nothing would taste right.

 If you haven't read Is This Tomorrow yet, I highly recommend it and the link to my review is here.

Beth Fish Reads has a terrific review of Is This Tomorrow on her website here.

The Winner of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Is...

techeditor! Congratulations, you've won a copy of Anthony Marra's amazing novel, A Constellation of  Vital Phenomena from the publisher, Hogarth.

My review of the book is here.

Keep reading for more upcoming contests, and Happy Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Broadway- Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The Tony awards are but a few weeks away and I have been seriously amiss in my Broadway postings. One of the plays nominated for Best Play is Christopher Durang's comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

The play has been nominated for six Tonys, including Kristine Nielsen for Best Actress, David Hyde Pierce for Best Actor, Shalita Grant for Best Featured Actress and Billy Magnussen for Best Featured Actor.

The play opens with Vanya (Pierce) and Sonia (Nielsen) sitting outside enjoying the beautiful morning. Their banter indicates a married couple, but we soon find out that they are siblings, and Sonia is adopted. The hilarity begins there and builds.

Neilsen is hilarious in this show, and no more so than when she does her Maggie-Smith-as-Oscar-nominated-actress-in Neil-Simon's-California-Suite. Her accent is dead-on and when Sonia becomes this role for a costume party, complete with a lovely sparkly gown and tiara, she shines.

While enjoying the show, Pierce was doing his usual terrific job, but I was wondering why he was nominated; the role seemed a bit timid. And then comes that monologue. Vanya explodes in a verbal burst that has the audience spellbound as it goes on and on. When Pierce finally finishes, the audience rises for a standing ovation. And after he is done, I thought, well, that is why you get David Hyde Pierce for this role. He is a genius.

Sigourney Weaver plays sister Masha, an actress who could be Sigourney Weaver if she didn't make it big and wasn't a good actress. She clearly enjoys her role and the hissy fits she throws had me laughing.

Her boy-toy Spike is played brilliantly by Billy Magnussen. He acts like a big, goofy, puppy dog who has great abs. His performance is so energetic, and he is so magnetic, he takes what could be a one-note role and turns it into something exciting.

Masha comes to town to tell her siblings that she is selling the family home that Sonia and Vanya have been living in after caring for their aging parents who passed away. She can no longer afford to support them. They panic because they have no jobs, no viable skills, and now they will be homeless.

The sibling dynamic is one that so many can relate to, and the cast of this show is pitch perfect. If you are looking for a good laugh, this is a terrific show. There are discount tickets available, but this is a show for which I would happy pay full price.

The run has been extended through July 28th, and their website is here.
Watch a new TV promo with the cast here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Published by Amy Einhorn Books  ISBN 9780399161469
Hardcover, $26.95, 368 pages

The timing for Suzanne Rindell's The Other Typist couldn't be better. Set in the 1920's in Prohibition New York City, it it the perfect companion for those who enjoyed Baz Lurhmann's spectacular film of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby.

As the title character in The Other Typist, Odalie Lazare is the female equivalent of Jay Gatsby. She  mysteriously shows up one day to apply as a typist at a police precinct. It is a job that men reluctantly allow women to fill, as they are not as good as typists as the women.

The other main character in the novel is Rose Baker, as unassuming and plain as Odalie is vivacious and beautiful. She grew up in an orphanage and had a boring, lonely life until Odalie walked into her life.
"On that particular day, she entered very calmly and quietly, but I knew; it was like the eye of a hurricane. She was the dark epicenter of something we didn't quite understand yet, the place where hot and cold mixed dangerously, and around her everything would change."
Rose becomes enchanted by Odalie and is thrilled when Odalie befriends her. Odalie takes Rose to wild parties in hidden speakeasies, lends her gorgeous clothes and even invites Rose to move into her fancy Park Avenue apartment with her.

Soon a spider's web encompasses Rose. Seduced by the fanciful lifestyle and believing that Odalie thinks of her as a sister, Rose nevertheless has nagging suspicions about Odalie. She catches Odalie telling different stories about her past, and when they run into a man who claims to know Odalie by a different name, things start to unravel.

The story is told by Rose, who is writing this from some sort of institution. Something bad has clearly happened, and Rose is unspooling the turn of events from her point of view. The mystery of what has occurred is not immediately evident, we must wait (im)patiently for Rose to complete her story.

The Other Typist seduces the reader just as surely as Odalie seduces Rose. Rindell weaves her story, keeping us turning the pages with her fascinating characters and cat-and-mouse plot. The setting of a 1920s NYC police precinct feels fresh, and who knew that women worked as typists there back then?

I found it interesting that when one of the women became pregnant, she continued to work well into her pregnancy, even when she was clearly showing. It never occurred to me that women were allowed to be seen outside of their home obviously pregnant, let alone continue to work back then. But I guess if a family depends on a women's income, she'd have to work.

The end of the story is literally jaw-dropping. I read the last few pages several times, and I'm still not sure that I completely know what happened. It has been called a mashup of The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I also think that the many people who liked Gone Girl will like this book, although I think The Other Typist is much better. It is the best literary mystery of the year, and it didn't surprise me to find that it is an Amy Einhorn imprint. No one finds better debut novelists that Amy Einhorn.

rating 5 of 5

Suzanne Rindell's website is here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

LaRue: Auburnian's book on chronic pain struggle inspires : Diane Larue

This month's Book Report column in the Citizen
LaRue: Auburnian's book on chronic pain struggle inspires : Diane Larue

Weekend Cooking- An Easy Summer Dinner

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!

When I attended a discussion with the Barefoot Contessa a few months ago, one thing she said really struck a chord with me (and many others). She said that no one will appreciate the fact that you spent all day making a complicated meal, so why bother? You'll just be resentful.

I totally agree with that sentiment, and in that spirit, I made my husband and son a simple summer meal that they raved about. I had a package of boneless center loin pork chops in the freezer that I picked up when the grocery store had them on sale for $1.99 a pound.

I mixed 2 Tbsp. each onion powder, garlic powder and Penzey's Spices Galena Street Chicken and Rib Rub and rubbed the spice mix on the pork chops. After heating a skillet with 2 Tbsp. of olive oil,  I cooked the chops for about 7 minutes, flipped them over for another 5 minutes or so until done. (Be careful not to overcook them or they will dry out.)

Earlier in the day I made Ina Garten's Tarragon Potato Salad, which is a family favorite. The recipe came from her book How Easy is That? and is really so tasty, you will never make potato salad any other way again.

Tarragon Potato Salad
2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes (6 to 8 potatoes)
Kosher salt
1 cup good mayonnaise
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons tarragon or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped scallions, white and green parts
3 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon leaves
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
Place the potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover them. Add 1 tablespoon of salt, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes, just until tender when pierced with a small knife or skewer. Drain in a colander. Put a kitchen towel over the colander and allow the potatoes to steam for 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes and slice 1/2 inch thick. Place the potatoes in a mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, 2 teaspoons salt, and the pepper. While the potatoes are still warm, pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss well. Add the scallions, red onion, tarragon, and dill and toss gently. Allow the salad to sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to develop. Sprinkle with salt and serve at room temperature.

Add a fruit salad and you've got an easy, delicious dinner.

The link for my post on Ina Garten's discussion at the Providence Performing Arts Center is here.
If you have a favorite Barefoot Contessa recipe, I'd love to hear about it on comments. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Christina Baker Kline & Caroline Leavitt at the Center for Fiction

Christine Kline & Caroline Leavitt

The Center for Fiction in NYC held a discussion between authors Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train) and Caroline Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow) last month. I had never been there before, and I liked their set-up.

The event was held upstairs in a lovely, intimate space. The evening began with Kline talking about her new novel, about the orphan trains, which I had never heard of until I read Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone last year. (My review is here.)

Between the years 1854-1929, children from NYC were placed on trains that stopped in various places in the midwest. The children would get out on the train platforms, and people would choose children to come live with them. Many times, these farmers needed more help on their land, and these children ended up working as farmhands.

Over 200,000 children traveled on the orphan trains. Kline discovered a book about it on her husband's father's bookshelf on a visit to Minnesota and her she began a file on it. She did a lot of research on it,  and visited the Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas where they have over 300 first person narratives.

The children could bring nothing with them on the trains, no keepsakes; they were stripped of their identities. Their descendants are determined to keep there stories alive, and Kline's novel does that.

Orphan Train tells two stories- a troubled teen has to do community service and ends up helping an elderly women clean her attic. The woman was on the orphan train as a child and the women bond over   the older one's stories.

Leavitt says that she got the idea for her novel, Is This Tomorrow, from an unlikely source: TV's The Killing. She loved the show, particularly how the characters were not who the appeared to be. She combines the mystery in her story, a twelve-year-old boy goes missing in a Boston suburb in the 1950s, with some of her childhood story.

She was the only Jewish child in a Christian suburb, like her main character, and had very bad asthma. She spent much of her time alone. Leavitt was a smart child in a town where only 10% of the students graduated high school so her outsider status was cemented.

The 1950s setting interested her, she called it "one of the weirdest periods of all", citing its combination of need for "perfection with an undercurrent of fear of the Cold War." She did a lot of research, having three people assisting her, but she got some of the most interesting help from Facebook.

Leavitt has a big social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, and when she asked if anyone was a male nurse in the 1960s, or knew anything about crime in the 1950s,  she said "people told me bizarre stories." I guess the moral is be careful what you wish for.

Leavitt told the audience how her first seven books were well reviewed but didn't sell well. When she sent her editor Pictures of You, they passed, saying "it wasn't special." She asked all of her writer friends for names of other editors, and Algonquin Books told her they wanted it.

She has nothing but praise and gratitude for the people at Algonquin. She said she had five previous publishers and "no one wanted to meet me." At Algonquin, everyone was there at the office to greet her, and they helped get her books to a much wider audience.

They talked about the importance of social media and of helping other authors, Kline saying that "other people's success only helps us." It was a wonderful, informative evening and I got to meet Meg Wolitzer and tell her how much I loved The Interestings.

My review of Is This Tomorrow is here.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt
Published by Algonquin ISBN 9781616200541
Trade paperback, $14.95, 384 pages

I read Caroline Leavitt's best selling and critically acclaimed novel Pictures of You a few years ago and became so invested in her characters and story, I couldn't wait to see what she would write next.  It was worth the wait because Is This Tomorrow is a knockout of a novel.

Ava Lark is a divorcee with a twelve-year-old son Lewis. They move to a small suburb near Boston in 1956, where a divorced woman, not to mention a Jewish divorced woman, is looked upon with suspicion.

The only friend she has is a widow, Dot, who has two children Jimmy and Rose. Jimmy, Rose and Lewis are best friends, and Jimmy has a little crush on Ava. Ava is kind to Jimmy and Rose, but when Jimmy goes missing, people (including the police) focus their attention on Ava and the many men (six) she has dated over the past three years.

While the framework of the missing boy propels the storyline, it is the characters of Ava and Lewis who are the heart of this story. Rather than a typical mystery novel, this beautiful book is about what it feels like to be an outsider.

Ava is lonely; the women she works with leave her out of their social activities and the neighborhood women fear that the beautiful Ava will steal their husbands. She dates a musician, and planned to introduce him to Lewis on the day that Jimmy disappeared.

The boyfriend asks Ava to move away with him, but she cannot do that to Lewis. He is devastated by the disappearance of his best friend, and he and Rose spend all their time trying to find out what happened to Jimmy.

Leavitt clearly did a lot of research of the time period. I felt totally immersed in the atmosphere of that time- the fear of Communism, the food they ate, the clucking about Ava being a working woman, the way the neighborhood kids played outside without adult supervision.

The second half of the book moves forward in time, and we see Lewis working as a nurse aide. I just fell in love with Lewis, and my heart ached so much for him. He struggles to find his place in this world, to find someone to love and share his life, but is difficult to get beyond his past.

The mystery of what happens to Jimmy is solved, and how it is solved comes as a shock to many people, myself included.

Leavitt writes beautifully and her turn of phrase really caught my eye. As Lewis gets older, he no longer gives Ava a kiss goodnight.
"I forgot," he'd tell her in the morning, but he forgot to kiss her more and more, and she found herself collecting those losses like debts that might never be paid."

When Lewis begins to meet his coworkers at a weekly bowling game, he thinks about how little he really knows his friends.
"It made him wonder how well he really knew John or Mick, or when you thought about it, how well they knew him. When he talked, he shot the breeze about the hospital or Madison. It was all casual, loose as pocket change that never adds up to anything."
I think most people at one time or another have felt like an outsider, and so can relate to Ava and Lewis. Leavitt taps into those feelings of loneliness, and brings these characters to vivid life. We feel for  Lewis and are grateful that we don't face the uncertainty that Dot and Rose feel when Jimmy is missing.

It is said that good fiction makes the reader empathetic; if that is true, then Is This Tomorrow is great fiction, for my heart ached for all of the people in this terrific novel, an Indie Next Pick for May.

rating 5 of 5

Caroline Leavitt's website is here.
My post on Caroline Leavitt and Christina Kline's discussion at the Center for Fiction is here.
The link to Caroline Leavitt's website is here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Return to Sullivans Island by Dorothea Benton Frank

Return to Sullivans Island by Dorothea Benton Frank
Published by Avon ISBN 978-0-06-198833-2
Trade paperback, $13.99, 416 pages

I don't normally like to read the sequel to a novel unless I have read the first book, because sometimes feel that I've missed too much of the back story to truly enjoy the second book. When I saw that TLC Book Tours was hosting a Dorothea Benton Frank Hit the Beach tour, I enthusiastically joined in, even though I have yet to read one of her books.

Last year my husband and I visited Charleston, South Carolina, Frank's home and the setting for her Sullivan Island books. We loved our time there and I vowed to read some good fiction set there in time for our return visit.

Return to Sullivans Island returns to the story begun in Sullivans Island. Beth Hayes is now a college graduate and reluctantly returning to the family home on Sullivans Island to be the caretaker while her mother Susan lives her dream of spending a year in Paris teaching.

We meet (or catch-up) with the members of the Hayes and Hamilton family and coming from a large extended family myself, I so enjoyed this. Susan has several siblings- sister Maggie, the true matriarch (and stylist/decorator) of the family, brothers Henry (the financial guardian) and Timmy, and youngest twin sisters Sophie and Allison, who became famous fitness gurus. They all bring their families back to Sullivans Island for a bon voyage party for Susan.

After the party, Beth realizes she had to find a job. She signs on to hostess at a popular restaurant, and as someone who ran two restaurants with my husband years ago, I related to the sections of the story set there. The organized chaos, the adrenaline rush of feeding all those people, it brought a smile of recognition to my face. (Not to mention I got some great names of restaurants and dishes I want to try on our next visit.)

Beth also got a job at the local newspaper as a features writer. In her pursuit of her first story, she meets the handsome and charismatic Max Mitchell, a real estate developer who wants to built a large retail property on the island. She falls hard for Max, and can't believe that he is interested in her.

Although I was shocked at how fast Beth fell for Max, I remembered that Beth is just 23 years old, and  reflected on how things were at that stage of life. Frank accurately captures those feelings of falling head-over-heels, and losing all perspective.

The family home is not only on the beach, it is also haunted. The ghost of Livvie, the woman who cared for the young Hamilton children, frequently comments and warns the family of things she feels they should know. And Livvie doesn't seem to like Max too well. What does she know that Beth doesn't?

There were some great lines in the novel, including a description of the studious Beth as "the first one chosen as a lab partner and the last one invited on the conga line." I also liked a line from Beth at the end of the book who said that "Your family shapes you when you're really young and then holds you together when trouble comes along." If you are lucky, you feel the same way.

Beth makes a bad decision on whom she trusts, but redeems herself when a family member is in trouble and she comes to her aid. Luckily she has good friends in Cecily (Livvie's granddaughter) and Woody, whom she turns to for help and advice.

I loved the setting of Return to Sullivans Island, and at times felt like I could hear the pounding surf and feel the warmth of the sand under my feet as I was reading. You don't have to have read Sullivans Island to feel like you know what's going on, but I am definitely going to read it because I adore this family so much.

rating 4 of 5

Dorothea Benton Frank has a new novel publishing June 11th, The Last Original Wife. For a preview of the first chapter, click here.

For more info on the Dorothea Benton Frank's TLC Book Tour, and to read more reviews of her books, click here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7
Hardcover, $26,  400 pages $26

Stories of people living in war-torn countries can be harrowing and emotional, especially when innocent civilians are the main characters. Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls set during the genocide in Syria in 1915 is one such novel, made more poignant by the ongoing civil war there.  Anthony Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, covers the years 1994-2004, which encompasses two wars in Chechnya, as they fought the Russians for their freedom.

The title refers to the definition of life in The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians.  Life: a constellation of vital phenomena- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. By that definition, this beautifully crafted novel is full of life.

Sonja is a young surgeon who left Chechnya and her younger sister Natasha behind to study medicine in London. Natasha disappears, and ends up in the sex slave trade as she tried to escape the civil war in Chechnya. Sonja returns home to look for her sister.

Sonja works at Hospital #6, one the few buildings not bombed out during the first war. When Sonja saves the life of a man whose brother is a gangster, she is able to get supplies to keep the hospital running, along with two older nurses.

Natasha eventually comes home, completely traumatized by her experiences. It breaks Sonja's heart to see her sister, and she feels helpless and guilty about what happened to Natasha. After a long time, Natasha comes to work at the hospital too, helping women deliver their babies.

By the time the second war has begun, Ramzan, a young man from a nearby village has begun informing on his neighbors to the Russian soldiers. His father, Khassan, is devastated by his son's behavior and refuses to speak to him. Ramzan has informed on his friend Dokka, a man who has taken in many refugees as they make their way to the camps.

Dokka's home is burned down and he is taken away to the Landfill, a Dante's Inferno-like place where disappeared people wait to be questioned and tortured. Dokka's eight-year-old daughter Havaa has escaped, but the Russians want her too. Akhmed, another neighbor who is the village doctor, finds Havaa and hides her at the hospital.

The story shifts back and forth over the years, and we see how these character's lives are surprisingly entwined. The writing is beautiful, and the imagery Marra uses is stunning. This paragraph in particular is so vivid.
"No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded shells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa's parents, among other villagers, pried toilet bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and dragged them upside down and two by two gently set them over the unexploded shells. Havaa would never forget the sight. So many dozens of upside-down toilets bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn't pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke."
There are so many brilliant scenes in this book, and I learned so many things I wish no one had to know, like how people would sew their names and addresses inside their hems so that their bodies would be sent back to the families, and Havaa saving a frozen bug in her pocket so that she would have something to eat later.

As Akhmed watched the nurse emptying the pockets of dead people looking for ID cards, he thinks,
"It was a simple gesture, no more than a flick of her fingers, performed without malice or contempt, but with complete disinterest, and it cut through Akhmed like a fin through water. In her indifference he saw the truth of a world he didn't want to believe in, one in which a human being could be discarded as easily as pocket lint."
This novel took my breath away. Marra empathetically tells the story of these people, and how life has forced them to adapt to a situation not of their making, and he contrasts the horror with the tenderness of humanity. Reading this made me hope to not be so judgmental of others as we see things are not always what they appear to be here.

This is not a book you can read in one sitting. You read a little, close the book, contemplate and digest it, and then go back for more. I did not want it to end, yet felt an overwhelming need to know how the stories of these people finished. Quite simply, every human being should read this haunting, amazing book.

rating 5 of 5
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing a copy of the book. You can enter to win a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena provided by the publisher by commenting below; be sure to leave your email address. A winner will be randomly chosen on May 24th.

Other stops on the tour:

Monday, May 6th:  An Excellent Library
Tuesday, May 7th:  Caribousmom
Wednesday, May 8th:  A Bookish Affair
Friday, May 10th:  Unabridged Chick
Monday, May 13th:  Book Hooked Blog
Tuesday, May 14th:  Broken Teepee
Wednesday, May 15th:  BookChickDi
Thursday, May 16th:  The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Friday, May 17th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Monday, May 20th:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, May 21st:  Speaking of Books
Wednesday, May 22nd:  Chaotic Compendiums
Thursday, May 23rd:  Knowing the Difference
Friday, May 24th:  The Relentless Reader
Tuesday, May 28th:  Book Chatter
Thursday, May 30th:  Books Speak Volumes
Monday, June 3rd:  Booklover Book Reviews
Wednesday, June 5th:  Rhapsody in Books
Thursday, June 6th:  Luxury Reading
Read an excerpt from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena here.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Weekend Cooking- Chef Alex Guarnaschelli at Random House Open House

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.

I have never watch Food Network's Chopped (I know, don't yell at me), but I have seen chef Alex Guarnaschelli on TV talking about her new cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food- The Way I Learned to Cook, and found her very interesting.

She made an appearance at Random House Open House last week, and her conversation with Huffington Post Food Editor Carey Polis was so enjoyable. Guarnaschelli has a deadpan, low key sense of humor and she had us all laughing with her funny asides. I liked her cool, biker-chick wardrobe too.

She wanted to write a book "that readers could cook from", using ingredients we all can find. Poking fun at crazy recipes that call for ".7 grams of leather extract", she asks "Where do I find that? Do I melt down a coat? Scrape a shoe?".  She said "you don't have to buy eye of newt to make my food".

Comfort food to her is food that you grow up eating. Her mom, a cookbook editor, made classic French recipes, and so Guarnaschelli says that she found it "interesting to redefine comfort food in my own way" in this book. She says she feels she "let down the mac and cheese set" as that recipe will not be found here. Some of her favorite recipes are for coffee cake, melon soup, arugula and strawberry salad.

One of her biggest take-aways is that "being a spectator to cooking before you cook is highly underrated." She learned a lot watching her mother cook, and says that much like learning how to play basketball, you first have to watch how it is done and practice before you start. I never thought about cooking that way, but it makes sense.

She talked a little bit about her process for appearing on Iron Chef. Before her appearances on the competition show, she practices "between 9- 23 recipes" in her head. She said everyone should have a repertoire of dishes you can make "no matter what." These should include "a cake, salad dressing and a basic sauce", things you can build upon. Her goal is to win Iron Chef, something that has eluded her thus far.

The discussion ended with a recitation of Guarnaschelli's favorite foods- "Oreos, Twizzlers, Bugles, Funyuns, Cool Ranch Doritos, Munchos, frozen yogurt with lots of fruit and chocolate, cinnamon donuts from the box with three kinds of donuts, unfrosted strawberry Pop-Tarts, Dr. Brown Black Cherry soda and Dr. Pepper, and bologna." No one saw that coming!

If Guarnaschelli decides to leave the chef world, she would make a terrific stand-up comic. She had a lot to say about her mother (whom she lovingly and laughingly compared to Darth Vader at one point) her dad ("the greatest guy in the world"), and her curious 5 1/2 year-old daughter. I picked up a copy of her cookbook and she graciously signed it for me. I'll have a review in a future post.

Me and Alex Guarnaschelli at Random House Open House

Alex Guarnaschelli's website is here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kristin Hannah at Barnes & Noble

Kristin Hannah at Barnes & Noble

The first book I have read written by Kristin Hannah is Home Front, a brilliant novel about two women pilots in the National Guard dealing with deployments and the families they leave behind. It was so well-written, emotional and a real tribute to the men and women who serve their country.

I met Hannah on tour for that book and my blog post about that is here. Hannah's breakout novel was Firefly Lane, a novel that she said in a talk at the Barnes & Noble store on the Upper East Side last month that "changed my career and where I found my voice."

It was the first book she wrote in an all-female point-of-view. She said she wanted to try something different and she "fell in love with the book's characters and the journey of the novel." The book was a success, striking a chord with many readers who wanted to see a sequel.

But Hannah said that after spending the 14 months that it takes to research and write a novel, she is done with the characters. But Firefly Lane was different. She knew "there was more to the story." She ended up writing 1200 pages that she just threw in the trash, trying to find a voice for the sequel.

It was tough going; after 20 years, Hannah felt she had lost her confidence. Writing it "became an act of will" and in the end, it was "exactly what it was supposed to be." She said that "writing this book reminded me that it's hard."

She was most interested in Dorothy's story, but felt that she should write the story of Fly Away from three characters' perspectives- Dorothy, her daughter Tully, and Kate's daughter Marah.  My review of Fly Away  is here. My review of the first book, Firefly Lane is here.

When asked who Hannah likes to read, she said she likes genre fiction, and feels that she has "an epic fantasy novel" in her. She likes to read Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Tami Hoag and Chevy Stevens. She also reads YA and women's fiction; she's an eclectic reader for sure.

Kristin Hannah's website is here.
My review of Fly Away is here.
My review of Firefly Lane is here.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 978-0-312-53707-4
Trade paperback, $14.99, 507 pages

Firefly Lane was the breakout novel for Kristin Hannah. It was the first novel she wrote in an all-female point of view, and the book she says where she found her voice.

It's 1974 and Kate Mularkey lives with her family in a Seattle suburb. She is not a popular eighth-grader, wears all the wrong things, gets picked on in school. All that changes when cool girl Tully moves in across the street with her hippie, drug-addicted mother.

Tully is basically raising herself, trying to care for her mom and run a house on her own. She hides her mother from everyone, telling Kate her mom has cancer. Tully lives on the wild side, and one night things go too far and it is Kate who is there to help her cope.

They become inseparable best friends forever, and everyone refers to them as one word-TullyandKate. Kate's mom finds out about Tully's mother's drug issues, and opens her home to Tully. She gives Tully the confidence to believe that she can have a bright future as a journalist, and Kate reluctantly is dragged into this plan.

The girls go to college together, and while Tully is dogged in her pursuit of her dream, Kate dates and looks to balance school with a dating life. Tully lands a job with a small local television station and gets Kate a job there as well. Kate falls in love with Johnny, the boss, who only has eyes for the gorgeous, vibrant Tully.

We follow Tully as she climbs the career ladder and Kate as she marries and raises her children. Their paths diverge, but they remain best friends, even though they have less in common.

Tully becomes a media superstar, but she thinks of Kate's family as her own. She dates, but she is lonely. Kate is a great mom, but as her daughter Marah becomes a teenager, Marah rebels and puts Tully in the middle.

Marah's rebelliousness leads to Tully making a big mistake and hurting Kate, destroying their friendship in the process. After years of estrangement, can Kate and Tully come together when they need it most?

I was about the same age as Tully and Kate were in 1974, and so all of the references are a touchstone for me. The songs (Billy, Don't Be a Hero is now permanently stuck in my head), the TV shows (Luke and Laura's wedding on General Hospital),  Tiger Beat magazine, the clothes and hairstyles- it all came rushing back to me as I read it. Any woman aged 45-50 or so will be transported back to her teen years reading this.

The characters are interesting, and I especially loved Kate's mom, whom I suspect is based on Hannah's mother. She took in Tully and loved her, even when Tully did things that I found almost unforgivable, Kate's mom was there for Tully too.

Besides the theme of friendship, we see how women dealt with issues of work versus family life and what that means to their identity. The difficulties of parenting teenagers will hit home with any parent, but I am curious to see how women who chose to have a demanding career view the character of Tully.
Hannah writes a novel that has an ending that will emotionally devastate the reader, just like she did in Home Front. I don't know of any writer today who can make me cry as much as she does in her books. If you enjoy reading books that pack an emotional punch, Firefly Lane is a must-read.

rating 4 of 5

My review of the sequel to Firefly Lane, Fly Away, is here.
My post on Kristin Hannah's Fly Away book tour visit to Barnes & Noble is here.
Kristin Hannah's website is here.

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 978-0-312-57721-6
Hardcover, $27.99, 400 pages
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the first book in the series and plan to do so, DO NOT read this review.

Readers who were devastated by the ending to Kristin Hannah's novel Firefly Lane had better buckle their seat belts for the beginning of her long awaited sequel, Fly Away. We watch the family of Kate grieve horribly for her and then fast forward to four years later when another tragedy befalls them.

Johnny didn't know how to go on without the love of his life Kate, and after her funeral he packs up his family for a week in Hawaii. His seven-year-old twin boys are distracted by the trip, but sixteen year-old Marah needs her friends to help her get through her grief, something her father doesn't understand.

Marah is taking her mother's death very hard, mostly because they had a rocky relationship during Marah's teen years. She feels so guilty that they wasted valuable fighting when they didn't know how little time they had left.

Johnny doesn't know how to reach his daughter and as she slips farther away, it seems that everything he does is wrong, including moving them all to Los Angeles for a fresh start. He needs to move away from the memories, neglecting to understand that Marah needs to cling to them.

Meanwhile Tully, who walked away from her successful Oprah-like talk show to care for Kate during her last months, has lost her career. She promised to be there for Kate's family, but she has no experience and her efforts end in disaster.

With no job, no boyfriend and Kate's family estranged from her, Tully spirals out of control. She drinks, she takes too many prescription pills and she can't seem to pull herself out. All Tully wants is to matter to someone, and after being rejected many times over by her mother Cloud, she feels bereft.

Tully doesn't know that her mother, now using her given name Dorothy, has changed her life. She hit rock bottom, and is now living a simple life in their old home on Firefly Lane. Does she have the strength to be there for her daughter when she needs her most, after all the years of neglect?

Marah meanwhile has become involved with troubled young man she met in a grief group therapy. She lives in a crummy apartment with several hangers-on, working a dead-end job and has no contact with her family.

Hannah weaves Marah's, Tully's and Dorothy's stories together with a deft touch. The tragic event that brings them together upends their lives and forces each of them to dig deep inside themselves to discover who they really are.

I read Fly Away immediately after reading the prequel Firefly Lane, and that was a good decision. I became so invested in these wonderful characters and wanted to yell at them when they did something stupid or selfish and hug them when they needed it. I tore through both books and cried endlessly. Hannah can really push the emotion button on me.

To all those who waited years for this sequel, I believe they will feel that the wait was worth it. Revisiting these unforgettable characters was a trip worth taking.

rating 5 of 5

My review of Firefly Lane is here.
My blog post of Kristin Hannah's visit to Barnes & Noble is here.
 Kristin Hannah's website is here. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

New in Paperback- The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Published by Voice ISBN 9781401341992
Trade paperback, $15.99, 384 pages

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

Deborah Copaken Kogan was long listed for the Orange Prize for fiction for The Red Book.

New in Paperback- City of Women by David R. Gillham

City of Women by David R. Gillham
Published by Berkely Trade ISBN 978-0425252963
Trade paperback, $16, 448 pages

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

David R. Gillham's tour schedule for May is here. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lauren Graham at Random House Open House

Actress Lauren Graham, known mainly from TV's Gilmore Girls and Parenthood (one of my favorites). has written a book, Someday, Someday, Maybe, and she was at Random House's Open House last week discussing it with her editor Jennifer Smith.

They began with Graham joking about "blowing through every deadline", which Smith did not find as humorous as Graham. Graham later said that now she knows the process better, she would be better with deadlines on her second book, though she said "I think I already missed one- oh, was it two?", when Smith quietly said that it was in fact two. Everyone laughed, Smith less than the rest of us.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is a novel about a young actress trying to make it in NYC. Graham didn't want to write a memoir, fearing that "it might degenerate into a 'tips for teens' from the Gilmore Girls' mom." She and Smith talked about how some people might not believe that Graham actually wrote the book, and Graham was shocked that people put their names on books they didn't write, asking "wait, is that even a category?" Sadly, Smith said it is.

She had the core characters in mind, wrote it and sent it to her agent, who sent it out to publishers before Graham realized it; "I didn't even spell-check it yet." Now she had the aforementioned deadlines to meet.

Graham spoke about how working on Parenthood, with its large ensemble cast, allowed her to spend much of her downtime working on the novel. It was difficult trying to balance the humor with character and story. She said "the voice I use on a talk show is not sustainable for 350 pages."

Now that Graham is on her 40s, she wanted "to do something new I hadn't done before. It's empowering." In talking about her writing process, she spoke about trying to write 1000 words a day, something she called "a reasonable, but challenging amount." She encouraged the audience to write, saying that "there's nothing stopping you from putting words to paper."

When asked about writers she liked, Graham mentioned Carrie Fisher, saying "she is a super underrated writer", and that she has read Postcards from the Edge many times. She also read Bridget Jones' Diary "a million times". She likes Sophie Kinsella, Carol Rifka's Tell The Wolves I'm Home, and of course, her editor Jennifer Smith's YA This Is What Happy Looks Like. 

Her second book takes place in Los Angeles, with the same characters.  She said that the second book is funnier because people in Los Angeles are funnier. (I don't she meant that as a compliment though.) Graham said that the final draft was due on January 3rd, which was tough because she had a huge family holiday celebration in Montana, which prompted a wry reply from Smith: "Actually, it was due in July." That drew huge laughs from the crowd.

Graham later signed copies of her book for the crowd, and it is one book I'm looking forward to reading. She was very kind and gracious to everyone, taking time to speak and listen to each person who had a book signed.
Me and Lauren Graham

Books In The City posted a terrific review of Someday, Someday, Maybe, and she has a giveaway of the book if you head over to her website here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Weekend Cooking- Lunch at Random House Open House

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.

Yesterday I attended the second Random House Open House in New York City. I went to the first one last December and enjoyed it so much, I was happy to see that they planned a second one.

There were several panel discussions and we heard from such wonderful authors as Lauren Graham, from TV's Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, who has written a well-received novel Someday Someday Maybe, R.J. Palacio (the hit young readers book Wonder that many adults love as well), a panel discussion from the publishing team of William Landay's third novel Defending Jacob, authors Colum McCann, Marisha Pessl and Karin Slaughter discussing books and Food Network star chef Alex Guarnaschelli talking about her new book Old School Comfort Food. More on Alex in a future Weekend Cooking post.

One inventive thing they do at this Open House concerns their lunches. They create lunch sandwiches and wraps using recipes from Random House author's cookbooks. Such a clever idea! I chose the Roast Turkey Breast with Lemon and Sage Brown Butter from handsome chef Curtis Stone's book What's For Dinner? (I did not choose that because he is so hunky, I just really like turkey.) It was quite tasty.

Other options included a Hummus Veggie Wrap from Bobby Deen and Melissa Clark's book, From Mama's Table to Mine, a book filled with comfort food recipes at 350 calories or less, a BBQ Pulled Pork inspired by A Feast of Ice & Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook and a Mexican Lentil Wrap from Lucy Danziger's Drop 10 Diet Cookbook, whom we saw at December's Open House.

There are recipe cards available from the books for the sandwiches, which I think is terrific. I picked these three.

At the end of the sessions, there was a mixer with wine and a lovely dessert table that had many of us buzzing around it like bees on flowers. It was filled with cookies from Sara's Snackers, which I love. They had the Lemonade Cookies, Chipn'etzels, my favorite until I tasted the Dark Chocolate Drizzled Chipn'etzels. They are bite sized cookies with pretzels and potato chips inside and are too good for words.

They also had chocolate and butterscotch puddings from an upcoming cookbook Puddin' by Clio Goodman (October 2013), that was so smooth and creamy and delicious. Goodman owns a sweet shop in NYC. 

I will have a wrap-up of the Random House Open House as soon as I go through my copious amount of notes.

Curtis Stone's Roast Turkey Breast with Lemon Sage Brown Butter recipe is here
Clio Goodman's Puddin' website is here.
More information on Random House cookbooks is here.
Last year's post about Marcus Samuelsson at Random House Open House is here.