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Friday, February 28, 2014

Short & Sweet Review- Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Published by Random House ISBN 978-0-679-64375-3
Hardcover, $27, 368 pages

Genre: Memoir, Humor

The Story: Shteyngart moved from Russia to Queens, New York with his parents in the late 1970s when he was seven years old. The author of three critically successful novels (The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story) hits another bullseye with his account of a young childhood spent in Russia and then the adjustment of moving to America, a place he was taught was much inferior to his homeland. This is a humorous and moving account of being a sickly, only child, an outsider in Hebrew school, college life at Oberlin and working towards his goal of being a writer, all the while trying to get his father to believe he is not a "little failure", one of his father's nicknames for him.

Short & Sweet Review: I hadn't read any of Shteyngart's novels, but have seen his howlingly funny book trailers online. This is such a rich, funny book, and anyone who enjoys reading about the immigrant experience should put this on their TBR list. His vivid writing brings his childhood in Russia to life and his stories of his parents fighting (he always feared they would divorce), his grandmother's fierce devotion to him, his striving for acceptance from his new American classmates and how that led him to a life as a writer are fascinating.
I think Americans take for granted how many people want to come here to live, the sacrifices they make and how hard they work to fit in and build a good life for their families. Reading Little Failure will remind you of that.
Shteyngart's book is brutally honest in quest for acceptance from his classmates, his search for love in college, and his many missteps on the road to writing success. He lays himself out there for all to see. At the end of the book, he takes his parents back to Russia, and this section of the book is very moving.
Shteyngart is a brilliant writer, each sentence perfectly constructed to convey his idea. Even if you haven't read his fiction (like me), if you like the memoir genre and you like to laugh, this book is for you.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Someone by Alice McDermott

Someoneby Alice McDermott
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 978-0-374-28109-0
Hardcover, $25, 240 pages

No one writes about the Irish American experience better than Alice McDermott. Her National Book Award winning novel, Charming Billy, is the perfect example of that.

Her latest novel, Someone, tells the story of Marie, an ordinary Irish American girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Marie waits on her stoop everyday for her beloved father to come home from work, watching the activity on the block- the boys playing stickball, Billy Corrigan, blinded from the war, umpiring the game, and the men and women walking home from the subway.

Someone is all about an ordinary life- Marie's life. She goes to Catholic school, has a good friend Gertie, and a brother Gabe who is studying for the priesthood. The book goes back and forth in time, so we see the entirety of Marie's life- childhood, young adulthood, marriage, motherhood, sickness, health, births, deaths, growing old.

One thing that makes Marie stand out is that she has a problem with her eye. It affects not only her vision, but her outward appearance as well. When she finally gets a boyfriend, she feels elated. That balloon is burst when he dumps her for a woman who is prettier and comes from a wealthier family.

The title of the book comes from an exchange she has with her brother over this heartbreak. He tells her that the world is filled with cruelty and when she asks Gabe "Who will love me?", and he says "Someone-someone will."

And someone does. She meets Tom, who was abandoned by his vaudeville parents and nearly became an orphan train boy until a nun sent him to live with her widowed sister who just lost her son in a drowning. They build a life and a family together.

McDermott fills her beautiful novel with quiet moments of life- a mother brushing lint off the jacket of her son in his coffin, waiting to be picked up by family members at the airport, a baby sleeping warmly on his mother's shoulder.

Her language is gorgeous too. She speaks of aging as "a precarious ledge life carried you to, the ledge you lived on when you were an old woman alone, four good children or no." Of her husband, Marie said "he had the kind of face you wanted to put your palm to, like a child's."

After reading Someone, it would hard to pass by a person on the street and not wonder what his life story is. Everyone has a story and Marie was lucky enough to have Alice McDermott conjure up hers. And I was lucky enough to read it. I put Someone on my list of Most Compelling Reads of 2013.

I had the honor of meeting McDermott at the Book Expo of America last year and we chatted about attending SUNY-Oswego, and the snowy, cold weather neither of us misses. In addition to the book, we also received a CD filled with music that corresponds to the book. It is the perfect accompaniment to read with the book.
Alice McDermott signing books at BEA 2013

rating 5 of 5

Monday, February 24, 2014

Broadway Review- Machinal

Roundabout Theater's production of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play Machinal has gotten such amazing reviews, I could not miss this one, and I'm glad I didn't. Rebecca Hall's performance as Young Woman is stunning.

From the moment the play begins, the audience is mesmerized. The stage is a huge rotating rectangle, and we see people crowded on a subway car, and those of us who live in NYC could viscerally feel the agony of our main character, called Young Woman, (aka Helen Jones). People are crushed up against each other, and Helen's discomfort grows to panic as she races to get off the car before her stop.

Then the stage rotates and we see an office with workers who represent the growing mechanization of the labor force. Helen is late for work (as usual), and her boss wants to see her, as he wishes to marry her, something she does not want to do.

The next setting is Helen and her mother's tenement apartment, where Helen is torn between continuing  to live with and support her harridan of a mother or marrying a man she cannot abide. Helen has to choose a life where she really has no choice.

Helen is traumatized by childbirth, feeling that she is slipping farther away from herself. You can almost feel her about to shatter. When she meets a man she is attracted to, she feels alive for the first time, but that comes at a price.

The final scene set in a prison, where Helen is walking from her cell to her execution (the play is loosely based on the Ruth Snyder case, which also inspired the book and movie, The Postman Always Rings Twice) is just visually incredible. The staging in this show is an important character in this play as Helen, and set designer Es Devlin deserves every award imaginable.

This play is not for everyone. It is described as experimental, and the way Treadwell uses the staccato, repetitive language to emphasize the mechanization and repetition of the industrial complex did not work for some of the people in attendance.

However, I found Machinal to be not just a historical piece, because Helen's feelings of being caught between a rock and hard place, having few good choices, is something many women may relate to. Go see it for Rebecca Hall's amazing performance, one of the best of the year.

The play closes on March 2nd at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information, click here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Weekend Cooking- Cooking Light Magazine

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.

Years ago, we had a subscription to Cooking Light magazine. I found so many great recipes there that I used many times (including one of my all-time favorites, a caramel cake that was so delicious!). When we moved to New York, I gave up the subscription.

I got an email with a great deal on Cooking Light, so I ordered it and the first issue arrived last week. The cover featured this beautiful looking Chicken with Mushrooms and Onions photo and I knew I had to make this one right away.

It's a perfect weeknight dish, one that you can have on the table in thirty minutes. I added a box of Trader Joe's Rice with Orzo and a salad and we had a light, tasty dinner. I pinned to my The Lighter Side Pinterest board because this is one recipe I will use again and again.
Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Ginny Branch  
The link to this recipe on Cooking Light's website is here.
I also like that this recipe is part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, encouraging people to move more, drink more water and eat healthier.

Some other recipes in this issue that I want to try are:
Cheesy BBQ Chicken Pizzas- link is here
Cherry Almond Ricotta Drop Scones- link is here
Mini Philly Cheeseburgers- link is here

Now that we live in a smaller space, I will try to be diligent about going through my cooking magazines and tearing out the recipes that I have tried and liked and then filing them right away.

Do you have any cooking magazines that you go to time and again? Let me know in Comments.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Weekend Cooking- Best of the Best from Ohio Cookbook

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.

Best of the Best From Ohio Cookbook Edited by Gwen Mckee and Barbara Moseley
Published by Quail Ridge Press ISBN 978-1-893062-90-0
Softcover, $16.95, 287 pages

This past Christmas, my sister-in-law, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, gave me Best of the Best From Ohio Cookbook. Editors Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley travel each state, looking for local cookbooks and choosing recipes from those to include in their state versions.

It's a terrific way to sample the local culinary favorites, from local restaurants, church cookbooks, 4H cookbooks, and more. In the Ohio cookbook, we get favorites from Trinity United Methodist Women, Ohio State Grange, Murphy Ridge Inn and Asthma Walk cookbooks among dozens of others.

The format follows most cookbooks- Appetizers, Breakfast, Soups, Salads, Vegetables, Meats, etc.  Also included are fun facts about the state, famous people from Ohio, and photos. The editors include information about the history of the state, and the various immigrant cultures who settled there and influenced the food found in Ohio.

Many Germans settled in Ohio, so you'll find recipes for things like Sauerkraut Balls, Spaetzle, German Apple Pancake and Lebkuchen, a type of cookie. Ohio is known as the Buckeye State, and you can find a Buckeye Pie recipe. Since the Dublin Irish Festival draws over 90,000 visitors each year, the recipe for Onion Bisque is a popular one.

I enjoyed reading how Cincinnati Chili came to be, from a Greek restaurant owner in 1922.  (There are many Greek inspired recipes.) You'll find lots of Amish recipes here, as world's largest Amish settlement is found in Ohio.

One of my favorite cookbooks are one created by parents from my sons' Catholic School, St. Joseph School in Auburn New York, because it has everyone's best recipe in there and I have used it so much the binding has come undone. This book reminds me of that; you'll find the best recipes culled from dozens of Ohio cookbooks, and at the end of the book is a catalog list of each cookbook referenced, with helpful ordering information alongside each one.

This is a fun gift, and now when I visit other states, I intend on looking for a cookbook like this. It would be a wonderful, useful memento, although it will take up more space than a refrigerator magnet.

From the Ohio Cook Book, here is a recipe for
Lake Erie Potato-Fried Fish
 1 1/2 pounds white bass, yellow perch or other fillets
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp. water
1 cup instant mashed potatoes
1 package onion or Italian salad dressing mix
Cooking oil

Sprinkle fish filets with salt and pepper. In a bowl, beat together egg and water. In another bowl, combine potato flakes and dressing mix. Dip fish into egg mixture to coat, then dredge in potato flake mixture. Heat 1/8 inch oil in skillet. Add fish and over moderate heat, fry for 4-5 minutes per side, drain on paper towels.

rating 4 of 5

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman

After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-208339-5
Hardcover, $26.99, 352 pages

Laura Lippman writes suspense novels with great characters. Her last book, And When She Was Bad, told the story of a suburban soccer mom who ran an escort service. Her newest, After I'm Gone, tells the story of the disappearance of Felix Brewer, a man who was a bookie, ran a strip club and when he is convicted in connection with his criminal activities, disappears, leaving behind a wife, three young daughters and a mistress.

When his mistress disappears nearly ten years later to the day, questions once again arise about Felix. Did he send for his mistress Julie, the woman he left his only legitimate business to when he disappeared? Why did he leave no money behind for his wife Bambi and his three daughters?

Julia's dead body turns up in the woods near Felix and Bambi's home, and this cold case ends up in the lap of Sandy Sanchez, an investigator/consultant for the District Attorney's office. Sandy chooses to pursue whatever cases he thinks he can solve, and Julie Saxony's intrigues him.

He meets with her sister Andrea, who is believed to have helped Julie help Felix disappear. Andrea knows more than she is telling, but does she know who killed her sister?

The story moves back in forth in time, from 1976 when Felix disappears, to 1991 when Julie's body turns up, to 2012, when Sandy begins his investigation. We get to see Bambi go from a teen in the throes of young love with Felix, to a lonely wife waiting for her husband to come home from the club to mom to three girls to a desperate woman struggling to maintain some kind of life for her girls to a  fiercely protective mom and grandmother.

We see Felix and Bambi's girls grow up- Linda and Rachel, who remember their father, and Michelle, who was too young when Felix disappeared. Linda has a good job, marries and has children and seems to have settled into a life she likes.

Rachel marries a guy she met in college. He was from a wealthy family who were none to happy to have Rachel and her notorious family story incorporated into their family. Her marriage doesn't work out, and Rachel ends up back home for awhile. Michelle seems to be floating through life, with no career or husband.

While the the women's stories over the years are fascinating, Sandy has an intriguing one as well. He and his wife have a son, who ended up in an institution. His wife dies, and as she had a relationship with their son and Sandy did not, he is all alone.

After Sandy interviews a woman who is caring for her debilitated husband, he thinks about his life.  One of the saddest lines in the entire book concerns his wife Mary and son Bobby, now an adult.
"Would Sandy have traded for more time with Mary if it had meant being with someone who wasn't really Mary? Would he have traded Bobby-as-he-was, now in his thirties and lost to him, for a normal Bobby who died at age five? You can rewrite your life all you want, Sandy thought. It's still a play where everyone dies in the end." 
Another line that got to me was "They say you're only as happy as your least happy child". Boy, does that line resonate for any parent.

The suspense builds slowly, and throughout most of the novel, it remains in the back of the reader's mind as you get lost in the characters' lives. As Sandy closes in on Julie's killer, the tension builds and you remember, yes, it is a murder mystery that needs to be solved. And the solution is a doozy; after a few red herrings, it all comes together in a nail-biting conclusion.

Fans of Lippman's novels featuring Private Investigator Tess Monaghan will be pleased to see a cameo of her here, and maybe looking forward to Sandy and Tess working together in a future book.

I loved the characters, the story and the resolution, and once again Lippman has hit it out of the park.

rating 4 of 5 stars

My review of And When She Was Bad is here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ripper by Isabel Allende

Ripper by Isabel Allende
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-229140-0
Hardcover, $28.99, 496 pages
It's been many years since I first read and enjoyed an Isabel Allende novel. She is best known for magical realism in her literary novels, so I was surprised to find that she tried her hand at the mystery/thriller genre with her latest work, Ripper.

Ripper has a serial killer at work in San Francisco, but no one know it yet. Amanda, a high school senior at a nearby boarding school run by feminist nuns (very cool!), is kind of nerdy and smart and spends time with other smart, nerdy teens in an online role playing game called Ripper.

They are intrigued by an astrologer (and friend to Amanda's mother Indiana) who predicts a bloodbath of murders will take place in San Francisco, and when a high school security guard is found brutally murdered, they have their first case.

Amanda's father is a police detective, so Amanda tries to get information for her team from him. Amanda's grandfather (Indiana's father) Blake is part of team Ripper, and I loved his relationship with his granddaughter.  They love each other fiercely, and Blake spends as much time as he can with Amanda.

The story opens with Amanda telling us that her mother is being held by the serial killer, so we read the rest of the rest of the story waiting to find out why and how this happens. This conceit ratchets up the tension dramatically.

Other murders occur and the police don't believe they are connected until team Ripper puts all the pieces together. Amanda's father does not like his daughter's interest and involvement in these murders, but at least Blake is there to keep an eye on things.

Indiana Jackson is a holistic healer, a real crunchy-granola type. She is also knockout gorgeous and can get men to do whatever she asks, but she doesn't take advantage of that. She is in love with Alan Keller, who is from a wealthy family but doesn't like to work. Ryan, a former Navy SEAL who lost a leg in the war and now works for the CIA in some kind of clandestine manner, is a client of Indiana's. They are good friends, but he would like to be more than that.

As I was reading the story, I thought there were too many characters to keep track of- Indiana's many clients, the Ripper team, police, murder victims- it felt overwhelming. But as the story got rolling, I saw how everything came together and it worked.

Allende gives a few clues as to who the murderer may be, which I picked up on, but I had no idea how or why the murderer killed. The final resolution was a little hard to swallow, although the action scenes at the end were nail-biting.

The characters in the story are well-drawn and interesting, and I was particularly interested in Ryan's backstory. If the mystery's resolution stretches credulity a bit, I am willing to go with it because I liked the characters so much.

The book is translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne, and they did a marvelous job. I would have never guessed that the author wasn't from San Francisco herself.

rating 4 of 5

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on this tour. The rest of Isabel Allende's tour stops are here.

Isabel Allende’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, January 28th: Jen’s Book Thoughts
Wednesday, January 29th: Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, February 4th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, February 5th: Literally Jen
Thursday, February 6th: Little Lovely Books
Monday, February 10th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, February 11th: BoundbyWords
Wednesday, February 12th: The Book Wheel
Thursday, February 13th: M. Denise C.
Monday, February 17th: she treads softly
Tuesday, February 18th: In Bed with Books
Wednesday, February 19th: Bibliophilia, Please
Thursday, February 20th: Literary Feline
Monday, February 24th: Between the Covers
Tuesday, February 25th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Wednesday, February 26th: Under a Gray Sky
Thursday, February 27th: The Scarlet Letter

Isabel Allende's website is here.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Weekend Cooking- Almost True Confessions by Jane O'Connor

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.

Almost True Confessions by Jane O'Connor
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-223648-7
Trade paperback, $14.99, 336 pages

Sometimes when you read a book and there is a description of food, you begin to crave that food. That happened to me recently when I was reading Jane O'Connor's novel Almost True Confessions on a flight from Barbados to New York City.

It wasn't any fancy dish that she described that cause my craving; no, it was a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The main character, single mom and freelance copy editor Rannie Bookman loves her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, enjoying them every few chapters, and by the end of this fun little mystery I wanted to ring the flight attendant and ask for a PB&J myself.

This is a perfect book to read on an airplane: the mystery was not too complicated to follow, the setting was fun (Upper East Side high society in NYC), and the characters were interesting. The author, best known for her Fancy Nancy children's books, writes just as well for adults (including some racy sex scenes, oh my!).

Rannie gets a top secret assignment to pick up a manuscript at the home of a Kitty Kelly-type author who has written another scathing biography of a famous person. Ret Sullivan, the author, was attacked by one of her previous subjects, and her face disfigured by acid. She sees no one now, and Rannie was excited to meet the reclusive woman.

However, when Rannie arrives at the apartment, she finds that Ret has been murdered. This is a problem for Rannie since she was nearly killed herself when she got involved in another murder a few years ago (in O'Connor's adult book debut Dangerous Admissions).

Rannie's boyfriend, former cop-turned-bar-owner Tim warns Rannie to tell the cops what she knows and then stay out of it. That sounds like sage advice, but then Rannie gets a copy of the book from Ret's editor, and discovers it's not a nasty-tell-all but rather a straightforward biography of an Upper East Side society heiress (think Gloria Vanderbilt-type).

This intrigues Rannie and when she inadvertently ends up at the mansion of the heiress on a mercy mission for a friend of her ex-mother-in-law, her curiosity is piqued and she ends up right in the middle of the mystery.

I liked getting to know the characters- Rannie's teenage son Nate, Tim, Larry the sad sack editor, Rannie's mom Alice and ex-mother-in-law Mary, Daisie the ex-mother-in-law's friend, Sister Dorothy- they were all fun to spend time with between the pages.

The fact that Rannie is copy editor and by definition a grammar Nazi also made me smile, as I have that reputation as well and, like Rannie, struggle to keep my mouth shut when I hear or see misuse of the English language.

I enjoyed this breezy mystery and now I'm off to find a copy of Dangerous Admissions and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

rating 4 of 5

Friday, February 7, 2014

Armistead Maupin In Conversation With John Searles at Barnes & Noble

Last night I attended an conversation with Armistead Maupin and John Searles (author of the excellent Help For The Haunted) at Barnes and Noble on the Upper East Side. I confess that I have never read Maupin, but I did buy his first book in the Tales of the City series for $1.99 on Kindle recently, and last night I bought his last book in the series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, so I will catch up.
John Searles and Armistead Maupin at Barnes & Noble

The room was filled to capacity last night, and many more people were watching from outside the room by the time it began. Maupin has a very dedicated and fervent following, and they were hanging on his every word and laughing at all of his inside jokes.

Searles began by telling how he came to read Maupin, finding a copy of Tales of the City at a used book store when he was teen and being intrigued by the orange cover. His father was a long distance trucker, and he was to accompany his dad on a trip in the hopes it would make a man of him. (He joked that it failed, but he did become a Maupin fan for life.)

Searles also said that as he was reading Maupin's books on the subway, he was approached by several people, all who wanted to talk about Maupin's books. Maupin told a story about a man who was stabbed on the subway, saved from injury by the hardcover copy of Maupin's book that he had in his jacket. (See kids, reading can save your life!)

Maupin spoke of being inspired by Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man, and wanted to write a story that had characters who happen to be gay. He spoke of the beginnings of the idea for the books, when he wrote a daily 800-word column (yikes!) for the San Francisco Chronicle about dating and life in the city, which he found "exhilarating and scary".

He spoke of his editor who had a chart in his office with two columns- "Heterosexual" and "Homosexual". On that chart, he would keep track of the people Maupin wrote about in his columns, with the imperative being that there must always be more hashmarks in the "Heterosexuals" column.

Maupin says he is a slow, deliberate writer, writing just two pages a day. "Breezy writing takes time" he said. He spoke of hearing the "music in the paragraph", and of sometimes spending much time looking for a three-syllable word that will fit in the paragraph to maintain the rhythm he wanted.

Searles asked him if aging was on his mind in these most recent books, and Maupin broke the crowd into peals of laughter with his response "it was the pictures that got smaller", the famous Norma Desmond line from Sunset Boulevard.

Also covered were the HBO miniseries based on Tales of the City, starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis (whom he dedicated this new book to), why he moved to Sante Fe (San Francisco is getting too expensive), and most important, why is Mary Ann such a bitch? (He gets asked that question all the time.)

Searles asked him what he most wanted to people to know, and his answer was beautiful. He said he wanted people to know that "life is messy and beautiful, that friends get us through it and love is everything."

It really was a wonderful evening, and I enjoy listening to two terrific authors in conversation more that just an author reading when the questions are thoughtful and draw out the author, as Searles did so well. The only thing that would have made more memorable would be if in took place "in Paris", a phrase that Searles says will make any story more exciting when you place it at the end.

Armistead Maupin's website is here.
John Searles' website is here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Reader's Book of Days by Tom Nissley- January

A Reader's Book of Days by Tom Nissley
Published by W.W. Norton ISBN 978-0-393-23962-1
Hardcover, $24.95, 448 pages

My wonderful father-in-law found the perfect gift for me for Christmas- a book titled A Reader's Book of Days. It reminded me in some ways of The People's Almanac, written in the mid 1970s, a book I read so much that the binding fell apart.

A Reader's Book of Days shares literary facts for each day of the year- authors who were born on that day, who died on that day and then takes it a step further. For each day, there are interesting facts regarding that date mentioned in books or something literary that occurred on that day. There is also a Recommended Reading page for each month, containing books that have some relationship to that particular month.

Each month, I will give a wrap-up of the previous month's entries, along with the entries that interested me most. So starting with January, the recommended reading list includes:

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the basis for the movie Blade Runner, and included because it is set on a single day in January.
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith, her debut novel which begins with a character's failed suicide attempt on a January. 
  • Airport by Arthur Hailey, set during a snowstorm at Lincoln International Airport in Illinois.
I would like to read one book from the recommended reading list each month. I chose Airport for January, but am having a problem locating a copy of the book from 1968.

Some of the interesting facts from January include:
  • Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) began writing children's books because it was the only writing that wasn't excluded in his contract with Standard Oil, where he wrote ad copy. (January 14th)
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House On The Prairie series of books, was pushed to write by her daughter Rose, who was one of the country's best-paid freelance writers. Many people believed both women wrote the books. (January 17th)
  • The character of Popeye began as a minor character in E.C. Segar's The Thimble Theatre in New York Journal, which starred Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. (January 17th)
  • The true story that inspired Toni Morrison's classic novel Beloved was also the basis for the book Deed by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (January 30th)
I'm going to enjoy reading this beautiful book as much as I enjoyed The People's Almanac. This is a wonderful gift for the reader in your life, and you know, Valentine's Day is next week. I'm just sayin'.

rating 4 of 5

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Labor Day-The Movie

Our book club- The Beach Club Book Club- had the opportunity to read Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel, Labor Day, now reissued by William Morrow, and to see the movie version, written and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In The Air), courtesy of William Morrow Publishers.

We had a delicious lunch at Grill Fire in Rockville Centre, where we discussed the novel. We all agreed that the book was a good one, and we felt sympathy for Adele, the agoraphobic single mom of teenage Henry.

One of the debates was whether Adele was a good mother; after all, she allowed a strange man in their home not knowing what his story was. The general consensus was that Adele would never do anything to endanger her son, that she felt that Frank was a good man. She was trying to be helpful.

When we saw the scene in the movie where Frank approaches Henry in the Pricemart, the movie gave you a much bigger sense of menace from Frank than in the book. Josh Brolin played Frank, and he excels at playing the menacing drifter. We all thought that was an interesting way to play that.

In another scene, Frank ties Adele to a chair with rope. In the novel, he tied her up with her scarves. Again, that change gave a deeper sense of menace. You weren't really sure yet of the kind of man Frank was.

The acting in the movie was terrific- we all liked Kate Winslet's portrayal of Adele, and her willingness to look lost and unglamorous. Brolin was great, as always. The big surprise was Gattlin Griffith, who played Henry. I swear he looked and acted exactly as I pictured him in my head when reading the book. This kid is one to watch for in the future. And Tom Lipinski, who played a younger Frank, looked so much Josh Brolin it was eerie.

This movie is marketed as a love story, but as it is telling the story from the adult Henry's point of view (voiced by Toby McGuire), it is also a coming-of-age story. I really felt it was as much of Henry's story as Adele and Frank's love story.

One scene that really affected us took place near the end of the movie between a high school aged Henry and his father, played by Clark Gregg. Gregg is explaining to his son why he left Henry and Adele and he apologizes. It is a powerful scene, and it brought me to tears. Gregg is such an underrated actor. We liked how the movie followed the book in not making the father the bad guy.

A criticism we had involved Frank's backstory. We got to hear Adele tell Frank what happened in her past to make her so sad, but Frank's story is told in quick-cut flashbacks. If you didn't read the book, his story would confuse you- particularly why he ended up in prison and what happened to his son. Reitman should have had the scene from the book where Frank tells Adele what happened.

Overall, we thought the movie was a terrific adaptation of the novel. It followed the book pretty faithfully and took much of its dialogue from Maynard's book. We liked the look of the movie, and all of the parts were well cast, even the small ones.

Labor Day is a wonderful date movie (with Valentine's Day coming up), but it's also a good movie to go to with your girlfriends. There's much to discuss afterwards, and this is a rare adaptation that is as good as the book.

I would like to give a shout-out to the Bow Tie Cinemas in Franklin Square. It is a well-run, very clean (the bathrooms were immaculate!) theater and the manager greeted when we arrived and said goodbye to us when we left. We felt very welcome there.
Discussing the book at Grill Fire

At the Bow Tie Cinemas in Franklin Square
The trailer for Labor Day is here.

My review of the book Labor Day is here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Published by Harper 978-0-06-228116-6
Hardcover, $29.99, 576 pages

The first book I read by Wally Lamb was She's Come Undone and I can recall being so moved by his characters and his beautiful prose. I have since read other books by him - I Know This Much Is True and The Hour I First Believed- and was deeply moved by them as well.

I was able to meet Wally Lamb last year at a party at BEA and was so pleasantly surprised to find out how funny he was; his books are so serious and yes, sad. I went to an event where he spoke with John Searles about John's book Help For The Haunted, and again he was so quick-witted and charming.

Lamb's latest novel is We Are Water, another sad story. Annie Oh is a successful middle-aged artist who creates what some people would call violent works of art. She began creating dioramas in the basement of the home she shared with her husband, a therapist at a college, and her three young children.

Now her children are grown- Ari lives across the country at works in a non-profit organization and wants desperately to have a baby. Andrew is in the army, has become ultra-conservative with a fiancee who turns to Dr. Laura for advice and Marina wants to be an actress, but hasn't gotten any work.

Annie's husband Orion is shocked when Annie announces she wants a divorce to marry a woman- Viveca, her art benefactor and dealer. Marina is fine with the marriage, she likes Viveca, in part because she is rich and takes Marina shopping. Ari is willing to support her mother, but Andrew is opposed to the marriage on moral grounds.

Viveca pushes Annie to marry at her old farm house, the one in which she lived with Orion and her children. Orion, hurt and confused, feels like this would be yet another betrayal. Annie has kept secrets from him, things that happened in her past as a young girl, and he finds that his children kept secrets about their mother from him as well.

The theme of secrets and the damage they cause to those who keep them and the consequences of finally revealing them is explored in depth here. If Annie had trusted Orion with her secret, would things have been different for them? When Annie finally reveals her secret, the consequences are devastating.

Another theme here is the function of art. As an art judge says:
"What is the function of art? What is its value? Is it about form and composition? Uniqueness of vision? The relationship between painter and painting? Sometimes I'll award the top prize to a formalist, sometimes to an expressionist or an abstract artist. Less often  but occasionally I will select an artist whose work is representational. But whenever and wherever possible, I celebrate art that shakes complacency by the shoulders and shouts "Wake up!"
Annie's art certainly shakes complacency. Her family doesn't understand where all the anger comes from, but Viveca knows how to make money from it.

I liked what Annie said about love early on in her relationship with Orion.
"Maybe that's what love is. Having someone who guides you through different experiences, coaxes you to try new things but still makes you feel safe."
We Are Water is such a multi-layered book, filled with emotion and depth and characters you can  relate to. We see their flaws and their hurts, and the sibling relationships in particular feel so real. Lamb succeeds once again by bringing deep inside characters so that we can see their humanity.

rating 5 of 5

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl Snacks

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

This year's Super Bowl should be a quieter affair, but I have added some new pins to my Super Bowl Pinterest board that I am contemplating trying.

The first is a Chicken Parmigiana Dip. My family likes chicken parmigiana and instead of my old Pepperoni Pizza Dip stand-by (a family classic), I may give this a try. I found it on livelovepasta.com. 

I watched Carla Hall make this Cheesy Baked Spinach Dip on The Chew and it looks tasty and easy. It's on abc.go.com

For a hardier treat, this Buffalo Chicken Sub from Jeff Mauro looks like something my guys would like. And it's a nice change from straight-up chicken wings. It's on foodnetwork.com.

Nachos are always a staple and these Chipotle Chicken Nachos from seriouseats.com should hit the spot. 

What are you serving this Super Bowl Sunday? Share with us in Comments.