Powered By Blogger

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-233300-1
Hardcover, $25.99, 336 pages

Kitty wakes up and she's not in her bedroom. She is in an unfamiliar room, but the last thing she remembers is painting her bedroom with help from her best friend and co-owner of their bookstore. What has happened?

So begins Cynthia Swanson's compelling novel, The Bookseller. A handsome man comes into the unfamiliar room, claiming to be her husband, and reminding her that she has two young children who need her, one of whom is running a fever.

But Kitty is not married and does not have children, and why is this man calling her Katharyn, her given name, instead of Kitty, the name everyone calls her?

Kitty awakens from the realistic dream and it's still 1962 and she has to get to work at the bookstore, where Frieda will be waiting for her. Slowly we find out more about Kitty: she used to be a 5th grade teacher, she is very close to her loving parents, she was jilted by her long-time boyfriend and hasn't been dating much lately.

Things at the bookstore haven't been going so well since the bus line that ran right in front of the store changed routes, and Frieda wants to consider moving the shop to a better location in a shopping center.

But the dreams continue, where it appears that Kitty leads a completely different life. We find out more about her family, including the fact that her young son has autism. I found this fact very intriguing as I don't know how much was known about autism in 1962.

In her dream life, Kitty and Frieda no longer own the store together, and they don't see each other anymore. She has trouble dealing with her son, while her loving husband seems more capable in this area.

Some things are the same in her dream life and her real life. She has the same cat, and in her dream home, her photos are on the wall are the same ones in her real life.

As her dream life goes on, it appears that something traumatic has happened. Her husband is concerned about her and he references things that have happened that neither the reader nor Kitty seem to be aware of.

In her real life, Kitty begins to lose days. She doesn't know what has happened in the days prior, and things begin to confuse her. Fans of Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot will enjoy this page-turner of a novel, one that I finished in two sittings.

Swanson weaves a riveting story, one that will keep the reader guessing as to what exactly is going on in Kitty's life to cause these dreams. Her descriptions of Kitty's surroundings are particularly well done, and that is no surprise considering the author is also a mid-century designer.

I liked the characters, especially the relationships between Kitty and her parents and Kitty and Frieda. I found it interesting that the father knew how to better deal with the autistic son than the boy's mother, given that back in 1962 generally fathers were less involved with their children's daily lives than their mothers.

The resolution of the story surprised me a bit, and I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it, but the journey Swanson took us on to get there was a thought-provoking, emotional and compelling one.

rating 4.5 of 5

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Weekend Cooking- The River Cafe in Brooklyn

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.

Last Thursday, my husband and I went to see Neil Diamond perform at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, his first concert in his hometown. Before the show, we had dinner with two other couples at the River Cafe, located just under the Brooklyn Bridge.

We have walked the Brooklyn Bridge, but never wandered down to this beautiful area. We walked by the famous Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, but didn't get a treat because we didn't want to spoil our dinner.

The River Cafe is a gorgeous place. It is right on the river, and the entry is surrounded by lush greenery. A huge display of lovely flowers greet you in the entry of the restaurant. The ambiance is relaxing and beautiful.

The menu is a three-course prefix, and at $120 per person, not inexpensive. But you get the whole package here. The waiter brought the ladies a small tufted stool that he placed next to us to put our purses on. I have been to many fancy restaurants, but this was a first for me, and so appreciated.

The service was impeccable and unobtrusive. I had a glass of Chardonnay with dinner, and it was very good, smooth and light. I started with the Pear Salad appetizer, which was my favorite part of the meal and one of my favorite appetizers ever.

They placed a perfectly caramelized pear on a plate with bacon, goat cheese and toasted walnuts on  the pear, topped with frisee and covered delicately with a delicious apple cider dressing. It was heavenly.

My husband enjoyed the Wild Shrimp, Pacific Blue shrimp served Oscar style, with King Crabmeat, white asparagus and a citrus Malaise sauce.

For my entree, I had the Coquelet, a chicken dish roasted and stuffed with chestnut, porcini and sage stuffing, with tiny turnips, a small glazed carrot and a Madeira sauce on top. The stuffing was very tasty.

I chose the Pistachio Semifreddo for dessert, and it was amazing. The pistachio dacquoise came with clementine sorbet and a clementine chip. I loved how the flavors blended together.

The dinner was expensive, but I highly recommend the River Cafe for a special occasion dinner. The view of Manhattan is wonderful, and the food is incredible.

I didn't take photos of the food, as we had dining companions with us.
The River Cafe website is here, and they have terrific photos.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Weekend Cooking- Julie & Julia, The Movie

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.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of a few food-related books that I picked up at the Book Cellar. One of them was Julie Powell's Julie & Julia, about a blogger who wrote about her year cooking every recipe (524!) in the hefty book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child's 1961 classic cookbook.

Last night I was flipping through the TV channels and found the 2009 movie version, starring Amy Adams as Julie Powell and Meryl Streep as Julia Child. (Streep was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.)

The movie, written by the brilliant Nora Ephron, was a mashup of Child's memoir My Life in France  and Julie & Julia, alternating the women's stories. Most of the reviews I had read stated that the Julia Child part of movie, set and filmed in France, was a stronger story than Powell's story, set mostly in a tiny Queens apartment kitchen.

I would agree with this assessment. Streep and Stanley Tucci, who played her loving husband Paul, have an amazing chemistry that shines through in this story.  (Anyone who saw them as boss and assistant in The Devil Wears Prada can attest to this as well.) Streep really has a ball playing the (literally) bigger-than-life Julia Child, who introduced Americans to the cuisine of French cooking.

Child lived life to the fullest, and her and Paul's love story was a joy to watch come to life on screen. The setting of France 1949 was so beautiful too, so bright and sunny, it should be a travel video for France.

One of my favorite scenes was the one with  Child's unbridled enthusiasm as she joins an all-male class at the Cordon Bleu, much to the consternation of the female administrator who wanted the large American woman in a beginner class.

The Valentine's dinner party scene at the Child's was sweet and charming as well, with Paul giving a beautiful toast to the love of his life.

Perhaps because the Julie Powell scenes were set mostly in her cramped kitchen, where she worked mostly alone, recreating Child's dishes, those contemporary scenes seemed closed in and less exciting. I did like Amy Adams and Chris Messina as her husband, and supporting actors like Jane Lynch as Child's just-as-outgoing and tall sister were well cast.

Overall I liked the movie a good deal, and would recommend it to everyone who grew up, like I did, wondering who the heck that big lady with the odd voice and contagious laugh was, who was cooking on TV and looking like she was have a blast doing it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Weekend Cooking- Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Published by Anchor ISBN 9780345803788
Trade paperback, $15, 544 pages

A friend of mine told me that Kevin Kwan's novel, Crazy Rich Asians, was a very funny book and pressed into my hands telling me to read it. So I did.

From the very beginning, a family tree page, I was laughing out loud. The main characters are Nick and Rachel. Nick comes from a very wealthy family in Singapore, and Rachel was born in China, but as a baby moved to America with her mother, a real estate agent. They both live in New York and work at a university.

Nick's childhood best friend is getting married back home, and Nick wants Rachel to accompany him and spend the summer in Singapore. That is where the fun begins.

The wedding is over-the-top Kardashian style, but I'm not sure even that clan could imagine how opulent and over-indulgent this wedding will be. We meet Nick's family, including his grandmother who lives in a Buckingham Castle-type home that is so secluded it isn't even on a map.

Nick's mother Eleanor is a controlling woman, who frightens everyone including her posse of friends and family who both fear her and want her approval. His father hides out in Australia to avoid the two women in his life. (And who can blame him?)

Eleanor fears Nick will marry Rachel, a woman whose family is not only not wealthy, but has skeletons in the closet, so she conspires with others to break them up. (That includes a mean girl gang whose vicious bridal shower "prank" is truly awful.)

There are many characters here, but Kwan does a wonderful job giving each of them fair time and creating interesting people you want to read more about. (And we will get more- Kwan's sequel China Rich Girlfriend publishes in July- hooray!)

The descriptions of the houses, clothes (one character regularly shops for couture in Paris) and even food is stunning and so vivid, I can easily see a movie or TV series of this. One of my favorite food passages takes place at a popular food stall:
"A few minutes later, the four of them were seated just outside the main hall under a huge tree strung with yellow lights, every inch of their table covered with colorful plastic plates piled high with the greatest hits of Singaporean street cuisine. There was the famous char kuay teow, a fried omelet with oysters called orb luak, Malay rojak salad bursting with chunks of pineapple and cucumber, Hokkien-style noodles in a thick garlicky gravy, a fish cake smoked in coconut leaves called otay otay, and a hundred sticks of chicken and beef satay."
Crazy Rich Asians drops the reader into a world unlike one most of us can even conceive of, and man is it a blast spending a few hours there.

rating 5 of 5

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0062049612
Trade paperback, $15.99, 368 pages
Any regular reader of my blog knows that I am a big fan of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs novel. I look forward each March to catching up with private investigator Dobbs, her staff, friends and family.

Leaving Everything Most Loved is the tenth Maisie book, and big changes are afoot for Maisie. She is still living with James, but their relationship hasn't moved any closer to marriage, although James would like that. He keeps asking, but Maisie fears that marriage means giving up her career and the business she has built. I do find it interesting that in 1930s England there seems to be little disapproval of their living arrangement.

Maisie's case involves the murder of an Indian woman, Usha, who worked as a governess for an English family. Usha was a beautiful woman, and highly thought of by most people who came in contact with her. The police don't seem very interested in finding her killer, so Usha's brother arrives from India seeking Maisie's assistance.

Once again, we get a real feel for the atmosphere in 1930's London, and again Winspear tackles a societal issue. This time we see the problems that Indian immigrants, particularly women, faced. People fear things that are different, and that fear can manifest itself in prejudice. I always enjoy how Winspear relates the issues of the past with problems that still exist today.

One of my favorite characters, Maisie's assistant Billy, is having problems. He was severely beaten on the last case, and he is having a difficult time dealing with the aftermath. This troubles Maisie greatly. Billy and his family have faced many tribulations, and she wants to help, but is uncertain as to how.

Maisie is also having her own crisis. She feels restless and would like to see some more of the world, to travel like her deceased mentor Dr. Maurice Blanche did. But leaving means leaving her father behind, and closing her business and leaving her employees without work. James is going to Canada for awhile and would like Maisie to come with him as his wife.

This tenth novel continues Maisie's introspective look at her life that has been building in the last few novels. You can feel it all coming to a resolution in this tenth book, which beautifully sets up the next novel.

One thing I always enjoy in the Maisie novels are the descriptions of Maisie's beautiful outfits. This time, though, we get wonderful vivid descriptions of Usha's saris and the way she decorated her boarding house room. You can see it all in your mind's eye.

They mystery of who killed Usha is resolved, and as usual Winspear throws in enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing. This is another solid entry in the Maisie Dobbs series, and I can't wait until A Dangerous Place publishes March 17th to find out what comes next for Maisie.

rating 4 of 5

Jacqueline Winspear's website is here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Broadway- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

It's great when I can combine my love of books with my love of Broadway in one post. A few years ago, I read Mark Haddon's remarkable novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told in the voice of a 15-year-old autistic boy.

The boy is found next to the body of a neighbor's dog who has been stabbed and killed with a garden fork, and Christopher is at first thought to have done the deed. He is cleared of the crime and then decides that he will find the culprit himself since no one else appears interested.

The Broadway show, a transplant from Britain where it won every award possible, is a brilliantly conceived and executed show. It manages to take us right inside the mind of an autistic teen, and even more successfully than the book, we can hear and see how overwhelming the stimuli of a train station can be as staged in this show.

The scene in the train station is a cacophony of flashing lights and extremely loud sounds. And when Christopher descends on a escalator that appears magically out of nowhere, you could hear gasps from the audience.(I would compare it to the magic carpet in Aladdin, but even more amazing.)

Because the novel tells the story in Christopher's voice, we generally only get his point of view. In the stage show, I think we feel more of the emotions of the other characters- his mother and father, the older neighbor and his teacher. There is great sympathy for how Christopher's autism affected his parents.

Christopher can't stand to be touched, and is a math genius. His primal screams when he is touched ring through the theater, and it brings insight into how it must feel.

The show really depends on the actor who plays Christopher to succeed, and Alex Sharp is absolutely amazing in the role. It is an incredibly physically and emotionally role, and there is another actor who plays the role on matinee days because it is so demanding. I can't imagine that Sharp won't be recognized come awards season.

Ian Barford and Enid Graham, as Christopher's parents, are also wonderful at portraying the anguish and difficulty of their situation.

The staging of the show is stunning and inventive, allowing us right into Christopher's world, through his eyes.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a powerful, emotional piece of theater that resonates long after the show ends. This is a show that is worth seeing even at full-price, though discount tickets are available.

The show's website is here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Weekend Cooking- The Book Cellar

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.

Last June, I began volunteering at the Book Cellar, a wonderful used bookstore located in the Webster Library branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper East Side. It is a fantastic place, often called a 'hidden NYC gem' by people when they find it.

The Book Cellar has been open for eleven years, which is such an accomplishment, made even more impressive by the fact that it is operated by the Friends of the Webster Library and staffed completely by a terrific group of dedicated volunteers.

I enjoy spending four days a week at The Book Cellar, and one of the many reasons for that is that I am always finding great books to purchase, most for under $3. It does cause a problem in that, while I frequently donate my books to the Book Cellar after I have read them, I somehow end up bringing home just as many (OK, maybe more) than I donate.

Recently, I found some books that relate to Weekend Cooking. As I was looking through my cookbook collection to see which ones I could donate (not as many I as should have), I discovered that I did not have a copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook, a classic that should be in every kitchen.

I was able to rectify that error by picking up a copy at The Book Cellar for just $3. Does anyone have any favorite recipes from the book that I should try? Let me know in comments below.

Calvin Trillin's book about his lovely wife who passed away way too soon, About Alice, holds a special place on my Favorites Bookshelf, and so when I saw that his book Alice, Let's Eat was at the Book Cellar, I snapped that up too. Trillin is so funny, and I adore Alice, so I can't wait to dig into this one.

The last book I purchased is Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, about a young woman who begins a blog writing about her quest to cook every recipe in Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering The Art of French Cooking in her tiny kitchen apartment. I can't believe I haven't read this one yet.

Now I'm off to work my shift at the book store where maybe I'll find even more treasures to bring home. (Just don't tell my husband.)

You can like The Book Cellar on Facebook here.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Broadway- Beautiful- The Carole King Musical

Looking through the Musical Numbers list in the Playbill for Beautiful- The Carole King Musical, you're likely to start humming all of the songs that you grew up with and know so well. (Though I could have done without the man next to me humming every single song during the show- not cool dude.)

Jessie Mueller won a well deserved Tony as Best Actress in a Musical last year for her brilliant and uncanny portrayal of songwriter/singer/icon Carole King. She absolutely embodies the spirit of Brooklyn born and raised King, and when she sings, you'd swear Carole King is right there.

The story takes us from Carole's teenage years, when she met the dreamy Gerry Goffin, who wrote a play and needs music for it. Carole and Gerry fall in love, become a songwriting team and then marry and become young parents.

King and Goffin end up working for Don Kirshner, where they meet and compete with another couple- Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. As played by Jarrod Spector (who many will recognize from his long-running role as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys) and Anika Larsen, who is a dead ringer for a young Julianne Moore, Spector and Larsen are fabulous, and a show could have easily been written about their fascinating characters.

We see King struggle with her husband's infidelity and possible mental illness, all while trying to be a good mom and striving to be a successful songwriter and be fulfilled creatively. When you realize all of the great songs this foursome is responsible for- Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Up On The Roof, You've Lost That Loving Feeling, A Natural Woman- it is stunning.

Everything works in this show: the music, the story, the acting. It reminds me of Jersey Boys in that respect; it's a terrific musical with a interesting story behind it. For those who came of age in the 1960s, when music changed so much in just a decade, it is a wonderful trip back through the music of their life. Let's just say, you will be searching out the music for this one on ITunes.

Mueller has left the show, and I am curious to see how replacement Chilina Kennedy does; she certainly has big shoes to fill. Beautiful is a show to see even at full price.
The website for Beautiful is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Saving Grace by Jane Green

Saving Grace by Jane Green
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 9781250047335
Hardcover, $26.99, 352 pages

In Jane Green's Saving Grace,  Grace is married to Ted, a successful author described as a "thinking man's Grisham". They have been married for over 20 years and have a lovely adult daughter Clemmie, who works as a reporter at a small newspaper.

Grace began her career as an assistant cookbook editor, where she met the dashing and older Ted and fell immediately in love. Now she volunteers her time as a chef at a home for abused women and addicted women and children. She and Ted are well respected in their community, and envied by many in literary circles.

She loves her life, except for the rages that Ted flies into, screaming at her and throwing things. These rages are unpredictable and understandably cause Grace physical and emotional problems.

When their longtime assistant Ellen decides to move away to care for her sister, Grace has to find someone who can work for Ted and help run the household. Into their lives walks Beth, a thirty-something rather nondescript woman who is looking for a job.

Grace likes Beth right away. Beth is organized whereas Grace is not, and soon she becomes indispensable to both Ted and Grace. She even calls her a cross between Mary Poppins and Mrs. Doubtfire. But something is just not right.

After a big fundraiser that Grace has planned is a disaster, things go downhill for Grace. She becomes depressed and refuses to leave her room. Ted and Beth suggest she a psychiatrist, and he diagnoses Grace with bipolar disorder and puts her on a cocktail of several medications.

The overmedication destroys Grace and she completely withdraws. Yet through the fog of this, she begins to realize that something is not right with Beth. It seems like Beth is taking over her life- dressing in her clothes, taking her job at the home for abused women, and getting very close to Ted.

Grace runs away back to her home in England to sort things out and try to understand what is happening to her. Can she stop Beth before it is too late?

I had the chance to participate in a Facebook conversation with Jane Green through Reading With Robin's Book Club 411, and we got to hear the story that inspired the book. Green said that she had gone through a similar thing as Grace, being misdiagnosed by a doctor and given too many medications that didn't help, but instead, hurt her.

This kind of thing happens way too often, especially in the US who, as is stated in the novel, has 5% of the population but writes 95% of the prescriptions for psychotropic drugs. Clearly there is a problem here, and often menopausal women are erroneously prescribed these dangerous medications to ease their symptoms.

Green also had a situation where her family hired a bookkeeper who ended up stealing a great deal of money from them. Like Grace, she didn't thoroughly check references and paid a dear price.

It has been said that Saving Grace is very different from Green's other novels, which I can't attest to as this is the first novel of hers I have read. I like that Green's own personal experiences influenced this novel, it definitely comes through in the story. It feels very real and urgent, and many women will feel an affinity for what Grace is going through.

Since Grace is a chef, there are many recipes sprinkled throughout the book, and many of them look like ones I would like to try. I also liked the inside look at the publishing industry, what a successful author like Ted deals with in terms of how he writes, his relationship with his editor and publisher, and what happens when success begins to fade.

Saving Grace is a little heavier than most books in this genre, and the personal connection the author has with her protagonist gives it more depth and meaning. It is a cautionary tale for those who don't follow their own instincts when it comes to their medical care or the people in their life.

rating 4 of 5