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March 31, 2009

The Help



The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Historical Fiction
2009 Amy Einhorn Books
Finished on 3/25/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding)



Product Description

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.


Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.


Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women—mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends—view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope,
The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

About the Author

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City, where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. This is her first novel.

I was first drawn to the attractive cover art of this book and it quickly found its way to my stack of ARCs, but it wasn't until I'd read Kay and Tara's lovely reviews that I decided the time was right to begin reading The Help. I'd been on quite a roll, reading winner after winner, and I trusted both recommendations, feeling confident I was in for another enjoyable book. And what a great book it turned out to be! The characters are fleshed out and memorable, the dialogue is convincingly believable, and I fell in love with Aibileen and Minny, often forgetting that they were characters in a novel.

Stockett is a terrific storyteller and should be very proud of her debut novel. Coming in at just under 450 pages, I almost wish it had been longer; I hated to leave these characters and longed to see what the future held in store for Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter after I turned that final page. I've been saying this a lot these past three months, but I simply couldn't put this book down and often found myself thinking about the characters when I wasn't reading. They invaded my mind and left a permanent mark on my soul. The setting and time period is one with which I am only vaguely familiar, having spent that portion of my very early childhood in Canada. We did not have maids, nor did we experience the ugly prejudices so rampant in the United States in the early sixties, and thus I cringed as I read passages such as this:

In a rare breeze, my copy of Life magazine flutters. Audrey Hepburn smiles on the cover, no sweat beading on her upper lip. I pick it up and finger the wrinkled pages, flip to the story on the Soviet Space Girl. I already know what's on the next page. Behind her face is a picture of Carl Roberts, a colored schoolteacher from Pelahatchie, forty miles from here. "In April, Carl Roberts told Washington reporters what it means to be a black man in Mississippi, calling the governor 'a pathetic man with the morals of a streetwalker.' Roberts was found cattle-branded and hung from a pecan tree."

It's difficult to write about this book without giving too much away. It's also very difficult -- painful, in fact -- to write about the terrible attitudes of that time and place. I often found myself full of shame for some of the characters represented in this story, many of whom were ignorant and closed-minded. I will say that I enjoyed all the historical references (Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the March in Washington, D.C. etc.). I especially appreciated the manner in which Stockett dropped little bits of history into the narrative without it feeling like she was going down a list, checking off each historical tidbit as she incorporated it into her story. For example, Chapter 19 begins with the following:

It was 1963. The Space Age they're calling it. A man has circled the earth in a rocketship. They've invented a pill so married women don't have to get pregnant. A can of beer opens with a single finger instead of a can opener. Yet my parents' house is still as hot as it was in 1899, the year Great-grandfather built it.

and

The summer rolls behind us like a hot tar spreader. Ever colored person in Jackson gets in front a whatever tee-vee set they can find, watches Martin Luther King stand in our nation's capital and tell us he's got a dream. I'm in the church basement watching. Our own Reverend Johnson went up there to march and I find myself scanning the crowd for his face. I can't believe so many peoples is there--two-hundred-fifty thousand. And the ringer is, sixty thousand a them is white. "Mississippi and the word is two very different places," the Deacon say and we all nod cause ain't it the truth.

and

On the news, now Roger Sticker is reporting in front of the Jackson post office with the same stupid grin as the war reporter. "...this modern postal addressing system is called a Z-Z-ZIP code, that's right, I said Z-Z-ZIP code, that's five numbers to be written along the bottom of your envelope..."

Funny how you can take things for granted, believing they've been around forever and not just 45 years! I'd never not used a ZIP code when addressing a letter and had never stopped to think that there was in fact a time, not all that long ago, in which they didn't exist.

Suffice it to say, this is a fabulous read. I think it has incredible depth and would be a great book club choice. There's plenty to discuss and it could easily carry a meeting well into its second hour. And I love what the author says in her final words (Too Little, Too Late):

Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly. Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.

I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray.

What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. In The Help there is one line that I truly prize:

Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize,

We are just two people. Not that much separates us.
Not nearly as much as I'd thought.

This isn't simply a great book for fans of historical fiction and book clubs; it's an important work of literature that should be taught in history classes in high schools across America. Just as we should never forget the Holocaust, we should also never forget the despicable treatment of our fellow citizens.

Kudos, Kathryn! This is a superb story and one I'll be anxious to recommend to friends and customers alike. I can't wait to see what you have in store for us next!

Further praise from fellow bloggers:

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett will definitely be one of my top reads of 2009 and it may well be "the top read". It is a marvelous book about a not so marvelous time in history and certainly about a not-at-all marvelous topic, race relations in the South. But it is so much more than that. (Kay, from My Random Acts of Reading)

What I wanted to share last week was a book that I found really excellent. So good, in fact that I'm bordering on using the 'L' word, which I don't often do. So good, that the day after I finished it, I saw it sitting on my nightstand and wished I was still reading it. That book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett and is, amazingly, her first novel. (Tara, from Books and Cooks)

I had no idea this book was close to 450 pages until I picked it up from the library. I was leery about making it to the end, but once I began - there was no stopping me, and then I didn't want it to end! (Joy, from Thoughts of Joy)

March 29, 2009

Nature and Poetry

Emerson once said, "Nature & books belong to the eyes that see them." I'd like to amend his words just a bit and say, "Nature and poetry belong to the eyes that see them."

As some of you know, I've been posting a daily photograph on a photoblog site called Aminus3. Just as I discovered with lit-blogging, I've met some wonderful people at Am3. There are some incredibly talented photographers, many of whom have posted such amazingly gorgeous pictures that I am in complete awe of their talent. I have so much to learn!

One particular photographer is also a very talented writer and after reading a recent post, I asked permission to share his photograph and poem. I've never been a big fan of poetry; never quite sure I get the meaning behind the words. This is not the case with Paul's poem. I've read it several times, and each time I'm moved tears. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.



Mount Shuksan
Photo by Paul Williams



BEAUTY BATHE ME

A moment halts in time, so sweetly
Vacant thoughts as beauty greets me
Tears fill eyes so bright, unblinking
A mind so chained and dark, unthinking
A footprint in the journey brief
So touched by love, so plagued by grief
As, short of breath, awakened ears
A soul smiles back amidst the fears
The man portrayed, the child within
A chapter closed, as new begin
Bathe me, cleanse my jaded soul
Entomb me, Beauty, make me whole
Release the shackled life enslaved
From cries at birth to earthy grave

Have I lived and loved on Earth's sweet ground
Salvation sought, and meaning found
Searching for the rainbow bold
The lies fall thick, no pot of gold
A love of life, a life of love
The mortal sins, the poisoned dove
Could Little Earth forgive this foolish man
So weak of flesh for sure I am
With words so bold and dreams as hopes
Reality bites and hope, she chokes
I stand by idle as creatures die
And history, like freedom flies
For I am but a simple man
Who thinks and feels as best he can

Beauty fills these eyes and ears
In silent reverence, hope and fears
engulfed by raw emotion pure
Bewitched and humbled that's for sure
Allow me this, my splendoured time
As hearts and souls rejoice, recline
Shall I breathe once more, an Angel white
Could such beauty sampled more, delight?
Is there a heaven, so too a hell
A heathen life, a tolling bell
For all that matters to me deeply
Is witnessed in this scene so sweetly
No God of choice nor religious worth
I worship only Mother Earth

A moment frozen here in time
The raw emotion, the pleasure mine
Of Mother Nature's soft embrace
Her gentle touch, her untold grace
For moments shared are memories made
A sunrise flickers, a sunset fades
Beauty bathe me, cleanse my soul
Free my mind and make me whole
Guide me to my destiny
Allow my faults, have faith in me
Unworthy standing here before you
Enchanted, captive by such view
I pray that I shall further see
The beauty of your majesty

Written by EYES WIDE SHUT© rights reserved

For a larger image of this gorgeous mountain scene, click here. And be sure to stop by Paul's blog to see more of his beautiful photography and essays.

March 27, 2009

Earth Hour


Turn out. Take action.
Be part of this historic event.
March 28, 2009, 8:30 pm local time

World Wildlife Fund is asking individuals, businesses, governments and organizations around the world to turn off their lights for one hour – Earth Hour – to make a global statement of concern about climate change and to demonstrate commitment to finding solutions.

For more information, click here.


Did you know that:

if every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.
EnergyStar.gov

March 26, 2009

Thursday Thirteen - Historical Fiction


Part One

A few weeks ago, Joy asked for some recommendations for historical fiction titles. I always struggle with this category, not quite sure if my definition of "historical fiction" is accurate. So, I searched the Internet and came up with the following:

Historical fiction is a sub-genre of fiction that often portrays fictional accounts or dramatization of historical figures or events. Writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, nominally attempt to capture the spirit, manners, and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity. Historical fiction is found in books, magazines, art, television, movies, games, theater, and other media.


Historical fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, and usually during a significant event in that period. Historical fiction often presents actual events from the point of view of people living in that time period.

In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that is not recorded in history. Other times, the historical event complements a story's narrative, occurring in the background while characters deal with events (personal or otherwise) wholly unrelated to recorded history. Sometimes, the names of people and places have been in some way altered. As this is fiction, artistic license is permitted in regard to presentation and subject matter, so long as it does not deviate in significant ways from established history. If events should deviate significantly, the story may then fall into the genre of alternate history, which is known for speculating on what could have happened if a significant historical event had gone differently. On a similar note, events occurring in historical fiction must adhere to the laws of physics. Stories that extend into the magical or fantastic are often considered a historical fantasy.(Wikipedia)

So there you go. And now for 13 of my favorite works of historical fiction.


A Thread of Grace
by Mary Doria Russell





Snow Falling on Cedars
by David Guterson



Sarum: The Novel of England
by Edward Rutherfurd



The Samurai's Garden
by Gail Tsukiyama



Pope Joan
by Donna Woolfolk Cross



The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver



Losing Julia
by Jonathan Hull





Follow the River
by James Alexander Thom



Falling Angels
by Tracy Chevalier





Atonement
by Ian McEwan



Click on the titles for plot summaries and purchasing information.

Come back next Thursday and I'll share another thirteen of my favorites in this genre.

March 22, 2009

Still Alice


Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Fiction
2009 Pocket Books
Finished on 3/16/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)





Product Description:

An extraordinary debut novel about an accomplished woman who slowly loses her thoughts and memories to a harrowing disease—only to discover that each day brings a new way of living and loving.

Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she's a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life—and her relationship with her family and the world—forever.

At once beautiful and terrifying, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of life with early-onset Alzheimer's disease that is as compelling as A Beautiful Mind and as unforgettable as Ordinary People.

I come from a long line of incredibly good genes. My maternal grandmother was 88 years old when she died, and up until her last few months, she was one of the most active and vivacious people I've ever known. She walked every day, entertained friends and family, was an avid gardener, a voracious reader, and even went white-water rafting with my godmother (they were both in their eighties!). Her mother was just as spry, living a long and healthy life of 96 years. My mother (who turns 76 in May) is following in their footsteps. She has inherited their joie de vivre, cooking and entertaining visitors and neighbors, volunteering at her local library (she's also a voracious reader), and traveling hither and yon with my stepfather. I hope to be at least half as active when I'm in my 70's!

The paternal side of my family could have been cut from the same cloth. My grandfather led a busy and active life (also one to walk every day) until succumbing to prostate cancer at the age of 92. My father turned 76 in January, and up until a year ago February, he and my stepmother had lived aboard their 1957 Richardson motor yacht for 15 years! As some of you may know, living aboard a boat is both physically and mentally demanding, but my father is more than up to the task.

My husband likes to joke about marrying a woman of "good stock." And yet, he's right. Lucky or blessed, I'm very fortunate to have been born into a family of such good genes and longevity. None of my grandparents or parents have any history of Alzheimer's. So I shouldn't worry, right? After reading Lisa Genova's incredibly powerful novel, I can't help it. I'm terrified! Still Alice puts a frightening face on this fatal disease. As Alice claims:

She wished she had cancer instead. She'd trade Alzheimer's for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she'd have something that she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she'd be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.

Alzheimer's disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it. Taking Aricept and Namenda felt like aiming a couple of leaky squirt guns in to the face of a blazing fire. John continued to probe into the drugs in clinical development, but she doubted that any of them were ready and capable of making a significant difference for her, else he would already have been on the phone with Dr. Davis, insisting on a way to get her on them. Right now, everyone with Alzheimer's faced the same outcome, whether they were eighty-two or fifty, resident of the Mount Auburn Manor or a full professor of psychology at Harvard University. The blazing fire consumed all. No one got out alive.

And while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be outcast. Even the well-intentioned and educated tended to keep a fearful distance from the mentally ill. She didn't want to become someone people avoided and feared.

Alice is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her expertise lies in psycholinguistics. She is one of the ten percent of those afflicted with Alzheimer's who are under the age of sixty-five. Alice is fifty years old and she has early-onset Alzheimer's.

On the annoying frustration of early symptoms:

"Come on," she urged, wishing she could attach a couple of jumper cables to her head and give herself a good, strong zap.

She didn't have time for Alzheimer's today. She had emails to return, a grant proposal to write, a class to teach, and a seminar to attend. And at the end of the day, a run. Maybe a run would give her some clarity.

and

Cued by the hanging rise in her inflection and the silence that followed, Alice knew it was her turn to speak but was still catching up to all that Lydia had just said. Without the aid of the visual cues of the person she talked to, conversations on the phone often baffled her. Words sometimes ran together, abrupt changes in topic were difficult for her to anticipate and follow, and her comprehension suffered. Although writing presented its own set of problems, she could keep them hidden from discovery because she wasn't restricted to real-time responding.

On the future:

Although Alzheimer's tended to progress more quickly in the early-onset versus late-onset form, people with early-onset usually lived with the disease for many years longer, this disease of the mind residing in relatively young and healthy bodies. She could stick around all the way to the brutal end. She'd be unable to feed herself, unable to talk, unable to recognize John and her children. She'd be curled up in the fetal position, and because she'd forget how to swallow, she'd develop pneumonia. And John, Anna, Tom, and Lydia would agree not to treat it with a simple course of antibiotics, riddled with guilt over feeling grateful that something had finally come along that would kill her body.

We all forget names. We find ourselves at a loss for a particular word. We recognize an acquaintance and yet can't for the life of us remember his name (or, for that matter, how we know him). And yet, we don't get lost in our own neighborhood. Or walk into a neighbor's kitchen, mistaking it for our own as we search the cupboards for coffee filters. Or forgot how to put on our underwear. Lisa Genova has written an incredible book that paints a vivid portrait of this progressively fatal disease. Still Alice is not an easy read, and yet I couldn't put it down. I read it in less than two days and I can't stop thinking about it. I've gone on to peruse the Alzheimer's Association's website and discovered the following information:

Today we know that Alzheimer’s:

Is a progressive and fatal brain disease. As many as 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer's destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and it is fatal. Today it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.Is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Vascular dementia, another common type of dementia, is caused by reduced blood flow to parts of the brain. In mixed dementia, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia occur together.Has no current cure. But treatments for symptoms, combined with the right services and support, can make life better for the millions of Americans living with Alzheimer’s. We’ve learned most of what we know about Alzheimer’s in the last 15 years. There is an accelerating worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, or prevent it from developing.Early-stage is the early part of Alzheimer’s disease when problems with memory, thinking and concentration may begin to appear in a doctor’s interview or medical tests. Individuals in the early-stage typically need minimal assistance with simple daily routines. At the time of a diagnosis, an individual is not necessarily in the early stage of the disease; he or she may have progressed beyond the early stage.

The term younger-onset refers to Alzheimer's that occurs in a person under age 65. Younger-onset individuals may be employed or have children still living at home. Issues facing families include ensuring financial security, obtaining benefits and helping children cope with the disease. People who have younger-onset dementia may be in any stage of dementia – early, middle or late. Experts estimate that some 500,000 people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. • 10 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's in their lifetime.

• Every 71 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s.

At this time, there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer's disease. FDA-approved drugs temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for about 6 to 12 months, on average, for about half of the individuals who take them.

I can do everything right: eat nutritionally healthy meals, drink in moderation, exercise on a regular basis, stimulate my brain by reading and writing, stay socially active, and abstain from smoking -- and yet, I may still wake up one morning and brush my teeth with shaving cream. Or fill Annie's water bowl with orange juice. All in spite of those good genes I inherited.

I'm sure there are some who can't bring themselves to read this poignant story. It's heartbreakingly sad; oh, so real. And yet, I think it helps to serve those of us who may someday have to face the reality of a loved-one looking at us and asking our name. Or asking if we're married or have any children. And to smile back at that curious face and reply, "Yes, sweetie. I'm Lesley. I'm your wife and we have two daughters." I would want to understand the reason for that absent look in his eyes or why he doesn't know who I am or why he can no longer read his books. I don't want to get angry and frustrated. I would hope to be patient and loving. As I would hope he would be with me, if it were me not recognizing him.

Still Alice is more than just a story about a wife and mother. It's an important lesson in compassion and in understanding a fatally progressive disease. I can't recommend it highly enough. This is for anyone who has a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child.

Thank you, Lisa, for your amazing debut novel. You have given the Alzheimer's community a gift of love and awareness.

Go here and here to listen to Lisa speak about her book.

Tune in to HBO's Alzheimer's Project, beginning on May 10th. This four-part documentary is helping to change the way America views Alzheimer's.

Click here for Lisa's website.

March 20, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients



The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Fiction - Culinary
2009 J. P. Putnam's Sons
Finished on 3/14/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)




Product Description:

Once a month on Monday night, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother; Tom, a lawyer whose life has been overturned by loss; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer adapting to life in America; and Carl and Helen, a long-married couple whose union contains surprises the rest of the class would never suspect.

The students have come to learn the art behind Lillian's soulful dishes, but it soon becomes clear that each seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. One by one they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love, and a garlic and red sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Over time, the paths of the students mingle and intertwine, and the essence of Lillian's cooking expands beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives, with results that are often unexpected, and always delicious.

Anyone who knows me well or has been following my blog knows how much I love to cook and try new recipes. Well, this was certainly my kind of book! I loved the mouthwatering descriptions of the various dishes the students learned to create in their eight months at The School of Essential Ingredients. The author does a marvelous job weaving each character’s background history into the monthly classes, revealing their hopes and dreams, as well as the pain and sorrow in their private lives. I fell in love with each and every character and as I turned the final page, it was with great sadness, as I knew I would soon find myself missing the characters and Lillian's restaurant.

The cooking class was held in a restaurant named Lillian's, on the main street of town, almost hidden by a front garden dense with ancient cherry trees, roses, and the waving spikes and soft mounds of green herbs. Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life. Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast-iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.

Those who entered the gate and followed the winding brick path through the garden discovered an Arts and Crafts house whose front rooms had been converted into a dining area. There were no more than ten tables in all, each table's personality defined by nearby architectural elements, one nestled into a bay window, another engaged in companionable conversation with a built-in bookshelf. Some tables had views of the garden, while others, hidden like secrets in the darker, protected corners of the room, held their patrons' attention within the edges of their tabletops.

Doesn't this sound lovely? Oh, how I'd love to take a cooking class in a restaurant such as this, especially one taught by such a down-to-earth person as Lillian.

I first discovered The School of Essential Ingredients when it arrived in the bookstore. The beautiful cover art, graced with a lovely blurb by another favorite author, caught my attention:

A delicate, meltingly lovely hymn to food and friendship. Lillian's kitchen is a place where the world works the way it should. You'll want to tuck yourself into one warm corner of it and stay all day. (Marisa de los Santos, author of Love Walked In)

Reading those words, I knew this was a book I had to buy. But as luck would have it, I won an autographed copy after entering a contest over on Lisa's blog. The inscription in my copy reads, "For Lesley, who loves books and food... Erica Bauermeister"

I found myself wishing Erica had included recipes for all the wonderful dishes described within this gem of a book. I was practically drooling on the pages as the students learned how to bake crab in a lemony-wine sauce (with garlic and butter, of course). The Thanksgiving meal is one I'd love to try my hand at! Imagine how delicious a meal such as this would taste:

Pumpkin ravioli
Stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta
Polenta with Gorgonzola
Green beans with lemon and pine nuts
Espresso with chocolate biscotti

Doesn't that sound like a refreshing alternative to the traditional meal, heavy with mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls and gravy? And who doesn't love cheese? After reading the description of a cheese fondue dinner, I was ready to run down to the corner market to buy a block of Gruyere and Emmenthaler and a huge loaf of crusty artisan bread. Mmmmmmmmm. As you can imagine, this is not a book to read when you’re hungry and dinner is several hours away.

On owning a restaurant:

Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her--ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef was still double-dosing the curry dishes. She was. The girl was a daughter of a friend and good enough with knives, but some days, Lillian thought with a sigh, it was like trying to teach subtlety to a thunderstorm.

On chocolate:

The hard, round cake of chocolate was wrapped in yellow plastic with red stripes, shiny and dark when she opened it. The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.

On weather in the Northwest:

Helen and Carl walked up the main street of town to the cooking class. It was a clear, cold evening in early February, the end of a miraculously blue day blown in from the north like a celebration. People in the Northwest tended to greet such weather with a child's sense of joy, strangers exchanged grins, houses were suddenly cleaner, and neighbors could be found in their yards in shirtsleeves, regardless of the temperature, indulging a sudden desire to dig in rich, dark dirt.

On love:

More than anyone he knew, Antonia carried these things with her, in the million sweet and careful rituals that still made up her life, no matter what country she was in. He saw it in the way she cut bread, or drank wine[...] Antonia made celebrations of things he had always dismissed as moments to be rushed through on the way to something more important. Being around her, he found even everyday experiences were deeper, nuanced, satisfaction and awareness slipped in between the layers of life like love notes hidden in the pages of a textbook.

The School of Essential Ingredients is one of those books that could have easily been consumed over the course of a weekend. Well aware that this is a debut novel (with no backlist to satisfy me until Bauermeister's next release), I chose to savor it as slowly as possible. And, it's definitely going on my keeper shelf for future re-reads. Fans of Marisa de los Santos, Joanne Harris, Elin Hilderbrand, and Elizabeth Berg will not be disappointed. I know I wasn't!

For those of you in the Seattle area, you're in luck! Erica has three events lined up and if I lived within driving distance, I'd plan to attend the April 28th event. In addition to hearing Erica speak, I'd also have a chance to hear Shauna Ahern (of Gluten-Free Girl)! Here are the dates and times:

Seattle
Ballard Library
Monday, April 20th
6:30 pm
reading/signing
5614 22nd Ave. NW,
Seattle, WA 98107

Seattle

Cooks and Books
Tuesday, April 28th
6:00 pm
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Food"
with Erica Bauermeister, Kathleen Flinn, Shauna Ahern,
Mathew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg
Tom Douglas Palace Ballroom
appetizers and special cocktail of the night
Tickets: $25
reservations: 206-632-2419
www.kimricketts.com

Seattle
Santoro's Books
Friday, May 8th
7:00 pm
signing
(in conjunction with Phinney Ridge Art Walk)
7405 Greenwood Ave
Seattle, WA 98013

Be sure to check out Lisa's review here.

March 18, 2009

Revolutionary Road



Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Fiction
1961 Vintage Contempories
Finished on 3/10/09
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)




Product Description

In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler appear to be a model couple: bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank's job is dull. And April never saw herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble.

With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.

"A deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic." --William Styron

From the moment of its publication in 1961, Revolutionary Road was hailed as a masterpiece of realistic fiction and as the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs.

Had this not been a book group selection, I would have quit after the first 50 pages. I found the dialogue corny and dated (a bit reminiscent of Death of a Salesman, but without the tragic impact of that classic play) and didn't care for the straightforward, matter-of-fact narrative. I didn't feel an ounce of sympathy for April or Frank, or for any of the other characters, for that matter. They were nothing but a bunch of self-absorbed whiners; who could give a damn about people like that?

After the opening chapters, I quickly realized that the book would be one in which I'd have to rely on reading a fixed number of pages in order to finish before my book club meeting. And yet, in spite of the depressing plot, I have to admit I was curious to see how Yates would end this tragic tale, and was able to knock off three to four chapters in a single sitting. But I still didn't like it. And I can't begin to imagine how dreadful the movie might be. I certainly have no desire to watch it, now that I've read the book.

I'm looking forward to hearing my fellow book club members' reactions to this novel. Judging by the Amazon rating, it's apt to be split right down the middle between those who loved it and those who loathed it (if they even bothered to finish!). Should make for an interesting discussion.

No recommendation from me.

March 15, 2009

Coming Soon...

to a garden near you!


This photo was taken on March 28, 2007. Is it really possible that my garden will look like this in two short weeks?! Last night as I walked Annie-dog after dinner, I was overwhelmed with happiness. I smelled steaks on a neighbor's grill. I heard songbirds singing in the trees lining the street to the park. I saw children playing on the swings and slide, coats and gloves and hats all absent in the warmth of the lingering sunlight. And at 7:30 p.m. it was still light out!

And just now, as I sit and read my favorites blogs, a glass of red wine close at hand, Annie-dog stretched out at my feet, snoring up a storm, worn out after her very long walk this afternoon (thanks to another gorgeous day!), I hear the sound of spring -- or maybe summer -- the clanging bell of the ice cream truck and the neighborhood kids yelling, "Stop!! Wait!! We want ice cream!!"


I am so ready for this new season. Winter was far too long this year. My spirits are lifted and I'm ready to dig in the dirt, anxious to get my bike out on the trail, eager to invite good friends over for burgers and margaritas.

We're supposed to hit 75 tomorrow. Life is good.

My dad is looking for a sign of spring. Here you go, Dad. The ice cream's on me.

March 14, 2009

The Penderwicks

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
Juvenile Fiction
2005 Yearling
Finished on 3/3/09
National Book Award Winner
Rating: 3/5 (Above Average)


Product Description

This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.

The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget.

Deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, this is a story as breezy and carefree as a summer day.

I generally spend an hour or so every day working in the children's section at the book store. Often times, I'll have parents or grandparents ask for recommendations for their young readers (typically grades 3-6). I've read a few teen books over the past few years (The Book Thief, Twilight, Stargirl, etc.), but other than my childhood favorites (Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, My Side of the Mountain, All-of-a-kind Family, and the Little House series), I'm not terribly up-to-date on the current books for this particular age group. So, when a co-worker suggested The Penderwicks, I decided to give it a try.

Had I not known it was published in 2005, I would have assumed The Penderwicks was written in the mid-fifties. The narrative has such a nostalgic feel. Not once did I notice mention of any modern technology! Computers, cell phones, iPods and digital cameras are nonexistent. I'm pretty sure there wasn't even any reference to television! The children played together outside, kicking a soccer ball, fleeing an angry bull, sneaking in and out of second-story bedrooms, and frolicking about the large gardens on the estate. One could say the story is brimming with sugar-coated innocence. I like to think of it as wholesome, albeit not realistic in this day and age.

The Penderwicks isn't a suspenseful read, nor is it a fantasty-filled page-turner like the Harry Potter series. It's quite simplistic, with a mild (perhaps even boring), predictable storyline. The characters are a bit flat and forgettable (certainly not the case with Anne, Marilla and Matthew or Laura, Mary and Nellie!) However, I enjoyed the book well enough that I'd eventually like to read the sequel (The Penderwicks on Gardam Street). And, I feel quite comfortable recommending it to customers seeking an old-fashioned novel for a young child. (I suppose those closer to ten and eleven might be too sophisticated and worldly to get much enjoyment from such a simple story.)

Now to fit in a re-read of Anne of Green Gables!

March 11, 2009

A Month in Review - February '09

I am very pleased with all the books I read in February! I read one more book than in January and thoroughly enjoyed falling under the magical spell of each author's words. If you recall last month's summary, you'll note that the same author has again been honored as my "favorite read" this month. If that doesn't convince you to read a Tana French mystery, I don't know what will!

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult

The Likeness by Tana French


Favorite of the month: The Likeness by Tana French

Books Read 4
DNF 0
Male Authors 0
Female Authors 4
New-To-Me Authors 1
Epistolary 0
Audio 0
Fiction 3
Nonfiction 1
Historical Fiction 0
Coming-of-Age 0
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 1
Short Stories 0
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Re-read 0
Mine 2
Borrowed 2
ARC 2

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

March 7, 2009

The Likeness


The Likeness by Tana French
Mystery
2008 Viking
Finished on 2/27/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)




Product Description

The eagerly anticipated follow-up to the New York Times bestselling psychological thriller In the Woods

Six months after the events of In the Woods, Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover. She’s transferred out of the murder squad and started a relationship with Detective Sam O’Neill, but she’s too badly shaken to make a commitment to him or to her career. Then Sam calls her to the scene of his new case: a young woman found stabbed to death in a small town outside Dublin. The dead girl’s ID says her name is Lexie Madison—the identity Cassie used years ago as an undercover detective—and she looks exactly like Cassie.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie’s real identity, Cassie’s old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn’t fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim’s identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie’s world, Cassie realizes that the girl’s secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie’s growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk. Another gripping psychological thriller featuring the headstrong protagonist we’ve come to love, from an author who has proven that she can deliver.

Wow! What an amazing book! I was immediately drawn in at the first chapter and never once grew tired or bored with the plot or characters. This is one of the most engrossing, entertaining, and enjoyable books I've read in years. I read for hours on end after work. I read late in the night. I read before work and, yes, even at stoplights. I could not put this book down! Nearly 500 pages and French never once missed a beat. The pacing is remarkably even, the breathtaking suspense incredibly sustained. Perhaps, like Cassie, I began to feel a part of the cozy group of friends, anxiously awaiting a revelation about Lexie's murder. As the details were finally revealed in the closing chapters, I found myself holding my breath with anticipation, laughing out loud, not because the situation was funny, but because of nervous tension.

Reminiscent of Dennis Lehane's literary mysteries, The Likeness is much more than a whodunit. The characters are finely drawn, springing to life with believable dialogue. The odd lifestyle of these eccentric roommates isn't the only aspect of the novel that creates such taut suspense. Whitethorn House (a creepy rambling mansion in which the five English post-grads reside) and the surrounding countryside are very much characters in and of themselves.

Cassie, on her return to undercover:

It felt good, getting stuck into the case like this, like I was just a Murder detective again and she was just another victim; it spread through me strong and sweet and soothing as hot whiskey after a long day in wind and rain. Frank was sprawled casually in his chair, but I could feel him watching me, and I knew I was starting to sound too interested. I shrugged, leaned my head back against the wall and gazed up at the ceiling.

and

Going to sleep on your first night undercover is something you never forget. All day you've been pure concentrated control, watching yourself as sharply and ruthlessly as you watch everyone and everything around you; but come night, alone on a strange mattress in a room where the air smells different, you've got no choice but to open your hands and let go, fall into sleep and into someone else's life like a pebble falling through cool green water. Even your first time, you know that in that second something irreversible will start happening, that in the morning you'll wake up changed. I needed to go into that bare, with nothing from my own life on my body, the way woodcutters' children in fairy tales have to leave their protections behind to enter the enchanted castle; the way votaries in old religions used to go naked to their initiation rites.

I held my breath, worried that Cassie would eventually make a slight mistake in her character, blowing her cover and putting herself in danger.

This is the part I didn't tell Sam: bad stuff happens to undercovers. A few of them get killed. Most lose friends, marriages, relationships. A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening till it's too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans. Some, and never the ones you'd think, lose their nerve—no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they're doing, and they freeze like tightrope walkers who've looked down[...]And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it's not their nerve that breaks, it's their fear. They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be. These can't ever go home again. They're like those First World War airmen, the finest ones, shining in their recklessness and invincible, who got home and found that home had no place for what they were. Some people are are undercovers all the way to the bone; the job has taken them whole.

I was never afraid of getting killed and I was never afraid of losing my nerve. My kind of courage holds up best under fire; it's different dangers, more refined and insidious ones, that shake me. But the other things: I worried about those. Frank told me once—and I don't know whether he's right or not, and I didn't tell Sam this either—that all the best undercovers have a dark thread woven into them, somewhere.

My husband enjoyed the book, yet felt the mystery fell short due to the unbelievable set of coincidences. And I suppose he's right, to some extent. After all, what are the odds that one's doppelganger just happens to be a police detective? I, on the other hand, was able to suspend disbelief and was thoroughly entertained. My copy of the book is littered with Post-It notes, marking passages I thought might reveal a hidden clue as I flipped back and forth, trying to untangle the intricate threads of a skillfully crafted web.

This is one of those compelling mysteries I continually found myself imagining on the big screen. The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also involves a complicated masquerade, lurked in my consciousness as I read. I can even envision Jude Law and Matt Damon playing Daniel and Justin. And, perhaps, Audrey Tautou as Cassie.

While The Likeness is a follow-up to In the Woods, I believe they stand alone and can be read in any order. It's early in the year, but as of today, The Likeness is my #1 read in 2009. And from what I've read, French is working on a third, this time narrated by Cassie's boss, Frank Mackey. Until then, I plan to pick up Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which has been compared to The Likeness. I'm ready for another gothic mystery!

Five stars, Tana!