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Post election blues? A few good reads to escape the mayhem…

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Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

“For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” Love a good opening line and Woodsen’s slim novel reads like poetry (but in a good way, like listening to Springsteen). Told in flashback, August recounts her abrupt childhood move to Brooklyn after her parents split, with her brother and very over protective father. As she sits by the window, yearning for the return of her mother, her isolation is relieved in the form of three neighborhood girls. We watch as August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi start out as double-dutching adolescents and follow them as they come of age in ’70s Brooklyn, where life is more complicated and dangerous than they could have imagined. Says August, “sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.” Sigh. This one is a gem.

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The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Cosmetic titan Charles Wang gets caught up in the 2008 financial crisis and loses absolutely everything. As his Bel-Air mansion is repossessed before his very eyes he decides…road trip! He sets out for upstate New York, where oldest daughter, Saina, has aged into the family trust, meaning she now gets to support the family. As a disgraced artist who fled New York City, Saina is trying in vain to juggle her own problems which include an ex-fiance and new boyfriend. Never-the-less, Charles hits the road, stopping along the way to pick up daughter Grace from prep school and son Andrew from University…obviously he can no longer afford tuition. Oh, and lets not forget Babs, who fills the role of wicked step mother to perfection. This clueless brood is a whole lot of fun as they cross the country, each coming to terms with being spectacularly poor. Young Grace, whose biggest worry has been competition on her fashion blog is hoping this is all a big joke to teach her a lesson in appreciating their swell life. Andrew isn’t worried, he’s going to be a stand up comic, fortunately for the reader we get to see his painful act at an open mic somewhere in Austin, TX. Charles thinks he can make a go of it back in his mother country and Babs just hates everyone. I thought this novel would be one big farce, but as the family comes together the realizes money can’t buy everything, a much more meaningful message gives the story a little more weight. I found myself rooting for the crazy Wang clan!

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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Shelby is depressed and filled with self loathing after a car accident puts her BFF in a coma, so she blows her shot at NYU and hooks up with her drug dealer, who turns out to be a hell of a guy…so she dumps him! You get that she’s self-destructive, yeah? Salvation for our heroine comes in bits and pieces; a surly fellow employee who becomes a loyal, life-long friend and a mysterious stranger who sends her cryptic post cards over the years turns out to be an unlikely angel. As she grows up and away from the guilt she carries, we see a woman who finds strength for the misfits in her life, stray pets, miserable teenagers and ultimately her devoted mother. A mystical element that Hoffman injects into her stories is a little strange here; Helene, the gal in the coma, now has the ability to heal, which is kind of cool but doesn’t impact the main characters in any way. The real magic is in the messed up, lovable characters and how they help Shelby shine.

 

Halloween Treats

Looking for something to cozy up with during the chilly Halloween weekend? This week I’m scaring up three books of varying tone…one explores the effects of divorce on a fractured family, the second is lighter, a bit screw-ball if you will. The third, a non-fiction account of opening a restaurant in the most competitive city in the world.

If you’re following along, please post your thoughts and comments about the titles you’ve read. Remember, this is a two-way street, so if you have a recommendation, please share!!

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Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

It seems obvious that the novelist draws from her own real-life experiences after growing up in a family of divorce because this story is so heart-wrenching in its honesty. Handsome Bert Cousins crashes Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party, but he’s got a big bottle of gin on a sweltering day and instantly endears himself to the crowd, especially Fix’s wife Beverly, who will soon leave Fix for this charming stranger. Only we know that Bert is there escaping the responsibilities of his own cloying family (red flag, Bev!). These two are actually more of an after-thought as the story progresses, spanning five decades as the six step siblings are thrown together each summer in Virginia. Basically neglected by an overwhelmed Beverly, the children run wild through their formative years, culminating in a tragic event that will haunt each of them into adulthood. When a washed up novelist gets wind of their grim story, he turns it into a thinly veiled bestseller, forcing the family to revisit their painful past. Beautifully written, this one is a heart-breaker.

By the way…While Ann Patchett is well-known novelist, I’ve found fellow fans have not read her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her 20-year friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, a truly fascinating and troubled woman.

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Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple

No one does adorably flawed and kooky like Maria Semple. Eleanor Flood wakes each day resolving that today will be different, she’ll be a devoted, organized, loving wife, mother and friend. She will basically be…less of a mess. Oh well, maybe tomorrow, because in this day-in-the-life tale, she will have to navigate the politics of her child’s private school, find her missing husband, sit through an awkward encounter with a former employee and most notably, face her feelings about her estranged sister and her nemesis/brother-in-law, Bucky. All of this happening with her wise and judgemental eight-year-old son, Timby, in tow. Perhaps the one day setting is why this novel feels a little ‘all over the place’ in terms of time-line and character introduction, however, said characters are fun and quirky and the overall story is a hoot. As good as her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? No, but that’s a tall order and this one certainly has its charms.

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Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner

At the end of this non-fiction story I thought, “Who in their right mind would open a restaurant in New York City?” But that is exactly what makes this journey so compelling. Apparently, a chef with any real aspirations needs to open their own restaurant by the age of 30 or consider themselves a has-been, so Jonah Miller set his goal for age 25. It’s easy to see why journalist Stabiner chose Miller as her subject, as a native New Yorker, he started cooking as a boy and was smart enough as a teen to figure out that if he worked for free in high-end kitchens during the summer he’d be ahead of the game when he graduated culinary school. At one point in his youth, Miller took dinner order from tenants in his apartment building and delivered his cuisine to neighbors during the week. But even with promising cred, opening Huertas, a Basque-inspired restaurant (Spanish, I had to look it up) on the lower east side of Manhattan is no walk in Central Park. Stabiner, a fly on the wall through the entire process, starting with finding the right space through opening day and beyond, keeps the story moving at a quick clip, revealing the mountain of risks and hassles, including the quagmire that is obtaining a liquor license, the pros and cons of social media and waiting in vain for a celebrated critic. Behind the scenes in the frantic kitchen are downright suspenseful…foodies, this one’s for you.

By the way…If back stage kitchens are your cup of coffee, you must read Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton’s excellent account of opening Prune in NYC. One of my favorites from 2011.

A family drama, a heartfelt memoir and a little Shakespeare

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This Must Be The Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

There are only one or two books a year I can’t bear to see end, and this is one for 2016. Set in Ireland and…all over really, Daniel and Claudette (sigh) are just two of the flawed, charming characters trying to weather their relationship with their complicated blended families. Poor Daniel can’t catch an emotional break from life and Claudette is a stubborn recluse who ran away from fame. This extended family suffers the death of loved ones, alcoholism, infertility and ultimately a beautiful redemption. I admire an author that uses multiple view points. By the end of this one I felt like I knew these people intimately which, for me, is the ultimate beauty of any novel.

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The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer

Okay, I realize she isn’t for everyone, but hear me out. I am a sucker for the humorous essay (David Sedaris is probably my all time favorite writer because he can make me laugh out loud). So even if you don’t find her as hilarious as I do, her memoir is more than funny, it also gave me the feels. One chapter had me peeing in my pants as she critiques her teenage journals as an older, wiser adult and the next had me in tears about her tumultuous family life, especially when the focus is on her larger-than-life father struggling with MS. She is honest about money and fame and her tales of enduring the press junket for the movie  Trainwreck are priceless. In a celebrity world of phonies she is all about girl power and letting your freak flag fly (pictures included). I heart Amy Schumer.

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

I was intrigued when I learned that Anne Tyler had taken part in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which celabrated authors take on updating a work by the Bard. In this case, The Taming Of The Shrew. Kate is indeed a shrew (I pictured a grumpy Anna Kendrick) but by no means a un-likeable character (I hate that!!) She lives with her odd, but loveable, professor father and one very ditzy sister, in a clever tale about arranged marriage. If you hated Shakespeare in high school, relax, this retelling has no Olde English to decipher and stays true to one of the “comedies,” an amusing, quick read. 

Book Bites

No, this is not a cookbook blog, rather little bite-size reviews of books I love. 

Why listen to my small voice on modern day literature? Well, I’ve become an aficionado in my little world after earning a BA in English in the 90’s and evolving into a voracious reader, averaging eight books on a slow month! Now I’m looking to expand your horizons too…with some excellent reading.

The majority of books I read are literature-and-fiction and memoirs. I get hooked on what we’re all looking for in a good read, great writing, steady pacing and interesting characters and plot. On the lighter side I like ’em kind of quirky (think, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, anything by Lianne Moriarty). I don’t do depressing, but if it’s here and it’s on the heavy side, it’s worth it (The Hours, Little Bee).

As for memoirs, I love them but they often frustrate me for being too self-indulgent. I admire authors who succeed beyond social and cultural restrictions (A Personal History, by Katherine Graham is one of my favorite books of All Time) or the unusual (Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott- if you’re not familiar with this one go get it!)

Not heavy into mysteries, but c’mon, we all loved Gone Girl.

Basically, I just want to share a great read and NOT waste your time with lengthy reviews…but rather, concise “book bites.” When I’m ready to recommend three I’ll post…here goes!

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