Book Bites

Great titles for June!

This week, a wild ride in the sci-fi genre, an incredible memoir and a character study of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Enjoy!

All Our a Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

This novel is so imaginative, clever and cool, it’s hard to believe this is a debut. Bear with me on the description, it may sound ‘out there’ but it’s totally worth it. Tom Barren, our protagonist, starts out by telling us that the Jetson’s world everyone imagined back in the ’60s actually came to fruition with the creation of the Goettreider engine, which created enough clean energy to power the world and save the environment “…oil was irrelevant, basic resources were plentiful and everyone had access to technological enhancements, major or minor.” Technology exploded and hover cars, teleportation, recyclable clothes and all kinds of neat stuff was born! But that doesn’t mean life still couldn’t, ya know, suck. Still with me? It was because of this invention that Tom’s father, a scientific genius, was able to create the first time machine, sorry, a Chrono-Spacial Transport Apparatus. Tom, a major disappointment in the eyes of his cold, dismissive father ends up using the machine and inadvertently changes history, returning it to our regular old 2016. I told you… so Tom returns to a much better family and life where he’s kind of amazing but completely befuddled by our technologly inept present. Tom’s story is clever and amusing, even if once in a while there’s a little too much technobabble, and utopian 2016 is pretty clever. So, I get half way through the story and it’s as if the narrator knows what I’m thinking….this should be wrapping up, happy ending and all, when Tom explains this is not just a time travel romp. That’s when things get dark and twisty, buy hey, no one ever said time travel would be easy. Rights have been purchased, this one will make a great movie!

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

What a memoir! It starts off with a serious bang when Levy drops on page two that in a short time she lost her partner, child and home. I don’t want to give the story away, but Levy, a talented journalist from The New Yorker, shares a brave and honest account of her life, beautifully told. Although she shares many personal, often painful memories, you can feel the writing as a healing element for her as she takes a hard look at the denials and mistakes she made along the way. At the end, I felt her story was a gift, covering so many facets of being a modern day woman: career, travel, independence, lesbianism, marriage, infidelity, monogamy, cancer, alcoholism, pregnancy, grief, self discovery. Just read it. 

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Told in flashback from a much older perspective, Lucy, a young mother, is in the hospital with a mysterious illness. While her husband works and cares for their two children, Lucy is visited by her estranged mother. The two women have an easy rapport despite their estrangement and what was obviously a very poor, difficult upbringing. Lucy spent so much time in her classroom after school because there was no heat at home, so she studied, got a scholarship and became a writer in New York City, leaving behind her very troubled family, including a disturbed brother and resentful sister. The memories the women share are often funny and poignant but lead Lucy to other more painful memories, often of her father who clearly developed PTSD following the war, memories she is unable to share with her repressed, closed-off mother. We also get glimpses of Lucy’s overall life, her relationship with her own daughters and family in the aftermath of her illness. Through it all, Lucy proves herself a survivor who believed in love and hope no matter the past. Elizabeth Strout recently released Anything Is Possible, a sequel of sorts, featuring Lucy Barton, and I very much look forward to revisiting the character.

Summer’s here!

Just in time for the long Memorial Day weekend, a few novels to toss into your beach bag. Now hit the beach!!😎🌞🌊🍔🌭🍻🏖

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein

Get out the hankies for this sad, poignant story. Karen, a single mom, has stage four cervical cancer and her six-year-old son, Jacob, knows it. Even though she’s in remission, she’s only been given a few years to live, since the cancer will most likely return. Fortunately, she has a wealthy sister in Seattle, where she and Jake are spending the summer before returning to her job as a political consultant in New York City. It is here, on Mercer Island, that she begins to write a book for her son, sharing their experiences as well as hopes and advice for his future. But her placid summer is disrupted when Jake announces he’d like her to find his father. Karen and Dave dated for a short time before she got pregnant, had a huge fight and she never saw him again, but when she reaches out, this man who never wanted children very much wants to meet his son. And Karen is pissed! As her health starts to deteriorate (sob!), the fight is no longer just against her disease, she is now paranoid that Dave and his new wife will try to take Jake away from her, while trying to stay relevant at her job with a candidate who is turning out to be a big fat sleaze. Karen finds catharsis and insight through writing her “history” with her son, which she comes to realize is a map for the man she wants him to be, and allows her to overcome her fears and do the right thing.

What To Do About The Solomons by Bethany Ball

“What to do” seems to be the lead about anyone at the center of gossip in a kibbutz in Israel. Patriarch Yakov has decided his children are spoiled rotten and he’s not supporting any of them any more. Since the Solomon family stretches to New York and Los Angeles, this is bad news for youngest son Marc and his American wife (and former prostitute…!) who are under investigation by the Feds. His sister, Shira, a failed actress has a son with questionable lineage, and other siblings and longtime kibbutzniks who round out this greedy, calamitous clan. The story is described on the book jacket as “hilarious,” but I don’t know about that…dark and dysfunctional is more like it as we learn about the Solomons, but that’s not a bad thing. I have to admire a debut novelist who can keep such a steady pace and introduce so many characters with complicated pasts and storylines without things getting too muddled. In the end when the Solomons all come together nothing ends too rosy for any of them but that’s probably what makes this family, and the story, seem so real.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

So… I wasn’t sure I was going to like this one. Andrea is in her thirties and has made some pretty bad life choices. She dropped out of grad school leaving behind her beloved art, her love life includes a string of unappealing boyfriends and she’s pretty much a functioning alcoholic. At first I thought oh boo-hoo, you have no interest in marriage, a decent job and live in New York City…grow up! Pretty much the point of the title, right? As the story progresses Andrea begins to let go of her narcissism and realize other people’s seemingly perfect lives are far from it. She begins to appreciate her mother and not blame her for the many struggles they endured after her junkie father died. She recalls what prompted her to leave art school (was it really her one true love?) and as much as she tries to avoid it, has to take a good look at her beloved brother’s troubled marriage due to a very sick child, and people with REAL problems. Told in vignettes throughout her life we see broad stokes later detailed into a more complex life that makes sense. Glad I stayed with it.

Great titles heading into summer!

I’d post more often if it weren’t for the duds. I try to give each read 50 pages or so before I deem it “un-blog-worthy,” so it took me while to find these beauties. A humorous novel, cynical satire and notes from the White House made for a good mix this month. Enjoy!

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

God, Polly is a great old broad! This former southern belle is widowed at 58, only to discover that she and her late husband conceived a very late-in-life child. The result is ten-year-old Willow, obsessed that her mother will die any day now, understandable, since Polly is old enough to be her grandmother, swills margaritas and smokes like a chimney. Fortunately Willow didn’t fall far from the tree, so while Polly cantankerously fights an endless battle with her neighbors and the squirrels trying to invade her garden, Willow tries to keep her healthy by hiding her cigarettes and trying to find out all she can about her mothers past by snooping through her closet for old love letters. Polly refuses to talk about her youth in Louisiana before she married and Willow is determined to unearth her mothers secrets. A kooky cast of characters include the above mentioned neighbors and Willow’s (much) older brother, who moves in for a while, drunkenly licking his wounds after a divorce….best supporting character goes to his childhood friend, Phoenix. When illness lurks, Willow convinces Polly to go back to Louisiana to be healed by a back water preacher and learns a lot about growing up, her mother and herself. Heartfelt and funny, I loved it!!

Startup by Doree Shafrir

This satire about entitled millennials in NYC made me very happy NOT to be in my 20s in the big city trying to keep up the crazy social media scene. TakeOff is startup (obviously) run by Mack McAllister, a sleazy young man hoping that with another round of funding, his app will be a “unicorn”, one of the rare apps, like Twitter or Facebook, that will be next big thing and make him very rich. But Mack has some (Kharmic?) obstacles to overcome, he has to sell himself to a rich investor but he’s got employees jumping ship and his ego takes a hit when he realizes his office fling is tired of him, leading him to make some very bad choices. A few floors down at TechScene, Katya is a scrappy reporter, trying to stay ahead of the never ending online competition by breaking a big story, and when the employees at these two companies cross paths, things get downright juicy. Sabrina, a 36 year-old woman (considered a dinosaur by her 26 year-old boss) sums up this satire, and the millenialm existence in general as she ponders the dangers of “living life in public, on social media, before you really you knew who you were…” This is a good beach read; bit of a guilty pleasure but fast paced and suspenseful.

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Yes, I am a liberal, but I don’t think party lines matter much when it comes to this thoughtful, funny, first-hand account of working in the White House as deputy chief of staff under President Obama (the title comes from a comment the boss would make when someone screwed up). Mastromonaco was a hard working, non-Ivy leaguer in a seriously male-dominated environment, whose brains and personality took her steps from the Oval Office. From proudly championing for the installation of a tampon machine in the ladies room of the west wing, to organizing relief action during hurricane Sandy, her tales offer a surprisingly humorous and down-to-earth perspective…it feels like your best friend sharing amusing work stories over Thai and a glass of wine. Equally passionate about serving POTUS as she is about her cat, Shrummie, Mastromonaco is a mentor to any woman looking to have a fulfilling personal life (during that time she also managed to meet and marry a great guy) while working in the relentless world of politics. 

April showers, a good time to get reading!

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

The plot of this one is a little creepy…Ingrid, mother of two young girls and wife of Gil, writes letters to her husband about their life together, places them strategically in his book collection throughout their home, and (apparently) walked into the English surf and drowned herself.  Eleven years later, Gil thinks he sees his wife and is injured as he tries to follow her, so the daughters, now in their early 20s, come to help Gil recuperate. Flora is a flaky art student, with only patchy memories of Ingrid and believes her mother may still be alive, while older sister, Nan, a responsible mid-wife, has clearer memories of a very melancholy Ingrid and thinks she did, indeed, commit suicide, all of which is hashed out at Gil’s bedside. Over the course of the letters, Fuller masterfully creates a complicated, often painful version of their life and marriage together, revealing the muddy, ugly underbelly of two very complicated lives. 

The Stranger In The Woods, the extraordinary story of the last true hermit by Michael Finkel

All I can say is, fascinating!! This is the true account of Christopher Knight, who walked into the Maine woods as a teenager only to be discovered 27 years later, as the middle-aged man who had been robbing a local camp and seasonal cabins for survival for decades. He lived in a tent!! In Maine!! As state trooper Diane Vance says early on, “A week of winter camping here is impressive, a month is unheard of.” Knight became a thing of legend throughout the camp ground stealing only what was useful; food, propane, coolers. Once discovered (clean-shaven in recently stolen blue jeans and Lands End jacket) he is completely honest about his past and crimes, then goes silent. That’s where the author comes in. Journalist Finkel is an outdoorsman who wrote letters and visited Knight in jail and proved the right temperament to earn his trust (to a degree) and peel away some of the layers of his strange story. While getting to know both Knight and the many families he stole from, Finkel maintains a great sense of humor about his subject, “Do you call the police to report that all the D batteries and a Stephen King novel have gone missing?” But to many he burgled, the thefts were no laughing matter, leaving many feeling violated and wondering if a mad man was living among them. Over the years, the camp and residents put up cameras and flood lights, but Knight never left a trace. In confinement, Finkel found him to be a modern day philosopher withstanding a dizzying amount of solitude and suffering. The outcome for Knight is not an easy or comfortable one, and Finkel draws an interesting portrait of the ultimate loner searching for peace.

The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

This will make a great movie. The book starts off with Samuel Hawley giving his daughter, Loo, a gun for her 12th birthday…and she’s thrilled. I point this out because it says a lot about both characters, no-nonsense and tough. The two had been traversing the country for Loo’s entire life, since the (mysterious?) death of her mother, Lily, when she was just a baby. Finally, they settle in Olympus, MA, Lily’s hometown and Loo begins to learn more about her parent’s sketchy past. Chapters of present day Loo coming of age are interspersed with chapters about Harley’s life, told chronologically by the 12 bullet hole scars that riddle his body. Probably no surprise, we find Sam to be pretty much a thug in his early life. Left an orphan in his early teens he becomes a hired gun, always on the move (think hooker w a heart a gold), but yearning for a more stable life after meeting Lily, despite his past demons that keep him constantly looking over his shoulder. The author is so subtle, parceling out pieces of Hawley’s  past while keeping the suspense and tension up during his adventures. I loved the evolving relationship between Hawley and Loo as she grows into a young woman, her acceptance of her flawed family and their love and loyalty to one another.

LOVED these recent titles!

Spring has sprung and I’m happy to report there are lots of great novels out right now. Here are three that I tore right through, enjoy! Gonna dive into a new pile, as always, please share suggested reads!!


On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

I love wacky Faith. Trying to rediscover herself at 32, she’s given up on Brooklyn and returned to her hometown in Massachusetts….but things are off to a rocky start. Her parents have separated due to her fathers artistic mid-life crisis, her job-hopping single brother has started a plowing and towing business and her boyfriend Stuart has left on foot cross-country to find himself…with her credit card. On a whim, she buys the house on Turpentine Lane and quickly recruits her (adorable) coworker Nick to be her housemate, after discovering it may very well be haunted. Who can blame her based on the number of people who have died there and the local police sniffing around her basement? Lipman’s dialogue and relationships are charming and genuine in this sweet tale, a quick amusing read.


The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

A little hard to explain, but oh what a wonderfully woven tale we are given here…. In present day, outside London we meet Anthony, a successful elderly writer who has spent 40 years mourning the sudden death of his beloved fiancé, Therese. In the meantime, our title character, who once lost an item of great significance, has been collecting lost trinkets and labeling them (gems, puzzle pieces, most recently a biscuit tin filled w someone’s remains….!) After his demise, he leaves the house (and all the lost things) to his lonely housekeeper, Laura, with instructions for her to try to return as many of the lost things as possible. In a parallel story line in 1975, at precisely the time of Therese’s death, we meet Eunice and Bomber, two lovely characters working at a London Publishing company. Their friendship continues from that point to present day…I waited anxiously to see them all come together (it does not disappoint, sniff!) Laura, whose dark past had caused her to withdraw into Anthony’s quiet life, begins to come alive again among the lost things with the help of the home’s handsome gardener and the very special Sunshine, who lives across the street. Stories about the lost things pop up throughout….are they fictional stories Anthony wrote about the owners of lost things? Or are the objects telling their stories? Absolutely magical.


The Strays by Emily Bitto

I read this one in 24 hours… While I’m not usually a huge fan of period pieces, the setting of the Trentham enclave in 1930s Australia brought to mind the almost mythical tales of   Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, who played as hard as they worked to defend and create their art. Lily is eight-years-old when she meets Eva, the enchanting middle child of three sisters born to bohemian artists, with the luxury of old money. As the girls enter their teen-age years, parents, Evan, the temperamental artist and Helena, his spoiled muse, turn their sprawling home into an artist colony, inviting a small but ferociously talented group of artists to live among them. When tragedy strikes her family and Lily officially moves in with group, she officially becomes one of the strays, blissfully submerged in their exotic, often debaucherous lifestyle. As often happens in such a setting, young girls and attractive young artists become the catalyst for the unraveling of the entire Trentham clan.

This week: mystery, transgender struggles and a hillbilly memoir


Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia

I’m not usually a huge fan of mysteries, I get caught up in my own head dissecting every character to determine “who-dunnit” before the fictional police do. However, this one reads like a novel and kindly makes our suspects plain (it drives me crazy when the killer turns out to be some minor character introduced on page two who doesn’t pop up again until they’re determined to be a sociopath in the last act.)   Anyway, Hattie is a sophisticated high school senior who can’t wait to shake off her Minnesota farm life and head for Broadway. Alas, the poor girl never makes it that far, as she gets herself gruesomely murdered two months before graduation. This being a small town, Sheriff Del is a close family friend of the victim and her family and the impact on the town at large feels uncomfortably genuine. Told from Del’s perspective starting from the day of the murder, forward,  and in flashback by Hattie and several suspects, I liked that the detective is piecing together Hattie’s hidden secrets, as we are seeing them revealed in the past. Hattie’s relationships with her boyfriend(s) and family are fleshed out as the story progresses and the ending wasn’t nearly as cut and dried as many are in this genre…good stuff.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Rosie, an ER doctor and Penn, a stay-at-home-dad working on a novel, live in a ramshackle farm-house in rural Wisconsin where they share an idyllic life with their five lively boys. Five-year-old Claude is the best-loved of the Walsh clan and is adamant that when he grows up, he wants to be…a girl. After realizing this is not a phase, siblings and parents are understandably concerned but ultimately just want Claude to be happy, so when he decides to change his name to Poppy, watching her totter around in heels and dresses from Mom’s closet becomes the norm. Until school starts. When a disgruntled Poppy goes to school in boy clothes he begins to withdraw and shrink into himself, so the school and the family give Poppy a shot. Some are open and curious, others mean and judgemental to the whole family. After a play date goes horribly wrong and nearly turns violent the family decides to move to Seattle, where transgender is more widely celebrated. While everyone in Wisconsin was aware of the situation, in their new community they simply introduce her as a female and Poppy thrives. Until puberty arrives…this poor kid! I have to say, when Poppy is outed at her school and left devastated, I wondered where all the so-called Seattle tolerance was hiding, but then I remembered, oh right, many middle school kids possess about zero empathy. On a trip to a Thailand clinic with mom, Poppy gains perspective on the bigger world and how she will some day be accepted (by some) as an adult,  while realizing there will always be struggles that her close-knit family can’t protect her from. Not knowing anyone who is transgender (or do I?) this novel was like an anthropological study…fascinating!

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance comes from a long line of hill people in southern Ohio and Kentucky (he is literally a distant relation of the Hatfields, famous for feuding with the McCoys), and explores a culture where the lack of jobs lead to laziness, domestic violence and often drug addiction. Vance, himself, was the product of paternal abandonment and an extremely erratic mother who endured a life long drug problem. Fortunately, his saving grace were grandparents, Mawmaw and Pawpaw, who were indeed poor and ready for a fight, but also put great stock in education and encouraged young J.D. that he could achieve anything through hard work, creating stability that the bright young man desperately needed. After four years in the marines and an accelerated undergrad education at Ohio State, a mentor encouraged him to apply to the Ivies for law school and he found himself at Yale, where for the first time, he felt like a complete outsider, unfamiliar with the sophisticated ways of his peers. It was here that he understood how the people in his bloodline didn’t trust or believe in the elite running their country, paving the way for our recent political climate. A harsh and honest look at the white working class from a Yale Law school graduate who lived it.


Books to snuggle up with…

It’s been a while! Life, holidays and a serious dry spell of good reading material has kept me away. However! With the new year, the pile of books on my night stand is growing. Please share any recommendations!


Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

A novel about young women graduating from college and moving to New York City….I know, sounds like it could veer dangerously into chick-lit territory, but never fear! Poeppel’s characters are far from glamorous (except for Vicki, but she is this tales bitchy villain). Our heroine, Kate, goes through a disaster break-up after dropping out of her anthropology masters lab, sending her to her couch in a full-on depression, the details of which are only hinted about until the big reveal. As she comes out of her funk under the supervision of her friend Chole and her very devoted (but way too involved) sister,  she takes a job in the admissions office of a tony private middle school where a kindly admissions director takes mercy on her, despite her anxiety-fueled job interview, which is in a word, hilarious. Throughout, the dialogue between family, friends and co-workers is sharp and witty, and if the competitiveness and insanity of NYC parents vying to get their children into a top-tier school is to be believed… I’m really glad I live in Florida.


Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Immigration and infertility are the focus of this lovely novel and Sekaran skillful tackles both issues through the stories of Soli and Kavya. For 18 year-old Soli, the American dream awaits from her dusty Mexican town, devoid of opportunity, even if it means trusting questionable strangers and hopping trains and chicken trucks to get there. Meanwhile, Kavya, a personal chef, is nestled at her Berkeley home with her sweet techie husband, wanting only one thing,  a baby that will not materialize. Soli, after a difficult passage, smuggling herself across the border, arrives in California pregnant (no one said crossing the border would be pretty), but determined to make a life for herself and her baby. While Kavya considers adoption, Soli is discovered to me an undocumented citizen and thrown into a detention center….you can see where this is headed. The prose are beautiful and often funny, especially between Kavya and her mother, who has entirely too much to say on the subject. While little Ignatio settles in with Kavya and Soli fights to get him back I was torn about where this little boy would have the best life but, in the end, with two such loving families desperate to raise him, he was certainly one lucky boy.


All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

I’ll admit straight off, this may not be for everyone given the course of this unlikely love story, but, hey, I enjoyed it so decide for yourself…. Wavy meets Kellen, a young giant of a man, when she is a child and badly in need of protection. She rarely speaks, refuses to eat in front of people, and has a penchant for taking off in the middle of the night, all of which is explained in more detail when you meet her truly horrible parents, mentally ill meth-heads. The first time Kellen sees Wavy, he mistakes her for an angel, and as one of her father’s thugs, he takes it upon himself to see her safely through childhood, making sure she gets to school and letting her hang out in his shop, while Wavy takes care of him in kind, cooking for him and keeping his house clean. Although she says little, even at a very young age, Wavy’s maturity and intelligence comes off the page. Although their love for each other is unconditional, I struggled through the portion of the story when Wavy enters adolescence and her affection turns physical, so I was actually relieved when a murder separates the two for several years, giving time for Wavy grow into a woman and make her own way. Despite the obstacles and people who try to prevent their relationship later in life, Wavy and Kellan’s story is ultimately about two people meant to take care of one another among all the ugly and beautiful things in life.

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


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.


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!


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!!


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.


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.


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.

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