10 April 2014

Book Report - January and February

I *cannot* believe that I have not done a book report for this year yet - what's up with that??  Oh well, I'll give you the first two months now, and the next two months in May.

I have a lot of books to give away, and that will be a separate post soon, so things don't get too confusing.  (At least for me ...)

Back to January and February, though.  Here is what I read during the beginning of 2014.

City of Hope, by Kate Kerrigan.  I am not exactly sure what I think about this.

I won this book in a Goodreads First Read drawing, and the author was kind enough to send this along with the first book, "Ellis Island," which I read a couple of months ago.

In this book, the heroine of the earlier book, Ellie Hogan, has lived in Ireland for the past ten years with her husband John after leaving her somewhat glamorous life in New York during the 1920s.  She has made a life for herself by having a few busineses of her own going, and is making a nice living.  Even though they are childless (she has suffered several miscarriages), John and Ellie are happy in their life together.

When John dies suddenly of a heart attack, Ellie leaves his graveside service, packs a bag, and heads back to New York.  She tells herself it's for a "holiday," to grieve and pull herself together.

The New York she returns to is in the throes of the Great Depression, and life is very different than when she was there before.  With her money and some desire to help the homeless, she buys a house and invites some of the women and children to live with her.  With her money and business sense, and word of mouth, she eventually ends up with several houses, a shop, and a name for herself.  She creates a Women's Cooperative, where everyone shares the work and the profits.  People come and go, problems arise and are resolved, she gets involved with a couple of men (one a former beau), and for all intents and purposes, is a success.

She returns to Ireland, where she visits her mother-in-law, trying to convince her to return to New York City with her.  She also straightens out her business affairs, clearly not planning to return.

Of course, there are plenty of other developments, and the book is interesting.  But I have had a hard time deciding what I really think about it.  Ellie is a strong, independent woman, and she does help people.  But she also seems incredibly self-involved to me.  (Keep in mind that I am the Queen of Self-Involvement.)  I'm not sure that I like her that much as a person, though I admire her ability to get things done.  In the end, I think she might be too much like a real person to be appealing to me.

Having said that, I enjoyed reading the book, and seeing what would happen next.

All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming.  I haven't read a book in this series for a while, and though I still liked this one, I didn't like it as much as the previous ones.  Unlike most people, my favorite thing isn't for characters who are attracted to one another to get together.  Sometimes it makes perfect sense, and other times, it just seems to dilute the premise.

Anyway, as this installment begins, Rev. Clare Fergusson is finishing up a personal retreat in a cabin in the woods loaned to her by one of her parishoners.  A representative of the bishop comes to find her, to inform her that - due to certain "difficulties" (i.e., her relationship with Russ Van Alstyne, a married man and Chief of Police in their town, Millers Kill) - she is being assigned a deacon to assist her with her church duties.  Clare isn't thrilled about this, but she is also relieved the "punishment" is no more severe.

Upon returning to town, she learns that Russ' wife Linda, who recently kicked him out of the house upon learning of his relationship with Clare, has been found murdered in her kitchen.  As the story progresses, Russ is considered the prime suspect, though he is trying on his own to solve the murder.  Later in the story, some think  Clare is the murderer, to get the wife out of the way.

Several things lead to identifying other suspects, which makes Russ think that the victim of the murder was not his wife, but someone who resembled her.  He begins trying to track her down.

As with any crime like this one, certain facts, secrets, and disturbing things are learned in the investigation about nearly everyone mentioned.  Friendships become strained, careers are called into question, and gossip rules.

The ending is not all that satisfying, and the discoveries and events leading up to it were really disturbing to me.  I know there are more books in the series, and I am guessing that Clare and Russ end up together.  I'll likely read at least one more to find out, but I think for me they may become less interesting as a result.

The Hundred Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais.  I really enjoyed this book. Admittedly, I'd not heard of it, until I read an article about books being made into movies this year.  Like most books, I think this will likely not translate as well to film, especially if they want to make it more "relevant" or "modern."  But I'm not here to talk about the movie!

Hassan Haji and his family's story begins in their native India, then moves them to London after a family tragedy.  London is not as kind to them as they would have hoped, and eventually they find themselves in Lumiere, a small village in the French Alps.  They purchase a property across the road from a Michelin three-star restaurant, owned and run by Madame Gertrude Mallory, one of the most well-known and respected chefs in all of France.  Hassan's father decides to open an Indian restaurant, which causes problems between the Haji family and Madame Mallory. She does, however, have an encounter with Hassan in the kitchen, and decides he is one of the rare people who are born chefs, and becomes his mentor.

Years later, Hassan moves to Paris to further his learning and his career, and over the years, becomes the owner of a very well-respected French restaurant, and an expert French chef.

That's the basic story, but it is all so much more than that.  Hassan is the narrator, and through his eyes we learn about family, love, food, and what it means to be an outsider.  His life becomes one lesson, one experience, one cultural shift after another, and he turns out having friends that change his life in so many unexpected ways.  Throughout it all, his family, and in particular the memory of his mother, guide his way.

This is a really good book about family, food, culture, and how just one person can make all the difference in someone else's life.  Though it is fiction, it's as engrossing as any memoir.

Also, the author apparently lives in Philadelphia, so that was a fun discovery at the end of the book!

The Diva Takes the Cake, by Krista Davis.  I read this out of order in the series, but it was still enjoyable.  Sophie Winston's sister, Hannah, is getting married again, and Sophie has done all of the planning.  She is not overly fond of Hannah's fiance, Craig, but mainly because she thinks he is dull more than anything else.

The wedding weekend gets off to a bad start when Craig's ex-wife - who Hannah didn't know about - turns up dead in the garden of Sophie's ex-husband's house.  The wedding is on again/off again, and more and more suspicious things happen.  Craig seems like a prime suspect, but then Hannah insists he is innocent, and the wedding happens.  Except another body is discovered at the end of the ceremony.

Again, not amazing literature, but this series has some amusing and appealing characters, and I find it enjoyable when I am in the mood to read but not read something complicated and deep.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen.  Rebecca Winter made her name as a photographer with a photo taken after a party at her house, called "Still Life with Bread Crumbs."  Everyone in the art and photography world knew her work and her name.

She has rented a cottage in upstate New York to have some time to herself, as she is at the point in her career where she is "yesterday's news."  Some still know her, but it seems she has had her fifteen minutes of fame.  She takes the cottage to figure out what to do next - her bank account balance is low, she has a lot of expenses and a lot of people depending on her, and is at a crossroads.

The cottage leaves a lot to be desired, and she begins to think it's one of the biggest mistakes she could have made.  But she meets some of the townspeople, gets work through an acquaintance photographing birds for the state wildlife bureau, and also comes across some small tableaux of white crosses that seem to be telling a story.

By the end of the book, Rebecca's photographic series about the white crosses have brought her back to prominence in the world of art photography. But just as importantly, she has been able to decide what is important to her, and how she wants her life to be.  It is a tale of personal growth, but it also proves that when things start off less than stellar compared to expectations, the end result can make everything else worthwhile.

I Always Loved You, by Robin Oliveira.  I was lucky enough to win this book in one of the Goodreads "First Reads" giveaway, and decided to read it during February.

It is a fictionalized story about the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, told from Cassatt's viewpoint.  Mary Cassatt is one of my very favorite painters (as well as being from Philadelphia), and I am also a fan of Degas. This story tells of their first meeting, when Cassatt is in Paris trying to make a name for herself, and Degas is already pretty well established as an artist.

Their friends and acquaintances are, of course, a who's who of literary and artistic Paris in the nineteenth century:  Edward Manet, Emile Zola, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gustave Caillebotte, and so many others that I recognized.  This for me was part of what made this such an enjoyable read.

Cassatt and Degas become each others' best friend and harshest critics.  He shows her new ways of seeing things and introduces her to artistic circles in Paris.  She admires his work, and becomes his staunch defender when his often caustic personality offends others.  We are also introduced in some detail to some of Mary's American friends, as well as her mother and father and sister Lydia, who come to Paris to live with her.  The interrelationships of friends, artists, and family is really interesting to read about.

I liked this book not just because I found the principals to be interesting people, but because of their relationships not just to one another, but to their art, as well as their dedication to the desire to keep going even when success is not directly at hand.

French Pressed, by Cleo Coyle.  In this installment of the Coffeehouse Mystery series, Village Blend owner Clare Cosi gets involved in a murder investigation when her daughter Joy is arrested for the murder of one of New York's most famous chefs. Joy is doing her culinary school internship at the chef's restaurant, as well as dating him (though he is a married man).  When he is found dead and the knife used to kill him is Joy's, things don't start out well.  Plus, one of her classmates was also stabbed to death, after he left desperate messages on her phone.

With her ex-husband Matteo's help, as well as her current love interest's assistance, Clare gives the investigation all she can, knowing that her daughter is innocent, and wanting to bring the real killer to justice.

This had an interesting cast of supporting characters, and was very informative about the workings of a restaurant kitchen.  As most "worlds" are, the world of high-end restaurants has its share of petty rivalries and underhanded practices.  Clare finds herself at one point dealing with the Russian Mob and their involvement with the restaurant business in New York.

A fun and entertaining read.

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black.  This was a slow-starter for me, but once it picked up, I really enjoyed it.

The main character, Quirke, is a pathologist in a hospital morgue in Dublin in the 1950s.  He spent some of his early years in an orphanage, but was adopted by a prominent judge.  His adoptive brother is a gynecologist at the same hospital where Quirke works.

When the brother is found in Quirke's office/lab, writing notes in a folder, Quirke is puzzled but also intrigued.  He pulls the file that was hurriedly placed in the drawer when he showed up, and it is for a young woman named Christine Falls, and Quirke notices that it gives her cause of death as something other than death in childbirth, as he later learns.  When he challenges his adoptive brother about falsifying the records, the brother claims it is so her family will not be shamed to find out that she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Quirke becomes obsessed with finding out the whole story, as well as what became of her baby.

This leads to a series of weird, dark, and sad events, that reach from Ireland to Boston.  Quirke learns some upsetting truths, about himself and his adoptive family, the Catholic Church, and people he thought he could trust.  In the end, though, he feels that he found justice for Christine Falls.

An interesting story.  I think I'd like to try another Quirke story, to see how it progresses from the first.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.  This was a fun read!

Don Tillman is a professor at a prestigious Australian university, with a Ph.D. in genetics.  He is socially awkward, and leads a very organized, scheduled life, and is quite happy with that life.  His best (and only) friends, Gene and Claudia, are a married couple,with an open marriage (at least according to Gene).

Don embarks on something he calls The Wife Project.  He decides that the best way to find the most compatible person for a partner is to go about it logically, and devises a questionnaire that is supposed to be foolproof.  The problem is, it has not turned up anyone even remotely worth serious consideration.  Then his friend Gene, who is helping him review the submitted questionnaires, sends a young woman named Rosie to Don's office.  She is completely wrong and does not fit into any of the good categories in Don's questionnaire, but he finds her fascinating and before you know it, he is helping her locate her biological father (The Father Project, as it becomes known).

I found this book very entertaining.  Don is a character that is amusing in a book, but could be frustrating to know personally.  Yet, I feel that everyone has someone in their lives that is a pretty close match to Don.  I think part of the reason he is so appealing is because he is so incredibly organized and scheduled, and though he is an extreme case, I can appreciate his desire for a life of order in this messy world.

The book is about finding love, finding yourself, and how understanding those around you and being more "conventional" does not mean you can't also be different.

*****

I really feel that I started the year with some good books - I hope that continues!

03 April 2014

Revelations

I'm glad you enjoyed my Ten on Tuesday list - it was fun to do, and I also got a real charge out of reading others' lists!

I do have to tell you though, that all of the things on my list were true.  I know that some people were intrigued by certain things, so here are brief details for any interested parties.  :-)

1. I am the youngest in my family, and have two older sisters. One sister lives in West Virginia, and the other in California. 

2. I am left-handed.  Always have been.  I was given instructions as a child by my mother to let her know if any teacher ever DARED to make me use my right hand.

3. I was once kissed by Willard Scott.  There's a long story that goes with this, but the short version is that when we lived in Chicago, the "Today Show" did a week of filming there, and one day when we had already planned to take the day off, we decided to go and watch the filming.  Not thinking about the hour's time difference, we arrived as the "talent" was leaving.  And the rest is Ten on Tuesday list history.

4. My belly button is fake.  As a result of one of my many surgeries where some of my innards were rearranged, the plastic surgeon created a new belly button for me.

5. I have - on more than one occasion - won a "Mr. Ed" sound-alike sing-off.  I think this one is pretty self explanatory.

6. I didn't graduate from high school, but I do have a master's degree.  In the beginning of my senior year of high school, I caught pneumonia.  By the time I was well, the principal said I would need to wait until the next year to return to school.  I'd already been accepted to colleges, who were willing to still allow me to attend.  So I never experienced senior year.  Which was actually fine with me, since I hated high school.

7. I have been to tea at the White House twice.  When I worked for a U.S. Senator, I was the appointments and tour person, and we would be invited every year to the White House for tea.  Unfortunately, it was during the Reagan years, but fortunately they were out of town each time, so I attended and enjoyed myself, since there was no chance of running into those vile people. 

8. One of my brothers-in-law wrote a musical based on the life of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which was actually performed one time.  I have the CD of the soundtrack.  This particular factoid often allows me to win hands-down in "Whose Family Is the Weirdest" conversations.

9. As a kid, I had a green and yellow parakeet named Tony Tetrazzini.  He was the best.  He used to do all kinds of tricks, and was willing to "play school" though he was not the most attentive student.  :-) 

10. People always think my name is Gretchen.  My college advisor called me by that name for four years.  He'd say, "Yes, I know your name isn't Gretchen, but it's easier for me this way."  

So now you know ...

01 April 2014

For Your Consideration ...

No, it's not the opening of "Twilight Zone" (which was one of my favorite shows as a kid), and I know I seldom (ever?) post two days in a row, but this was one that I thought would be fun for April Fools Day.


Today, Carole wanted us to list 10 things about ourselves.  Some are true, some are not.  It's up to you to decide.  Well, I love this kind of thing, and have been enjoying reading everyone's posts.  So here is my list.

1. I am the youngest person in my family, and have two older sisters.

2. I am left-handed.

3. I was once kissed by Willard Scott (and it wasn't even my 100th birthday).

4. My belly button is fake.

5. I have - on more than one occasion - won a "Mr. Ed" sound-alike sing-off.

6. I didn't graduate from high school, but I do have a master's degree.

7. I have been to tea at the White House twice.

8. One of my brothers-in-law wrote a musical based on the life of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which was actually performed one time.  I have the CD of the soundtrack.

9. As a kid, I had a green and yellow parakeet named Tony Tetrazzini.

10. People always think my name is Gretchen.  My college advisor called me by that name for four years.

True?
False?
What do you think?

May any pranks played on you today be only fun ones.  :-)

31 March 2014

Let's Review, Shall We?

I don't know about you, but I'm surprised that it's the last day of March.  I don't know why, specifically, because it's not like it's lasted longer than any other Marches have ... anyway.

Remember this post, where I outlined my goals for March?  I set that list with a certain degree of enthusiasm, and was feeling very confident that I could check things off as the month went along.  Now it's time to review, and I am dismayed to report that the only one of those goals I achieved was enjoying what the month had to offer - my birthday, St. Patrick's Day, St. Joseph's Day zeppoles, a long weekend in Rehoboth Beach, etc.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that it all happened that way - but REALLY?

I didn't even come close on any of the other goals - and I have no idea what I was doing instead, which is the real killer.  So I will give it all another try for April:

1.  Get back to more regular exercise.  I signed myself up for a special program at my gym that starts next week, and especially since it required prepayment, I'm likely to actually go!

2.  My Agnes sweater was completely ignored during March, so I would like to get it well underway (and in a perfect world, finished) during April.  I am stating now that if I end up ignoring it all of April, I'm putting it aside until the fall.

3.  Clean out a closet, and get rid of things that can't be repaired and donate things no longer worn.

4.  Make/fix something using my sewing machine.  I have hand-sewing repair to make, but I need to clean up the junk piled on top of the machine, and actually use it!

I thought about adding another goal, as I like the idea of five things for the month.  But until I can get at least one more thing off the list above, I'll stick with this group of repeats.

So, farewell, March - thanks for the fun things!

26 March 2014

Mega Decisions

If you are a book reader or a book lover, you may have seen this article in today's New York Times.  It's a sign of the times in big cities (and probably elsewhere) that rents are ridiculous, and some businesses have a hard time staying put.  In this case, the article is about bookstores, which are one of my particular loves.

These days, too many places are full of "mega" stores, or chains that everyone knows.   I will admit that sometimes, I'm glad to see a Starbucks in a strange town, because I know exactly what I will get there.  I'm not a big coffee drinker, but when I do have a cup of coffee, I'm pretty picky about it.  However, a strange town without a Starbucks is also fine, and there's always the chance I will find something better than I could have ever imagined.  Even here in Philadelphia, there are places with wonderful coffee that are not national chains.  I would be depressed if they had to pack up and move because they were priced out of the city.

But - back to bookstores.  For the last decade or more, people have been lamenting the demise of the independent bookstore.  Once Amazon became a habit, and Barnes & Noble moved in, many small, independent, interesting, and quirky bookstores closed because they couldn't match prices.  The MegaBookstores ruined the neighborhood bookstore.

I will be the first one to be appalled that local bookstores are disappearing.  There is nothing more fun to me than walking into a bookstore, to discover its personality, and also find things that I might not ever even think of seeing everywhere else.  To a book nerd like me, *that* is a fun experience.  Fortunately, there are still some of these bookstores in the Philadelphia area, albeit fewer than when we first moved here, many years ago.

But I usually buy books from Barnes & Noble.  And that is related to the real subject of this post.

On a personal level, I would rather go just about anywhere than ever be caught dead in a Walmart.  It's a strictly personal thing - I know plenty of people who shop there regularly, and love it.  Walmart is someplace that to me, represents evil, and the loss of local flavor.  It's one of the "Mega" stores that has ruined local businesses, and even in some cases, made local downtowns ghost towns.

So given my feelings for Walmart, why would I buy books from Barnes & Noble, one of the Mega bookstores that have led to the demise of some local stores?  Well, the short answer is - money.  Ah yes, money, the answer to so many questions.

When we first moved to Philadelphia, it was because The Tim had accepted a job at a scholarly press here, as the Assistant Director.  He had been in publishing at that point for about 15 years, moving up in the ranks, and he loved his work.  We were both thrilled that he had gotten this job.  And for nine years, he worked at it and did really well.  Then the Director left for other pastures, and The Tim was named Acting Director.  This was a job he held for about 18 months, during which the press in question had one of the best years in its history.  But when they hired a permanent Director, he was passed over in favor of someone else.  Unlike me, he was OK with it, and worked to get the new person settled in.  Then we went on vacation, and on our first day back to work, the new person called him in to tell him his job had been eliminated, and he would be finished by the end of that month.

This stunk, big-time.  But after looking into it, we realized that we could not afford to mount a legal fight, especially just for the satisfaction.  So we tried to figure out how to move on.

The Tim found two jobs - one was a part-time bookseller position at Barnes & Noble, the store in question being very close to our house.  The other was as a one year, permanent substitute as a fifth-grade teacher in one of the Philadelphia public schools.  He would teach all day, work in the evenings, and all day on Sundays.  And though he loved the teaching job as much as the bookstore job, in order to do that, he would have had to return to school for his teaching certificate, and then start at the bottom of the pecking order for seniority.  He decided that he wasn't up for that, so signed on at the end of the school year to work full-time at the bookstore.

All of these years later, he is still there.  He is now one of the Assistant Store Managers.  He loves it, and they [apparently] think he does a good job.  Working at Barnes & Noble has meant that we could pay our mortgage, stay in our house, pay our bills, and sometimes take a wonderful vacation.  They have treated him well, providing benefits that are much better than ones I've had from my two most recent employers.

Why am I telling you this?  Because I think it's important to remember, when you read about MegaStores making it more and more difficult for small businesses, that it does not mean evil is taking over our lives.  In the case of bookstores, just because one was local and independent, did not mean it was worthwhile.  But unfortunately, some really good ones got lost, and are still getting lost, in the shuffle, and not always because of high rents, like the article mentioned above is saying.

And I would also ask you to remember that for some of us, MegaStores have been a godsend.  And when you seek out a local store someplace - which you SHOULD DO, remember that we do not live in a perfect world, where the combination of both things would mean we could always find everything, every time we were looking.

For me, most of the time, I'm "staying with the one who brung me."