30 June 2012

Weekend Cooking: Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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If you haven't heard of Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story yet, you have now. And you'll be reading and talking about this book and Rosenstrach's blog for a long time to come.

Soon into her marriage, when she and her husband, Andy, were still in their twenties and working their first real jobs, Jenny discovered the stress surrounding the question, What's for dinner? How did those 1950s women do it? We have visions of smiling, impeccably dressed young wives and mothers (wearing pearls), bringing out beautifully cooked three-course dinners to their clean and well-behaved children (who are sitting quietly at the table) and appreciative husbands (still in their suits), relaxing in their spotless houses. Reality, of course, is something else.

The answer for Jenny was to plan her meals. Fourteen years ago, she sat down with a blank journal and wrote down what she and Andy were going to cook that week. They shopped for the needed ingredients, and they had seven stress-free dinners. In Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny shares her tips and tricks (no, you don't have to keep a dinner diary) for putting a decent meal on the table most days of the year. When her first daughter was born, Jenny made a vow that she pretty much has never broken: They would have dinner as a family every single night. No matter what. Once in a great while that has meant ordering take-out, and sometimes it has meant grabbing a home-cooked meal from their freezer, but Jenny and Andy have stuck with the idea of the family dinner.

And guess what? They really are regular, working parents; they don't have a staff of paid help, and they don't have some kind of technology the rest of us peons are missing.

Dinner: A Love Story is part memoir, part how-to, and part cookbook, and it's definitely a book to read not just use. Even if you never cook from it (but why wouldn't you?), you'll find charming, engaging stories of the evolution of a family, tips on entertaining, strategies for staying sane while feeding young children, and inspiration for making recipes and menus your own. And because Jenny's style is friendly and informal, you'll feel as if you've made a new friend.

The book is divided into three main sections: Just Married, New Parenthood, and Family Dinner. No matter what your family looks like, you'll find recipes throughout the book that'll call to you. Here's how Jenny describes Dinner: A Love Story:
This book will cover all three of these phases of family dinner--the charming parts, the messy parts, the really annoying parts, the crazy-fun parts. Every meal that you read about . . . is a real meal. [By real] I mean that these meals really happened. These are the meals and menus we have served up. (p. xxi)
Jenny notes that "this book might just be for everyone," and I have to agree with her. You don't have to be a planner or to have kids to be inspired by Jenny's story. No matter which stage your family is in (and remember newly wed isn't all that much different from empty nest), you'll find good advice and good food.

Now, what about the recipes? Each and every dish in Dinner: A Love Story is appealing. For Jenny, family does not equal boring. Along with lamb burger sliders, you'll find spaghetti with clams, turkey chili, pork dumplings, fish sandwiches, and BBQ ribs. There are plenty of variations to fit your taste, ideas for feeding picky eaters, and hand-holding tips for the unsure cook. Each recipe serves four, and each is accompanied by an estimated cooking time (very helpful).

Most recipes are set up traditionally, with specific measurements, but some use approximations (glug of olive oil, handful of herbs). Don't be afraid, this is (as Jenny points out) the way to learn to cook without being a slave to instructions. I love her go-to dishes for entertaining (plus six rules for success, even with kids underfoot), her "best" (most popular) weekday dishes, her advice on grilling, and her nine summary rules for creating your own family love story.

I can already tell that Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: A Love Story will be a book I'll read again, cook from often, and give as gifts.

Here's an easy dish that would work for a weekday or weekend. We had it on the grill, but I know it'd be awesome baked in the oven. I've included the recipe introduction to give you an idea of Jenny's voice. This recipe is from the "New Parenthood" section, and as the text indicates, one trick when you have an infant is to eat after you've put your baby to bed.

Apricot-Mustard Baked Chicken

This chicken takes about 10 minutes to pull together and then about a half hour of hands-off time in the oven. In theory, you could time things so the chicken is ready as soon as the kids go to sleep. But if you can't for the life of you figure out a way to steal the few minutes needed for prep while the kids are awake, then just take care of step 1: preheat the oven. (Photo is from p. 132 of the cookbook.)

Total time: 40 minutes
  • 6 to 8 skin-on chicken pieces (thighs or drumsticks), rinsed and patted dry
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cup apricot jam
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1/4 cup water
  • leaves from 2 sprigs thyme
Preheat the oven to 400F.

Place the chicken on a rimmed cookie sheet or baking dish lined with foil or parchment paper, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake for 10 minutes.

While the chicken is baking, whisk together the jam, mustard, water, thyme, and a little salt and pepper in a small saucepan over low heat for about 3 minutes. It should be slightly syrupy.

Pull the chicken out of the oven and pour the sauce on top. Continue baking for another 15 minutes. For the last 3 minutes, place the chicken under the broiler on the top rack so it gets golden and crispy looking.
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Beth Fish Reads is proud to showcase Ecco books as a featured imprint on this blog. For more information about Ecco, please read the introductory note from Vice President / Associate Publisher Rebecca Bressler, posted here on July 15, 2011. Find your next great read by clicking on Ecco in the scroll-down topics/labels list in my sidebar and by visiting Ecco books on Facebook and following them on Twitter.

Dinner: A Love Story at Powell's
Dinner: A Love Story at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by HarperCollins / Ecco, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780062080905
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: A
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


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29 June 2012

Imprint Friday: Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Harper Perennial. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

When Erica Barmash, Senior Marketing Manager at HarperCollins, first mentioned today's featured book, I was only vaguely interested. I know people who have struggled with depression, but I (thank goodness) have no personal experience. But once I started reading Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft, I simply couldn't stop.

Here's the summary:

When Katherine Sharpe arrived at her college health center with an age-old complaint, a bad case of homesickness, she received a thoroughly modern response: a twenty-minute appointment and a prescription for Zoloft—a drug she would take for the next ten years. This outcome, once unlikely, is now alarmingly common. Twenty-five years after Prozac entered the marketplace, 10 percent of Americans over the age of six use an SSRI antidepressant.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft, Sharpe blends deeply personal writing, thoughtful interviews, and historical context to achieve an unprecedented portrait of the antidepressant generation. She explores questions of identity that arise for people who start medication before they have an adult sense of self. She asks why some individuals find a diagnosis of depression reassuring, while others are threatened by it. She presents, in young people's own words, their intimate and complicated relationships with their medication. And she weighs the cultural implications of America's biomedical approach to moods.
I can't summarize the book any better than that, but I can tell you that Sharpe has written a compelling account of a generation of Americans whose teenage mood swings were chemically controlled by pharmaceuticals. Were Sharpe's initial episodes of anxiety and depression truly a cause for concern? After all, her father suffered from depression and so it was possible Sharpe had inherited a chemical imbalance. On the other hand, isn't it normal for a seventeen-year-old high school graduate to feel worried about leaving home and to be concerned about moving across the country to start a new life?

Interweaving research, history, and science with her own story and those of dozens of men and women whom she interviewed, Sharpe explores issues that seem unique to her generation. Perhaps because I went to college about twenty-five years before Sharpe did and perhaps because I don't have children, I truly had no idea that preteens, teens, and young adults were (at least at one time) put on antidepressants almost as a matter of course. As a result, Coming of Age on Zoloft was an eye-opener for me.

Besides the personal stories, I was particularly interested in some of the questions Sharpe discusses, such as (and I'm paraphrasing):
  • If you start taking Prozac at age fourteen and stay on it, how do you ever learn what your true personality is?
  • Once you start on antidepressants, how can you ever feel confident enough to get off of them?
  • Is it always a good thing to have your moods evened out?
The answers to these questions and others aren't simple, and doctors and patients don't agree on the worth of pharmaceuticals. While some of the people Sharpe interviewed praised Prozac as the best thing that ever happened to them, others weren't so sure. It may be that people who are truly depressed find antidepressants to be a godsend but those who may simply be going through a rough time or who may need psychotherapy instead have more doubts.

Sharpe made the choice to go off Zoloft but is quick to point out that her choice might not be right for everyone. She tapered off slowly and watched for signs of returning debilitating anxiety; five years drug free, and she's still doing fine. One of the turning points for Sharpe was deciding to try psychotherapy instead of relying solely on drugs. Through more traditional help, she came to see that feeling blue is not all bad—that mourning, being afraid, and being sad are parts of normal life. That's not to deny that some youngsters need more help and the relatively quick action of pharmaceuticals, but Sharpe presents a good argument for taking the time to distinguish a true depression from the normal troubles of growing up.

It's important to point out that Sharpe narrowed her focus on this extremely broad field. Coming of Age on Zoloft is part memoir, and that part forms the core of her inquiry. If you are looking for information about antidepressants and the elderly or misbehaving toddlers, you'll need to look elsewhere. As Sharpe says,
This is a book about what it's like to grow up on antidepressants. It attempts a faithful description of an activity that has become remarkably common—using antidepressants as a teenager or young adult—but still engenders intense, complicated, and often conflicted feelings, both in the young people who do it and the adults who are involved in their care. (p. xvi, uncorrected proof)
Whether you're a member of the pharmaceutical generation or not, I recommend reading Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft. It may help you help yourself, a friend, or child, and it'll likely make you aware of how insidious antidepressants have become in modern society.

For more on Katherine Sharpe, read her interview with Wired. She is also writing a blog for Psychology Today called "Generation Meds." For even more, visit her website, blog, or Facebook page and follow her on Twitter.

Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note posted here on June 18, 2010. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. And don't miss the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.

Coming of Age on Zoloft at an Indie
Coming of Age on Zoloft at Powell's
Coming of Age on Zoloft at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Harper Perennial, June 2012
ISBN-13: 9780062059734

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28 June 2012

Review: Birdseye by Mark Kurlansky

As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of Mark Kurlansky's work. I've read almost everything he's written. Thus it was a given that I wouldn't miss his biography of Clarence Birdseye.

Although most of us immediately associate the name Birdseye with frozen vegetables, we rarely think of light bulbs, gardening, whale hunting, and fox breeding. Clarence Birdseye, it turns out, had an eclectic curiosity and held patents for many inventions besides flash-freezing foods. We remember him for revolutionizing (really starting) the frozen food industry because his methods profoundly changed how the world eats.

In Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, Mark Kurlansky delves into the amazing life of a man who was part adventurer, part inventor, part naturalist, and part entrepreneur. Forced to leave Amherst because of financial issues, Birdseye, nonetheless never stopped learning. He pursued almost everything that caught his attention and was always looking for some way to put his ideas to use for the betterment of humankind or as a business venture.

As his fans have come to expect, Kurlansky has made even the most complicated of Birdseye's inventions accessible to the lay reader. Although the biography is organized chronologically, Kurlansky deftly reminds us of earlier events when they become important for understanding how Birdseye's interests developed into an important concept or new discovery. Just because Birdseye spent most of his life working on experiments doesn't mean he was incapable of connecting with others, and we also learn about his home life, hobbies, adventures, and marriage.

The best description of Birdseye came from his wife, who would tell her children: "Dad was born ahead of his time. There is so much going on in his head the world can't even catch up" (p. 146). Don't miss this gem of a biography.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 5 hr, 57 min) read by Jon Van Ness. Van Ness is a new-to-me narrator, and as far as I can tell (correct me if I'm wrong), this is his debut audiobook. His inexperience is evident in some awkward pacing and emphasis issues. In addition I sometimes felt Van Ness was a little too enthusiastic in his performance, pulling me out of the book. I suggest you listen to a sample before deciding whether to read or listen to Birdseye.

Buy Birdseye at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Random House / Doubleday, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780385527057
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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26 June 2012

Wordless Wednesday 187

New York City Municipal Building, 2012


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Today's Read: The Girl Below by Bianca Zander

What would it be like to return to your native country after being away for a decade? Here are Suki Piper's reactions:

That day was only my second in London, but already the optimism I had been fizzing with was beginning to seem false. On the long flight over from New Zealand, I had imagined a triumphant homecoming: streamers and banners above a red carpet the length of Kensington Park Road, or at least an easy transition back to my old life. I had been out of the country for ten years, living in Auckland for most of that time, but I had thought that the old life would be waiting for me, that if you were born in a place and had grown up there, you were one of its citizens and it would always take you back.

Other places maybe, but not London. (p. 2)
The Girl Below by Biana Zander (William Morrow, 2012)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: London, Greece, and New Zealand at different points in time
  • Circumstances: Suki returns to London to look for answers about her past, to discover the meaning behind vague memories she has from her childhood, to understand herself
  • Characters: Suki Piper and her friends and family from the past to the present
  • Themes: self-discovery, loss, family, childhood trauma
  • Genre: magical realism, psychological mystery, contemporary fiction

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25 June 2012

Review: Margaret (Movie)

The 2011 movie Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is a character study of a high school student named Lisa (Anna Paquin) who distracts a New York City bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who then hits and kills a woman as she crosses the street. The movie explores how an impulsive and innocent act can have traumatic, long-reaching effects.

Here is how the studio describes the film:

From Academy Award® nominated writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) comes a stirring drama Rolling Stone calls "a film of rare beauty and shocking gravity." Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo lead a celebrated cast in the story of a Manhattan teenager whose life is profoundly altered after witnessing a terrible accident. Experience an emotional teen's extraordinary journey to set things right as her innocent ideals come crashing against the harsh realities of the adult world. It's an "extraordinarily ambitious film," raves Time Magazine.
Although I liked the premise, Margaret wasn't a big hit for me. The acting was terrific, but either I simply didn't understand the story or I wasn't in the right mood. The plot moves slowly, and some of the characters' behavior didn't ring true to me. For example, at one point Lisa goes to the bus driver's house to confront him, and his wife unhesitatingly lets her in, even though she's never met the teen and knows nothing about her. I know I should have cared more about Lisa's struggle to come to terms with the accident, but I had trouble connecting with the film.

Take a look at the trailer and read some other reviews before deciding on this movie. You may well have better luck than I did.


Thanks to Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment for the review copy.

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23 June 2012

Weekend Cooking: Review & Giveaway: Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes by Adam Ried

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it's officially summer, and oh what a hot one this promises to be. Thank goodness I was invited to participate in the Great Shake 2012; I now have the answer to the summertime blues.

Adam Ried's Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes has revolutionized my view of milkshakes. Open up the book, and you'll quickly realize that you aren't in your mother's kitchen anymore. Ried's recipes help you create sophisticated, ultra-thick, and oh so yummy shakes that haven't forgotten how to be fun and easy.

If you're an America's Test Kitchen (ATK) junkie like I am, then you've likely met Ried on television. Thanks to Ried's background you know you can trust the recipes to turn out perfectly, time and time again. As you've come to expect with cookbooks from the ATK crowd, there is a great introduction that covers everything from brands of ice cream to types of milk, blender features, and shake basics. Do take the time to read the first two chapters because they also include information on how to tweak the recipes to your own tastes and tips on variations.

I think the hardest part about Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes is figuring out which ones to try. Can we have them all, please? Besides incredible variations on chocolate and vanilla, Ried developed shakes with tea, coffee, fruits, and even beer (yes!). He also provides recipes for un-American drinks such as batedos and lassis.

The directions couldn't be simpler, and who knew making milkshakes takes only a couple of minutes of hands-on work? The results are spectacular. Really. The BFR household will never be the same. I'm going to have to up the miles I walk each week because I don't anticipate giving up milkshakes anytime soon.

The photo is of the Banana Foster Shake, which Mr. BFR (a milkshake lover) declared to be the best shake he's ever had, bar none. It wasn't overly sweet, and the balance of banana and rum flavors with the hint of cinnamon blended with the vanilla ice cream was perfect. The other shake we tried (we started sipping immediately, and I forgot to take a photo) was the Chocolate-Hazelnut Shake. It was delicious; again with just the right ratio of coffee and Frangelico added to the chocolate ice cream base.

The Twitter Party: As part of the summertime fun of The Great Shake 2012, W. W. Norton and Adam Ried asked about two dozen bloggers to share their milkshake experiences. For the list of the all the bloggers writing about Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes, check out the The Great Shake webpage. Some posts are already up, and all will be available by Monday afternoon.

To participate yourself and to learn more about making the best milkshakes ever, tune into the Twitter chat on Monday, June 25 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time and follow the hashtag #GreatShakes. Adam Ried (@modernmilkshake) will be answering our questions and Judy Gelman (@DineLikeDraper) will be moderating. The only question I have right now is which flavor to make for the party!

The Giveaway:
Because of a mail mix-up, I ended up with two copies of Thorougly Modern Milkshakes. To help celebrate this must-have summer cookbook, I decided to host a giveaway of my extra copy. Because I'm doing the mailing, I can send the book anywhere in the world. If you don't live in the United States, you'll be happy to know that the recipe measurements are given in three forms: U.S. standard, metric, and by weight, so the book is user friendly to everyone. To enter for a chance to win, just fill out the form. I'll pick a winner on June 30.



Buy Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes at an Indie, at Powell's, at Book Depository, or at bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs
Published by W. W. Norton, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780393342772
Rating: A
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


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22 June 2012

Imprint Friday: Weeds by Richard Mabey

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Ecco books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.''

One man's wildflower garden is another man's weed patch. Have you ever wondered about what makes a weed a weed? Is it as simple as a plant growing where you won't want it? Richard Mabey's Weeds, out in paperback next week, is indeed what the subtitle promises, a "defense of nature's most unloved plants."

Here's the publisher's summary:

Weeds are botanical thugs, but they have always been essential to our lives. They were the first crops and medicines and they inspired Velcro. They adorn weddings and foliate the most derelict urban sites. With the verve and historical breadth of Michael Pollan, acclaimed nature writer Richard Mabey delivers a provocative defense of the plants we love to hate.
In a dozen fascinating essays, Richard Mabey delves into many aspects of weeds, including lore, science, religion, and literature. For example, in Chapter 6, subtitled "Three Writer's Weeds," we learn about the weedy plants that have found fame in plays, poems, and prose. We are also left to wonder whether the Shakespeare garden in Central Park is all that innocent Many of the plants mentioned by the Bard can be considered weeds, and at least some have certainly jumped their beds to meander throughout New York.

Here are some things I learned about weeds:
  • The seeds of some species can remain dormant for 2000 years yet still be viable.
  • Weeds have the ability to completely take over any disturbed ground, erasing signs of decayed towns, battlefields, and abandoned farms.
  • A plant that is simply a pretty flower in one country and be a bully and nuisance in another (think purple loosestrife in the United States).
  • Australia is particularly vulnerable to invasive plants.
But those are some of the negatives. Many of our medicines and food crops started out as weeds as did some of our most beloved cultivated flowers (poppies in particular). Weeds harbor good insects, can be revitalizing to the environment, and contribute to biodiversity. Weeds can also be used to trace human history; the spread of weeds follows immigration, cultivation, trade, and exploration:
I like this sense of weeds as archaeological artefacts, embodying history as if they were arrowheads or old letters, charting our habits and beliefs. Except that in another sense they are nothing whatever like museum specimens, and are wonderfully and mischievously alive. (p. 187)
Weeds are sturdy things that find a way to survive, whether they are in town or in country. As Mabey notes throughout the book, one of the traits of weeds is their ability to cross boundaries, not just from garden to lawn but from continent to continent, taking hold in a new environment, sometimes welcome and sometimes not. Does that description seem familiar? It might. He goes on to say, "It's curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us." (p. 37)

Weeds is for everyone who has ever admired wildflowers, battled burdock, or been moved by the fields of poppies in Flanders. Put a copy on your night stand and read it slowly, one essay at a time; you'll have a newfound respect for the irrepressible plants.

Here are some other opinions (click on the links for the full review):
  • Kirkus: "[Maybey's] engaging writing style transforms what might otherwise be a stodgy, uninteresting field guide into a literary stroll through an English garden."
  • Brian Dillon for The Telegraph: "As ever with Mabey, there’s a poetry to all this creeping ecology. Even the book’s glossary of plant names is a verbal joy, full of sun spurge, fumitory, lady’s mantle and spotted medick."
  • Bella Bathurst for The Guardian: "This time around, Mabey has given us something that is as much a celebration of the vexed coupling between mankind and plantlife as it is a fine marriage between subject and author."
For more about Richard Mabey, listen to and the NPR interview and story (where you'll also find an excerpt from Weeds) or read the interview by Helen Eva Babbs.

Beth Fish Reads is proud to showcase Ecco books as a featured imprint on this blog. For more information about Ecco, please read the introductory note from Vice President / Associate Publisher Rachel Bressler, posted here on July 15, 2011. Find your next great read by clicking on Ecco in the scroll-down topics/labels list in my sidebar and by visiting Ecco books on Facebook and following them on Twitter.

Weeds at Powell's
Weeds at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by HarperCollins / Ecco, June 26, 2012 (paperback edition)
ISBN-13: 9780062065469

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21 June 2012

Guest Post: Peter Lefcourt on Scripts vs. Novels

Hollywood producer/screenwritter Peter Lefcourt has just come out with his eighth novel, An American Family. If you like family sagas and immigrant stories, you'll likely love this book. Here's the description:

The sprawling narrative of five siblings, born in the 1940’s, beginning on the day John Kennedy was shot and ending on 9/11. Between these two iconic dates, we follow the fortunes, love affairs, marriages, divorces, successes and failures of the Pearls, an immigrant Polish-Jewish family, from the Lower East Side of New York, to Long Island and beyond.

The oldest, Jackie—a charming, womanizing attorney—drifts into politics with help from the Nassau County mob. His younger brother, Michael, a gambler and entrepreneur, makes and loses fortunes riding the ebb and flow of high-risk business decisions. Their sister, Elaine, marries young and raises two children before realizing that she wants more from life than being merely a wife and mother and embarking on a new life in her forties. Their sensitive and brilliant half-brother, Stephen, deals with the growing consciousness that he is gay in an era that was not gay friendly. Stephen goes to Vietnam as a medic, comes home, becomes a writer, and survives the AIDS epidemic of the eighties. The baby of the family, Bobbie, high-strung and rebellious, gets pregnant at Woodstock, moves to San Francisco as a single mother during the “Summer of Love,” then winds up in Los Angeles as a highly-successful record producer.

In a larger sense this book is not merely the story of one family, but the story of most immigrant families—Jewish, Italian, Irish, African-American—as they enter the melting pot and emerge as a new generation, as well as the story of the tumultuous years of the second half of the twentieth century.
As part of the Book Trib blog tour, running from June 15 to July 15, I asked Peter Lefcourt to tell us about the difference between writing for Hollywood and television and writing a novel.

Scripts vs. Novels: Peter Lefcourt's Take on the Similarities and Differences

The similarity pretty much begins and ends with the fact that both careers involve writing. But that's about as far as it goes. As many other writers, I came to Los Angeles with the intention of making enough money to finance my lifestyle as a novelist. As it turned out, I found that television writing was not only lucrative but a good apprenticeship in the art of storytelling. You learn how to tell a story economically, which is an invaluable skill in fiction writing. And you learn how to write to a deadline. On the other hand, you soon learn that in Hollywood the writer is a fungible element in film making, summarily replaced by another writer when he or she offers resistance to all the "creative" input from directors, studio execs, producers, and actors. You are, essentially, a hired gun, at the beck and call of others—a well-paid hired gun perhaps, to be sure, but one with very little control over the product

Moreover, there is very little "voice" in screenwriting. In books it is often the way you tell a story and not the story itself that compels readers. I am drawn to language and voice, and with the possible exception of a facility for dialogue (a skill that is almost impossible to teach; I learned how people talk driving a cab in New York in the sixties—an education worth more, in my opinion, than a PhD in creative writing), these elements are not valued in screenwriting.

Nevertheless, Hollywood has allowed me the wherewithal to travel a great deal, to perfect the craft of story telling and ultimately, to reinvent myself as a novelist and have both careers mutually reinforce each other. I'm not sure I would have succeeded in one without the other.

Thanks so much, Peter. I bet an editor is easier to negotiate with than those who have a vested interest in a film or TV series.

For more about An American Family and to read daily excerpts from the novel, be sure to visit the other blogs on the month-long tour. The schedule can be found on the Book Trib website.

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19 June 2012

Wordless Wednesday 186

Number 36, Greenwich Village, 2012

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Eight Mysterious Books You May Have Missed in June

June is almost over and summer vacation is calling. Here are eight great mysteries you might have missed this month--perfect for reading on the deck, at the beach, or in front of the air-conditioner. If you're in the Southern Hemisphere, you'll enjoy these just as much in a rocking chair by the fire.

Cozy on Up


In The Diva Digs up the Dirt (Berkley Prime Crime) by Krista Davis--the sixth in a series starring Sophie Winston, an event planner in Alexandria, Virginia--mystery hits close to home when Sophie uncovers a unpleasant surprise in her boyfriend's backyard. The book includes recipes and entertaining tips. Hot Button (Berkley Prime Crime) is Kylie Logan's second Button Box mystery, featuring Josie Giancola, a famous button expert from Chicago. In this outing, Josie is organizing the international convention for button collectors, trying to avoid her ex-husband, and catering to the demands of the keynote speaker. When a rare button goes missing and a body is found in a storage room, Josie is asked to help solve the case. Quilt or Innocence (Obsidian Mystery) by Elizabeth Craig is the first in a series set in North Carolina. Beatrice Coleman, recently retired folk art curator, is new in town and is looking forward to joining the local quilt guild. When one of the members is found dead, Beatrice discovers she has amateur detective skills.

Down Right Gritty



In the fourth Ellie Hatcher novel, Never Tell (Harper) by Alafair Burke, the death of teenage girl appears to be suicide, but is it? NYPD detective Hatcher's investigation points to prescription drugs, computer bullying, and ADHD and takes her into the living rooms of the rich and famous and the streets of Greenwich Village. The Lost Ones (Putnam) by Ace Atkins is the second novel, starring ex-army ranger Quinn Colson. This tough police procedural is set in rural Mississippi and involves gun running, child abuse, and a Mexican drug cartel. The Third Gate (Doubleday) is a standalone title by Lincoln Child. This novel introduces Porter Stone, an archaeological treasure hunter working in Egypt. When Stone uncovers an untouched ancient tomb, he not only stirs up professional controversy and but seems to have set off an evil curse.

Two for the Thrills



Zoe Ferraris's Kingdom of Strangers (Little, Brown) is the third Katya Hijazi (a forensics expert) and Nayir Sharqi (Bedouin guide) novel. After the bodies of nineteen women are found in a desert grave and then another woman is reported missing, Hijazi is called in on the case. This psychological thriller involves secrets, social taboos and the dark world of Saudi crime. The tenth Tom Thorne novel, The Demands (Mulholland Books) by Mark Billingham, takes place over three desperate days. London detective Thorne is faced with a hostage situation in which one of his officers is being held. People will die unless Thorne re-opens a year-old suicide case and proves that the death was murder. This exciting novel switches between the frantic police investigation and the terror of the hostage victims.
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Summer's just beginning and not all vacation reading need be light. I hope I've tempted you to take a walk on the dark side and read a mystery.

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18 June 2012

Review & Giveaway: Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand

To the wealthy and the wannabes of the East Coast, Nantucket is a summer place, a place to relax and swim, to see and be seen, and to escape the heat of the city. For those who live on the island, it's a place just like any other. Kind of.

It's the perfect place to raise a family: quiet streets, small classrooms, no crime. But isolation isn't always a good thing. Parents forget to be vigilant and children are blissfully ignorant. One June evening Zoe Alistair, single parent of teenage twins, learned the hard way that Nantucket couldn't protect her kids.

In Summerland, Elin Hilderbrand starts with the night of high school graduation and the horrible car accident that killed Penny Alistair and left her twin, Hobby, in a coma. The two other passengers--Penny's boyfriend, Jake, and another friend, Demeter--survived with minor physical injuries but with lasting psychological scars.

Through the course of the summer, the three families cope with the aftermath of the accident. What led Penny to drive Jake's car off the embankment at top speed, despite the pleas of the other kids? Why was she so upset? Hobby, Jake, and Demeter have their own thoughts about what happened, and each vacillates between feeling guilty and placing blame. The adults assess their pasts, their parenting skills, their marriages, and their interwoven relationships. Everyone has a secret.

Hilderbrand is known for her island novels, which use the small community of Nantucket to explore issues of family, love, infidelity, and parenting as well as forgiveness, acceptance, and redemption. Fans will not be disappointed by Summerland.Told from the viewpoints of several characters, the story is tangled and revealed slowly, as secrets are combed out one by one. By the end of the summer, each person involved with Penny will have changed, although not everyone will find a fairy tale peace and happiness.

The Giveaway: Thanks to the publishers, I am able to offer three of my readers one copy each of Elin Hilderbrand's Summerland. To enter, you need to have a USA/Canada mailing address (no P.O. boxes) and to fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner via random number generator on June 29. Good luck!



Buy Summerland at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Little, Brown / Reagan Arthur Books, June 26, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780316099837
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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16 June 2012

Weekend Cooking: Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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Last week when I was at the fabulous Workman Publishing party at BookExpo America, I spotted a gem of a cookbook on the display table. Although there's only one man in my house, I often feel as if I were cooking for a small crowd. Lucina Scala Quinn's Mad Hungry: Feeding Men & Boys may just prove to be my salvation.

I'm not sure how I missed Quinn's book when it was published in 2009, but I plan to make up for lost time now. Quinn starts out with the obvious: "Men eat differently from women--they eat more, they eat constantly, and they eat passionately." Anyone who has lived in a house with teenage boys or a physically active man, knows the truth in those words.

Whether you're an old pro at cooking for guys or just starting out, you'll appreciate Quinn's 10 tenets for survival, her tips on stocking the kitchen and pantry, and her belief in teaching boys (and girls) to cook for themselves. [Aside: I'm always so surprised that today's teens have almost no kitchen skills.] After the introductory chapters, the book is divided by meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert).

Throughout you'll find real-life hints. Some you've heard before, like making extras of food that can be used to create healthful snacks and meals throughout the week. But you'll also find advice on prepping ingredients, making substitutions, using your freezer, saving money, and shopping.

You might think that a cookbook geared to hearty eaters, especially men and boys, might be all about meat and potatoes. But Mad Hungry is well rounded, with plenty of salads and vegetable dishes. Grilled portabella mushrooms, shrimp scampi, Asian-style pork roast, and tomato-eggplant casserole all live happily next to baby back ribs and chicken wings.

The flavors are varied but familiar and will appeal to most families. The recipes use widely available ingredients, and most home cooks will have no trouble following the directions. Quinn offers further explanation when it's needed and provides ideas for variations and using leftovers when appropriate.

Lunch is our most difficult meal because Mr. BFR usually has to pack his, and he rarely has a means of heating up leftovers. Because we don't eat sandwich meat, his choices are limited. Thus I turned to the lunch chapter first. I was happy with all of Quinn's ideas and was pleased to see the following dishes, which could easily live in a cooler until noon:
  • Tabbouleh, either as is or in a pita
  • Empanadas, which can be eaten cold
  • Salmon and rice salad
  • Cold sesame noodles
I also liked her healthful homemade version of filled pastry pockets (chicken, spinach, and beef). These could be a godsend for busy families with hungry teens. The pockets can be made ahead and popped into the freezer so kids can reheat them when they have a hunger attack. If you get your children to help, you could spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon together stocking up.

Vegetarian/vegan alert: There are quite a number of dishes for vegetarians, mostly in the usual categories of side dishes and salads. Vegans will find fewer choices. My advice to both types of eaters is to look before you buy.

Photo credits: The scans are of Basic Salsa (p. 111) and Italian Fries (oven baked; p. 195) and come from the book Mad Hungry.

Here's a recipe I plan to make this weekend. Smaller families can certainly cut the ingredients in half, but I'll make it all because cold leftover salmon makes a great salad or sandwich.

Broiled or Grilled Salmon Teriyaki
Serves 6
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or mild vinegar
  • 1 inch of peeled fresh ginger, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 pounds salmon fillet, pin bones removed
Whisk the soy, honey, and lemon juice together in a large enough dish to fit the salmon. Stir in the ginger and garlic. Place the salmon in the dish, skin side up for 10 to 30 minutes.

Preheat the broiler or prepare the coals to very hot in a grill. Remove the salmon from the marinade, pat it dry with paper towels, and place it skin side down on an oiled pan or grill grate. Cook until it is slightly firm to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. While the salmon is cooking, brush it a couple of times with the marinade to use it all up. Immediately remove the skin while the fish is still hot. Serve.

Buy Mad Hungry at an Indie, at Powell's, at Book Depository, or at bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs
Published by Workman Publishing / Artisan, 2009
ISBN-13: 9781579653569
Rating: B
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


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15 June 2012

Imprint Friday: The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Amy Einhorn Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

It's hard to believe that it's already been a year since I featured What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Moriarty's newest novel, The Hypnotist's Love Story came out just this week, and it will not disappoint her fans. Take a look at the publisher's summary to get the basic premise:

Ellen O’Farrell is a bit unusual. She’s a hypnotherapist. She’s never met her father. And she can’t seem to keep a relationship going (okay, that’s more normal that we want to admit). When Ellen meets Patrick, she’s hopeful nevertheless. But when he says he needs to tell her something, she fears the worst. However, when Patrick reveals that his ex-girlfriend is stalking him, Ellen thinks, Is that all? Actually, that’s kind of neat. She’s more intrigued than frightened. What makes a supposedly smart, professional woman behave this way? She’d love to meet her. What she doesn’t know is that she already has.
Liane Moriarty chose to tell the story from the points of view of the two women in Patrick's life. Ellen has a natural curiosity about people, and it stands her in good stead when she's helping her clients overcome their personal problems. It might not be the best approach, however, when she discovers Patrick is being stalked. Just how long will Ellen's intellectual and professional curiosity hold out before she finds the invasion of privacy intolerable?

The other narrator is Saskia, the stalker. Although we should all be fairly creeped out by her, Moriarty makes her a surprisingly sympathetic character. In some ways, Saskia just can't help herself, but in other ways, she's very clever and very deliberate in her behavior. As the publisher's summary implies and as the reader discovers from the beginning, Saskia has secretly become one of Ellen's patients and thus is entangling herself in Patrick's new relationship, with no one the wiser . . . at least for now.

One thing about Moriarty is her ability to create a story that works on several levels. In fact, she's a stealth-writer: Fooling you with lightness and a bit of humor on the surface, while tossing the heavy issues in under the radar. Take The Hypnotist's Love Story to the beach but get ready to discuss the deeper issues at your next book club meeting.

Instead of sharing clips from the book's many positive reviews, I decided to post the opening paragraphs:
I had never been hypnotized before. I didn't really believe in it, to be honest. My plan was to lie there and pretend it was working, and try not to laugh.

"Most people are surprised by how much they enjoy it," said the hypnotist. She was all softness and soap; no makeup or jewelry. Her skin had a polished, translucent look, as if she only ever bathed in mountain streams. She smelled like one of those overpriced crafty shops you find in country towns: sandalwood and lavender.

The room we were in was tiny, warm and strange. It was built on the side of the house like an enclosed balcony. The carpet was musty, with faded pink roses, but the windows were modern: floor-to-ceiling panels of glass like those in an atrium. The room was flooded with light. As I walked in, the light seemed to whoosh through my head, like a brisk breeze, and I could smell old books an the sea. (pp. 1-2; from uncorrected proof, finished copy may differ)
For more on Liane Moriarty, visit her website, where you can learn about what inspired her to write The Hypnotist's Love Story. You can also like her Facebook page.

Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.

The Hypnotist's Love Story at an Indie

Published by Putnam / Amy Einhorn Books, June 2012
ISBN-13: 9780399159107

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14 June 2012

Thursday Tea: Guardian of the Horizon by Elizabeth Peters

The Book: Guardian of the Horizon is the 11th book chronologically in the Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters, but it is the 16th book published. This book takes place before the The Falcon at the Portal, which I wrote about last month. Thanks goes to SuziQOregon from Whimpulsive for letting me know about the proper order in which to read this series.

I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure, in which the Emersons--famous Egyptologists working in the early twentieth century--return to the Lost Oasis in Sudan. Their first visit took place ten years and five books earlier, and it was then that they met and rescued Nefret and took her into their family.

In Guardian of the Horizon, we learn a bit more about Nefret's background and see a new aspect of Ramses's personality. Meanwhile Emerson and Peabody are up to their usual tricks as they figure out the real reason they've been lured back to the Lost Oasis. The plot includes double-crossings, young love, plots and plans, kidnappings, and sword fights.

There was less archaeology in Guardian of the Horizon than in the other Peabody and Emerson books, but I barely missed it because the story kept my attention. The plotting was complex enough that I had trouble figuring out the ending, and that's always a good thing. On the other hand, because I know what happens down the line (in The Falcon at the Portal) some aspects of the story didn't have quite the impact they could have had if I had read the books in the proper order.

I can't really say more without spoiling multiple books--the sad and difficult thing about trying to write about a long series. I listened to the bulk of the unabridged audio edition (Harper Audio, 14 hr 14 min) on the train to and from New York last week, and Barbara Rosenblatt, the narrator, was a great traveling companion. She is brilliant in this series and is the perfect Amelia Peabody.

The Tea: Now that the days are hot, I'm drinking my tea iced. This week I made an old favorite: Stash Tea's Chai Spice Black Tea, which the company describes like this: "Our interpretation of this classic Indian drink blends rich, flavorful Indian black teas with cinnamon, clove, ginger and cardamom. The brewed tea is very aromatic, with a flavor that is slightly sweet, strong, and penetrating, with lingering notes of almond." It's wonderful hot and quite good cold. As always, I drink it unsweetened.

The Assessment: The Emersons, being English, do indeed drink tea. They are adventuresome enough that they might even be inclined to give chai a chance. But truth be told, they prefer coffee at breakfast, and Amelia would take a whiskey over a cup of tea on most afternoons. So I'm going to have to declare chai spice tea and Guardian of the Horizon to be a semi-mismatch.

What About You? Are you drinking anything interesting these days? And what are you reading this week?

Buy Guardian of the Horizon at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Thursday Tea was the brainchild of Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog.
Published by William Morrow 2004 (several other editions are available)
ISBN-13: 9780066214719
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)
FTC: I buy all teas myself, I am not a tea reviewer.

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12 June 2012

Wordless Wednesday 185

New York Public Library, June 2012


Click image to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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Today's Imprint Read: A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir

What if you received an unexpected chunk of money? Would you spend it on yourself? Now suppose you were brought up Muslim and the money came from a divorce settlement. Now what? Would you feel compelled to give it away like Harris did?

In the murky streaks of daybreak, he thought of Alia—his only child, his best hope, the light of his life. During term time, she seldom visited him up here in his house at the end of the North wind, and after their summer trip together, he felt her absence more keenly than ever. He had an idea, a proposition for her, that would mean going to see her. . . .

The act of fleeing his house never failed to lift his spirits. The world unspooling outside the window as he sped down the M1 gave him a sense of purpose and progress. It was a four-hour drive to London and he usually brought his own food on motor trips. Not because he was fearful of encountering non-halal food—unlike the northern cousins, who took a hard line on such things—but rather because he loathed spending money on the rubbery fry-ups they served in motorway service stations. The curry he had brought along sloshed messily on the seat beside him. . . . (p. 16)
A Small Fortune: A Novel by Rosie Dastgir (Penguin USA / Riverhead Books, 2012; quote is from uncorrected proofs and may differ in the published edition)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: England, Pakistan
  • Circumstances: Harris unexpectedly receives £53,000 from his divorce settlement and is uneasy because the Koran says it's wrong to hoard money when others are in need
  • Characters: Harris, who emigrated from Pakistan when he married an English woman; Alia, his daughter who was born and raised in England; various Pakistani relatives
  • Main themes: duty, family, immigration, class and culture conflicts, love, charity
  • Genre: literary fiction

Want to Know More? Author Rosie Dastgir talked with Poets & Writers about what inspires her. She also has conducted a number of interviews, such as those with Metro and with Awaaz, in which she talks about family, her book, her influences, and more. For more about Dastgir, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page. The publisher's website includes reviews, a biography, and information about the different media and editions. For more Riverhead Books and for news about events and great books, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

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11 June 2012

BEA 2012: Book Club Picks

As many of you know, I was in New York last week for Book Expo America, where I participated on a panel at the BEA Book Bloggers Convention; attended BEA panels; and met with publishers, editors, publicists, and marketers. One of my favorite panels at BEA is the book club recommendations.

Dozens of titles were introduced at the "Hot Book Group Titles for Fall/Winter" session this year. Although many of the books made it to my must-read list, six novels struck me as having the potential to be major book club hits. Because I've read only one of these, I'll share the publishers' summaries.

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus (Algonquin Books, January 2013)

Possible discussion topics: family, depression, culture contrasts, marriage, relationships

Thomas Tessler, devastated by a tragedy, has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives in the next room, but Thomas no longer shares his life with her, leaving his hideout only in the wee hours of the night to buy food at the store around the corner from their Manhattan apartment. Isolated, withdrawn, damaged, Thomas is hikikomori.

Desperate to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman attuned to the hikikomori phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. In Japan Megumi is called a "rental sister," though her job may involve much more than familial comforts. As Thomas grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds. But what are the risks of such intimacy? And what must these three broken people surrender in order to find hope?

Revelatory and provocative, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister tears through the emotional walls of grief and delves into the power of human connection to break through to the waiting world outside.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Little, Brown, paperback: January 2013)

Possible discussion topics: survival, truth, morality, selfishness
Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying Grace and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize has exceeded capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

The Lifeboat is a page-turning novel of hard choices and survival, narrated by a woman as unforgettable and complex as the events she describes.
A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead (Harper Perennial, October 2012)

Possible discussion topics: bravery, survival, doing the right thing, personal sacrifice, friendship
They were teachers, students, chemists, writers, and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a midwife, a dental surgeon. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. The youngest was a schoolgirl of fifteen who scrawled "V" for victory on the walls of her lycee; the eldest, a farmer's wife in her sixties who harbored escaped Allied airmen. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities from across France, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers.

Eventually, the Gestapo hunted down 230 of these women and imprisoned them in a fort outside Paris. Separated from home and loved ones, these disparate individuals turned to one another, their common experience conquering divisions of age, education, profession, and class, as they found solace and strength in their deep affection and camaraderie.

In January 1943, they were sent to their final destination: Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return to France.

A Train in Winter draws on interviews with these women and their families; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations to uncover a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival—and of the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship.
The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott (Other Press, September 2012)

Possible discussion topics: friendship, marriage, relationships, family
Ida grew up with Jackson and James—where there was "I" there was a "J." She can't recall a time when she didn't have them around, whether in their early days camping out in the boys' room decorated with circus scenes or later drinking on rooftops as teenagers. While the world outside saw them as neighbors and friends, to each other the three formed a family unit—two brothers and a sister—not drawn from blood, but drawn from a deep need to fill a void in their single parent households. Theirs was a relationship of communication without speaking, of understanding without judgment, of intimacy without rules and limits.

But as the three of them mature and emotions become more complex, Ida and Jackson find themselves more than just siblings. When Jackson’s somnambulism produces violent outbursts and James is hospitalized, Ida is paralyzed by the events that threaten to shatter her family and put it beyond her reach. Kathleen Alcott’s striking debut, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, is an emotional, deeply layered love story that explores the dynamics of family when it defies bloodlines and societal conventions.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Penguin Paperback, June 2012)

Possible discussion topics: fate, social class divisions, naivete, high society
Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year's Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Simon & Schuster, October 2012)

Possible discussion topics: fate, addiction, brothers and sisters, acceptance, forgiveness
Carry the One begins in the hours following Carmen’s wedding reception, when a car filled with stoned, drunk, and sleepy guests accidentally hits and kills a girl on a dark country road. For the next twenty-five years, those involved, including Carmen and her brother and sister, craft their lives in response to this single tragic moment. As one character says, "When you add us up, you always have to carry the one." Through friendships and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays, and the modest calamities and triumphs of ordinary days, Carry the One shows how one life affects another and how those who thrive and those who self-destruct are closer to each other than we’d expect. As they seek redemption through addiction, social justice, and art, Anshaw’s characters reflect our deepest pain and longings, our joys, and our transcendent moments of understanding. This wise, wry, and erotically charged novel derives its power and appeal from the author’s exquisite use of language; her sympathy for her recognizable, very flawed characters; and her persuasive belief in the transforming forces of time and love.
The following books are my runners-up:
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown, October 2012)
  • We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2012)
  • The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Voice, January 2013)
  • The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar (Picador, September 2012)
  • History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (Vintage Books, November 2012)
  • The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Norton, September 2012)

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