Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Friends With Boys - Faith Erin Hicks

 Lately I've been immersed in reading books for the UCF Book Festival, but I had a NEED you see.  A need for pictures and stuff.  Graphic novels are a balm for my brain, and USUALLY they can be read very quickly.  A balm I tell you.  

Fizzy Jill and Bermudaonion both brought this little beauty to my attention, and alas my library had it!  This was a sign.  So I figured I could sneak it in between my mandatory reads.  I ended up reading it in my car while waiting for my son to finish with volleyball practice.  Nobody even had to know about my transgression!

So here we are introduced to Maggie, who lives with her chief of police dad and three older brothers.  Maggie has been home-schooled her entire life by her mom, who has since abandoned the family, and is now facing her first year in a public high school.  Will she fit in?  Will she find her crowd?  Her brothers (one who is a creative, artistic type and the twins who are like feral animals) give her various words of wisdom.

Maggie does find friendship with brother and sister Alistair and Lucy, who sport punk-emo piercings and hairstyles.  Although they are visually intimidating, they are earnest, real, nonjudgmental and easy to be with.  There is some underlying tension between Maggie's new friends and the "cool kids" at school, and over the weeks the real story emerges, and Maggie's involvement might wind her up in hot water.  But might it be worth it?  These are her people.  

Plus there is a restless ghost following Maggie around and is becoming a bit of a nuisance.

Maggie's story may not be completely typical but her nerves on the first day of school and the desire to fit in are universal.  And for a graphic novel, all of the characters come through so unique and strong (a true testament to the illustrations) that I felt a full chapter of text had been dedicated to each of them.  The facial expressions, the actions, the body language...it all made these kids instantly familiar.  And likable.  Even the feral twin brothers.

I was slightly unsettled by gaping holes in the plot, however.  Questions that were not answered.  Why did Maggie's mother leave them?  What is up with these weird looks between Alistair and Maggie's older brother?  I wondered if I'd missed something.  But because today I am a glass half full person, I choose to believe that more installments will be forthcoming that will explain all.  

I thought the ghost thread was a little fun, but also unnecessary and random.  It felt a little out of place, but whatever.  As long as nobody is falling love with the ghost, or being murdered by the ghost, I guess we can live and let live.  Or let sleeping ghosts lie.  Or whatever.

So I see that Faith Erin Hicks has other GNs out there.  I will be scouring my library for all of them.

4.5 out of 5 stars  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Matinee: The Host (2013)

 It has been at least a month since I saw this movie with my daughter, and I just haven't had the motivation to say anything about it.  But since it is a fairly new movie that should be coming to DVD soon, I figure I should give it a shout out.

Just so you know, I did not read the book.  It got decent reviews on the blogs, but at that point I'd had enough of Stephanie Meyer.

So here is what is going on.  A superior, peaceful race of aliens invade Earth and take over humans' bodies and minds.  Their mission, in addition to a new world order, is to locate and inhabit the last few humans in the Resistance, who are in hiding.  Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is one of those few who has been on the run with her little brother and hottie Jared, her soul mate.  She is eventually tracked down by the persistent alien named Seeker (Diane Kruger) and becomes a host for the alien named Wanderer.   

 Except that Melanie's mind is so strong, and she so desperately wants to protect those she loves, she resists being controlled by Wanderer, and ultimately the two "personalities", if you will, exist in the one body.   We discover that Wanderer is actually a sweet, understanding little alien and they work together to run from Seeker and protect the remainder of the Resistance.

The only problem is that Melanie loves Jared, and Wanderer has fallen in love with a Resistance fighter, Ian.  Then things start to get a little crowded.  Melanie and Wanderer have to figure out how to resolve their love triangle, and also to bring peace between the aliens and humans so there doesn't have to be any more hiding and killing.  

So first let me just say that somebody pulled in some favors, or maybe Meyer just has enough street cred, but this movie had its share of respectable actors.  I have ALWAYS loved Ronan...she is just adorable and somebody I find irresistible to watch on screen (she has starred in Atonement, Hanna, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back).  But lined up behind her was Diane Kruger (who played the badass German actress in Inglourious Basterds), and William Hurt.  

But overall, I felt this movie was completely targeted towards the teenage girl.  My 15 year-old daughter loved it.  There is a courageous young heroine, and a love triangle with hunky guys.  I think Ronan did the best she could with the dual soul thing she had to portray, but at one point I am sure I rolled my eyes. So much drama!  So much running around, avoiding the evil alien invaders that were led by a gorgeous, steely-eyed blond!  So much making out!

There is little here in the way of character-building or world-building or complicated plot arcs.  But I'm not sure fans of Meyer are looking for all that.  You don't go to The Golden Corral looking for fine dining, you go to fill yourself up on stuff.  Ultimately, yes, I admit there is a positive (but predictable) message.  In the spectrum of movies my daughter could see, it could be worse.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Salon: One Foot in Front of the Other

 I'm sitting here staring off into space, wondering what I can say about this week that won't sound like every other week.  All I know is, I was never able to sit down and breathe, I'm glad it is over, and WHY DOES RAISING TEENAGERS HAVE TO BE SO HARD????

I won't belabor the specific issues, but I'm finding this stage in my life to be the hardest thing I've dealt with yet.  Harder than the never-sleeping newborn stage, harder than the terrible tantrum toddler years, harder than the brink-of-puberty years.  I know all of you that have raised your kids will tell me that it gets better.  I hope that happens soon, or I will end up in the nuthouse! (You think I'm kidding...)  

I ran from one thing to the other this week...school meetings, a school-related luncheon, doctor appointments, excessive work in the yard since things have started growing again, kids' sports, and a business event with my husband one night.  Blogging has taken a back seat to everything right now.  

I wasn't even able to squeeze in a few hours towards the 24 hour readathon like I'd hoped.  Saturday was bursting at the seams from morning until night.  Maybe this fall!

We did book our tickets to Poland and Indiana this summer, so I have started to get excited about these trips to see our families and friends.  We are hoping to get a chance to see some cool stuff in Warsaw and Prague while we are in Europe.    

I did wrap up the audio of "Carrie" this week, which was fun.  I listened to a couple of discs of "Seraphina" but just couldn't understand what was going on.  I attribute that mostly to my distraction...I will come back to it when I'm more grounded.  So then I turned to "Fire in the Ashes" by Jonathan Kozol, a book about the last 25 years he has spent with the most severely disadvantaged children in this country.  He touches on their situation as children and their fates as they grew up and became adults.  Amazing audio, some terrifying stories and some that touched my heart.  I should wrap that up in the next few days.

In print I am like a slug.  I did finish "Orphan Train" and really liked it.  I now have started "The Rage" by Gene Kerrigan, a Irish crime thriller recommended to me by Marie.  It is really gritty and well-written, I just need a few minutes to settle down and read the thing.

So today we will go to church, and my daughter and I will do our animal shelter duties.  But what I am really excited about is going with my husband and son to see Rush in concert tonight.  I have loved that band since I was in early high school, actually saw them in concert in high school with their Moving Pictures tour, and really look forward to all their manic energy and amazing music once again.  The fun thing is that my music tastes have rubbed off on my son, so he is totally ready for this.  

So what do you all have planned for today?  Sleeping off the readathon?  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Spicy Apricot Wings

 I am a wing maniac, people.  If I weren't worried about weighing, like, 500 pounds, I'd eat them every day.  Preferably VERY SPICY Buffalo wings.  (If my nose doesn't run, then they aren't spicy enough.)  But I tried this recipe the other evening, which I had ripped out of the June 2011 Food and Wine magazine, and it sounded like a nice twist.  

The entire family went crazy.  Even my mom, the wing disliker, liked them.  

So I had to share.

Spicy Apricot Wings

1/2 cup hickory, apple or apricot wood chips
1/2 cup apricot preserves
2 TBL Worcestershire sauce
2 TBL light brown sugar
1 TBL soy sauce
1 TBL Dijon mustard
1 TBL kosher salt
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 ground ginger
3 pounds chicken wings (wing tips removed and wings cut into two pieces)

1.  Light a gas grill.  Wrap wood chips in heavy duty foil and pierce the roil packet with a skewer.  Add the packet to the grill.  Cover and let the wood chips begin to smoke, 5 minutes.

2.  Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the apricot preserves with the Worcestershire sauce, light brown sugar, soy sauce, mustard, salt, pepper, garlic powder, sweet paprika, cayenne and ginger.  Scrape half of the mixture into a small bowl.  Add the chicken wings to the large bowl and toss to coat well in the sauce.  Let wings stand for 5 minutes.

3.  Grill the chicken wings, covered, over moderately high heat, turning them occasionally, until they are charred in spots and cooked through, 22 to 25 minutes.  Transfer the chicken wings to a platter and serve with reserved sauce on the side.  

Beer suggestion:  Citrusy wheat beer (SweetWater Sch'Wheat from Georgia)
Wine suggestion:  Fruit-forward Oregon Pinot Gris (2009 Montinore Estate)

Sandy's variation:  I really don't like to grill (I have a fear of it exploding) and the hubby wasn't home yet so I skipped the wood chips and baked them in the oven at 400 degrees.  I would occasionally turn them and baste them until they were cooked through and the skin was slightly crispy.  Oooooh, that sauce kind of caramelizes while baking and gets all sticky.  They were divine.


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.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rod: The Autobiography - Rod Stewart (Audio)

OK I've procrastinated long enough.  I have intentionally put off writing this review simply because...I cannot even come close to capturing the hilarity and delight I experienced in listening to this autobiography.  There are too many quotes, too many stories...especially when I listened to the audio and couldn't mark the passages.  So I'm just going to throw it out there.

Synopsis:  Despite what one thinks of Rod Stewart...that he is a womanizer, that he is a great singer or a sellout...you cannot deny that he is iconic. Everything about him is memorable - his hair, his voice, his women.  This story of his life, told in his own words, captures it all with his self-deprecating but unapologetic cocksure attitude.

While he admits to not being a complete natural with the guitar or his voice, he was determined to make a go at it.  He certainly had a sense of fashion and developed his famous "bouf" early on, and made up for his lack of talent with his moxie and charisma.  He recounts his days with The Jeff Beck Group and The Faces, and then splitting off with his solo career and striking gold with "Maggie May" (which he almost threw away because he didn't think it was any good).  Some of the work he was proud of, and some (like "Do You Think I'm Sexy") were what he liked to call "a pink toilet seat hung around your neck for the rest of your life".  

But his romps off-stage are as equally bawdy and entertaining.  His friendships with Elton John and Ronnie Wood (who went on to play with The Stones), leaving his trademark scribblings of an upside-down penis on anything and everything he touched, the drugs, the addiction to fast cars, supermodels and European football...the lifestyle of an out-of-control rock-and-roller.  Did he shake his bum too much on stage?  No!  That was part of his job description, as he saw it.

He debunks a few famous rumors, such as the fact that he played professional football, was once a gravedigger, and that he had to have his stomach pumped after servicing a group of drunk sailors (that was the work of an angry ex-publicist).  

He shows his soft side as well.  His attachment to his parents and his concern for their opinion of his actions.  His collection of train sets.  His brush with thyroid cancer. His love for his kids.  He looks back on his antics with the world-weary eyes of a man who has finally grown up and shakes his head at all the foolishness.  He makes no bones about it, he states "this clearly was the behavior of an asshole".  But now?  Having settled down with Penny Lancaster for the last 6 years, he has "put his last banana in the fruit bowl".

My thoughts:  I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard while reading or listening to a book.  I'm talking out loud, weaving all over the road laughing.  Rod is SO British, so dry and proper but so matter-of-fact about his crazy life, it just tickled me from the first disc to the last.

This is not at all what I expected.  To be honest, while Rod sang the music of my youth, I didn't have much respect for the guy.  Over the last half of his career particularly, I had noticed that all he really did was perform other people's songs.  That he was some old has-been dating supermodels young enough to be his daughter.  That he was cocky and full of himself.  But I came away almost a little in love with him.  He is smart, has a talented way with words, and very honest good-humored about his missteps.  

The stories were insane but stuff that you cannot make up.  The fact that the girls in the band The Go-Go's could "snort the lacquer off a table"?  But they were so cute!  Or when Elton John got married (because he thought it was the right thing to do) and Rod asked him how he was going to handle activities in the bedroom, and Sir Elton answers "I don't know, I guess I'll just tie a couple of lolly sticks around it".  Ha!  I could go on and on.  Rod was a font of one-liners.

The icing on the cake in this whole scenario, however was the narrator...

A few words about the audio production:  Simon Vance.  Good Lord, he is SUCH a good narrator under any circumstances.  But Simon as Rod?  It sounded like Simon had lived this life.  He delivers a smooth, flawless dialog, as if it were his own words, with that dry, British comedic timing.  I'm not sure if I would have ever considered listening to this audio had it not been for Simon.  Altogether, the package was a home run.

Audio book length:  11 hours and 21 minutes (400 pages)

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New on the iPod

So I mentioned that I might be giving up my Not So Wordless Wednesdays for awhile...at least until I feel the urge to do photos again.  Change is good.

So I thought I might talk about new audios I've loaded on my iPod recently.  There is a good chance, after all, that I may not actually listen to these for months, even years, I have so many books loaded on there right now for the choosing.  Then again, I might listen to them tomorrow.  Here are some new additions:


Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum (received from Rhapsody Jill):

Description from Amazon:   In the long-awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, acclaimed journalist Anne Applebaum delivers a groundbreaking history of how Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II and transformed in frightening fashion the individuals who came under its sway.
26 hours and 39 minutes
Narrated by:  Cassandra Campbell

Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol (received from Kathy at Bermudaonion):
Description from Amazon:  In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children andAmazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.

10 hours and 56 minutes
Narrated by:  Keythe Farley

 Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster (received from Orange County Library):

Description from Amazon:  
Twenty years after ruling the halls of her suburban Chicago high school, Lissy Ryder doesn’t understand why her glory days ended. Back then, she was worshipped...beloved...feared. Present day, not so much. She’s been pink-slipped from her high-paying job, dumped by her husband and kicked out of her condo. Now, at thirty-seven, she’s struggling to start a business out of her parents’ garage and sleeping under the hair-band posters in her old bedroom. 

Lissy finally realizes karma is the only bitch bigger than she was. Her present is miserable because of her past. But it’s not like she can go back in time and change who she was...or can she?

9 hours and 10 minutes
Narrated by:  Jen Lancaster

Any opinions?  Have you read or listened to any of these?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

January First - Michael Schofield (Audio)

I received this audio from Kathy (Bermudaonion) with a disclaimer that while it was fascinating, it was also going to probably enrage me and make me squirm.  That kind of an endorsement is irresistible!  But just several hours into it, I was texting Kathy like a madwoman.  Boy, she was not KIDDING.  This was the craziest thing I'd listened to in some time, and not for the obvious reasons.  Let me explain...

Synopsis:  January Schofield has always been a bright child.  At even the age of three, her IQ was at a genius level...she could read, do advanced math, and had the inquisitiveness of the gifted.  She was wildly creative, imagining a land called Calalini, and entertained a multitude of imaginary friends.  

Somewhere along the line though, Janni's parents started to notice aberrations in her behavior...biting, scratching, screaming, her inability to get along with other children.  Soon Janni's imaginary friends were telling her to attack her baby brother or injure herself.  Even the strongest medications would have little effect.  Her parents could no longer control her.    

This is a memoir that details the long and frustrating road of trying to come to grips with a mentally ill child, of trying to get medical help and a proper diagnosis (ultimately that of schizophrenia), and the disastrous effects that a mental illness can have on a family.

My thoughts:  A first blush, one would think that this book was written to help other families that have children suffering from one of the most debilitating diseases known to man...schizophrenia.  Presumably, it should be all about January, her struggles, and how this family fought its way through a unique form of hell while trying to get her help.  But it isn't quite.

This book is all about the parents, primarily the dad.  It is narrated by dad, and it became obvious to me very early on that there were bigger issues going on here above and beyond a sick little girl.  The parents were crazy.  Because Janni was smart, she was allowed to do as she pleased.  There was no discipline...the parents just followed her around and begged her to behave, hovering and coddling and using her brilliance as an excuse for horrid behavior.  Then, in order to make Janni happy, THEY DECIDED TO HAVE ANOTHER BABY!!!  A baby that was lost in the shuffle, drug around to hospitals, doctor's offices, and whose safety was threatened daily by a mentally ill older sister.  That child broke my heart.  

For most of the book, the parents come across as hysterical.  First in denial, then in a panic to get Janni help.  They are rude to teachers and medical personnel, the dad's conviction that he and he only could save his daughter, and at one point the dad actually tries to kill himself by OD-ing on anti-depressants.  The whole book reeked of martyrdom.  

I do believe that Janni was indeed very sick.  Just roam around on YouTube and you will see what I mean.  And I have a lot of guilt being judgemental of these parents who have been through a terrible time.  None of us know how we would handle such a thing.  But it was almost more than I could take, listening to the actions of these two.  And after seeing this sick child paraded around on the promotional circuit for various talk shows like a circus act, I began to have the sick realization that this book might be more of a cash grab or a cry for attention than a selfless desire to help others. 

Was the book fascinating?  Absolutely, in the way a 30-car-pileup is fascinating.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator for this memoir was Patrick Lawlor, who I have heard in several other productions.  He certainly did a fine job of becoming Michael Schofield, in fact his portrayal of this family in crisis, particularly Michael, was such that it aggravated me even further...and I mean that in the best way.  If the narrator can stir emotions in me, that is a testament to his/her skill. 

Audio book length:  8 hours and 31 minutes

4 out of 5 stars  


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Salon: Friendship

Last week was chaotic in my life - I told you all about it in my last Sunday Salon.  But who on earth would have imagined the type of week we had THIS week?  Holy crap.  It was like the hounds of hell were unleashed.  While I already knew that my Boston friends (Dawn, Marie and Molly) were not at the Marathon, and they were safe with their families (praise the Lord for Facebook, right?), I still feared for those innocent folks that were victims both in Bean Town and in Texas.  It made me proud of being an American, and I was proud of those first responders.  Damn we are resilient.  I told you last week that I was facing a week full of friends, and this was exactly what I needed to maintain my belief in the overall goodness of humanity.

My best friend Michele and her husband were raised in Boston, so I have long since understood the spirit that resides there.  She and I met a mutual friend for lunch on Monday, and we (as always) stayed in touch through the week via text.  Along with our spouses, we attended a school fundraiser on Friday night, while my other long-distance best friend Rhapsody Jill texted me the blow-by-blow on the events in Boston while I was slightly drunkenly bidding on spa treatments and beer baskets, and getting my picture taken in the photo booth.  
I also met up with an old friend (and my son's Godmother) Susan on Tuesday for lunch, solved a few of the world's problems along the way, and also had book club on Wednesday night with a great group of ladies, "The Book Thief", and Mexican food.

OK so I didn't drop any weight this week obviously.

Well I did play golf on Thursday, watched two of my son's volleyball games, did an immense amount of yard work, worked three hours at the animal shelter, cleaned the house and went to Andre's, so that helps I guess with all that drink and food.  Maybe.

And today I am golfing with my husband and friends at the Waldorf here in Orlando, rain be damned.

Was this week crazy?  I'd say so, but it felt better because I had my people with me along the way.

It was hard to actually focus on reading when all this stuff was going on, but I did manage to finish "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" (a wild drug-trip kind of ride) and start "Orphan Train" in print.  I also finished "The Interestings" on audio and have delved into "Carrie" which is narrated by Sissy Spacek/Carrie White herself and is really all kinds of awesome.  I've got so many incredible audios lined up here lately I can't stand it.  I'm also going to try to squeeze in a re-read (listen this time) of The Great Gatsby before the movie comes out.  That movie has me pretty excited.

There will likely be little reading today, but I will still have fun.  I am hoping that I'll be able to have a little impromptu time to participate in the readathon next weekend, because those things are just so much fun.  What do all of you have on your calendar for the day?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Tortilla Soup

Almost a year ago I ranted and raved about the Cook's Illustrated Cookbook.  This humongous collection of LOVE is still making dinner time at the Nawrots a happy thing.  My son calls it the "magic cookbook",  because every single thing I've made from its pages has been a resounding success.  I'm here to tell you about one that recently blew our socks off.

Tortilla Soup!  I have found it to be difficult to find a good recipe for Tortilla Soup that doesn't take an entire day to make.  The folks at America's Test Kitchen are brilliant at breaking down a challenge into something you can do on a weeknight.  So here we go.

Tortilla Strips

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas, cut into 1/2 inch wide strips
1 TBL vegetable oil


2 (12-ounce) bone-in split chicken breasts or 4 (5-ounce) bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed and trimmed
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 large white onion, trimmed on root end, quartered and peeled
4 garlic cloves, peeled
8-10 springs fresh cilantro plus 1 sprig fresh oregano or 2 sprigs fresh epazote
2 tomatoes, cored and quartered
1/2 jalapeño chile
1 TBL minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce
1 TBL vegetable oil


1 avocado, halved, pitted and diced fine
8 ounces Cotija cheese, crumbled, or Monterrey Jack cheese, diced fine
Line wedges
Fresh cilantro
Minced jalapeño chile
Mexican crema or sour cream

1.  For the tortilla strips:  Adjust oven rack to middle position, heat oven to 425 degrees.  Spread tortilla strips on rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with oil and toss until evenly coated.  Bake until strips are deep golden brown and crisped, about 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet and shaking strips to redistribute half-way through baking.  Season strips lightly with salt and transfer to paper bowl-lined plate.

2.  For the soup:  While tortilla strips bake, bring chicken, broth, 2 onion quarters, 2 garlic cloves, cilantro and oregano, and 1/2 tsp salt to boil over medium-high heat in large saucepan.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken is just cooked through, about 20 minutes.  Using tongs, transfer chicken to large plate.  Pour broth through fine-mesh strainer and discard solids.  When cool enough to handle, shred chicken into bite-sized pieces, discarding bones.

3.  Puree tomatoes, remaining 2 onion quarters, remaining 2 garlic cloves, jalapeño, and chipotle in food processor until smooth.  Heat oil in Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering.  Add tomato-onion puree and 1/8 tsp salt and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture has darkened in color, about 10 minutes.

4.  Stir strained broth into tomato mixture, bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer to blend flavors, about 15 minutes.  Add shredded chicken and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Place portions of tortilla strips in bowls and ladle soup over.  Serve, passing garnishes separately.  

To make ahead:  Soup can be prepared up to adding shredded chicken to soup at the end of step 4, let cool and refrigerate for up to 4 days.  Return soup to simmer over medium-high heat before proceeding.  Tortilla strips and garnishes are best prepared day of serving.
 A few Sandy notes

* This recipe was PHENOMENAL, and seemed to even get better when reheated, as some soups do.  

* When you are baking your tortilla strips, really watch them closely...my oven runs hot and they burned easily.

*  I was a little nervous about finding the canned chile in adobo sauce and the Cotija cheese, but they were available in my regular grocery store. 


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. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Lost Art of Mixing - Erica Bauermeister (Audio)

I've never met a book by Erica Bauermeister that I haven't loved.  Well, at least I've loved her previous two books "The School of Essential Ingredients" (on audio) and "Joy For Beginners" (in print).  Erica has a certain way about her words.  She is a woman's writer for sure...she knows the topography of a woman's soul.  And she always seems to weave in the essence of FOOD, getting everything right when it comes to the smell and taste and texture of all things culinary.  

I was pretty excited to hear that she was writing a sequel to Essential Ingredients, a book about a group of ragtag individuals who come together for a cooking class at a very special restaurant owned by a very special chef.  There just wasn't enough closure at the end of that book.  In a very short time, I grew to love these people and wanted to know what happened "after".  Well, Erica gives us the after in "The Lost Art of Mixing".

Synopsis:  We have been reunited with some of our old friends from the neighborhood.  Lillian, our uber-chef and the hub of all things good, has established a relationship with widower Tom.  One would think their story was a happily ever after, but Tom is still struggling with the loss of his wife, and Lillian has a few secrets of her own.  Chloe has become Lillian's sous chef and friend/roommate of aging Isabelle, but can't seem to make a go of a relationship...even with the doting and charming dishwasher Finnegan.  Al, Lillian's accountant, is having issues with his wife and a mid-life crisis of sorts, that doesn't involve a girlfriend or a sports car.  

While Lillian was ground zero for many life changes in "Essential Ingredients", the gentle shifts all tend to occur around Isabelle in this segment.  While she is slowly losing her memories, she has gained a sense of other's emotions and needs, and strategically and shrewdly manipulates the situation as she sees fit. Isabelle has mastered the art of mixing from the best teacher in town...Lillian.

Although the stories that dodge and bob and weave and blend in this novel are darker than its predecessor, they are no less touching and graceful.  Erica once again has captured the spirit of life and love and loss.

My thoughts:  In re-reading my review of "Essential Ingredients", I am not sure this sequel left me in a similar heightened state of euphoria, but I truly enjoyed every minute of it.

There was definitely still food involved, but not quite as much, therefore less of that magic.  But I totally understood that this was the way it needed to be.  This book was not all about the cooking classes that Lillian holds on Monday nights.  It was about the relationships and situations that spawned from these classes, and how each had a few more battles to wage before it was all said and done.  

A few new characters were introduced in this book that I did not like much.  Al's wife was one of them.  I was ready for her to vamoose right off the page, thanks.  Same with Isabelle's oldest daughter, who wanted to control every aspect of her mother's life.  But...maybe we were meant to dislike these people, and provide some texture and perspective to those that we DO love.  There are obnoxious souls in all of our lives, right?  

It sounds like I am making excuses, and I probably am.  Because I love what Erica does.  I'm not sure that anything can quite live up to my adoration for her first book, but there is one thing for sure.  I will continue to read everything she writes.

A few words about the audio production:  Cassandra Campbell.  What more do I need to say?  She is the velvety-smooth, caramel voice that bewitches every story she delivers.  You could hand me an audio about dung beetles but if Cassandra were narrating, I'd listen.  Campbell and Bauermeister is a winning combination.  

Audio book length:  8 hours and 8 minutes (288 pages)

4 out of 5 stars  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Not So Wordless Wednesday: New York #3

So what could this be?  A corporate office perhaps?  A cyber-cafe?  

Nope.  It is the Delta terminal at the Laguardia Airport.  I walked through with my mouth hanging open.  What on earth was this?  Desks with barstools at each station.  Each station containing a multitude of outlets and wired Internet connections, plus an iPad and a credit card swiper.  I thought "Ah!  I have to pay for the privilege!".  

Not so.  Everything was free to use.  

The iPad had an application where you could buy, let's say, some sushi and a glass of wine, and have it delivered to where you were sitting.  Hence the swiper.  I think you could also buy stuff, like products, but I'm not sure if those would be brought to you, or shipped to your home.  I was in too much of a shocked state to check.  You also just read the USA Today, or read blogs.  

Could this be the wave of the future?  I sure hope so.  It was just so civilized.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service - Henry A. Crumpton (Audio)

Every now and again, my brain needs real facts, real stories and something to learn.  I'd had this audio on my iPod for some time (thanks to Penguin Audio!) and was just waiting for the right time to listen.  I guess what finally tipped the scales was the inspiration of seeing both "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo", and witnessing the challenges and risks taken by CIA agents, and decided that now what the time to hear what Henry (Hank) Crumpton had to say about his 24 year career in the CIA.  

Synopsis:  Hank had wanted to be a spy since he was a child, and once he graduated from college, these dreams were realized (more from sheer tenacity than skill).  He was assigned to the Clandestine Service and was stationed in Africa, and soon specialized in the recruiting of informants.  Hank takes us through his varied roles over the years...his interaction with slime balls and the courageous, his growing awareness of the threat of al Qaeda long before 9/11 and strategic maneuvers in attempt to shut them down, and his cooperation with the FBI.  After 9/11 however, everything changed.  Crumpton was assigned to the Counterterrorism initiative, schemed side-by-side with the Bush Administration, and worked tirelessly to stop another attack on the US.  

Told from the unique perspective of a man who rose from the ground up and has seen every angle of the CIA, prepare for an action-packed education of what these agents are required to do, the risks they take, and their unflinching dedication to serving their country.  

My thoughts:  Going into this audio, I will admit that I knew very little about the CIA, except for what I saw at the movies.  I'll admit, I had the impression that they were partially to blame for 9/11, and that it was an organization mired with bureaucracy.  So this was an eye-opening read.  Yes of course there is red tape, but generally seems like a fluid, cut-through-all-the-bullshit-to-get-things-done group of people.  I'm still not sure who dropped the ball on 9/11, but the CIA definitely saw it coming.  

Granted, this story is told by a CIA apostle, so I'm sure I might hear a different story if told by someone in, let's say, the FBI.  Still. 

There was quite a bit of detail on these discs that went right over my head, but for the most part, this was an exciting memoir to listen to.  These men and women have an incredible job, never a dull moment, and requiring intelligence way beyond what my tiny pea-brain can even imagine.  Skills in language, tactical maneuvering, and charting the human terrain of a country.  To say that I learned something is an understatement.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator, David Colacci, is a new voice for me (how many hundreds of audios do I say this about?  crazy) but did a fine job in the narration.  He had the swagger that I imagine is possessed by our author, but delivered the story in a direct manner that was neither dry nor over-dramatic.  

Audiobook length:  13 hours (352 pages)

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday Matinee: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

I've talked more than once about how interesting this year's batch of Oscar movies were, and how for the first time in...ever?...I've actually wanted to see them all.  However, I don't think this movie even passed through Orlando.  

I knew almost nothing about it.  Except that the little girl, whose name you can't pronounce, was the youngest nominee for Best Actress, at the age of 9 (she was 6 when the movie was filmed).  

Immediately it was clear that this movie was just a little different.  

Hushpuppy and her father live in a southern Louisiana community called the "bathtub"...an island of sorts that is isolated from land by a levee.  The community is small, poor, and revolves around survival off the land and drinking moonshine.  Hushpuppy's mother left in the early days, but her little girl still talks to her and fantasizes about finding her one day.  Hushpuppy's father is inconsistent and ill-tempered, disappearing for days on end, leaving his 5 year-old to fend for herself.  But both are fierce survivors, and believe in the future of their home.
Their lives are threatened by an oncoming storm, then they must contend with the subsequent flooding and rescue workers who want to take the bathtub's inhabitants to a shelter.  When Hushpuppy's father falls ill, she goes in search of her mother. The little girl also imagines the arrival of prehistoric creatures that have emerged from the melting Arctic icecaps.

So...the plot is wandering.  I was never quite sure where it was going, or what was up with this giant warthog-looking animals.  I felt that the real draw for the film was obviously this little girl, who I believe totally deserved recognition for her role in this film.  For someone so young, she had a strength of character that transcended the aimless direction of the film.  She has a presence that was almost magical.  I was also entertained by the actor who played her father.  I learned that he had absolutely NO acting background...he owned a bakery near the film studio and befriended the crew, who instantly knew that he was THE MAN.  This gentleman knew the culture, had lived through Katrina, and wore this more practical experience in his heart and on his face.  

The other draw for the film is the location.  I guess I know intuitively that places like the bathtub DO exist, but I felt like I was watching inhabitants on another planet.  The conditions were deplorable, especially for children.  The lack of schooling (except the practical kind that helps them survive), the lack of parenting or supervision, the certainty of disease-infested waters.  But in that environment was also a freedom, in a crazy kind of way.

Based on what I have read, this movie was very divisive amongst critics.  Some thought it a thing of beauty, others felt that it was insulting, racist and sexist.  

Me?  I'd be somewhere in the middle.  I wasn't offended by anything I saw here.  I thought it was disturbing from a parental point of view.  I thought there was art and creativity in the director's vision.  I thought that the little girl was a delight to watch.  But I also would not have thought it an Oscar winner in the four categories it was nominated (Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay).  

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Salon: Done!

 Well I survived!  I am here!  I metaphorically held my breath and ran through a burning house this week.  I knew the week would be full of fun and challenges but even I have a limit.  But it is done (almost).  I'm thrilled to only have two things on my agenda today.

So I won't go into the details, but we had more than our share of appointments this week (hair, several doctors, etc).  Some long, some back-to-back.  I had a sick kid on Monday.  I was recovering from vacation (I know you guys know what I am talking about...LAUNDRY).  I had about $5,000 in cash come in from a couple of school projects that had to be counted and accounted for, plus some gnats (please see review of Bernadette) at the school causing trouble that needed my input (ha).  

But we also had our Adult Literacy League fundraiser "Reading Between the Wines" event on Thursday night (set up was on Wednesday), which was incredible!  We had it in a new venue...the Orlando Science Center...and was very successful.  I couldn't be more pleased to see all my beloved signed books go to good homes!  (Many thanks to Julie and Kathy who donated books for the cause!)

Then came the UCF Book Festival, which you all have been hearing me talk about for months!  We had a VIP Reception on Friday night, but because of my daughter's District track meet late in the day (in the middle of nowhere...why do they do that?) I was unable to make it.  But I spent the entire day there on Saturday with Michelle (and her husband and Evan!), Heather O' Roark and Anita LeBeau, and had a ball hearing from a multitude of awesome authors, some who I knew and read.  We ended the day at a Barbecue joint with Patti Callahan Henry, Michael Morris, Peter Geye, Kimberly Brock, Erika Marks and Wendy Wax.  It was a fun group, and I finally left them there still immersed in spirited discussions at 8pm last night!  

So really, I guess you won't be too surprised to hear that I read about 50 pages of Wind Up Bird?  The reading came to an abrupt halt this week, but I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and have made it my personal goal to finish this week.  I think I'll need to go into a state of Zen to figure out what I'm going to say about this book though!  

On audio I finished Wendy Wax's "While We Were Watching Downton Abbey", just in time before I saw her at the festival.  I'm glad I did because it was a wonderful book...classic Wendy, with lots of women, laughter and friendship.  I am now almost halfway through the audio of "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer, the new IT book.  So far I am besotted.  Excellent narration, vivid characters, generational references, clever dialogue.  Good, good stuff man.

So.  In looking at next week it is full, but it's all good.  Next week's theme is friends.  Lots of friends.  But track is officially done, and over the next seven weeks I'll be wrapping up my two year commitment as Treasurer of our Home and School Association.  Volleyball will be done in three weeks.  And we are starting to plan our summer.  Good times.

Friday, April 12, 2013

UCF Book Festival Feature: The Next Time You See Me - Holly Goddard Jones (Audio)

I was thrilled when I saw that Holly Goddard Jones was going to be attending the UCF Book Festival.  Great reviews of this book have been everywhere, but like a billion other books, it sat out there in the elusive "want to read but have no time" category.  I was worried about all the print books I had to read in order to support the festival, so I ordered this one on audio.  

Synopsis:  A young woman, known in the small town of Roma, Kentucky for her wild and unreliable nature, has gone missing.  The events that led up to her disappearance, and the consequences of those events, ripple out through the community in ways that nobody can foresee.  

Emily is an awkward 8th grader, a loner, bullied at school, and loves to go for walks in the woods.  She has a terrifying secret, however, that could have devastating effects if not shared.  There is Susanna, Ronnie's sister, who loves her little girl but is withering in her marriage and is exhausted in trying to do it all.  She has a glimpse of her lost youth in Tony, the black police detective who was once the high school baseball star and freshman crush.  There is Wyatt, a single, overweight, middle-aged factory worker who allows himself to be pushed around by the younger, rowdier men at work, and wonders where his life went astray.  

It is the worries, fears, inhibitions, secrets and prejudices of these townsfolk that are slowly revealed in this dark study of human nature.  

My thoughts:  I'm not sure if there is anything I can add about this book that others have not already eloquently stated.  But, in a world with hundreds upon hundreds of murder mysteries, this type of book stands apart.  There is a mystery, and we are slowly given the details of exactly what happened.  The mystery isn't even all that hard to figure out.  That, however, is not the point.  

This is a book about small towns, the people who live in them, their inner demons and their connection with each other in the case of Ronnie Eastman.  It is a dark, murky character study, along the lines of what we get from authors like Tana French or Kate Atkinson.  It also reminded me of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, with its sense of place and abandoned dreams.    

Make no mistake, the book is dark and the characters aren't always likable.  I think that is the way it should be.  Having grown up in a small town, I know that the eccentricities and kindnesses of its inhabitants are magnified.  The gossip mill is fully functioning, and old wounds are never forgotten.  The author is keenly tuned in to these quirks, and has mined them with a smart perspective.  I truly look forward to reading more of her work.

A few words about the audio production:  Cassandra Campbell, my friends.  Need I say more?  

Audio book length:  14 hours and 35 minutes (384 pages)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dare Me - Megan Abbott (Audio)

OK, lots of noise on the Net about this one, all positive.  A mystery!  Mean girls!  Snark!  I could almost imagine the loads of nasty, promiscuous narcissism!  And see, to me this is easy reading.  This is exactly what you would expect from a book about a group of current-day cheerleaders.  Hey, the cheerleading politics were pretty bad even in my day!  

It took like three months for me to get to the front of the line for the audio at the library.  This was another good sign.  I couldn't wait.

Synopsis: Addy Hanlon and and Beth Cassidy have been best friends forever, and there has always been an understanding about their relationship.  Beth is in charge, and Addy is Beth's lieutenant.  Beth decides who gets to be popular, sets the trends, gets the first pick of boys.  She is the captain of the Varsity cheerleading squad too, until a new, young beautiful coach shows up at the beginning of their Senior year.  

Coach French is suddenly a threat to the social structure as it has always existed.  She draws the cheerleaders into her life, befriends them, advises them on not only their athletics but on their weight and their boyfriends.  She simultaneously knocks Beth off her pedestal and takes Beth's toy - Addy - under her wing and into her confidence about matters no teenage girl should know about.  Then suddenly things take a sinister turn.

There is a suicide that draws a spotlight on the cheer squad.  Was it really a suicide or was it murder?  Who was involved?  What is the motive?  Jealousy?  Shame?  Ambition?  Lust?  Or just plain, old-fashioned crazy?

My thoughts:  This was definitely one book that plays with your head.  It is nearly impossible to be without opinion.  The behavior of ambitious, self-absorbed teenage girls ALONE is horrific.  Is it realistic, this portrayal?  It is edgy but not too far off the mark in my opinion.  I was not a cheerleader in high school, but some of my friends were.  And even 30 years ago in a rural community, it was pretty brutal.  Mean, bully-ish, political.  There is one girl from my high school class who is still harboring ill feelings to this day over things that happened when we were 16.  So I think Abbott nailed it on that front.  

Then there is the behavior of the coach, a person who has personal issues of her own.  While she is not a pedophile, the damage she is doing to these girls is bad enough to warrant an equally harsh label.  The relationship she establishes between herself and these girls is so totally inappropriate.  I was enraged!  And WHERE THE HELL ARE THE PARENTS???  With the exception of a drunk mother sashaying on and off the stage a few times, there were no present parents concerned about the crazy coach, the emergency calls at 3:00am, girls starving themselves, or taking risks with these crazy cheerleading maneuvers.  

The mystery is worthy of any good crime novel.  I had no idea what was going on, and all of my suspicions were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Overall, this was a very satisfying, very disturbing street-level view of the dark side of the modern teenage girl.

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this audio was Khristine Hvam, who was new to me but has definitely built up a respectable resume of some very popular YA titles, as well as voice-overs in TV and video games.  She was the perfect mix of youth and snotty, snarky teen-ness to make this listen very authentic and enjoyable.

Audio book length:  9 hours and 10 minutes (304 pages)

4.5 out of 5 stars      


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not So Wordless Wednesday: New York #2

On our walk to Times Square

Central Park

Bergdorf Goodman window

Here are a few shots I took around New York City on our visit.  As much as we try, Orlando just doesn't convey the same sense of holiday that NYC does.  It was pretty magical to us.