Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Perfume Collector - Kathleen Tessaro

A thousand apologies for being so late to the party with the most recent She Reads selection, "The Perfume Collector".  The book arrived while I was in Indiana on vacation, at which time I was obsessed and immersed with "Night Film" (review coming soon).  But better late than never.

I knew nothing about the premise of the book, but the word "perfume" was a huge flashing neon light. I have had friends call me "Olafactory Sandy", you see.  I am a nutcase when it comes to candles, incense, plug-ins, as well as perfumes.  I visited Grasse once in France, where they are famous for making perfumes.  After getting the tour, I swore that I was destined to be a "nose", or a person who can distinguish between thousands of scents and use them to blend fragrances.  I'm putting that on my list of things to do once the kids go to college (haha).  So I digress.  The book.

Synopsis:  Is it the mid-1950's, and we are introduced to Grace Munroe, a young London socialite who feels a bit out of place in her role as wife and coordinator of her husband's social schedule.  Her world is turned upside-down when she learns that a Parisian woman named Eva d'Orsey, a complete stranger, has left her entire sizable estate to Grace.  Mystified, Grace travels to France and with the help of Eva's attorney, begins digging into Eva's past and try to discover the connection.

In alternating chapters, we also travel back in time to 1927, and Eva's meager beginnings as a maid in a New York City hotel.  With her intelligence and ambition, Eva leverages her connections with hotel clients to catapult her to London, Monte Carlo and Paris.  Most fateful of these relationships is one made with a legendary perfumer and her talented apprentice, who finds a muse in Eva.

This is a story of discovery, of sacrifice, and the powerful art of scent.

My thoughts:  Overall, I found this book to be entertaining, primarily because, like I said before, I am enamored with the olafactory sense.  The descriptions of what goes into making a scent, and the discussions of how scent can trigger an emotion or memory...I get this.  I find the whole topic to be hypnotic.

But the plot itself was very soft and predictable.  There weren't any surprises - it was if the story was laid out in front of me from the beginning.  Which is not a fatal flaw necessarily!  Following the life of Eva and Grace's journey of self-discovery was pleasant, the storytelling kept me turning the pages.

I did feel that the character development felt one-dimensional however.  Eva and Grace both underwent major changes in their lives, ones that were pivotal.  We know WHY they happened but we didn't get to see much of the process.  With the turn of a page, their personalities were just different.  So I guess at the end of the story, I felt there were some missed opportunities to get a better look inside these two remarkable women.

Nevertheless, this was a quick and enjoyable read, and one that reminded me that I need to brush up my resume for my future career in Grasse.

3 out of 5 stars      

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New on the iPod

So we are back to iPod updates, after a brief interlude of Poland pictures.  Enough time to accumulate some more audios that I may or may not ever listen to!  The list just keeps getting longer, but I can't seem to stop ordering from the library and downloading.  Here are my latest acquisitions:


Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (borrowed from the Orange County Library)

Synopsis: From author of "Man of My Dreams", "Prep", "A Regular Couple" and "American Wife".  A mesmerizing novel of family and identity, loyalty and deception, and the delicate line between truth and belief.

Narrator:  Rebecca Lowman
Listening length:  14 hours and 59 minutes


Unseen by Karin Slaughter (borrowed from the Orange County Library)

Synopsis:  The latest in the Will Trent series, which pits detectives, lovers, and enemies against one another in an unforgettable standoff between righteous courage and deepest evil.

I love this series, although I missed some right at the beginning.  One of these days, I'm going to go back and start from book 1.  In the meantime, I'm not going to miss this one.

Narrator:  Kathleen Early
Listening length:  13 hours and 12 minutes

The Doll by Taylor Stevens (borrowed from the Orange County Library)

Synopsis:  In the third installment starring Vanessa Michael Monroe, badass information specialist, Munroe must battle a human trafficker and choose between the life of a young girl and an old friend.

LOVE Vanessa Michael Monroe, and I love this series.  I would never bet against her when the going gets tough.

Narrator:  Hillary Huber
Listening length:  13 hours and 46 minutes

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Big Brother - Lionel Shriver

I've not read all of Lionel Shriver's work, but both "The Post-Birthday World" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin" blew me away with the clever prose and insightful commentary on the human condition.  I have learned that Shriver doesn't make her characters warm and fuzzy, she doesn't do happily ever after, and she loves controversial subjects.  I'm OK with that.  I just like that she makes my brain buzz.

Her newest book "Big Brother" has definitely gotten some chatter on the blogs, so I thought it would be a good choice for vacation reading.

Synopsis:  Pandora has run a successful catering business, then stumbled upon the invention of a fad product that has made her extremely wealthy.  This allows her to support her husband in his unprofitable custom furniture business, and spend time with her teenage step-children.  Food has always been a thing of pleasure for her (explaining the extra few pounds that she has put on the last few years), and finds it highly annoying that her husband has gone on a fitness kick that denies any pleasure-eating.  Pandora resists almost on principle.

Then she discovers that her brother, Edison, a jazz musician in NYC, has fallen on hard times, and needs a place to stay while he gets back on his feet.  Nothing can prepare Pandora for the sight of her brother when he steps off the plane...over the last four years since she has seen him, he has gained 300 pounds.  Pandora feels some responsibility to help Edison, but after a couple of months of living with his sloppiness and binging on junk food, Pandora's husband makes it very clear that she must choose between him and her brother.

Shriver doesn't mince words as she addresses one of the most controversial and sensitive subjects right now in the US - obesity.  Also in this highly-discussable and prickly book we are forced to consider exactly what we would sacrifice to try to save a family member from their self-destruction, and if that is even really possible.

My thoughts:  Let's talk about what I liked first.  This is classic Shriver.  She has such a wonderful way of making you uncomfortable, of making you squirm, with her insights.  Reading her books reminds me of that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex has his eyes pried open and is forced to watch scenes of violence.  I say all of this with love in my heart.  I like an author will balls like that.

While Edison had a serious obesity problem, to the point where he was offending others on his flight, Pandora had gained some extra "layers of love" (my term) and needed to drop a few pounds on her end.  Shriver mines this huge spectrum of weight issues that we can all relate to, regardless of our size.  The emotional aspect of eating, being overweight because we are depressed, being depressed because we are overweight, the stereotype of someone thin versus someone heavy and how they are treated in reality.

She also probes the balance of loyalty to blood relatives and your spouse.  She touches on the fine line between giving your kids the confidence that they are wonderful and special at everything when they are not, and raining on their parade and squelching their ambitions.  There are landmines of little gems within the text.  What I am saying is that this is the perfect book club book.  I predict the discussion at that meeting would be spirited.

But at the end of the day, I cannot love this book.  And I can't tell you why, or at least I can't give you specifics, because that would spoil it for you.  But suffice it to say that I think Shriver screws the reader.  This novel is built on a house of cards, and at the end I felt cheated and slightly pissed off.  Not everyone will feel that way.  In fact, someone told me that one blogger didn't even catch the fact that they had been screwed.  I don't like to be manipulated, and in the future, I'm not sure I will ever really trust her with my time.

3 out of 5 stars  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Salon: One more week of August

 And I'm very excited about that fact.  One more week, then my rose-colored brain tells me that things will be better.  The new routine will get easier, the hectic schedule will seem normal, and things will fall into place.  The "parent meetings" associated with school and sports will be done, my husband will have sashayed on up to Chicago without me and returned, and hopefully I will have emerged from the other side without a call from the teacher/principal/guidance counselor.  Crossing my fingers this is actually what happens.

I had some meetings this week.  I have agreed to be in charge of the 8th grade finances this year.  8th grade has a long list of activities, as it is the last year at our school, and must be funded.  Those of us in charge have changed up a few things but have kept it simple.  However, spectator parents have made it their mission to be contrary and combative, so that was an annoyance.  Why do I volunteer for this craziness?  I swear, once they are both in high school I will be ghost mom.  I drop off, pick up, and that is IT.

On the good side of things, my husband and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary and went out for a lovely dinner on Friday night.  All by our lonesome.  That was wonderful.

On the reading front, I finished "The Perfume Collector" for the She Reads Book Club, as well as a short novella from K.B. Dixon called "Novel Ideas".   I then started my TLC Tour book "Bait", which is a thriller set in Florida.

On audio, I finished Mo Hayder's first book in the Jack Caffrey series called "Birdman" and with momentum in my favor, just plowed right through her second installment called "The Treatment".  She is one dark, disturbed author, but I am loving this series.  Wow.  To take an edge off things, I started "Tapestry of Fortunes" by Elizabeth Berg, and very nice woman's novel.  I needed something soft and this is it.

Nothing remarkable going on today besides the usual.  My son did demand a commitment from me yesterday that we go see a movie, provided chores and homework are done, so perhaps that is in the cards for the afternoon.  Hope you all have a great week!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How To Break a Terrorist - Matthew Alexander

One of the bigger controversies in recent history has been the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.  As Americans and human beings, we were all horrified at the reports from Abu Ghraib...rape, torture, psychological and physical abuses, committed by military personnel in the US Army and the CIA, that no person should endure.  It begged the question...what is the most effective way to extract information out of terrorists?  Can you really beat and humiliate it out of them?  Is there a better way?

My BFF's husband works in the FBI.  Knowing how much I love non-fiction relating to 9/11 and the war against terrorism, he loaned me this book and told me it was an incredible read.  I agree...I read it in less than a day.

Synopsis:  One of the top priorities for the military in the war on terrorism has always been to find Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda.  The full force of interrogation by intimidation was unleashed in order to uncover his associates to get to him, but it yielded little.  But after Abu Ghraib, newer and more humane techniques were employed as policy...the use of trust and dialogue, and determining what really motivated these individuals.  Enter Matthew Alexander, the leader of the first new wave of interrogators.

In a highly conversational and readable tone, Matthew walks us through exactly how he approached detainees...learning about their families, and about why, exactly, they joined Al Qaeda.  The answers were surprising.  While some of the prisoners were blood-thirsty fanatics, many were involved for reasons other than a hatred for "the enemy".  Often it was simply for money to support their families.  Once Matthew was able to uncover what was in their hearts, he could use that to get their cooperation.  These methods ultimately met with a resounding success that led to the death of al Zarqawi.

My thoughts:  This was SUCH a compelling read!  Although it was non-fiction, it played out like a fast-paced thriller, with twists and turns and snapping up clues in order to chase down the next Al Qaeda meeting place.  It was also a fascinating study in psychological cunning and manipulation of some of the most hardened terrorists in the world.

I also loved the personal insights from the author, who believed in his tactics and battled, on a daily basis, those old-school interrogators who would rather put on a show of force.  Despite his successes, Matthew still internally struggled through conflicting thoughts.  Why do these madmen deserve my trust and mutual respect?  Even if the author felt nothing but repulsion, there was always something that made them tick, and he made it his mission to figure it out, like a dog with a bone.  Throughout, he maintains an air of humility and lack of agenda besides telling his story.

I found it interesting that there were portions of the text that were blacked out and censured by the DoD, which just added to the authenticity of the story.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  If you are in a slump and need something relevant, exciting and a fast read, this book is exactly what you need.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Poland in Pictures #5: Side trip to Prague

Prague Old Town Hall Tower at night, built in 1338.  Reminded us of Hogwarts.

The Prague Castle is perched on a hill, overlooking the town.  This amazing structure, established around 880, is the largest castle complex in the world.  It is jaw-dropping.


St. Vitus Cathedral, established in 1344, resides within the complex of the Prague castle.  The most amazing thing about Prague is that it was not destroyed in the war, therefore treasures like this are all original.

The Interior of the St. Vitus Cathedral

The Charles Bridge that crosses the Vitava River in Prague.  The construction of the bridge started in 1357 and was finished at the beginning of the 15th century. It is protected by three bridge towers and is decorated by 30 baroque-style statues.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Poppet - Mo Hayder

Years ago, pre-blogging, I'd read "The Devil of Nanking" by Mo Hayder.  It was an incredible, horrifying novel!  Once I entered the blogging world, I continued to hear about Mo Hayder's work, but I never picked it up again until now.  What I didn't fully appreciate was that this book, which drew me in by its cover (how totally creepy is it??? Gah!), was actually #6 in a series featuring a Bristol UK detective inspector Jack Caffery.  I used to be religious about not stepping into a series mid-stream, but...whatever.  I wanted to read this book dammit, so I did.

Synopsis:  The patients and some of the staff of Beechway psychiatric hospital are living in terror.  Some have seen the spirit called The Maude lurking the hallways, coming into rooms and sitting on patients' chests.  To AJ, the hospital supervisor, this is more of an annoyance than anything, and is primarily concerned with maintaining peace and order.  Until a patient dies, and other patients begin harming themselves.  AJ decides to call the police...enter Jack Caffery.

Coincidentally, a patient named Isaac was just released from this hospital to a halfway house.  When Isaac was a teenager, he brutally killed his parents and is known for constructing poppets (small dolls) that have a very strange smell.  And Caffery discovers that Isaac has gone missing.  Could there be a connection between Isaac and The Maude?

My thoughts:  Even though we are six books deep into this series, the author did an excellent job of orientating me.  Caffery WAS actually still struggling with a lingering case from a prior novel before tackling the issues at Beechway hospital, but the elements of this old case were very well-explained and I fell right into step.

The story is absolutely chilling and very dark, which is exactly how I like my thrillers.  While it may seem there is something supernatural at work here, the mystery is actually grounded and realistically gritty.  The primary characters were wonderful, flawed, and came to life.  The mystery was something that was foreseeable, but was also layered and multi-pronged, which made my brain buzz.

In fact, this is probably one of the most compelling thriller reads I've come across in awhile.  I am resigned to going back now and hitting them all...on audio if I can, and if not I will read them.  I am hooked.

4.5 out of 5 stars


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Salon: Run

 You might think that the title of my post today refers to my relatively newly-discovered passion, running.  Yes, I have rehabbed my foot and have started back at it...very slowly.  No ten milers yet.  But it isn't about that.

No, the theme of this week is run, as in never stopping to sit down for ten minutes, and also as in running away.  There was a recurring theme of texts between my BFF and I this week about running away, Thelma and Louise-style.  Call me a drama queen, but the first week of school really sucks.

Slam, bam, immediately there is a ton of homework. Something that my son tends to wave off..."don't worry mom, it will get done".  (Well, friends, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't.)  And something that stresses out my daughter to no end.  Lots of drama, tears, inability to do chores because of THE STRESS.  It is always a transition period.

Adding to the turmoil is the fact that after a very long doctor's appointment on Monday, it was determined that my son has torn his hip flexor and will be out of football for 4 to 6 weeks.  This kid NEEDS activity, and football is very good for his psyche.  Telling him that he has to attend every practice and watch as other kids get to run and hit and tackle as he sits idle for the next month and a half is NOT.  GOOD.  We had a lot of angst and rage in the house over that.

So running away.  To Mexico.  To the beach.  To the spa.  It sounded like a plausible idea.  Until the families wanted their dinner, they needed a ride somewhere, they needed more school supplies, etc.  Then it wasn't plausible.  We had a Plan B, and that was to get together Saturday night for lobster, chowda, and alcohol.  Next best thing.

So folks I have to tell you that I am OBSESSED with Breaking Bad.  I am not a TV watcher at all, but my son convinced my husband and I that we had to start watching it on Netflix. We've gotten through Season 2 and I really must emphasize that THIS IS THE BEST SHOW I'VE EVER SEEN.  EVER.  No wonder it has won a million Emmys.

So reading.  Well, I'm reading so slow that I've actually gotten caught up with my review-writing, which is scary.  I am about half-way through "The Perfume Collector" in print, and it really is a very good book.  Just not enough time to sit.  On audio, I blew through "The Husband's Secret" by Liane Moriarty (loved it) and am about 3/4 of the way through "Birdman" by Mo Hayder.  "Birdman" is the first installment of the Jack Caffrey series (you might recall me telling you that I accidentally read "Poppet" which was installment #6 - review coming next week).  This is good stuff, albeit chilling.  I'm going to try to work my way through this series as fast as I reasonably can.

I did quite a bit of stuff yesterday so I might be able to relax a bit today.  The only thing on my agenda is church and animal shelter, and hopefully I'll get at least half the day to vegetate with my book.  Crossing my fingers.  Happy Sunday everyone!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Zurek

A few weeks ago, I posted my first batch of pictures from Poland and one of them was of my favorite thing that I get in that country...ZUREK!  I can't even explain the euphoria of eating this soup every time it touches my lips.  I literally could have it every day.  I got a few comments asking about the soup, and what was in it.  It begged for it's own post.  So I went out and found this recipe which sounded right, which came from Chef Marek Widomski of the Culinary Institute in Krakow.

Zurek is a type of "sour" soup that is made with a base of fermented rye flour (which takes up to five days, so it takes some planning).  It is so hearty that it could be a meal by itself.


For rye meal sour:

3/4 cup rye flour
2 cups water boiled and cooled to lukewarm

For soup:

1/2 lb. peeled and chopped soup vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celery root, leeks)
6 cups of water
1/2 lb. fresh white Polish sausage (kielbasa biala)
1 lb. potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cups rye meal sour (see above)
1 TBL flour mixed with 4 TBL water
1 garlic clove crushed with 1/2 tsp salt
3 large hard-boiled eggs


1.  To make the rye meal sour, mix together the rye meal and the water.  Pour into a glass jar or ceramic bowl that is large enough for the mixture to expand.  Cover with cheesecloth and let stand in a warm place for 4 to 5 days.  This should make 2 cups.  If the sour isn't used immediately, it can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.

2.  In a large soup pot, bring soup veggies and water to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.   Add sausage, bring back to a boil.  Reduce heat and cook another 30 minutes.  Remove sausage from soup, slice when cool and set aside.  Strain stock through a sieve, pressing on the veggies to extract flavor.  Discard veggies, skim the fat off the stock, and return stock to soup pot.

3.  Add the potatoes and rye meal sour to the stock, adding salt if necessary.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook until potatoes are al dente.  Whisking constantly, add flour-water mixture, sliced sausage and garlic-salt paste.  Bring soup to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender.  Serve in heated bowls with half a hard-cooked egg in each serving.

Note:  Once I made this soup and tasted it, it seemed like it was missing a smoky flavor.  I figured out that it needed bacon.  So I fried up about four strips, chopped it up, and added it to the soup at the end.  In the future, I will probably add the cooked bacon when I add the potatoes, and give the flavor more of a chance to permeate the liquid.

And voila!  You should have something that looks like this, which I had a restaurant.  You get extra points if you make a bread bowl!  And it tastes even better with a beer.


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 at Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Good House - Ann Leary (Audio)

We bloggers often talk about where we get our recommendations for the books we read, and most of us would agree that we are significantly influenced by each other.  That was certainly the case with this book.  I hadn't heard anything about it until the bloggers started buzzing.  I was a bit unclear on the specifics, but knowing that it was about small town drama and scandal, from the eyes of an alcoholic-in-denial, was enough to draw me in.

Synopsis:  "How can you prove you're not an alcoholic?  You can't.  It's like trying to prove you're not a witch."  This would inevitably be written on Hildy Good's tombstone.  Not long ago, her grown daughters had staged an intervention with her, and sent her off to rehab.  The nerve!  Drinking just made her more fun!  She has done quite well for herself, after all, so how could she have a problem?  She survived the announcement that her husband was gay, and raised her kids as a single parent with the proceeds of her successful real estate business.  So what if she liked a stiff drink to celebrate a sale?  But to make her daughters happy, and to make sure she gets to see her grandson, she is now "dry".  The wine she drinks at night while skinny-dipping in the river doesn't count.  It helps her from becoming too lonely.

Hildy is a woman that is in touch with her small New England community.  She was born and raised here (she's even a descendant of a witch prosecuted in the Salem Witch Trials), so she knows everyone.  She knows their secrets and their past, and she might (only occasionally) use that information to further her career.  It is maddening that they all seem to judge her for her non-existent "drinking problem".

The game changes for Hildy when newcomer Rebecca, a beautiful, wealthy young mother, moves into town with her family.  Hildy finds a friend, confidant and drinking partner in Rebecca, until it appears that her new friend starts to display reckless behavior and bad judgement.  What starts out as a lark takes a chilling turn, and soon, not only Hildy's reputation is at stake, but people's lives.

My thoughts:  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Having grown up in a small town, I find all the eccentricities recognizable and amusing.  Everyone is in each other's business.  You are never at a loss for who to call if you need your driveway plowed, repairs made around your house, or need a cup a sugar.  The fact that you are getting the inside digs on THIS small town through the eyes of a recovering alcoholic townie is both hilarious and a little sad.

While there are plenty of laughs (thanks to an amazing about that in a minute) there are serious problems lurking beneath the surface, which gives the story some levity and a sense of foreboding.  As a reader, it is hard to evaluate potential danger when Hildy can be less than reliable, which is a curious reading experience.  There is something here for everyone!

A few words about the audio production:  Mary Beth Hurt, a TV and movie actress, was our narrator for this audio and was perfectly cast.  PERFECTLY! Her delivery and timing completely exuded Hildy, even her voice depicted a woman of Hildy's age.  She entertained me and took this experience to a whole new level.

Listening length:  10 hours and 12 minutes (304 pages)

4.5 out of 5 stars         

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Poland in Pictures #4: Wroclaw

Bronze sculpture on the streets of downtown Wroclaw (my husband's hometown)

Wroclaw train station, opened in 1857 and recently renovated

Wroclaw Opera House, built in 1841

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

Years ago, prior to blogging, I read "Case Histories" by Kate Atkinson and loved it.  I made multiple vows to myself to read more of her work.  I even went so far as to load a bunch of them on my Kindle.  But as life would have it, I never made it around to this happy stash.  It wasn't until I saw effusive, glowing reviews of Atkinson's latest (and one very convincing e-mail from Jenners) that I downloaded it for my trip to Poland.  It was my first read of the vacation.  Unfortunately for me, I was forced to ride out two whole weeks without being able to discuss it with anyone.  Because this book must be discussed.

Synopsis:  It is a wintery night in 1910 when Ursula Todd is born to a middle class banker and his wife.  Sadly, the roads are snowy and the doctor is unable to arrive in time to save Ursula from the umbilical cord around her neck, and the infant dies.  But that is not the end of Ursula.  She comes back again and again, and over the years, meets her maker in different ways...drowning in a lake, falling off the roof, a fatal case of the flu, a bomb in the London Blitz.  Yet she always gets another chance, starting back on that snowy night in 1910.

While Ursula isn't specifically aware of her previous lives, she has a sense of familiarity and dejavu that allows her to fine tune her life...avoid the water, spurn the rapist, refuse the advances of the future abusive husband.  And her choices greatly affect those beyond her circle of influence.  But to what end?  Ursula begins to get a notion of her destiny after spending a number of lifetimes in the throes of a starving mother, as a victim in the basement of a bombed-out building, as a search and rescue worker, as Eva Braun's best friend.  In her bones, Ursula feels the effects of every dead child, missing brother, and dead father.  Can she do anything to make a difference?

My thoughts:  I've never read anything quite this book, and that is the highest compliment I can give.  It is hard to find a story that offers something new.  Sure, I've watched "Groundhog Day" 2 dozen times, and I couldn't put down Lauren Oliver's "Before I Fall", where characters are reliving a certain day until they get it right.  But those reincarnations have a purpose, an end.  Ursula's journey is much more complex and less definitive.

Thanks to Stephen King, I've learned that to enjoy a novel like this one, you can't question the mechanics.  You just go along for the ride, accept and appreciate what is happening.  And what was happening here was whip-smart writing, clever plotting, subtle humor, and a varied and in-depth experience of WWII.  I loved how characters in one life would show up in others, in different roles (even a dog showed up at serendipitous moments).  I became so invested in each life that I was almost sorry to see her die again, although at the same time I was excited to see which path she would take in the next round.

But something about all this vexed me.  Perhaps I was looking too hard for Ursula's purpose in the cosmos.  Perhaps I've watched Groundhog Day too many times.  So when does this all end?  If she perfects her role in the world and acts as fate has intended, will she be allowed to  die at 90 and stay dead?  Do her actions really make a difference?  I never got my answers - maybe I'm not meant to have them.  Perhaps they were there, and I didn't pick up on them.  I've scoured the Internet, reading interviews and insights.  I know Atkinson is smart, and there were hints of Great Insights, but even after re-reading the last chapter or two, I still couldn't get my head around it.

Be that as it may, I immensely enjoyed this read.  Book clubs will have a field day with it. And I've renewed my pledge to read more Atkinson!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Matinee: Elysium (2013)

 My son and I had some serious anticipation for this movie.  We happen to be big appreciators of "District 9", which was written and directed by a South African whipper-snapper named Neill Blomkamp, and this was to be his next big hit.  The trailer was inspired.  The enigmatic new actor that carried "District 9" (Sharlto Copley) was back as the antagonist and then there was the buffed up Matt Damon, you see.  So our expectations were high.

So let me set it up for you.  It is the year 2154, and Earth has become diseased and overpopulated.  The wealthy jump ship to a sanitized, man-made world called Elysium, which is a 20 minute shuttle ride away from our ruined planet.  This manufactured paradise is run by computers and robot-like humans with microchips in their brains, and all injury and disease is cured by lying in a tanning booth kinda thing.  The poor and downtrodden stare up at Elysium with longing.

Max (Damon) grew up as one of the poor, an orphan, vowing to one day go to this utopia.  He promises his childhood soul mate Frey (Alice Braga) that they will someday go to Elysium together.   As an adult he is as far away from his goal as he could possibly be though.  He is an ex-con, he lives in a shit hole, and works in a factory.  One day, there is an accident, and he receives a lethal dose of radiation and is informed he has 5 days to live.  He decides that it is now or never.  He agrees to accept a dangerous mission that may allow him to fulfill his childhood dream and promise.  And possibly, at the same time, save the Earth.

Jodi Foster gets top billing for this movie, but she plays a fairly two-dimensional ice queen that runs Elysium's "homeland security".  She presses red buttons and has little value for human life and has a weird accent.  She did not add any depth in the scheme of things.

My favorite character, as expected, was Sharlto Copley as Kruger, the ex-rapist under-the-radar hitman "fixer" for the administration of Elysium.  He is interesting, this actor.  I wouldn't mind watching him in whatever he does.

My son would completely disagree with my opinion...he thought the movie was awesome (he loved the fight scenes and the head explosions) but I was underwhelmed by it all.  The plot was fairly predictable but satisfying, the acting ranged from good to boring, the world-building was OK.  My son would tell you that you have to take the movie for what it is and roll with it.  This is a sci-fi dystopian action flick, and to him, it delivers...great effects, great fight scenes.  There are also heavy messages of class and health care disparity, as well as other social commentary. But after the first half of the movie, the plot turns barbaric and simplistic, leaving me scratching my head about system reboots and saving the world.  I felt rushed.  Sad that an hour and forty minute movie seems that way, but this is the way I've been programmed.

Bottom line is that I was entertained but my brain only buzzed a little.  This was a missed opportunity.

3.5 out of 5 stars   

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Salon: The Pucker Seat

 Good morning friends!  I come to you in an anxiety-ridden state of terror.  Because, you see, my daughter is now driving.  She got her learner's permit this week, and since then, has been very ambitious about driving everywhere in Orlando's insane traffic.  To the mall.  To and from Andre's.  To and from Sea World.  To and from school.  With me in the passenger seat (deemed "the pucker seat" by a friend of mine) having heart palpitations and feeling that at any moment I am going to meet my fate.  Actually my daughter is doing a great job, is very careful, and has a level head.  It is just that I'm not in control.  I honestly can't remember ever being this terrified.  But I know it is something that is necessary and my phobias have to be put aside so I can teach her to be a safe driver.  Lordy Lordy.  Pray for us.

It has been hard for me to focus on much else this week.

So as I told you last Sunday, this week was filled with appointments.  There was at least one every day.  Plus Cross Country at 5:30am and football practice every afternoon.  A week into the football season my son has pulled his hip flexor, so to the sports medicine doctor we will go Monday morning.  It would be nice to have one August (any August! Just one!) go smoothly.

The kids go back to school next Tuesday.  On one hand, I'm glad because I can get MYSELF back in order and get things done.  On the other hand, I know that with school brings other headaches (grade worries, calls from teachers, stress, tears, drama, bitchiness).

Last night we attended a National fundraiser called "Taste of the Nation", which supports childhood hunger.  This is the second time we've gone and is a lot of and drink stations, and the ever-present silent auction which is irresistible to me after two glasses of wine.  What did I come home with this time?  A basket of goodness from Longhorn and some golf package.  

I was able to finish "Night Film" this week in print, and I absolutely loved it.  Every second of it, so much that I didn't want it to end.  I have now picked up "The Perfume Collector", a She Reads selection.  This book was supposed to be reviewed at the beginning of August...I am way behind but that is the way my summer has gone.  In audio world, I finally finished "This Town" and also blew through "Crash" by Nicole Williams, a sort of predictable teen drama romp.  Ridiculous fluffy brain candy but it was fun, and was narrated by Cassandra Campbell.  Then I moved on to "The Husband's Secret" by Liane Moriarty, and I let out a huge WHOOP when I learned it was narrated by my beloved Caroline Lee (who narrates all the Kate Morton books).  Man I love her.  She has an adorable voice.

So today we are looking at a quick run perhaps, then the animal shelter.  And assuming I can get my children out of their caves, I think we'll see Elysium.  We loved District 9, and this is the same director, so I've got expectations.  Hope you all have a wonderful Sunday!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Churrasco with Chimichurri

One of these days, I need to actually post a recipe for something healthy.  Eh.  It's the stuff that is bad for you that get me the most excited to share.  Sorry.  So today I bring you more red meat from the July 2013 Food and Wine magazine.

Churrasco, a Portuguese term for grilled meat, is a backbone of many Latin American cuisines.  Have you ever seen the restaurants called "Churrascarias" that are all the rage these days?  Exactly.  You go and eat enough meat to last you a lifetime.  Anyway, the featured chef in July was Michael Cordua, a Nicaraguan-born American restaurateur, and this is his offering to us.  It is incredibly easy to make and so incredibly tasty.


2 bunches curly parsley (8 ounces), thick stems discarded
1/3 cup garlic cloves, crushed
3/4 cup plus 3 TBL extra-virgin olive oil
3 TBL white wine vinegar
2 pounds trimmed center-cut beef tenderloin
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper


1.  In a food processor, combine the parsley and garlic with the 3/4 cup olive oil and vinegar and pulse until smooth.  Refrigerate the chimichurri for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours.

2.  Using a sharp chef's knife, make a 1/4-inch, lengthwise cut in the top of the tenderloin.  Turning the tenderloin and rolling it out as you go, spiral-cut the meat until you have a long, rectangular piece about 1/4 inch thick.

3.  Light a grill.  Season both sides of the tenderloin with salt and pepper.  Rub all but one-third of the chimichurri over the meat and grill over moderately high heat, turning once, about 4 minutes for medium-rare meat.  Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

4.  Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the remaining chimichurri and olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and serve with the steak.

Wine:  Recommend a berry-dense, concentrated Syrah.

My note:  I actually used a flank steak for this recipe, which is flavorful and less expensive than the tenderloin.

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 at Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lost in Shangri-La - Mitchell Zuckoff (Audio)

 Mitchell Zuckoff has made himself a reputation over the last couple years in the world of non-fiction...he tells incredible stories of courage and survival.  Stuff you just can't make up.  He is currently a professor of journalism at Boston University, and was an investigative reporter for two decades, so he knows what he is doing.

Most recently, he published "Frozen in Time", a story about two WWII planes that crashed and went missing in Greenland.  But what really put him on the map, at least with bloggers, was a very similar story that he published in 2011 - "Lost in Shangri-La".  I'd been hearing amazing things about his work for years, so impulsively I ordered both books on audio from the library.  I love a good true story.

Synopsis:  On May 13, 1945, a group of 24 enlisted American men and women stationed at a military base in Hollandia, Indonesia, took off in a transport plane intending to do a little sight-seeing.  Their destination was a fly-over of Dutch New Guinea (an island off the north coast of Australia) to see the undeveloped, dense jungles where there was rumored to be seven foot tall cannibalistic natives.  The plane crashed in one of those dense jungles, going up in flames, leaving only three survivors...two men and a woman.  The three had little food and no shelter, and two of the three were severely burned and injured.  Soon gangrene set in, and they knew that if they were not discovered soon, they would perish.

It wasn't long before the much-feared natives detected the presence of visitors.  But instead of being vicious, murderous flesh-eaters, they were curious and helpful.  In fact, because the Dani tribesmen were so isolated, they'd never seen white people before, thought them spirits and treated them with reverence.  They struggled with communication and confusion of customs and behaviors, but the two groups became fond of one another.  Little did the Dani know that in helping the survivors, their protected little civilization had just been inadvertently altered forever.

Eventually, a rescue plane spotted the survivors, dropped a transistor radio and supplies to them (including lipstick!), and a highly publicized but extremely dangerous rescue mission was soon being planned.  Because of the density of the jungle, surrounding mountains and high elevation, there weren't many options, but ultimately they used a glider plane to get into the valley and land, then a towplane to pull them all out.

Zuckoff has thoroughly researched this amazing story through interviews (some even with children of the Dani tribesmen), and journals, and leaves no stone unturned without offering judgement.  He leaves that to the reader.

My thoughts:  I was absolutely mesmerized with this book.  It had all the elements of a great non-fiction story...action, tragedy, courage, danger.  And Zuckoff lays it all out for us with conversational and factual storytelling.

What was curious to me was what he DIDN'T say, but could be read between the lines.  Because there was a woman survivor in the mix, the military airdropped lipstick and Kotex in the boxes of supplies, but she never did get a decent pair of underwear despite her requests.  And would there have been as much media coverage had the survivors been all men?

I was also perplexed at the ultimate fate of the three survivors.  None of them seemed to live happy lives, with a trail of divorces and illness left in their wake.  It made me wonder how their traumatic experiences and brush with fame may have impacted them.

The most devastating part of the story, however, beyond the fatalities from the crash, was the fate of the tribesmen.  Firearms and technology were foisted upon them for their hospitality, damage was inadvertently done to their homes and animals.  These poor people didn't even know what hit them.  Those that died in the crash were not the only victims.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone that enjoys reading about adventures too strange to be fiction.

A few words about the audio production:  The author actually narrates this audiobook and he did a great job.  Would an actor have done a better job with all the action and adventure?  Maybe, but you could also tell that Zuckoff is passionate about his topic, plus his voice is very personable.

Listening length:  8 hours and 32 minutes (432 pages)

4 out of 5 stars