Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Fiction.  This is a cute and easy quick read by an Australian author, which I personally do not come across that often.  It is charming, witty, and positively hilarious!  I think if you are a fan of the T.V. show "Big Bang Theory" that you will like this: the entire time I was reading all I could picture and hear in my head was Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  

The story is of a 39-year-old man named Don Tillman, who is a genetics professor and lives one of the most organized and rigidly scheduled and calculated lives I have read about in fiction.  At one point his friends cajole him into giving a talk to children with Aspberger syndrome as a glaring hint: "Does this remind you of anybody?"  But of course, he does not get the hint.  He decides one day that he does indeed want a partner for life, but he has been unsuccessful so far because of his comical lack of social skills, so he starts "The Wife Project" to help him weed out unnecessary candidates and save time.  His questionnaire is exceedingly detailed and exceedingly obsessive in detail.  Somehow, which I will not say and ruin the story, he ends up meeting Rosie, a "barmaid," and hilarity ensues.

Ultimately, this completely humorous story revolves around friendship, love, family, and learning to be a little more flexible in life.  It was a quick read and so much fun!  I highly recommend it for a good laugh and a smile!

And so it goes...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

Historical Fiction.  This work is based on actual historical circumstances and some of the people in the work (e.g. the young lieutenant) did actually exist and participate in these events.  This is one of the better books I have read in some time, and I have been on a sort of streak of good books lately, if that means anything.  It is difficult to find a book that tells a story about WWI and that is not a long droning on of historical facts only (names, dates, battles, dry as a bone, list after list).  Finding anything related to WWI actually, is a fairly challenging enterprise in comparison to works having to do with WWII, which seem to overwhelm the literary marketplace.  This novel is worth your time, if for no other reason than to think about the actual people, as real human beings,  who lived through WWI, The Great Depression, and faced the inevitability of a devastating second world war.  Sometimes fiction makes it more real for us because we can obtain a better sense of daily life, of the thoughts people had, and of their very real emotions.

This is about the mothers, the women who endured the loss of their children, struggled through The Great Depression with their heads held high, and who did not complain but made due with what they had and could work for, while still maintaining kindness and hope for the future.  They always call the WWII folks "The Greatest Generation," but there were mothers who raised those children with those values.  These women, who had already endured enough suffering for one lifetime before those events even occurred, had to send even more children or grandchildren over to Europe to die for another war that they once again did not understand, but they did so anyway, again without complaint, under the auspices of patriotism.

Now, with something seemingly so heavy you might think this is a dark and serious book, but it is not and the same time that it is, which is difficult to explain.  The history is accurate and tragic, but the women make it endearing, entertaining, and fun to read!  The characters in here are varied but delightful and they experience some pretty comical stuff.  Somehow the author managed to represent a great variety of  Americans at this time, through her inclusion of characters representing hearty New England women, African-Americans from the south, newly emigrated Irish, Jews fleeing Russian persecution, and two elite women suffering their own turmoils despite their privileged lives: one who most certainly had postpartum depression and who was incarcerated in a mental institution, several times,  against her will by her philandering husband, and the other who was suffering from heart problems but told nobody so she could go on the trip.

The story is of the Gold Star Mothers, who the U.S. Congress sent over to France on "pilgrimages," so that they could finally see the graves of their sons.  When their children were killed in WWI, they were initially given a choice of having them either sent home (on their own expense) or to be "patriots" like the president and his wife, who chose to have their sons buried in France where they died.  The women, for various reasons chose to have their sons buried there, and now were finally able to go see the graves and say goodbye, fully funded and treated to first-class accommodations by the government.  The various characters give you an excellent idea of the strength of these women, from all different walks of life, and the relief and joy they felt in each other's company.  

It is not a girly book, it is not cliche, and it is an examination of so many things that I simply cannot believe she fit all of this into one average sized novel.  I think April Smith is one heck of a writer and she must have an incredible editor on her side.  You easily picture Maine, Boston, New York, oversea travel on ships, Paris, and the French countryside, but you do not realize the author is doing it because you are having such a grand time getting to know these funny women!  Although they truly define work ethic and endurance, you do not feel that the author is shoving it in your face, she is merely telling the tale of a few lives, and how they came to know each other on this unique journey.  I cannot recommend this novel enough, it is worth everybody's time.  I learned a good deal and came to know and adore these characters!

And so it goes...

Book Review: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Fiction.  This was a wonderful little novel and a definite must for anybody who is a "foodie" of any kind!  I loved the characters, the settings, the author's way with words, and the plot was fantastically interesting too.  The main character is Billie Breslin, who takes a job as an assistant to the editor in NYC at the preeminent food magazine Delicious! (think Gourmet where the author used to work).  The novel follows Billie through the streets of New York as she learns even more about food: she has a perfect palate and can taste almost any ingredient immediately, which helps her land her second job at Fontanellis, a fun and traditional cheese shop, where she is the first non-family member to ever work there (of course they treat her like family though).  The offices of the Delicious! magazine are in a 19th-century mansion, filled with quirky co-workers, beautiful architectural features, and eventually a mystery for Billie to solve.

After the magazine is closed by the owner who wants to focus on their more lucrative magazines put out by Pickwick Publishing, Billie finds herself the only one left behind to answer phone calls, emails, and bizarre letters from people who have utterly destroyed the recipes in the magazine.  Since its inception, the magazine had what is called the "Delicious! Guarantee": try the recipe, if you do not like it we will refund your money for the items you purchased to make it.  A particularly peculiar customer, who calls every single day, does the most disastrous things that you can think of, such as substituting canned oysters for scallops, powdered milk instead of heavy cream, and other comically tragic concoctions.  

As the story continues, Billie and another former employee, Sammy, end up becoming fast friends.  He is at the empty old mansion because Sammy has yet to empty out his office (he was traveling in Marrakesh) and thus he hangs around attempting to help her solve some of the bizarre inquiries from the readers (e.g. requests for recipes dating all the way back to the 1950s).  The two of them end up exploring the library as a result of trying to search for some obscure information, but the library had been locked up for decades, and nobody knew what exactly was inside.  They find themselves trying to solve a mystery related to the correspondence during WWII between a young girl named Lulu and the now infamous James Beard, who worked at the magazine.  I do not want to add more lest I give away any spoilers, so I will say that it is a charming novel, filled with friendships, tragic family histories, mystery, some romance, and of course utter devotion to food which will appeal to gastronomes everywhere.  Give it a read, it will make you smile!

And so it goes...

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Non-fiction. This is another work that I read because it was mentioned in The End of Your Life Book Club.  I am not quite sure why, but for some reason or other I was under the impression that this was a work of fiction until about halfway through it.  I believe this work would be a good read for those who are mourning themselves, or who are interested in the topic of mourning in contemporary American society.

I found her writing annoying at times.  She has these bizarre digressions in parentheses in the middle of sentences, and they are rather awkward and long to boot.  Eventually I learned to skip over them, to finish reading the actual sentence components, and then I would go back to read the information she put in the parentheses.  It would have flowed so much better if she simply put her odd digressions at the end of her sentences.  Although the book was interesting, it will fade from my mind fairly quickly and I have no real desire to read much else by the author.  Reviews hailed her brilliance repeatedly, but when I looked up other works by her they seem to be either spin-offs of this work (another one grieving her daughter's death which is dealt with in this one), or they are about the swinging sixties in California.  I personally do not have any major motivation right now to read any of those topics, so I am moving on.  If I get really, really, really, desperate I may one day look up one of those other works that do not have to do with the death of her family, but I do not see that happening anytime in the near future.

And so it goes...

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Fiction. I was searching for something good to read that was available immediately from my library's digital consortium (I have enough on my hold list), so I looked up Donna Tartt because I enjoyed The Goldfinch immensely (her most recent work, she won The Pulitzer Prize for it).  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I love the intelligence of her writing, but she most definitely tackles some deep and disturbing parts of the human psyche; so, if you are looking for something light to read, this is certainly not it.  However, if you are up for something a little more challenging than your average top seller, this is a good one because she is an excellent storyteller.

This work never exactly states what year it is, which I found both profoundly annoying and intriguing at the same time.  I was originally guessing the late 60s but then she mentions some styles of clothing that seem more like the 80s, and then a bit later some things that seem like the 90s (music primarily), so I am still not terribly certain of when exactly the events took place, even though I have finished the work.  I am fairly certain she meant for that to be the point: we live like the eras we identify with, small upscale colleges seem to warp you back to the late 60s when learning was valued before the sole focus now of obtaining a piece of paper to "get you a job," and so that we as readers do not obsess about spotting popular culture, but rather that we focus on the timelessness of these kinds of relationships and the people who have them.

The central story revolves around the protagonist Richard Papen, a small town California man, attending an exclusive college in Vermont called Hampden.  He eventually succeeds in his goal of becoming a part of a tiny group of classics majors, six in all, who center their lives around the tutelage of Professor Julian Morrow.  The work is quite like a Greek tragedy itself, slowly unfolding the background of events that lead up to the death of one of the characters, which we are told about from the very beginning of the novel.  You get everything very Greek in here: murder, incest, much imbibing of alcohol, highbrow thinking simultaneously with lowbrow behavior, the ruling classes, exclusivity, friendship, oddities of love, devotion to learning (not merely memorizing items for a test), and of course a dark ending.  If you are up for something that is complicated but a pleasure to read, if you value the effort real learning takes, and if you like the darker side of humanity, then I recommend this work to you.  Donna Tartt is an amazing writer, and I can see why she spends so much time working on each of her novels (about a decade): they are highly evolved microcosms of humanity, not remotely like easy beach readers that people toss to the side.  The ideas will stew around in your brain for quite some time.

And so it goes...

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Non-fiction.  Memoir.  I have intended to read this book for a long time and I am really glad I finally read it, I love Anthony Bourdain!  He is absolutely hilarious, but only if you like sarcasm and dark humor, if you do not then this book is probably not for you.  I have enjoyed his T.V. shows for years, so I think that made it even easier for me to read it: I could hear his voice and see his expressions in my mind as I read the work.

The book is a sort of memoir about how he became a cook and then a chef, some advice for those who want to cook better meals at home (only a tiny bit), and insights into the life of a professional chef.  He is honest about his mistakes, and the tale is a much darker and a much grittier side to things than you see on Food Network: he really dislikes Emeril Lagasse, openly mocks Bobby Flay, and other things/people which makes for some pretty hilarious commentary.  After reading some fairly heavy works recently, this was definitely a humorous and informative breath of fresh air.

Tony started his career in a place during the summer off from college (Vassar where he was not doing much), up in a tiny fishing/beach/summer town called Provincetown (MA).  Delightfully for me, the day after I finished this book CNN ran a mini-marathon of his T.V. show "Parts Unknown" where he went to this town and then spent the rest of the episode talking about the growing heroin epidemic in the U.S.  So I was able to see some of the places, kitchens, and foods he discussed in the book, which was marvelous.  After reading this work, I have also decided that if/when I visit NYC in the future I will never eat at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, I do indeed need to invest in better pots and pans and learn how to use those bigger and scarier chef's knives, and I have learned that the life of a chef can vary greatly depending on opportunities and the goals of the individual (e.g. Do you want to learn or do you want money?).  I highly recommend this book to fans of Anthony Bourdain, those interested in the world of chefs and cooking, and anybody looking for a few deeply sarcastic belly laughs.

And so it goes...

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sort of Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Fiction.  I always finish books, ALWAYS, no matter how much I dislike them, I even finished Out Stealing Horses, and I would rather give myself 500 paper cuts at one time and then squeeze lemon juice into the freshly wounded skin than read a word of that one ever again.  But, I just cannot do it.  I gave it about 50 pages and up to her time in Italy for a bit (blathering on and on about gorgeous brown eyes and gelato flavors), and I just cannot bring myself to read one more word.  

Maybe it is because I am hitting that point where I am beginning to realize that I no longer have the patience nor the time for moronic and horrible writers.  I am no longer forced to finish things I hate, I chose this silly thing for my free time, to relax; it is not for a class in graduate school, where and when I had no choice in the matter of assigned texts.  I simply refuse to squander my limited free time for the sole reason of saying "I finished this thing" before declaring that it was indeed a waste of my time.  I cannot read one more silly, idiotic, and vapid word by this woman.  It is a miracle she found somebody to pay her for this content-less drivel about her privileged life, promiscuous nonsense, and absolutely zero insight about anything at all.  I thought the title sounded promising and interesting, but I should have known better when I read the reviews.  So, I am walking away, and never touching this worthless nonsense again.

And so it goes...

Blog Awards

Here are a few awards this blog has received thanks to some kind folks!

Friends and Favorites Award

Friends and Favorites Award
given 05/20/2009 by SquirrelQueen (

One Lovely Blog Award

One Lovely Blog Award
given on 07/23/2009 by Juanita (