Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Salon: October 26, 2014

The Sunday

The Scene: 5:45 am (Pacific Time) - am in SFO visiting friends so thought I would use the time difference making me a morning person and get some blogging done - finally!!

Reading: Lots of time to read this week with the 5+ hour flight out here so I finished most of the newest Shopaholic book by Sophie Kinsella - Shopaholic to the Stars. What an enjoyable way to spend a flight! Every time I pick up one of these books, I secretly worry that I will have outgrown Becky's antics or find it all too far fetched but the author does such a good job of making Becky loveable that I am never disappointed!

I had the chance this week to attend a fun event in NYC celebrating the author and her new book - Girls Night Out with Sophie Kinsella.  The event was held at the Red Door Spa - Union Square and in addition to the author speaking and signing, they had delicious food, wine and little spa stations dotted through out where people were getting make-up applied and having custom-matched foundation mixed up.  A fun way to spend a Monday for sure!  Unfortunately, my phone died as I walked in that night so I don't have pics of the festivities but you can check them out at Random House's Facebook Page.  As you can see by the pics, Random House does an excellent job with these events - they attend to every detail.  If you are in NY in November, I recommend joining them for their Open House on Friday, November 14th.  I attended the first one a few years ago and it was a great day of books, authors and mingling.  Let me know in the comments if you plan to be there this year.

Got my book autographed!

Listening: On the recommendation of Diane (from Bookchick Di), I am listening to We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. So far I am really enjoying it and keep trying to find excuses to settle in with it (out for walks, cleaning the apartment).

Blogging: Much like California, this blog has hit a dry patch.  I apologize for the long absences between posts for most of this year.  I have been reading books and following many of your blogs, but somehow haven't always been able to muster the time and energy to settle down and blog here. As many of you know, I had surgery earlier this year and used that as a catalyst to get serious about getting back into shape and losing weight.  It has been a great year and I am thrilled with the results but honestly that has taken a lot of my attention.  As I rediscovered jogging, boot camp and just generally moving a lot more, it has been hard to sit and write at times. I find myself more readily drawn to Twitter and Instagram for quick updates.   As the year comes to a close, I intend to make a decision about the blog.  I will either reinvigorate things here or decide that it is time to move on.  Thanks for staying with me through this and please stay tuned!  If you have secrets for balancing blogging and keeping things fresh, please leave them in the comments!

Watching : Not much right now - I had been on vacation to Ireland for 10 days and then just back a few days before coming out here so haven't been watching much.  I will have stuff stockpiled when I get back to TV watching.

Looking Forward To: Getting my pics from Ireland downloaded from my DSLR - I was snap happy!  We had gorgeous weather (NEVER a given in Ireland) so everything looked that bit more picturesque. I absolutely love it there and this trip we got to some sights that either I saw as a kid and don't remember or saw for this first time on this trip including the Cliffs of Moher and the Giant's Causeway. Below is an iPhone pic of each from my trip.  I have some more pics on Instagram if you are interested.

Giant's Causeway

Cliffs of Moher (with Rainbow!)

Grateful: For the chance to travel to great destinations like Ireland and San Francisco - and for the comforts of home when I return!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan

Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan is the third book in the series which features Ellie Hogan who leaves Ireland and starts her life anew in New York. In this installment, Ellie ends up in LA after her oldest son takes off there to pursue a career in acting. While in LA, Ellie, now almost 50, reflects on her life to date and has some important revelations about how she has arrived in this point in life and what matters to her most.

When Ellie's son Leo runs away from his boarding school to follow an agent to LA to be part of the movies, Ellie's maternal instinct kicks in and she immediately packs up to travel across the country and bring her boy home. Recently widowed when her second husband is killed in Pearl Harbor, Ellie is alone again and her boys are all she has - they are her purpose and she must protect them. She intends to locate her son and immediately return to NY with him but when she sees her shy, reserved son come alive at the prospect of a career in acting she relents and decides to stay while Leo completes his contract with Paramount. Always one to gather a community around her, Ellie brings out the elderly Bridie, an Irish woman that has been like a mother to Ellie and a Nan to her sons, to live with her and the boys. She also takes in Freddie, Leo's down on his luck agent, and Freddie's vacuous girlfriend Crystal. Together they pass their days adjusting to life in sunny California at the fringes of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle.

Despite swearing off men following the loss of two husbands, Ellie finds herself captivated and pursued by Stan, a Polish composer who writes scores for Hollywood films. Ellie is her own worst enemy in her relationship with Stan and tries to sabotage it at every turn but she can't deny her feelings for him and constantly finds herself back with him. While coping with her relationship with Stan, she is also facing the decline of her dear friend, Bridie. Bridie's tough exterior can't hide the onset of dementia and Ellie must dedicate herself to keeping Bridie safe while maintaining the older woman's dignity.

My Thoughts
I really enjoyed the first two books in this series (my review of Ellis Island and my review of City of Hope) so I was happy to "meet" Ellie again in this final installment. She is as feisty as ever but her fire is tinged with self awareness - she is now fifty and spends much of the book reflecting on the choices that have gotten her to this point in her life and seeing patterns in her behavior. This maturity in Ellie is appealing and tempers some of her more impulsive schemes. Perhaps my favorite part of this book is the relationship between Ellie and Bridie - tough Bridie tells it like it us but also is vulnerable as old age begins to take its toll.  She is aware that she is failing but is also fiercely proud and fights to maintain her dignity.  Ellie rises to this challenge and takes care of Bridie as she would if Bridie were her mother.  Bridie provides continuity in Ellie's story as she has been with her since she first arrived in the US and she also creates an opportunity for Ellie to show her gentler side as she cares for the older woman.

Although it is the third book in a series, Land of Dreams can stand on his own - the author references what happened in the first two books enough to make the connections to this story. But I feel the real strength in the book is Ellie and you can appreciate her so much more if you have read the first two books.  If you read Land of Dreams first, go back and read the other two!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book to Movie: This Is Where I Leave You

The movie This Is Where I Leave You opens today in theaters nationwide with a powerhouse cast that includes Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver. I had the opportunity to see a screening earlier this week and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In fact, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie because I have been evangelizing this book since I read it a number of years ago (I have recommended it to so many since then) and I was a little hesitant about the movie since they often disappoint as compared to the book. I knew, however, that the author, Jonathan Tropper, has been very involved in the movie and had even written the screenplay - that, coupled with the cast, convinced me to give it a try. And I was not disappointed in the least.

 This Is Where I Leave You tells the story of the Altman family and the movie opens with the death of the patriarch, Mort Altman. Recently widowed and mother to the clan, Hilary Altman, played by Jane Fonda, informs the family that their father's dying wish was to have the entire family sit shiva for him. This places the adult Altman children in their childhood home receiving family and friends offering their condolences for seven days. It is clear there is a lot of love in the family but there is also tension which is exacerbated by their grief and being forced into close proximity day after day. As the week progresses, each sibling has personal revelations and secrets are exposed.

 I had the chance, with some other bloggers, to speak with Jonathan Tropper about the movie and the book to move transformation. I was especially interested in his thoughts as the author and screenwriter on the differences between the two media and the impact on his story.

  What do you think TV and movies can do better than books in telling a story? What can books do better than something on screen?

A movie has the benefit of being able to transport for an hour and a half, two hours with no interruptions and give you the whole story and take you on the entire journey in a kind of encapsulated way.  And you just sit back and watch it all unfold...the book kind of lingers.  But you have to kind of refocus.  So, that's also the plus of the book is that you can live with the characters in the book over a period of weeks, whereas you know a movie you're done in two hours . . .I think you know the rest is kind of obvious.  The movies can give you score, and the movies can give you mood, and the movies can give you sort of wonderfully comedic actors who can make you laugh in a way that the narrative can't.
And on the other hand, the book can take you much deeper into their minds and their emotional states and really make you understand them in a way that in a movie sometimes you really have to do that math yourself.
One thing I definitely noticed in the movie is the score/soundtrack - it enhanced my enjoyment of the story and the nostalgic selection of 80's and 90's tunes was perfect for a group of siblings returning to their childhood home. It certainly added to the ability of the movie to transport.

I noticed while watching the movie that I felt more empathetic to Judd (played by Jason Bateman) than I did while reading the book. I was interested to hear Jonathan Tropper's thoughts on my different reactions to the character in the movie versus the book:
There's two things there that you're reacting to.  The first is I think just that you know Jason Bateman happens to be a very charming guy.  He’s extremely likable.  And he brings that into whatever he does.
But beyond that, in the book I could allow the character to be slightly more reprehensible and slightly less sympathetic because you can kind of do that in literature and still redeem the character because I'm giving you the inner workings of his mind.
So, I'm sort of bringing you to a place where you understand.  And even if you find some of his behavior a little outrageous, in the movie because I can't make you privy to the inner workings of his mind and his thought process, I have to work with him a little harder to make sure I'm not making him you know too much of an asshole.
And so, there is some balance in that, where there are certain things he did in the book that I wouldn't have him do in the movie because I wouldn't be able to explain to you why he's doing it.
Screenplay writer and author, Jonathan Tropper (on set with book in hand)

Finally, I observed that the movie is so close to the book - which as a lover of the book, I appreciated. Tropper, as the screenwriter, was able to ensure the story stayed close to the one he wrote in the book but he also gave credit to the director (Shawn Levy) saying "he [Shawn Levy] was just such a fan of the book that we were actually in this strangely reverse position where the director was actually pushing me to be truer to my own source material than I was being".

This book is a wonderful book to movie transformation and I enjoyed hearing Tropper's thoughts on the differences between the media and how he brought the characters to life in the movie versus in the book.

If you are looking for a comedy, with just the right touch of sentimentality (I cried twice during the movie), see This Is Where I Leave You - - it opens today (Sep 19th) at theaters nationwide.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter

Losing Touch: Arjun Kulkani moved his entire family to North London from India. Like many immigrants, he works hard to fit in but also wants to preserve the values and traditions of his homeland. He has studied the English and outwardly makes every effort to blend in - he is careful in his appearance and tries to always be quiet and respectful. Even though he tries so hard to blend in, he is frustrated by his son Murad and daughter Tarani who try to distance themselves from their Indian heritage and adopt the cultural norms of their new home but without his intense desire to fade to the background and not stand out. This generational struggle is only one of many faced by this family especially when Arjun begins to decline from an inherited form of muscular dystrophy which first steals the feeling in his leg and gradually debilitates him until he is completely dependent on his wife, Sunila, for care. With the passage of time and loss of ability, Arjun makes observations about this own life and the family he has built, however clumsily, in London.

 The book opens with Arjun and the family attending the funeral of his younger brother, Jonti. Jonti has died from the muscular dystrophy that Arjun fears and eventually develops himself. This scene at the funeral provides the first snapshot of the Kulkani family including the extended family of Aunts, Uncles and cousins. We meet Sunila, Arjun's wife, and immediately detect her dissatisfaction with life and even with Arjun. There is tension between the Arjun and Sunila which is exacerbated by Arjun's obvious feelings for his sister-in-law, Pavi. While Sunila seems to harp on what they don't have or what she wished was different, Pavi seems to understand Arjun and speaks gently with him. Of course, the move to London and the pressure to fit in has been difficult on everyone and Sunila is no exception - as the book progresses so does an understanding of Sunila's dissatisfaction and what she has also sacrificed to make this move and live this life.

 My Thoughts
This book beautifully portrays the passage of time and the losses and pain which accumulate over the years. Each chapter provides another snapshot of the family - the story is not continuous so much as a series of snapshots but the themes of generational struggle and Arjun's increasing understanding of himself even as his physical abilities decline run throughout these snapshots. We see the children grow and Arjun's generation age.  Interestingly, we also see Arjun become more of an outsider rather than less despite all his efforts to assimilate. Where first his status as an immigrant makes him and outsider, towards the end of the book he is also and outsider within his own family as they live life around him and his becomes increasingly disabled due to his disease.  In this passage, Arjun muses on his status as an outsider:
What importance he used to place on small things: his perfectly ironed shirts, the knife-crease in his trousers, the well-tailored jackets and suits, his meticulously folded socks and underwear, his Kiwi-polished shoes, his leather wallet. These details made him feel a little taller, a little better prepared to face the hostile he had moved to . . . . It all meant something, some sense of striving for decorum and order, some sense of fitting in to the middle-class neighbourhood whose ideals he's never quite grasped. 
The feeling of donning an armor to face a new country or striving but never truly understanding the new country you have moved to is one faced by many immigrants but so poignantly told in this novel. The author has told a beautiful story of a single family through a series of snapshots that captured the big, but most small moments of a lifetime.

I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tour - you can find other reviews of the book here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

In Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro, a motley crew of five families and a nanny from Brooklyn head to a shabby house on Long Island for a long weekend. The parents have largely been thrown together by their children who share music classes and the playground. Personalities abound among the parents as well as the children and those personalities eventually clash as the group spends a weekend in close quarters in the house where they face each other's idiosyncrasies. The parents are most challenged over the weekend, however, when they face their own limitations and insecurities.

 Nicole leads the group to her parents house in Long Island for the weekend. Mother to Wyatt who has his share of behavioral issues, Nicole has a disproportionate anxiety about disasters and her car trunk is stocked with gas masks and non-perishables. Her husband has grown weary of her worries and finds Wyatt challenging at best leaving Nicole feeling very alone. Tiffany leads the music class all the children attend and her daughter, Harper Rose, is a born leader who frequently bullies the other children. Tiffany is too focused on trying to bury her own working class background by helping her daughter achieve and climb socially (at age 3!) that she is oblivious to Harper's poor treatment of the other children. Tiffany is strikingly attractive and used to getting her own way. The daddy in the group, Rip, is father to Hank and a stay-at-home Dad while his wife works at a high-powered job. He desperately wants a second child but is having difficulty convincing his wife to get pregnant again. His resentment of her reluctance to have another child only stokes his attraction to Tiffany which is hard to keep under wraps while they are all together for the weekend.

Allie and Susanna, a lesbian couple, are also no strangers to ambivalence about expanding their family. Susanna is pregnant with their third child but Allie resents the ways in which their lives have changed since having children. She loves their boys Levi and Dash but she also longs for the couple they were before children - she is only along for this trip to the burbs to satisfy her heavily pregnant partner. Leigh, the daughter of a wealthy family, has two children - Chase and Charlotte. Chase is on the spectrum and challenges Leigh every day. In addition to the trials of a child with special needs, Leigh is quietly dealing with financial issues and has gone to great lengths to keep them hidden. All of this pressure is somewhat alleviated by the help offered by her beloved nanny, Tenzin. Tenzin is along for the weekend.

My Thoughts
Through chapters that alternate from parent to parent, this book presents parenthood unvarnished. The parents are inherently flawed and it is a good reminder that parenthood doesn't transform everyone to better, higher human beings. Although all these parents love their children unconditionally, they still grapple with their own insecurities which sometimes cloud their ability to model the best behavior for their children. Tenzin, with limited means and living far away from her own children, is the moral compass for this crew and is able to see truths that the other parents cannot see because they are so wrapped up in their own issues. She offers an excellent balance to a dysfunctional cast of characters.

It takes a special talent to make unlikable characters compelling and that is just what Fierro does in this book. I would like to think I have little in common with these characters and on the surface I probably don't but we all have insecurities and on that level I can relate to these parents. The honesty of this story is refreshing and its use of parental stereotypes is spot on.  Definitely recommend.

Thank you to TLC Booktours for having me on the tour.  You can find links to reviews from others on the tour here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee: After the ultimate betrayal by her husband, Portia Cuthcart flees her proper, wife of a politician life in Texas and takes up residence in the garden level of a NYC townhouse previously owned by and left to her by her aunt. Portia has many fond memories of summers spent there with her Aunt and hopes returning there will bring her some comfort. Practically, she is broke and the inherited townhouse gives her a place to live. Her sisters, also living in NY now, sold their floors of the inherited townhouse to financier Gabriel, who lives upstairs with his two young daughters. Portia's talent for cooking which is tinged with a bit of magic in that she has visions compelling her to cook dishes which turn out to be exactly what someone needs has her tending to the two young girls in no time. As she gets more involved with their family, and especially complicated Gabriel, Portia begins to question why she has tried to suppress her gift.

Portia grew up at the feet of her grandmother who owned a restaurant in Texas called the Glass Kitchen. Like Portia, her grandmother had the gift and could divine what a customer needed before they even understood that they wanted or needed it and why. This ability to provide comfort with food but on a level much deeper than satisfying a craving or physical hunger, kept the restaurant bustling. When her grandmother dies tragically, though, Portia blames the gift and immediately closes the restaurant and attempts to suppress her culinary instincts. By the time she arrives in NY, she is still trying to shut down those instincts but when she meets Gabriel's young daughters, Ariel and Miranda who are so in need of comfort after the recent death of their mother, it becomes more and more difficult to deny cooking what they need and Portia begins to value the unique gift she has to bring people comfort and healing.

My Thoughts
This book successfully brings many themes together - sisterhood, acknowledging and embracing who you are, and transformation achieved through healing. Sprinkle that with some romance and the foodie culture and you have a delightful book. Although I liked Portia as a character, my favorite character was Ariel. As a young girl with the weight of her mother's death on her shoulders, Ariel tries to cope with humor and a precocious way of seeing people for who they really are;  but she is still only a young girl and grappling with so many emotions. I found her funny but also touching and wanted to take of her myself.

I also enjoyed reading about the delicious meals whipped up by Portia. The descriptions were vivid and included all the senses. Beyond that, however, was the description of the experience which was always more of the focus than just the taste of the food or the nourishment it offered. For example:
For a meal to work truly, it must be an experience. From the moment a guest arrives in the Glass Kitchen to the moment they set their napkin down, they must be enchanted. More importantly, the giver of the food must believe that they have the power to enchant. No person, whether she is a scientist or a cook, can find success if she doesn't first believe that she has power in her hands-not to use over people but to use for the good of another. Food, especially, is about giving.
Who wouldn't want to eat a meal prepared by someone with a philosophy like this? The Glass Kitchen transports you into just such a meal many times over.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and 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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Audiobook Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (read by Kirsten Potter; 17 hours, 33 minutes) recounts the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina from the perspective of inside the walls of the city of New Orleans's large downtown hospital. Caring for many of the city's most vulnerable, those at the hospital made fateful decisions amidst the chaos following the hurricane - decisions for which some of the physicians and nurses faced criminal charges in the aftermath of the storm. A physician and investigative journalist, Sheri Fink takes the reader right into the hospital during the storm and tells the stories of the doctors, nurses, administrators and patients caught in the frantic deterioration following the devastation of the storm.

 The book opens a few days prior to the storm as the city prepares for the forecasted hurricane. Inured to the rituals of hurricane prep, many took the warnings less than seriously and didn't heed all the warnings. At Memorial, they arranged to have staff on hand but otherwise additional precautions were not taken. In addition, many of the staff and those that lived near the hospital used it to shelter during the storm. As the storm bore down on New Orleans, the hospital was bustling but everyone felt the hospital would ride out the storm without issue. Of course, the storm was stronger than expected and the breaking of levees with the resulting flooding was not anticipated. As conditions worsened at Memorial in the days following the hurricane, the shortcomings of the city and the hospital's disaster planning became increasingly evident. With power out over the city, the hospital was dependent on back-up generator power. The generators, however, were on lower levels below the flood line; very quickly, the hospital had no power. With patients on ventilators and other equipment, the situation soon became dire. The hospital staff had to figure out how to get patients evacuated from the hospital.

At this point, the lack of coordinated effort between the hospital, its corporate ownership and government became obvious. Messages were going out from the hospital but either not being heard or responded to with inaccurate information that drove some bad decisions. Ultimately, doctors in the hospital triaged patients for evacuation by making judgement calls on the likelihood of surviving the evacuation but they were not operating with the best information about the conditions and timing of any evacuation. Based on where they were triaged, some patients were essentially sentenced to death. Faced with patients they believed were not going to be able to leave the hospital and increasingly deteriorating conditions outside, some doctors and nurses made decisions to hasten the deaths of patients with lethal injections.

 My Thoughts
This story was gripping and read with the pacing of a thriller - the narrator was new to me but kept me gripped throughout without overdoing the drama.  Although the outcome of the storm and the fact that some patients were euthanized was known at the start of the book, I found myself anxiously listening to hear the details and the analysis that was not well understood outside of this book. The author tells the story from a neutral viewpoint and didn't demonize the doctors, nurses or officials but let the facts speak for themselves.

One statement that really stayed with me was that the lack of planning on so many levels is actually the failure of morality in the situation - not necessarily the actions of any individual. During Hurricane Sandy in NYC, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, I watched on television as they evacuated patients from NYU Hospital because the storm waters flooded the lower levels of the hospitals which is where the generators were located - the same situation faced by Memorial. I hope our government and public health officials commit themselves to adequate disaster planning so patients never have to face what was faced at Memorial.