Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin: Nora Webster, recently widowed, lives in Wexford, Ireland in 1969 with her two young sons, Donal and Conor. She also has two older daughters who now live away from home. As the story opens, Nora is enveloped in her grief over the recent loss of her husband, Maurice, to a long illness and is facing the practical challenges of being a widow. She worries about needing to sell a seaside property that has special meaning for her children and at which she has wonderful memories with her late husband but she cannot afford to keep the small cottage now that she must support her family alone. She faces the pitying looks of her neighbors and the constant flow of people stopping by to check on her. She worries about her young sons and how they are adjusting to this loss but mostly she is blinded to the effects by her own grief. As Nora moves through her grief, she gradually discovers herself.

 Nora is in a fog following the death of her husband Maurice. She is haunted by his last days which were spent in pain and in a hospital where she felt he got little support from his doctor. Everyone has an opinion on how Nora should move forward - from her sisters, to Maurice's brother and his wife to her Aunt Josie. Nora finds all their opinions intrusive and no help in determining her path but she is unable to state her point of view. In an effort to keep her emotions in control, she is almost shut down and appears passive. Amid this passivity, however, there are glimmers of her will. At her sister's home for the weekend, Nora takes to the formal front room and reads for an afternoon alone much to the bewilderment of her sister who hurried around the home preparing meals and heading into town to shop. While on vacation at the seaside with her Aunt Josie, Nora strikes out and finds another place to sleep in order to escape her older aunt's snoring. A big part of Nora's movement beyond her grief was getting a job. She returns to an office job at Gibney's where she worked before her children were born. She is initially cowed by the powerful Gibney family and a controlling office manager but slowly but surely she asserts herself and develops a confidence in her skills. Piece by piece, Nora emerges from her grief and returns not to the woman she was before her husband's death but becomes a new woman who knows her mind and isn't afraid to follow it.

My Thoughts
Typical of Toibin's style, this novel is quiet and unassuming. Despite Nora's grief being so central to the story, there is no melodrama and a notable lack of emotion on Nora's part. She suffers quietly and only with fleeting connections to her own emotions and certainly to those of her sons. At times, the distance from her young sons is hard to understand especially given that they are obviously so affected by their father's death and its effect on the family. You do see, however, the fierceness of her love for her sons as she musters up the courage to defend Conor to the Christian Brothers at his school who think he should be demoted a grade. There is a passion there but it is buried beneath her grief and some expectation that she not express her emotions or overtly display her affection for her children.

Nora is an ordinary woman; it is Toibin's skill as an author which brings her to life as she proceeds through mundane activities. He artfully offers glimpses into the woman that Nora is becoming and peeks into her internal dialogue. I was quite impressed by this book and reassured by Nora's ability to emerge from her grief. This is not, however, my favorite book by the author.  The Blackwater Lightship still holds that position but I highly recommend Nora Webster.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Salon: January 18, 2015

The Sunday Salon.com

The Scene: 8:33 am  - sitting on couch, coffee in hand (as usual on a Sunday!) I have been up for a few hours because I am still dealing with some jet lag since returning from my trip. I love being a morning person for a precious few days after getting back from a trip!  If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen some pics from my trip.  If not, I included a few below:

View from Table Mountain, Cape Town

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Elephants - Chobe National Park, Botswana

 Reading: Fortunately, between the trip and these early mornings, I have been getting a lot of reading done. This morning I finished Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight - it is an excellent mystery/thriller and I think will strike fear in most parent's hearts.  I don't even have kids and was haunted by the secret lives that many kids face while at school. Earlier this week, I finished Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. He is a favorite author of mine and  while I enjoyed his latest book, I am not sure I think it is his best.

Listening: Currently I am listening to Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. The author narrates the book himself and I love listening to his Scottish accent.  But it is painful to hear him recount the (mostly emotional) abuse he faced at the hands of his father.

 Blogging: Yesterday I posted my review of  The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline. I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading others by the author. I am hoping to use my short-lived spurt as a morning person to get ahead on blogging this weekend and catching up on reviews.

Watching : While away, I missed the start of Season 5 of Downton Abbey.   I can't wait to catch up on the first 2 episodes - today's project will be figuring out how to stream from my laptop to the TV so I can watch episode 1 and 2 before episode 3 airs tonight.

While I was in the UK for a meeting last week, I heard about a series there that I think I will like - Broadchurch.  Season 2 just started airing in the UK but Season 1 is available here on Netflix.  I forsee a binge-watching session in my future! Have you seen or heard about Broadchurch?

Looking Forward To: Getting back into a routine - vacation was wonderful but now the routine of going to the gym and eating regular meals at home seems welcome!

Hope everyone has a relaxing Sunday!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Weekend Cooking - Review: The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline

The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline: Angela Russo is in her thirties and living in New York City; her life, however, has stagnated. She is alone and working at a job as an events planner which doesn't excite her. After getting fired following a spectacular disaster at a high profile event, Angela decides to head to Maine to nurse her wounds and move her life in a different direction. She is not just escaping NY - she had recently started communicating with an guy that lives in Maine through an online dating site. With potential love on the horizon with her "MaineCatch", Angela heads to Maine to start over.

 Growing up, Angela learned to cook at the side of her beloved Italian grandmother, Nonna. Her grandmother and the rituals in the kitchen provided a steadying force as Angela dealt with the ending of her parent's marriage and the adjustment to her Dad's new wife. Once she arrives in Maine and things are not turning out as she planned, food and the rituals that surround it once again provide comfort for Angela. Before long, Angela is working at a cafe and baking fresh muffins and cakes to replace the stale bagels being served with the strong coffee. Food is the vehicle she uses to connect to people and to draw them in. As Angela faces the isolation of Maine in winter, she once again turns to food and cooking. She starts offering cooking lessons in her small cottage and collects a group from her community once per week to learn how to cook a dish inspired by Nonna and to connect with each other and begin to reveal a little about themselves.

My Thoughts
This is my first novel by this author but it certainly won't be my last.  I tore through this book and didn't want to leave the characters at the end (I think the book lends itself well to a sequel - wonder if there will be one?) The story of self-discovery is very relatable and you want to see Angela succeed in the new life she has set out to create. Finally, the cooking scenes convey a real love of the art of cooking and it's power to heal and connect - they had me considering settling in for an afternoon of cooking on a cold winter's day.  The book even includes recipes from the novel including Maine Blueberry Muffins, Torta Al Limone and Stracciatella alla Romana, The comfort of a good novel and good food all in one!

Have you read other books by this author?  Which do you recommend I read next?

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, December 21, 2014

Sunday Salon: December 21, 2014

The Sunday Salon.com

The Scene: 9:45 am  - sitting on couch, coffee in hand, surveying the apartment and trying to remember what I have forgotten to pack. Prince is lounging next to me - he is down for the count after getting vaccinations on Friday.  The pics below sum up the before and after pretty accurately.

 Reading: I have a few books in progress right now (which is rare for me but it has to do with all the formats). In print, I am reading The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline - I am really enjoying it.  I never read her most famous novel - The Orphan Train - but likely will after this one.  On my reader, I am reading a Christmas book - Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan.  It is set in London, light and fluffy and perfect for this time of year! Finally, on audio, I am also transported to England by Jo Jo Moyes's One Plus One. I read The Girl You Left Behind (my review) by the author and loved it.  This book is also shaping up to be quite good!

Listening: See above for current audiobook. Need to queue up some others with a long flight coming up next week - any recommendations? I have been hearing a lot about Serial and will try that podcast while traveling too.

 Blogging: This week I posted my review of We Are Not Ourselves - this is easily my favorite read this year and based on feedback, it seems very popular with many of you too!  I also want to feature a post I did at last year at this time as part of the Virtual Advent series - review of Christmas on Jane Street.  I think about this story each time I walk past the tree vendors in the city.  If you are looking for a good read this time of year, I definitely recommend this! It reminds me a bit of a modern day Gift of the Magi.  And today, the ebook is only $1.99!

Watching : With holiday parties, year-end stuff at work and holiday prep miscellany, I haven't been watching much TV (which is really just fine).  But I have become fascinated by the holiday decorations on the buildings and townhouses throughout the city. I have been following a hashtag called #festivefacades on Instagram (follow me) which got me looking at all the #festivefacades in Manhattan!  Here is a sample from my wanderings while running errands yesterday.

Looking Forward To: So much to look forward to - heading to Texas to visit with family over Christmas and then on to Cape Town for New Year's (hence the packing stress right now - I am sure something will be forgotten).

Hope everyone has a relaxing Sunday!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Audiobook Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (narrated by Mare Winningham; 20 hours 51 minutes) opens in Woodside, Queens in the home of young Eileen Tumulty. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Eileen is an old soul who faces adult issues at a young age as she watches her mother struggle with alcohol. She is also acutely aware of the fact that her family has not "arrived" and is striving to have enough and to better themselves. Eileen takes this struggle very much to heart and begins an upward climb to acceptance and respectability which she believes comes with financial security. As the book continues, she marries Ed Leary and gives birth to a son, Connell. Together they face the changing face of their neighborhood in Jackson Heights, a health crisis and the realization that, despite hard work and tenacity, the American Dream may remain that little bit out of reach. Beyond just Eileen's story, this novel is the story of mid century American life through to present.

Eileen's story begins as the daughter of Irish immigrants in Queens, NY. Her father, Big Mike, is well known in the neighborhood and the life of the party which is contrasted by her mother who is fragile and turns to alcohol to cope. Eileen identifies more with her father and aims to please him by being a good student and wanting to better herself. When her father tells her he dreams that she will one day own a home as opposed to renting as he and her mother have done, Eileen puts that goal in her sights and goes about achieving it. When she meets Ed Leary, she sees a man who can provide stability but also work with her towards her goals. They do ultimately buy a multi-family home in Jackson Heights but it is Eileen that is the driving force behind making that happen and she is dismayed at Ed's lack of drive towards the goal.

The theme of moving up continues as Jackson Heights begins to change - it becomes more urban and multi-cultural. Eileen sets her sights on Bronxville - an upscale bedroom community with stately homes.  Despite it being quite a stretch financially, the Leary's move to the new neighborhood but Eileen still doesn't feel comfortable - that reaching instilled in her at a young age is nearly impossible to satisfy. In this quote, Eileen considers her inability to find satisfaction:

 “The fact that they were there, that everything they owned wasn’t enough somehow, disturbed her, suggesting a bottomlessness to certain kinds of unhappiness."
 Shortly after their move to Bronxville, however, Ed Leary receives a devastating diagnosis which changes the family's trajectory and pushes the concerns about fitting in to the backseat.

My Thoughts
This powerful novel moved me and is one I won't soon forget. There is so much familiar to me in this book - from the locations throughout Queens (I also grew up in the borough) to Eileen's struggle to make her father proud by doing better than he did thereby making his sacrifices and hard work worthwhile. But as much as this book reflected my own personal experience, it is so powerful because it reflects the quiet drama of every family's lives throughout the years. There is beauty in the capture of everyday celebrations and losses (most especially the losses) and the words the author chooses to describe these moments provide insight you don't understand until you read it.

I listened to this book on audio - the fact that it is over 20 hours long but I found myself looking for more opportunities to listen is a testament to the powerful story told by the author. The narrator, Mare Winningham, is new to me but her voice was perfect for this story largely told from Eileen's point of view.  I do, however, think this would also be a good book to read in print - the sentences are so well crafted, it would be nice to re-read and savor them.  Whether in print or audio, this is definitely the best book I have read in 2014.

Note: Special thanks to Diane of Book Chick Di and Joanne of Lakeside Musing - they both recommended this book and I am glad they led me to it!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Coconut 24/7 by Pat Crocker

It seems that everywhere I look these days, I see coconut - coconut water, coconut milk, coconut oil and even coconut flavored teas! In addition to it's delicious taste, coconut has a lot of health benefits and it is this feature which is contributing to its current surge in popularity. In Coconut 24/7, Pat Crocker, discusses the various benefits of coconut and then provides recipes featuring coconut from shakes and apps to entrees. In an age where recipes abound on Pinterest and elsewhere, I appreciate that this book added a lot of discussion about the health benefits of coconut and how to store and cook with it to maintain all those benefits.

 The book opens with a primer on the coconut and the various forms in which you can cook with it - the author even covers how to extract milk and water from a fresh coconut. Realistically, that is not going to happen in my life so I was glad she then moved on to discussing the coconut products you get off the shelf. I began using coconut milk in a mango protein smoothie this summer (tastes like the tropics!) so I was particularly interested in her discussion of coconut milk. In general, the author advocates limiting the processing of the coconut (hence the detail on how to extract milk from the raw coconut) so she recommends looking at coconut milk packages for unwanted ingredients like cane sugar, carrageenan and inulin. She also recommends selecting milk in the tetra packages rather than cans which can be tainted with BPA. Based on a review of the carton currently in my refrigerator, I am going to need to look a little harder for a less processed version. This was definitely eye-opening for me since I thought I was being "healthy" as I enjoyed my tropical smoothie.

 After the coconut primer, the book is separated into meal categories - breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers and snacks, spice blends, sauces and dressings, beverages, and desserts. The final chapter is "spa recipes" and covers how to make your own body products, like hand cream, using coconut products. Probably a little ambitious for me so I focused on the recipes. I wanted to expand beyond my smoothies and the entrees chapter offered a lot that appealed to me. I especially liked this Coconut Curry Chicken - it reminded me of many of the great dishes I had while in Thailand:

Coconut Curry Chicken

2 tbsp coconut flour
1 tsp sea salt
8 chicken thighs
2 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp grated ginger
3 tbsp Madras Curry Spice Blend
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup coconut milk
1 banana, coarsely chopped
1 sweet potato, coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf

1. In a flat bowl or pie plate, combine flour and salt, Dredge chicken thighs to coat. Reserve extra flour mixture

2. In a dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat.  Add chicken thighs and cook for 10 minutes or until browned well on all sides. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

3. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil in the pot. Add onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and curry spice blend and cook stirring constantly, for 2 minutes or until onions are soft. Return reserved chicken to the pot along with any reserved flour mixture. Add broth and milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and add banana, sweet potato and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes or until potato is fork-tender and chicken is cooked through and reaches 160 degrees on a meat thermometer.

This dish is delicious! If you are interested in how to incorporate coconut into your diet in a healthy but delicious way, I recommend trying this cookbook.

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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell: The Bird family lives in a lovely home in the Cotswolds in England. The four Bird children live what appears to be a charmed childhood being doted on by their mother, Lorelei,  who is a free spirit and delights in celebrating traditions with her family and creating memories. As is often the case, however, all is not as perfect as it appears. Behind the beautifully choreographed Easter egg hunts in the garden and the lovely dinners, is an inability to face anything uncomfortable. Lorelei copes by collecting things and this collecting soon turns to hoarding which slowly smothers this family. With this dysfunction as its backdrop, the family faces a tragedy and the trajectory of each member's life is changed.

Free-spirited Lorelei embraces being a mother and creates a lovely home for her family. She wants them all around her and enjoy nothing more than being home. She fills the walls in their home with the children's art and collects every memento of the passing years for each child. As the children get a little older, however, they want to spread their wings to a live outside the home; in response, Lorelei clings all the harder to them and adds more things to her "collection" - of course, all this stuff becomes a wedge between her and the family and only drives them further away.

My Thoughts
Hoarding is an uncomfortable topic - it is hard to imagine how someone could let things get so out of control.  Of course, it is not unlike many other addictions and beneath the compulsion is a person who is hurting and trying to fill a void. With this in mind, I felt much sympathy for Lorelei and even found her progression  from collecting to hoarding fascinating.  Thankfully, however, this book was not only about Lorelei and her hoarding.

The real story of the book is the ripple effect of dysfunction through this family. Chapter by chapter, the author reveals a little more about each of the children through the years into adulthood and about each of the parents. Between the impact of growing up in this home that slowly closed in on them and the horrible tragedy they all face one Easter, each family member had their fair share of issues to deal with and you see the effects of all that play out in their adult lives.

This book is compelling and I found myself hungrily reading to see what happens with each character.  Although not everyone has grown up with a hoarder, most face their own versions of family dysfunction in whatever degree. The family drama makes this book relatable while the degree and eccentricity this family faces makes it fascinating.  Highly recommend.