Friday, September 30, 2011

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

In The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine, the Weissmann women flee NYC for a ramshackle cottage in Westport, CT. Each is escaping a personal crisis and hope to nurse their wounds and take care of each on the coast of Connecticut. Betty Weismann, mother to Annie and Miranda, has just been unceremoniously left by her husband of forty-eight years and forced to forfeit occupancy of their Manhattan apartment as he moves his mistress into their home. Miranda had a successful literary agency but has been become embroiled in the scandal surrounding many of her authors when it is revealed that their memoirs were really more fiction than reality. She has been ostracized by the publishing community and is soon in financial trouble as her business falters. Annie has not suffered as dramatic a blow as her mother and sister but she is burdened by her own disappointments - the loss of her stepfather when he leaves her mother, the empty nest left by her two adult sons and the noticeable lack of a romantic interest.

Each woman undergoes an emotional transformation while in Westport . Betty comes to terms with the loss of her husband and the bitter realities of divorce; for the first time in almost fifty years, money is a concern and she is forced to modify her lifestyle. Modifying her lifestyle is not her greatest burden, however - her greatest burden is accepting that a man she considered the consummate gentleman and with whom she envisioned spending her golden years, has changed the locks on their home and declared his love for another woman. Miranda seems to capitalize on her time away from the responsibility of her career by exploring previously unexamined desires including that for a child. At fifty, Miranda has seemingly let motherhood pass her by but she is no longer so sure that she doesn't want a child in her life. Annie, possibly the most complicated of the three Weismanns is tightly wound and sees herself as the caretaker of both her mother and sister. There is a melancholy and even bitter side to Annie whose life is best described as "vanilla" - she seems to resent others for what she does not have in her life. While in Westport, she reflects on her losses but doesn't undergo any revelations or transformations as seen in her mother and sister.

In addition to the three well developed characters of the Weissmann women, there is a colorful cast of characters that surround the trio including a variety of gentleman love interests, and a eccentric but exceedingly generous cousin and his wacky family. The other characters provide a nice balance to the sometimes grim Weismanns. This book is very well written with complex characters and the added twist of it being a take on Austen's Sense and Sensibility adds yet another layer to the book. The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a great women's fiction pick and the excellent writing adds more than a little polish to this story.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner

Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Lifeis authors Priscilla Warner's journey to overcome the debilitating anxiety and panic attacks that had plagued her since she was fifteen years old. Up until the beginning of this journey she had managed anxiety with a pharmacological cocktail of sedatives but is pushed into finding alternatives by a particularly bad attack. She tries a series of disciplines- from silent retreats with Buddhist monks to ritualistic chanting- to bring her meditation practice to the next level and finally transcend her anxiety.

This book had me at "Bring Calm to My Life".  Although I don't suffer from anxiety attacks, I have become increasingly aware of the stress I feel daily and the toll it is taking on my health and body. In an effort to better manage that stress, I have explored meditation and yoga. I would classify myself as a "dabbler" - I certainly haven't mastered any particular technique and don't do it with any regularity but I am interested in learning more about how breathing and meditation techniques can help bring calm to my daily routine. For this reason, I really enjoyed Priscilla's journey - it had the perfect balance of information and personal experience so that the reader learns a little about the technique she is trying but more about her experience with it - both good and bad. The author shares quite a bit about her upbringing and family history as she explores it and gains some insight into why she struggles so much with anxiety. She does all of this exploration and journeying with a sense of humor and recounts her story with wit. This is really the key to this book's success for me - she doesn't take herself too seriously. As she says at the beginning of the book "Maybe my journey would resemble Siddhartha meets Diary of a Mad Jewish Housewife". Her journey is certainly accessible and whether you are new to meditation, a "dabbler" or experienced, there is something in this book for you which will help you learn how to bring peace and calm into your life.  I immediately thought of three people in my life who would appreciate this book and each for different reasons.

 For more information about the book or to view some "breathtaking moments", visit the author's website There are some great tips from the author on the website about how to start your own journey to calm. And while you are waiting for that journey to teach you how to achieve calm via meditation, why not achieve it the tried and tested (albeit not as healthy) way with these Buddha Chocolates made by Garrison Chocolates of Providence, RI?  Thanks to the generosity of Simon and Schuster, I have one box of 2 inch Chocolate Buddhas (2 white, 2 milk 2 dark) for one lucky winner. To enter, comment below on what you have tried to manage stress. Other stops on the blog tour are also offering interesting meditation-themed giveaways; you can see the schedule here **Giveaway is now closed**

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Trance of Insignificance by Jennifer Rainville

Jules Duvil is beautiful and intelligent and has recently embarked on a career in TV journalism in New York City. Despite her lack of experience in the field, Jules works hard and makes her mark. If only she could replicate the same success in her personal life. At the station she meets the network's "bad boy", anchorman Jack. Their relationship is passionate but fraught with volatility and conflict. But what motivates Jules to be successful professionally is also what draws her to Jack - her difficult upbringing in South Boston which has left her feeling as if she has something to prove.

Trance of Insignificance does a great job of balancing the fun storyline of Jules out on the town in NYC taking advantage of all the city has to offer and the darker, more serious storyline of Jules trying to overcome her past and navigate a difficult relationship with Jack. Diane of Book Chick Di says in her review:  

The book has a little Sex and the City feel to it; Jules spends time with her girlfriends, and there is a lot of label-dropping and fashion and relationship talk among them. There are also many New York geographical references- city dwellers will recognize the hotels, restaurants, streets, and landmarks mentioned throughout the book.
I agree with Diane's assessment and certainly enjoyed those city scenes in the book. At the same time, I like the reality of her storyline with Jack and especially her visit to her Mom in Boston. Her history in Boston does seem like an aspect of the book that could have been more fully developed and would have helped the reader understand Jules and her motivations even better. If you are looking for a sophisticated chick lit read, pick up Trance of Insignificance!

About the Author: Trance of Insignificance is self-published and the author, Jennifer Rainville, talks about her journey to get this novel published on her blog in this post. I found her story of trying to get the book published compelling and it, in part, convinced me to read it. I would love for this book to get more exposure. If you are a blogger and are willing to read and review this book, please say so in the comments and I will mail my copy to the first one to request it. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where 9/11 and a Love of Reading Intersect

 My heart is heavy as I write this post and the city outside my window is once again eerily quiet - 10 years ago at this moment I was sitting in a conference room in midtown watching in horror as the first building collapsed and praying that my family and friends were safe while worrying about what else was to come. I remember walking home later in the day with the fighter jets flying low over the city and being overwhelmed by all the uncertainty - we still hadn't heard from my Dad who worked across the street from the Towers and it was unclear if there were more attacks planned. It was the loneliest I have ever felt. Fortunately, we later heard from my Dad and when it was all said and done our entire family escaped unscathed.

Brooke Jackman's parents and sister holding a photo of Brooke (photo credit: NY Times)
I am painfully aware that many other families were not so lucky and my heart breaks for those lost on 9/11 and those left behind. One such family is the Jackman's - they lost Brooke who was 23 and working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Brooke had a love of books - her family talks about the backpack she always carried and how it was never without a book. Brooke also wanted to leave her career in finance and get a degree in social work - she had a real desire to help others. Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to realize that dream and her life was cut short by the attack on the World Trade Center. Her family, however, decided to honor her legacy by founding the Brooke Jackman Foundation  which focuses on improving literacy among at-risk children in NYC.  Since its inception in 2001, the foundation has given away thousands of "Brooke's Books" and "Brooke's Packs" - in total, more than 100,000 books have been given to at-risk children.  The foundation also holds literacy events including a Read a Thon which was held yesterday in downtown Manhattan where authors and others read books to children.  You can read more about the Foundation in this NY Times article and this HuffPo piece about the books famous children's authors selected to donate to the Foundation. 

I find the Brooke Jackman Foundation inspiring and a glint of hope in so much sadness surrounding the tragedy of 9/11.  A legacy of literacy is so fitting for a young woman who loved to read and wanted to improve the lives of children and it is a great story of a family overcoming their own grief to honor their sister and daughter while doing good for many.  From one reader to another - we will never forget.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Review: The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

The Kitchen Daughter  The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry tells the story of Ginny Selvaggio, a woman on the autistic spectrum who is struggling to assert her independence following the untimely death of her parents in an accident.  She has been carefully protected by her mother all her life and her sister, Amanda, believes she is not capable of living on her own or taking care of herself.  Despite her difficulty relating to others, Ginny connects deeply with the art of cooking and this sustains her as she faces conflict and emotions while advocating for her independence.

Ginny takes comfort in cooking and starts making family favorites almost immediately after the memorial service guests depart.  She discovers that by cooking a recipe written in a deceased person's hand she can conjure their ghost.  Ginny first conjures Nonna while making her ribolitta and her grandmother warns Ginny "Do not let her".  With this warning,  Nonna sets Ginny on a search for the meaning in her warning and she begins unraveling family secrets. Most importantly, she learns valuable lessons about herself and is given the opportunity to show just how well she can take care of herself.

I have seen many books recently centered around food with recipes sprinkled throughout the novel; The Kitchen Daughter, however, is much more than that.  Food, cooking and the joy derived from both are integral to this novel and are incorporated into every aspect of the book. Ginny is so attuned to food that she perceives and describes people and situations in terms of taste and texture.  For example:

His voice is muddy, that's what it is.  Dark and brown and muddy.  A note to it like coffee left too long on the burner.  And unsweetened, bitter chocolate.  But there's dirt in there too, deep, dark like a garden in October.
Food is Ginny's comfort but it is also the filter through which she sees the world and for someone who cannot bear to look people in the eye, a filter is absolutely necessary.  

While food and its power to bring people together is a central theme, the book is also about healing - there are many characters in the book who experience grief.  We follow Ginny from the starkness of her parents' memorial service through her gradual realization of how she will go on without them.  I was very impressed by Ginny's courage and determination - without the skills of rationalization or the ability to lean on others for support, Ginny journeyed through her grief and discovered her own strength could sustain her. 

The Kitchen Daughter is moving and so well written; I felt as if I were in Ginny's head throughout the whole book.  I often struggle with supernatural themes (ghosts etc) in books but in this novel it didn't give me pause at all and that is a credit to how well it is written and the fact that the ghosts furthered the story and Ginny's self discovery.  Whether you are a chef, a foodie or just someone who appreciates well drawn characters in which you can invest,  you will find something to love in this book. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: My Granny Went To Market

My Granny Went to Market My Granny Went to Market by Stella Blackstone
  Barefoot Books
  Age 3-7

In this children's book, readers are taken on a magical carpet ride as she zips around the world picking up items representative of each country's culture.  She gets nesting dolls in Russia, kites in Japan and drums in Kenya.   All in all, Granny visits ten countries and has quite a collection of souvenirs as the book ends.  The book achieves a few things - it teaches counting as Granny picks up an increasing number of items in each country; it teaches rhyming with the sing-song narration and most importantly, it introduces children to world cultures.

I read this book with my 3 year old niece and 7 year old nephew - he was able to read it while she counted up the items in each country.  The illustrations are detailed and vivid so they drew the kids in and gave them something to talk about on each page.  I love to travel and have been to some of the places visited by Granny so it was nice to talk about that with my nephew as we read the book.  It is certainly a book children can go back to again and again because there is a lot to be discovered in each  reading.  When I found the book hiding in my niece's bed one night, I knew we had a winner!