Sunday, December 8, 2013

Virtual Advent 2013: NYC Christmas Tree Stands

Kelly and Marg are once again hosting the Virtual Advent Tour for bloggers where each day a blogger (or 2 or 3) share a special holiday memory, tradition, story, etc. This is my third year participating - I love the run up to Christmas and this seems like a great way to lean into it! In the past I have written about my ornament collection and my favorite holiday movie, Love Actually. Today, I am writing about a NYC institution, the street Christmas tree vendors.

Each year, just after Thanksgiving, Christmas tree stands pop up and trees line the sidewalks creating these lovely alleys of Christmas spirit. I love the smell of freshly cut trees and it brightens my walk home from work. You see families and couples weighing up the trees and can imagine the scenes as they set them up in their city apartments. The arrival of the trees are quintessentially NY to me and signal the start of the season.
My neighborhood tree stand - Pin

This year I was introduced to the book Christmas on Jane Street; this short book chronicles the story of the Romp Family who come each year from Vermont and live in a trailer selling Christmas trees on Jane Street and 8th Avenue. The story is really not about the business of selling trees  - it is about giving joy at the holidays, about the special relationship between a father and daughter, and self-discovery through the observations of others. It is touching and the perfect accompaniment to the holiday season - I heartily recommend it and can see re-reading it each year.

Prior to reading the book, I had never given much thought to the stories behind those selling these trees or the little bits of people's traditions they become part of each year.  This book certainly brought that to light for me - I will think of it each time now as I stroll through the little wonderlands created on the street annually by these vendors.

The video below (produced by BBC) tells a little about the Romp Family and you can see their operation in action.

Please check out the other Virtual Advent stop today - Trish from Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Audiobook Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister (narrated by Cassandra Campbell; 6 hours, 4 mins)introduces us to Lillian and her restaurant where she teaches a Monday night cooking class. Food has always played an important role in Lillian's emotional life and she gets pleasure not just in bringing food to her patrons but in teaching her students how cooking can bring them joy and solace. Each of the students arrives at the class fleeing loss or drama in their life and ostensibly looking for cooking skills but really looking for companionship and distraction from their daily troubles. Lillian and the school offer much more than that. 

There are eight students in the class and each has their own story driving them to seek something from the experience of this class. Antonia is a kitchen designer who has recently immigrated from Italy hoping to start fresh in the US; Chole is a teen who doesn't quite fit in and is seeking acceptance; Claire is an overwhelmed mother who has lost her identity in taking on the role of mother; Tom is a young widower and still grieving the loss of his wife; Carl and Helen are an older couple with their own troubles in their marriage even though they appear quite content and Ian is a software engineer living a very linear but lonely life. Each of their stories are told throughout the book and are weaved together by the Monday nights at Lillian's cooking school. Lillian has her own difficult history and, perhaps because of that, seems to intuitively know what each of her students needs. She tailors the dishes and the intructions to meet them where they are emotionally and to teach lessons that go far beyond meal preparation. The cooking heals as does the companionship of the other students.

My Thoughts
This book is delightful - certainly anyone that enjoys food or cooking will love it but even those that struggle with cooking (see my last Weekend Cooking post!) will find something to love in this book because the food and the cooking is really a conduit to the telling of the emotional journeys of the eight students. The descriptions of food are beautiful and sensuous  - while I listened to this on my walks, I found myself getting hungry or feeling as if I could smell the dish being prepared.

Cassandra Campbell has become a favorite narrator of mine - I could listen to her voice for hours (and do!). The audio is excellent - listening to the descriptions of the food makes them come alive in a way I am not sure they would on paper.  I am looking forward to listening to the next installment in the series, The Lost Art of Mixing, to return to Lillian's and her students.

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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: Karma Gone Bad by Jenny Feldon

In Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangoes, Bollywood and Water Buffalo by Jenny Feldon, we follow the author to India as she and her husband relocate there for two years for his job. When Jenny left behind NYC for Hyderabad, India, she had visions of living a glamorous ex-pat life. After arriving in the dirty city with intermittent power and where getting a simple cup of coffee took herculean effort, Jenny started to question the move. Before long, she was losing sight of who she was and her relationship with her husband was strained - dreams of a glamorous ex-pat lifestyle were a thing of the past. Jenny thinks India and the stresses of living there are the problem but maybe the problems run deeper than the couple's locale.

 Jenny was very satisfied in NY - she loved everything the city had to offer and didn't feel the need to search for more. Traveling abroad was not her dream - she had everything she needed right outside her door. When her husband is asked (read: told) by his company to go to India for a two year stint, Jenny has some reservations but wants to be a supportive wife and fools herself into imagining a jet set lifestyle on the Indian subcontinent. She doesn't seem to do much research about her soon to be new home; her lack of preparedness becomes clear as she aruges with her husband about the number of designer dresses she should bring with her. When she arrives in India, her small dog in tow, she is assaulted by smells and sounds as soon as she deplanes. After a harrowing drive from the airport to their new apartment, Jenny and her husband discover their toilet is in their shower.

Everything is a challenge in their new city - going grocery shopping, getting a coffee, getting from point a to point b. As her husband throws himself into work, Jenny wants to play the perfect housewife but can't bring herself to overcome the many challenges of daily living. Rather than rise to those challenges, Jenny begins to retreat into herself and doesn't try to assimilate to her new home - she becomes overwhelmed by how different everything is from home and starts to resent India and her husband for bringing here there.

 My Thoughts 
I have been to India twice and both times I have been both fascinated and overwhelmed. NYC is fast-paced,loud and smelly but seems ordered as compared to the chaos of India. The author did an excellent job of portryaing what it looks like on the streets of India with cattle roaming about and drivers zipping along without observing any road rules. She also captures the experience of being an anomaly - it was unnerving to have people constantly stare at me (or even touch my skin) because I was white and tall where most people were brown and petite. The sense of personal space which we take for granted doesn't exist in India and I can appreciate how different that must have been from NY where you can be surrounded by people but still anonymous and encased in your own bubble.

At times, I was frustrated with the author - I found so much to appreciate while in India and I couldn't understand why she wouldn't grab on to this experience and wring everything out of it. I have to remember, of course, that I was only there for vacation or a business trip and not to live for two years. Many of the things that frustrated the author where taken care of for me by a tour guide or colleague. Although she didn't prepare effectively for the trip and went into it somewhat blindly, it must be difficult to live there and assimilate under the best of circumstances. My frustration abated as I watched her use the experience to gain insight into her marriage and her own limitations and to start to make changes to better navigate her new home.

This is an excellent travel memoir - I read it in two sittings - the author brings India to life and some of the scenes are laugh out loud funny. The author doesn't shy away from revealing her own foibles which invests the reader in her journey and pretty soon the frustrations with daily living in India fall away and you are watching a young woman learn about herself, her young marraige and how to live in the moment.  I have seen the book referred to as "Carrie Bradshaw meets Eat, Pray Love" and I think that sums it up really well!

Author of the popular blog Karma (continued…), Jenny Feldon was named one of BlogHer's Voices of the Year in 2012. A Massachusetts native, she lives in Los Angeles where she balances writing, motherhood, and giant cups of coffee—mostly all at once.

I received a copy of this e-galley from Netgalley.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Dinner With A Little Help from Sweet Roots

You don't see me much around Weekend Cooking (although I love reading all the posts) . . . because I do very little cooking. Living in the city where there is an abundance of restauarant and take out choices, I rarely seem to eat dinner at home. I also live alone and preparing dinner for one doesn't always seem efficient. I do, however, get tired of the take out routine and worry that it is not the healthiest choice.

Enter Sweet Roots NYC. Sweet Roots, based in Brooklyn, locally sources ingredients and delivers them ready to cook into a delicious meal. All the ingredients are expertly meaured, chopped, diced, etc - it really couldn't be easier. You get just what you need to prepare the designated meal so there are no leftovers or jars of obscure ingredients where you need only a teaspoon to make your dish. Each meal takes no more than 30 minutes to prepare which is perfect when you arrive home from work late and hungry.

The experience starts with a consultation with the owner, Marisa, who asks about your likes/dislikes, dietary restrictions and what equipment you have in your kitchen. I have a gluten sensitivity so we discussed that and each meal delivered has been gluten-free. With this information, Sweet Roots plans menus each week which are sent by email for pre-approval during that week.  At that time, you can request a substituion or swap out an ingredient - I have had to do that a few times when there has been something on there that I just don't eat or its a cuisine that I know I am already having at a dinner out that week. Some of favorite meals have been:

  • Ground Turkey, Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili served with a Baby Romaine Side Salad with Red Onion and Creamy Avocado Basil Dressing 
  • Seared Flank Steak with Housemade Steak Sauce served with Maple Roasted Butternut Squash and Garlicky Sautéed Broccolini
  • Seared Scallops with Apple Relish, Kabocha Squash Puree and Roasted Brussels Sprouts

On Sunday afternoon, your bag is delivered with each meal's ingredients separated into its own ziploc bag and a separate insulated pack with your proteins.  The week's recipes are neatly tucked into the outside pocket of the bag. Each ingredient for a meal is individually measured and packaged into a little jar or bag (depending on the ingedient). You rinse the jars and return them the following week by leaving your reuseable bag which is picked up when the new bag is dropped off. I liked that items are re-used rather than everything being disposable.

All in all, I have been so happy with this service. I find myself looking forward to cooking my meal and even find it a little relaxing - something I never thought I would say! And I know I am nourishing myself with healthy, locally sourced food.

What's your secret for getting healthy meals on the table or cooking for one?

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.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Theory of Opposites by Allison Winn Scotch

The Theory of Opposites by Allison Winn Scotch: Willa Chandler-Golden is contentedly living in NYC with her husband Shawn - they live a predictable, but she believes happy, life. The daughter of a renowned self-help author who has risen to fame with his theory that everything happens for a reason and the individual has no real control of their own life, Willa has allowed life to "happen" to her. Until now, she has been quite happy with the hand fate has dealt her; when her husband imposes a break on their marriage and she loses her job, however, Willa wonders if she can, and should, take control of her life.

Willa comes from a colorful, eccentric family.  In addition to her Dad who is in love with himself almost as much as his fame, there is her brother Ollie who teaches yoga to the rich and famous and her sister, Raina, who is a successful attorney with two kids (and a Xanax habit). Willa plays the role of "Switzerland" in the family - keeping the peace while letting them all have their way - unfortauntely, this has prepared her for a life in which she makes few choices and allows others to lead her. Happily married to Shawn and in a job she enjoys, she sees little wrong with the way her life has turned out through her lack of choices.  When Shawn decides her wants a break from their content marriage and cites frustration with Willa's complacency, Willa is forced to question whether her "leave it all to fate" approach is in her best interest and if it is really leading her to fulfillment.

Reeling from the loss of her husband and job,Willa sets out to live differently and to take some risks. Her friend Vanessa is only too happy to help her and pushes her daily to face her fears. Being a TV show producer,Vanessa naturally decides to turn this journey for Willa into a show opportunity and Willa is thrust into a reality episode of a show similar to Amazing Race or Survivor. This insanity aside, Willa comes to some significant revelations on her journey and begins to challenge her Dad's theories and recognize that she had unwittingly bought into them.

My Thoughts
Last year, I read The Song Sounds the Same by Allison Winn  Scotch (my review) and really enjoyed it so I was excited to read her latest.  Interestingly, this is her first self-published novel and she has written in this article about what prompted her to take that route and the experience.

Willa is a great character and one I found myself cheering for - I can relate to allowing things to happen "to" you rather than making things happen in your own life. Although I sometimes found her inertia infuriating, I also understood how hard it is for Willa to take charge and chart the course of her life. The writing is engaging and the book explores an interesting concept - how much of our life is of our own making and how much of it can be attributed to fate?

At times, some of the far fetched plot ploys seemed unnecessary - the "break" imposed by Shawn with the bizarre rules and the stint on the reality show. The book really has a lot to say and the story and the characters could easily stand on their own without the stunts. They did, however, add some levity to the story as did the antics of the crazy Chandler-Golden clan - I was very entertained by her family! This is a fun, enjoyable book which really gives you something to think about  -a winning combination!

I received an e-galley of this book from Edelweiss 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: The Perfect Match by Kristan Higgins

The Perfect Match by Kristan Higgins: Honor Holland is thirty five and can hear her eggs dying off one by one. She has been pining after Brogan for years but he really sees her as a good friend rather than a love interest and Honor suddenly comes to terms with that fact and realizes she has wasted too many good years pursing Brogan. Tom Barlow is an Englishman who wants to continue to live in the US to be near Charlie, the young son of his dead fiance. When he loses his work visa, he starts to look for someone to marry in an effort to get a green card. Tom and Honor are thrown together and this relationship of convenience starts to have meaning for both of them.

Honor is the "good girl" of the Holland family. She expertly runs the business side of the family vineyard, Blue Heron and even volunteers at the local assisted living facility. As she watches the rest of the family, however, find happiness in their lives she is more and more aware of how alone she is without someone to share her life. This perfectly primes her to take a chance with Tom even though she is not immediately charmed by him. Tom is also unsure about Honor and a marraige of covenience but he cares so much for Charlie, he is willing to do anything to stay near him. The more time Tom and Honor spend together as they get ready for their wedding, the more attracted they become to each other.  They begin to allow themselves to see their future less as a business transaction and more as a partnership with real passion.   Of course, the path from transaction to passion is not a straight line and Tom and Honor's fledgling relationship alternates between moments of real happiness and moments of frustration and doubt.

My Thoughts
Since reading My One and Only (my review), I have been a fan of Kristan Higgins - this is the third book of hers that I have read (review of Somebody to Love). Each of her books features a strong female protagonist with a crisis of the heart.  Her writing is witty, especially in the scenes with her self-deprecating heroine, which ups my enjoyment of the books.

At times, in this book, I got a little frustrated with the on-again, off-again nature of Tom and Honor's relationship.  I guess it is realistic considering the premise of their marriage of convenience but still found myself wanting to take the two of them and shake them!

The Perfect Match is the second book in the Blue Heron series - although you don't have to have read the first to follow this one (I have not read the first book yet) because each book seems to feature a member of the Holland family so they can really stand alone while those that enjoy the supporting characters in a book can read more about one of them in another book in the series.  Which brings me to perhaps my favorite element of this book - the Holland family.  They are a large, diverse but close-knit family and I found the scenes which included them were among my favorites.  I will definitely be going back to read the first in the series and anxiously await book 3 to visit more with the Holland family!

I received an e-galley of this book from Netgalley

Friday, November 8, 2013

Audiobook Review: Rococo by Adriana Trigiani

Rococo by Adriana Trigiani (Abridged, narrated by Mario Cantone; 4 hours 42 minutes): Bartolomeo di Crespi is part of a large Italian family living in New Jersey. He is especially close to his sister Toot who has taken care of "B" since their mother brought home this late in life baby to his big sister. When Bartolomeo vies for and wins the contract to redecorate Our Lady of Fatima Church, the family is proud and "B" sees it as his opportunity to wow his hometown and show them what he's got. Hilarity ensues as a cast of larger than life characters is brought in to help with "B"'s vision for the project and the di Crespi family drama hums along in the background.

Bartolomeo loves his community but also harshly critizies their style (or lack thereof) as any good decorator would. After training at FIT and worshipping at the House of Scalamandre,  it is hard for "B" to return home to New Jersey but that is where his roots are and despite his issues with the decor of the neighborhood homes, he knows it is where he belongs. The opportunity to bring the utmost style and a sense of grandeur to his home parish (Our Lady of Fatima) is an opportunity he can't resist and vehemently pursues..  Fortunately, he is betrothed (since birth by their parents) to Capri Mandelbaum whose mother is the church benefactor and happy to throw her support behind "B" in exchange for his promise to marry her daughter. Bartolomeo adores Capri but really more like a sister - he keeps ignoring that realization while in pursuit of his dream job at OLOF.

Meanwhile, Toot is in crisis - her sons have all left home and now divorced for thirteen years, Toot is lonely.  She acts out by complaining about her one son living in sin with his girlfriend but at the root of her dissatisfaction is a profound loneliness and even Bartolomeo can't ease her out of this low. When she seeks comfort in her ex-husband, things get really interesting.

My Thoughts
In Rococo, Trigiani does what she does best - delivers funny dialogue, larger than life characters and a peek into a tight-knit family. Despite all the humor, the real message is the power of family to gather, provide comfort and ground each of its members.  This quote captures that:

We have a way of being as a family that is purely Italian, beginning with the food we eat and ending with the regalia of our funerals. The care we take with our recipes, the slow preparation of the food, the retelling of old stories with the same familiar punch lines, bring us joy. Of course, there's also the dark side-the arguments, the freeze-outs, the Evil Eye. But eventually forgiveness washes away bad memories like clean rain. To an outsider, this may seem hypocritical. So what? We are what we are. What makes us different is what helps us stick together. We're Italian first and foremost; we can be wily and consistent, and to the outside world we may appear temperamental, moody and clannish, separating ourselves from the greater culture with a cup of arrogance and a dose of superiority. But the truth is, we are bonded by all of it, the best and worst of ourselves, by what we are, how we walk in the world, and the way we hold one another close. We are the sum of all of it, the devotion, the blind faith, the disappointments, the slights, the hurts, the surprises, the insanity, and, yes, that passion that drives us to make love with careless abandon and hold a grudge with the same intensity. What would I be without them?"
I think you could replace Italian with most nationalities and arrive at a similar conclusion regarding the role family plays in our lives.

I generally do not listen to abridged audio - I feel like I am cheating on the book - but Diane from Book Chick Di  had been recommending this production with Mario Catone as the narrator for some time and I am so glad I took her advice. He is genius as this narrator and brought Bartolomeo to life! I could easily have listened to him for an extended period of time but, alas, he only does the abridged version but it was well worth the listen!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: One Doctor : Close Calls, Cold Cases and the Mysteries of Medicine by Brendan Reilly, MD

In One Doctor: Close Calls, Cold Cases and the Mysteries of Medicine, Dr. Brendan Reilly brings readers to the front lines of medicine today and exposes it's fractured, ailing state. A distinguished internist  at a major academic medical center in Manhattan, Dr. Reilly sees the spectrum of patients as they are admitted to his service and he navigates the healthcare system in trying to provide the best care to each patient. By weaving together his thoughts on the healthcare system, the mysteries of some of his most challenging patients and the very personal story of caring for his own parents at end of life, Dr. Reilly has created an informative but also gripping look at medicine today.

Dr. Reilly began his career as a primary care physician in small town New England and practiced medicine in a way one imagines it was practiced years ago - with house calls and an in-depth knowledge of each patient. This experience, though not without its own challenges and during which he encountered his most mysterious case which haunts him to this day, informs Dr. Reilly's approach to treating patients. In this quote he reveals his philosophy as a doctor:
For many doctors, the purpose of medicine is to cure disease. For these "curing" doctors, if you don't have a definable disase - panic attacks is not a disease - then you've come to the wrong place. But, for other doctors, the purpose of medicine is the same today as it has been for centuries: to relieve human suffering - sometimes by curing disease (when we can) but always by empathizing with, understanding, and trying to comfort the sufferer.
He laments the fact that the vocation of being a doctor and comforter to patients has been devalued in the current business culture of medicine with healthcare as a "commodity" and patients as "consumers" and "customers" while the doctors are "providers".

Although Dr. Reilly provides his opinions on the state of healthcare today, the book is not merely an examination of healthcare policy from within the industry. Perhaps it's greatest offering is in bringing the reader to the bedside as Dr. Reilly and his team of colleagues, interns and residents see patient after patient and try to solve their medical mysteries. In each case,  the doctors use a mix of basic physical examination, patient interviews and more advanced medical technologies like CT Scans to get to the source of the symptoms presented by the patient and land on a diagnosis. The reader sees the process used in diagnosis, the challenges of managing not just the patient but their families, and the inevitable race against time as patients begin to worsen and the narrow window of time to diagnose and treat successfully narrows.

The counterbalance to the doctor at work is the doctor trying to doctor his own parents. His father, also a physician, has metastatic bladder cancer which has significantly impacted his quality of life while his mother is suffering from dementia and also needs significant daily care. With their care, Dr. Reilly experiences first hand what many of his own patients' families grapple with including challenging end of life decisions. How much intervention is enough or too much? It is interesting to watch him practice the same deductive approach to medicine without the benefit of distance - he is obviously emotionally invested in his parents and it complicates his care for them.

My Thoughts
I could not get enough of this book - it is fascinating on so many levels. With the health care debate so front and center now with the launch of the Affordable Care Act, it is interesting to explore, on a less superficial level than offered by the media, the many drivers of our issues in healthcare today. It also confirms my belief that there is no silver bullet to our healthcare challenges today and each solution will have some sacrifice with its own downsides.

More than that, however, I loved the front row seat to the practice of medicine and watching the doctor at work. It was like watching an episode of Gray's Anatomy or ER - gripping and emotional. In each case, you see the doctors struggling with their own issues - there is actually quite an exploration of regret in medicine and how it is not well understood or discussed - and juggling multiple patients and a plethora of information as they try to both cure and comfort each patient. At the core of each case is a patient looking to the doctor and the healthcare system for relief and a doctor trying to solve a mystery in order to do just that.

This book is definitely a top read for me in 2013 - highly recommend!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes: Sophie LeFevre's husband, Edouard, is fighting for France at the front of World War I; Sophie has been left behind in the small town of St. Peronne which has been occupied by the Germans. A Kommandant is taken by Sophie and the painting the artist  Edouard had made of her which hangs in her home and reminds her of life before the War. When that painting surfaces almost one hundred years later in the home of Liv Halston, an international scandal erupts and thrusts everyone into the limelight. Although long since deceased, Sophie also takes center stage and her story is told.

 Liv Halston was given the painting "The Girl You Left Behind" by her husband, David. When he dies suddenly, Liv is left as a young widow and she clutches everything that connects her to her late husband. She lives in the fantastic "Glass House" that was custom built by David, an architect. Each feature in the home reminds her of David, his brilliance and what she has lost. "The Girl You Left Behind" also reminds her of happy times with David and she develops a connection with its subject, Sophie. When the LeFevre family engages the services of a firm to recover the painting missing from Edouard's collection, they contact Liv and inform her she is in possession of a painting that was illegitimately obtained during the War. The family wants restitution but Liv cannot let go of one of her last connections to David - or to Sophie.

My Thoughts
I found this book completely engrossing. It is told alternately from Sophie and then Liv's point of view and I think the movement between contemporary and historical fiction was well balanced and served to keep the story moving. The author successfully creates two very sypathetic characters in Sophie and Liv - they are both dealing with tremendous grief and loss but they are also complicated and don't always make predictable, stereotypical choices. They are linked by the painting and they both hold on to it in an effort to connect to what they have lost.

The story extends much beyond just Liv and Sophie - each of their storylines are filled with interesting characters and subplots to make this a multilayered novel which pulls you in. In addition, there is the controversy over works of art with questionable provenace and what the current owners owe the descendants of the true owners. All of this together makes for a story I won't soon forget.

I received an e-ARC via netgalley. is currently offering a giveaway for a book bundle from the author - enter here

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dewey's Readathon: October 2013

Ok - I am in! The Readathon wasn't on my radar for some reason this month but all the #readathon tweets and excitement have drawn me in! I have a baby shower later today so will not be reading for the entire 24 hours but am still looking forward to getting some solid reading in.

 And for the first time, I have my trusty readathon companion with me - Prince! I adopted him last night and so far he seems pretty content (after we have played some catch and tug) to rest next to me while I read.

I will update this post throughout the day - to get things started, here is my Hour 1 update:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? 
Not sure  . . . since joining was a last minute call, my planning is non-existent.  But I know I will finish The Girl You Left Behind  - loving it! 
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
See above re: planning :(
4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I live in the city, love to read and have been blogging for almost 4 years. 
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
Will try to keep the distractions to a minimum so I can really read! 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Guest Post: Author of Painted Hands - Jennifer Zobair

When I talk about how I came to write a book about two successful, professional Muslim women in Boston, I often say that it started with a drug test in Michigan. I’d just left my law firm job for an in-house position at a robotics corporation and, as many companies do, they required a drug test as part of the hiring process. I reported to the appropriate hospital for the test, with my big, blond hair and tailored black suit, and proceeded to answer the perfunctory questions—name, address, date of birth— from the twenty-something male registrar. When he got to religion, I said Islam.

 Without missing a beat, he replied, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

 Despite research showing that Muslim women in America are highly educated and high-income earners, the stereotype of the oppressed and foreign woman persists. This “otherizing” is what allowed that young man to be so surprised to learn I was a Muslim. And it’s what informs too many narratives about Muslim women in this country.

 My novel is about the kinds of Muslim women I know—smart, opinionated, warm, confident. Because I married into a Pakistani American family, many of the Muslim women I know happen to be South Asian like my two main characters, Amra and Zainab. In many ways, the book is about their experience as second generation Indian and Pakistani Americans and the ways they navigate their bicultural identities. For example, they don high-end western clothes as they scale the corporate ladder, but can still rock a gharara or a sari at South Asian weddings and parties. Zainab, who is a brash, beautiful campaign strategist, even wears a red lehenga to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, causing Amra to ask if her attire isn’t “too ethnic.” Part of this might be because Amra is a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, and law firm culture is notoriously conservative. But politics is, too, and Zainab’s sartorial choice probably has more to do with her confidence: In this as in all matters, Zainab is radically and unflinchingly committed to being herself—a very American and very South Asian feminist.

 The novel explores Indian and Pakistani culture, to be sure—there are descriptions of food and clothes and wedding traditions like how brides typically wear red and have their hands “painted” with henna before the ceremony. But for immigrants of any generation or background who happen to be Muslim, there are points of departure from other immigrant stories in a post-9/11 world, and I’ve tried to capture that in this novel. What does it mean to be a Muslim in America, or a woman—even a feminist, as my characters and the author certainly are—in Islam? Who is a “real American” and who gets to decide? And how do you maintain your dignity when so many people stand ready to vilify you on the one hand, or pity you on the other, based on your religious affiliation?

 Of course, Painted Hands also explores issues many non-Muslim women can relate to as well. My characters balance high-powered careers and the desire for a family. They are attracted to compelling and complicated men. They confront the glass ceiling, the pressures of the western beauty myth, and the fissures even close friendships face when people change. At the heart of the story, then, is that whatever our roots, whatever generation of “immigrant” we happen to be, our struggles and triumphs are strikingly similar. There are differences, of course, and I hope Painted Hands illuminates a bit about what it’s like to be Muslim woman in America. But I hope it also shows that universal truth the brilliant Maya Angelou spoke of in her poem “Human Family”:

 I note the obvious differences 
between each sort and type 
but we are more alike, my friends 
than we are unalike

Thank you to Jennifer Zobair for this excellent post about the characters in her novel, their immigrant stories and the universality of that experience.  Her first novel is Painted Hands (my review).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair

In Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair, we meet Zainab Mir, Amra Abbas and Rukan, three American Muslim women who grew up together as best friends. Now adults, the women are successful in their careers and have managed to dodge their family's attempts to marry them off and move them into the traditional wife role they would like them to play. Amra is an in-demand attorney at a top Boston firm and firmly on the partner track. Her hours are long and all-consuming. Zainab is a political consultant and communications director for a feminist candidate for office in Boston - she espouses controversial positions by mainstream standards and certainly by those of her conservative Muslim family. Rukan is considering marriage to a non-Muslim which has shocked her family. The novel provides a glimpse into the dilemmas that face many young women - balancing career aspirations with desires to have a husband or kids and the selection of a spouse that a family does not support - but offers that glimpse through the lens of the Muslim-American experience.

My Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it is well-written and the characters are engaging. As I reflected on what captivated me about this book, I first thought it was the view into a world that is not written about much in contemporary literature. The experience of young Muslim-American women grappling with modern dilemmas like how to balance work and home life or the choice of a spouse which dismays a family, is not one widely seen in literature today. I was fascinated by the Muslim traditions and the cultural expectations placed on women. In addition, the author skillfully created multidimensional characters in these three women. It would be easy for them to all fit cultural stereotypes and be very similar to each other simply because of their common background.  Instead, they are distinct from each other and have their own story.

On reflection, however, I realize that the women's Muslim American background is a layer in this story but not the entire story. At the core, they are just modern, educated women facing the challenges we all face. What I was drawn to was their similarities to me and not to their differences. Amra, Zainab and Rukan's experiences are similar to my own and those of my friends  - their differences make the story perhaps more compelling but what I responded to most was how well their stories resonate. This is a smart, entertaining read.

You can read other reviews of this book from those on the TLC Book Tour .

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Guest Post: Author of The Partner Track, Helen Wan

A writing instructor of mine once assigned our fiction class this terrific exercise: “When you get stuck, put aside whatever you’re working on and try writing about your elementary school cafeteria. What did it look like, smell like, sound like? Where did you sit? And who with? Did you ever sit alone? And how did that make you feel? What about what you ate? Were you a lunch-bringer or a lunch-buyer? Were you self-conscious about what you were having for lunch?”

This, I think, is an incredibly helpful prompt to give to a roomful of aspiring fiction writers. What better microcosm than a school cafeteria to draw out so many long-forgotten memories, deeply rooted cultural traditions, raw insecurities and honest emotions? It gave me the opening to my debut novel, THE PARTNER TRACK, the story of a second-generation Chinese American woman about to become the first minority female partner at a prestigious white-shoe law firm, and how family and cultural context and “outsider” status affect her journey up the corporate ladder.

At the start of the novel, Ingrid Yung, my protagonist, has perfected the art of “passing” – that is, downplaying attributes of having been raised by first-generation Chinese immigrants – in order to seamlessly blend into the fabric of her white-shoe law firm. Secretly, though, like many other men and women with any sort of “outsider” status, Ingrid sometimes feels she must be a less “authentic” self in the workplace in order to be successful.

Although she is now a polished, seasoned M&A lawyer on the cusp of partnership at a top global law firm, Ingrid sits in the corporate cafeteria and reflects on being a shy kid awkwardly unwrapping the shrimp toast and scallion pancakes her Chinese-American mother would pack in her lunchbox, and how the other girls at the table would wrinkle up their noses and ask, “What’s that?” – their own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwiches raised halfway to their mouths.

 A lot of people have asked me how much of my novel is autobiographical. Well, like Ingrid, I’m the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, my grandparents fled China during the Communist Revolution and found refuge in Taiwan, my parents later immigrated to the United States, where I was born and raised, and my first job after graduating law school was in fact at a large corporate law firm.

When I began work on this book over a decade ago, I was dead set against writing a particular kind of so-called “ethnic novel” (a phrase that I find of questionable utility anyway. What were John Updike and John Cheever doing if not writing at least partly about their “ethnicity”?). It seemed to me there were a fair number of “immigrant stories” being published about Asian Americans, but they always seemed to follow an increasingly familiar formula: a flock of old-world relatives, a wedding banquet with large and detailed descriptions of the food, a soul-searching trip back to some “ancestral village” in Asia, at least one arranged marriage. By the way, note that I am not denigrating novels that include any of these elements; I myself enjoy many of them; I am simply saying that my goal was to write something that felt altogether different. I wanted to explore the question: What happens to these children of immigrants once they’ve actually arrived at the top (or at least have gotten very, very close)? What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?

 It is this aspect of the immigrant experience that I am most interested in: the cultural weight that any second generation carries around with them. When you’re the child of Chinese immigrants, especially ones who abandoned everything that was comfortable and familiar and had to start over from scratch twice (once to flee China, and once to immigrate from Taiwan to the States), when that is part of your family’s origin story, if you will, I think it really influences the personal choices that you make in life. And that is at the heart of THE PARTNER TRACK.

 Ingrid constantly has to ask herself the question, how important is it to achieve something, just because she is one of the very few who can? Because she can, does it follow that she must?

By the way, a number of friends who happen to be as white and male as they come, have told me they were surprised how well they could relate to Ingrid, and that this means that it doesn’t take immigrant or outsider status at all to appreciate the themes of this book – that is, the pressure we all sometimes feel to conform because we want so desperately to fit in. Again, I’m drawn back to the setting of the school cafeteria. To me, those childhood memories of the desire and necessity to fit in are so powerful, so ingrained, and so informative of later adult lives and choices, that they are incredibly useful to writers of fiction.

 Helen Wan is the author of the debut novel THE PARTNER TRACK, about a young Chinese-American woman’s experience in corporate America, just released by St. Martin’s Press. She is also Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner. Helen’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Her author website is

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Partner Track by Helen Wan

The Partner Track by Helen Wan: Ingrid Yung is a rising star at the Manhattan law firm of Parsons Valentine and Hunt LLP. She dedicates herself to meeting the many demands of the partners and after almost nine years of glowing reviews, she is firmly on the "partner track". As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ingrid feels a tremendous amount of responsibility to be successful in an effort to repay her parents for all their sacrifice. As the announcement of new partners nears, Helen is asked to take on an important deal and to close it in record time. She gladly takes on the challenge but is less enthused when she is asked to be a champion for the firm's diversity initiative. Can Ingrid bear the burden of her parent's expectations, be the firm's diversity darling and close this major deal on her way to partner?

Ingrid Yung attended Yale undergrad and then Columbia Law before arriving at Parsons Valentine. Working in NYC at a top law firm fulfilled a dream that had taken root at a young age. While visiting a friend of her parents in Manhattan as a young girl, Ingrid looked out the window of their exclusive apartment building and mused:
I could not stop looking and looking out that window, at the deep violet hue spreading across the sky. It felt as if the day's humiliations were draining from my body, and I was waking up fresh. I had never wanted to belong to anything more than to that shimmering landscape of office towers lit up against the dark New York sky. Each individual glittering box of light - like gems strung along a necklace - seemed to me to be a tiny, oblong window onto success, acceptance, respect, that is to say, a place in the world. 
Getting to NYC and into one of those glittering boxes of light has not been easy - Ingrid has succeeded against a lot of odds. All the women who started at Parsons Valentine with her eight years ago have now left the firm; some left to pursue careers with less challenging hours and expectations while some left to have families. Ingrid is surrounded by an "old boys club" where subtle, and often not subtle, gender discrimination abounds. Being a "two-fer", a woman and person of color, Ingrid has also faced thinly veiled racism. With single-minded focus, however, Ingrid has ignored these obstacles and succeeded by keeping the prize of partner squarely in her sights. With the advent of the diversity initiative, however, Ingrid is beginning to give more consideration to the sleights and inequities she has faced.

My Thoughts
This smartly written debut novel takes on big topics like the glass ceiling and racism but packaged in a story line that makes these bigger themes very accessible. Ingrid is an appealing heroine - she is smart, direct and just flawed enough to make a reader like her and most importantly, to relate to her. She has a touch of idealism but is not naive and although she is bothered by the lack of diversity at the firm and the lack of women at the top, she wants to make partner more than anything else. That raw ambition is impressive.

As a woman in corporate America, I saw much in this book to which I can relate. The subtle discrimination that takes place when men at the top of the ladder give opportunity and access to those that look a lot like them is very real and you ignore it at work at your own peril. I don't believe that is is deliberate but that it represents an unconscious bias and one we must all stay vigilant in order to ensure fair play for everyone.

Finally, I could relate to Ingrid's feelings as a first generation American. The quote above reflects thoughts not unlike my own about living and working in NYC. The theme of fitting in and being accepted as the daughter of immigrants is not a primary one in the novel but the author weaves it in expertly and it serves to further flesh out Ingrid's character. I definitely recommend this debut novel!

I received an ARC of this book for review from Wunderkind PR. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

In The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty, we meet three women who casually know each other but whose lives are actually quite entwined. We watch their lives collide as the story unfolds and see what each woman's limit is for forgiveness and how much they are willing to endure to keep their families intact.

Tess Curtis has recently learned that her husband and her cousin are in love and want to pursue their relationship. Tess considered her cousin her best friend and trusted her implicitly so she feels "had" by both of them and regrets not looking closer at their growing relationship. She takes their young son and returns to her mother's home in Sydney to gather herself after the shocking news. She is surprised to run into her ex-boyfriend, Conor Whitby, when she enrolls her young son at the local school.

Rachel Crowley's seventeen year old daughter was murdered twenty years ago and Rachel is still haunted by the fact that her murder was never solved. Hardened by her grief, Rachel continues to pursue her own theories of who killed her daughter. She firmly believes Conor Whitby killed her daughter and as she faces the fact that her son is taking her only joy, her grandson, all the way to New York City, Rachel's need to see Conor pay becomes fervent.

Cecilia Fitzpatrick is an uber-mother - she heads all PTA activities, runs a successful business selling Tupperware and never appears anywhere about town or at her children's school with even a hair out of place. Her polish is appealing if a bit intimidating. When she discovers a letter addressed to her by her husband instructing her to read it in the event of his death, she is perplexed. She becomes even more perplexed when she mentions her discovery to her husband and he reacts strangely. Cecilia can't resist the temptation and ultimately opens the letter; the letter is the catalyst for the collision of the women's lives and where they discover how they are connected.

  My Thoughts
The Husband's Secret is a wonderfully enjoyable read. We learn about each of the women and the crisis they are facing before we finally see the secret revealed - in fact, the secret is not revealed until well into the book. The story is alternately told from each of the woman's point of view and the reader gets to know to know them and understand what they face.

The author does an excellent job of walking the fine line of telling a serious story and creating a "light read".  There were many funny moments in the book but enough meat to make it a story you really want to settle in with for an afternoon. I will definitely be looking for other books by the author.

I received a copy of this book at BEA 2013. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

We Remember

Today I am remembering those we lost, praying for their families and counting my blessings.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Salon: September 8, 2013

The Sunday

 I can hardly believe we are a full week into September already - we even had some crisp weather this weekend signaling that Fall will surely be here soon. I got a little taste of cooler weather during the week before Labor Day when I went on a cruise to Alaska. Alaska has been "on my list" of place to visit for some time and when my Mom revealed she also wanted to go, we planned a trip. We sailed from Seattle and spent a few days there before our cruise started. Although I had been to Seattle for work, I had never spent any significant time there and never any as a tourist. We had a fun few days touring the city; by far, my favorite sight was the Chihuly Garden and Glass. I missed the artist's exhibit in NY a few years ago so I knew I wanted to see it when I got to Seattle - and I wasn't disappointed. The beautiful pieces mixed into the gardens were stunning.

We also made the trip to the Public Market - despite the fact that it was super busy, I loved it!  Stall after stall of beautiful flowers, gorgeous fruits and vivid vegetables. It was the flowers that got me - the bouquets were beautifully arranged and so affordable! I wish they had bouquets like that here - I would have fresh flowers in my office and home every week.

We made 3 stops in Alaska - Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. By far, my favorite part was one we didn't stop in - Tracy Arm Fjord.  We cruised through the fjord early in the morning for about four hours and it was just stunning - well worth the 5 am wake up call!

All the all, the trip was excellent.  We had active excursions in each port - we hiked in Ketchikan and kayaked in Skagway.  In Juneau, we hiked down to Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was a great way to close out the summer!

What destination is on your list?