Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Friday, December 28, 2012

A delicious and lovely Tomato Crostini...perfect colors for the holidays!
(I'd like to take full credit but it is from Barefoot Contessa's new book of "foolproof recipes".  So far so good...I've tried 3 of them.

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta

6 oz feta cheese crumbled
2 oz cream cheese at room temp
2/3 cup olive oil   (divided)
2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tablespoons minced shallots (1 shallot)
2 teaspoons minced garlic or 2 cloves
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 lbs. ripe cherry tomatoes-diced in ½ in pieces
2 Tablespoons fresh julienned basil leaves
20-25 diagonal cut baguette slices (I used English muffin sliced bread which I toasted in oven)
2 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts for garnish

Put both cheeses in food processor with steel blade and pulse till blended.
Add 1/3 cup of the olive oil, lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper till all smooth.
Cut up tomatoes about an hour before serving, combine with shallots, garlic, vinegar in a medium bowl. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Whisk in remaining olive oil (1/3 cup) 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teas. Pepper. Stir gently and set aside for 10 minutes. Stir in the basil and taste for seasoning.

To assemble the crostini, spread each slice of bread generously with whipped feta mixture. With a slotted spoon place the tomatoes on top. Put the crostini on plate and scatter with pine nuts.  Can add additional chopped basil if desired.

This recipe takes a little time, but it is so worth it...both in presentation and taste.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012



I read this quote this week in the massive coverage of the Sandy Hook tragedy. I think it was in a letter of advice to parents on how to dispel worries children might voice after experiencing such trauma.  As one young survivor of the tragedy told her mother, “But I just can’t stop thinking about it.”  Mother suggested she replace this worry thought with a brave thought.  What wonderful counseling for a frightened child.

My three –year- old granddaughter Maribelle uses the word brave often. I thought this was kinda peculiar as I don’t recall ever using that word as a child.  But then again she is being raised at West Point Military surroundings with its many statues and memorials where her father talks to her about George Washington and how brave the soldiers were.

Then I thought too of all the countless fairy tales and Disney hero adventures children are exposed to in books, TV and movies.  Brave is BIG.  Brave is even what Princesses now practice. It’s a good thing!

This idea of replacing worry with brave came to mind many times this week as I heard too often how many children were lost and we see little children attending the funeral of little friends.  It is not a pleasant scene, yet it is right to be brave. I think it doesn’t mean we don’t cry. It means we do something that is right even though we might be afraid or uncomfortable.

And I thought, how many adults could use this same mantra?   Who doesn’t want to be brave?  Who wouldn’t want a quick and doable formula for dispelling those worrisome thoughts that creep into our heads as we’re doubting ourselves, or awake in the night imagining the worst, or fearing for a family member’s safe arrival while traveling?  Or giving ourselves a pep talk when facing an uncomfortable situation.

So hopefully out of this horrific tragedy of Sandy Hook-- perhaps something can be salvaged.  A way to teach the living children to deal with fears and worries....something we humans are all plagued with throughout our lives.  Let’s try hard to redeem something good—small as it may be—of this awful event. Let’s be a brave example to those around us—especially children.  And may 20 little souls rest in peace—no longer a need to be brave –simply angelic.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lost and Found

I’m SUCH a loser. Now before you try to be kind and tell me I have some redeeming qualities, let me clarify.  I am a loser—literally.  I lose so many things.  Little things, big things, cheap, expensive, important and not so important, but still...
For example, I have a drawer in my jewelry box that contains only single earrings.  I have lost their mates. ( I’ve learned that as soon as I throw out the single, the other one miraculously appears,  in a purse or dangling from a necklace I haven’t worn in ages).

I’m also a leaver. Hats, gloves, scarves, jackets—anything not attached to my body has been left behind somewhere. I hope whoever finds my stuff enjoys it-- small consolation but I hope someone in Boston is now enjoying my favorite fuschia golf cap -- left in the women’s stall at the Boston Acquarium-- or someone in  Newburgh, New York has use for a SONY camera battery and charger which fell out of of carry-on at the airport.

I know now where the expression ”If my head weren’t attached...” comes from. It’s a wonder I didn’t lose Tim or Berta when they were babies.

Latest loss:  Last week I had an audition at the casting studio at noon and a Christmas party there the same night at six. Rather than drive the 50 mile round trip home and back, I decided to hang out at the beautiful Biltmore Shopping Plaza which was just a few miles from the studio.

I had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory and then sat on one of the picnic benches in the promenade—it was a beautiful day.  I made some phone calls and then went window shopping with a final stop at Macy’s. 

Hours later I pulled into the casting studio parking lot a bit early for party and thought I would review the monologue which I was a performing that night.  I had put it in the cover of my Kindle. No Kindle to be found anywhere.  Begins the frantic search and that awful feeling in the pit of the stomach...oh no, not again.  Under car seats, in purses, in bags on seat, glove compartment.  Then I remembered I took the Kindle to lunch with me in case I would read during my solo lunch.

No time to return to the Biltmore.  Frantic memory trace of my steps.  Only purchase was at Macy jewelry department where I bought a pair of earrings for my niece (sorry for plot spoiler if you’re reading this Alycin).  Do you know how hard it is to find a human...”enter your account number, your balance is,  your available credit is...”
Finally... a live voice. Customer service promises to call me should a Kindle turn up.

Then I call Cheesecake Factory. No Kindle there.  I talk to the nicest manager however...SO nice that I sheepishly ask him a stupid question, “I know it’s a long shot but could you please have someone check the picnic bench between you and Paradise Bakery?   This four hours after I sat on the bench...dream on.
 Sure, no problem! I’ll check with the Bakery manager too”.  This young man’s mother would haven been so proud of her son’s courtesy and kindness.

Then one more moment of panic. My credit card number is tied to the Kindle. What if an avid reader, an unscrupulous avid reader found the Kindle and with one touch of the finger starts downloading –every book he or she has ever wanted.  Charged to my card.

I make one more call...Wells Fargo. Please cancel my card.  I know that card is tied in to other automatic payments, but in my best Scarlett O’Hara voice I tell myself I will deal with that tomorrow.

Short story long:  Cheesecake man calls me back. Someone turned Kindle in to Paradise Bakery and he took  it to the mall office.

I think “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.”

After profound thanks and vowing to eat at the Cheesecake Factory once a week for the rest of my life (what a sacrifice) I go to the party worry-free.

P.S . What prompted this blog was the fact that when I left the house this morning I couldn’t find my favorite Chico jacket...I think I left it on the plane when our red-eye from Hawaii was cancelled.   See what I mean—a literal loser /leaver, whatever.

A final note to my son Tim and DIL Bette Anne:  I’m told grandson Kevin has loser “issues”.  Please don’t be too hard on him.  I think it’s in the DNA.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

If you are still looking for a Christmas gift for the reader in your family, male or female, I think they’ll thank you for placing Beautiful Ruins under the tree well into the new year.  And you’ll enjoy the sound of their laughs-out-loud as they turn the pages.

I don’t recall what prompted me to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter a few months ago.  I had never heard of him although he has written five other successful novels, including  The Zero, a National Book Award novel about 9/11 and The Financial Lives of Poets, a satire on our economic crisis.  Nor do I recall anyone recommending the book.  So I am so thankful that somehow I stumbled onto it because it is a GEM. 

I’m going to fudge a little here and copy the description of the book on the front flap of the book cover because it summarizes so much so well (and frankly, I still have a lot of Christmas shopping to do) and then delve into some of my personal favorite highlights.  There is way too much to talk about.  The beautiful and funny writing, the unique and so varied characters, the settings—Italy, Hollywood, Idaho, the Northwest. 

From the book jacket:
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of "Cleopatra" to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the star-struck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion--along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, "Beautiful Ruins" is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

I’ll start my comments with Jess Walter’s writing.  One book reviewer calls his work a literary miracle. Walter captures scenes that create beautiful imagery.  For example, the opening scene in the tiny fictional Italian coastal village of Porto Vergogna

She (the dying American actress) arrived in a boat that motored into the covey, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier...All around her shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves. Twenty meters away Pasquale Tursi was attempting to construct a beach under his family’s empty Pensione (Hotel). He watched as if in a dream or as he would think later, a dream’s opposite--a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.  Chest deep in the cold Ligurian sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s “beach” was only as wide as two fishing boats and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock.  It was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village. 

When the actress Dee Moray smiles at him Pasquale falls in love and would remain in love for the rest of his life—not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment. 

What follows is a description of the ancient dilapidated hotel, the improbable beach designed purposely to attract wealthy Americans such as the Kennedys, the plans to build a tennis court on a jutting piece of rock—all as futile and ridiculous as the name itself: Hotel Adequate View.

Another example of Walter’s way with words:  Porto Vergogna translates as Port of Shame-so called because it was once a place where sailors and sardine fishermen could find women of “a certain moral and commercial flexibility”.

Although filled with boundless comic passages, a favorite I cannot resist enticing you with is that of Michael Deane, the once famous Hollywood producer of the 70’s and 80’s, the “Deane of Hollywood” now reduced to producing a reality dating show called Hookbook. 

The first impression one gets of Deane is a man constructed of wax. It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injection that have caused a 72-year old man to have the face of a 9-year old Filipino girl.

Trying to picture what Michael Deane looked like as a young man in Italy fifty years ago is like standing on Wall Street trying to understand the topography of Manhattan Island before the Dutch arrived.

Moving on to characters and plots We’ve all read novels with multiple plots emerging and wondering how they would all pull together satisfactorily by the end of the book.  Often, we feel we’ve been manipulated or perhaps the culmination was a little unrealistic.  Not so with this story.  It comes together beautifully and leaves one with a sense that all is well with the human condition.  In a sense it is also good vs. evil (not blatantly like Star Wars) but more like in It’s a Wonderful Life or Willie Wonkie (all good deeds Charlie shall be rewarded...or something like that).

One storyline is with young and very likeable film student Claire, who works for producer Deane reading scripts, hoping to discover the next literary masterpiece but instead being inundated with realty TV show pitches featuring drunk models or sex addicts—scripts so offensive that to give them the green light for production would be akin to “singlehandedly hastening the apocalypse.”  Should she take the new job offer at the new Film Museum-- and while dumping her old job should she also dump her boyfriend whose favorite pastime is girlie shows and strip clubs? 

Then there’s Shane Wheeler, another down on his luck wannabee screenwriter who is about to, against all odds, successfully pitch a movie to Deane called “Donner!” Yes, it’s about the Donner party and story comprises one entire chapter.  We find ourselves also rooting for Shane who for all of his young life lived with the philosophy his loving parents instilled: act as if you can do something and you can do it. This creed has served him well until recently.

Then there is Elvis, a failed American writer and alcoholic veteran. As a once a year visitor to the Hotel Adequate View, he leaves his World War II novel in his room—actually just the lone chapter he continually rewrites every year for two weeks each summer.

Then there is the cameo appearance of the real life Richard Burton who is in Italy for the filming of Cleopatra—the scandal-ridden Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic, with a budget of about 300 million of today’s dollars.  I thought the title Beautiful Ruins referred to the rock formations on the Italian coast but it appears that Burton himself might be the ruin they are referring to.  They describe a scene where he appeared on the Dick Cavett show in the 80’s, at age 54, looking quite ruined.

And of course, the main characters—Dee Moray, the American actress and Pasquale Tursi.  I do not want to give a plot spoiler and reveal how and why all these characters unite to bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it is the Hollywood influence but one can almost hear the swelling soundtrack at the end. 

If you are a fan of audio books, I highly recommend that you listen to this one instead of read it as the narrator, Edwardo Balarini,          brings Pasquale to life with his beautiful Italian accent. Ladies, you will fall in love with this sweet and humble, azure-eyed Italian. In my book, he joins the ranks of Heathcliff and Rhett Butler.

Beautiful Ruins is a great escape read and storytelling at its best with the right blend of pathos and comedy.  

Merry Christmas to all ...and to all a good book.

Monday, November 5, 2012

New York the Novel by Edward Rutherford

Edward Rutherford has been writing historical sagas for over twenty years but I just discovered him this summer with New York, the Novel. (2009) After a passionate reading, I wanted heartily to recommend but hesitated—would most readers consider it “old news”?  However, when Hurricane Sandy recently ravaged the East Coast, I felt compelled to do the review as it certainly wrote another chapter in the history of this amazing American city from 1664 to the year 2009.

Rutherford, a disciple of James Michener, spins an 800-page fictional account of primarily one family, the English Masters and their American born descendents, set amidst the background of actual historical events and real people.  You’ll recognize many names from politics to social to cultural, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Astor, the Titanic’s JP Morgan, Boss Tweed, Ben Franklin and Babe Ruth, to name a few.

In a 2009 interview the author says,  “...but it’s the ordinary people I discover in my research—Irish laborers, society ladies, African slaves and sweatshop workers—whose lives move me most and who provide so many of my plots and characters.”   

The story begins in 1664 in Governor Stuyvesant’s Dutch colony New Amsterdam where we first encounter Van Dyke, a wealthy Dutchman, who while trading with the Algonquins  fathers the girl, Pale Feather.  It is here too that we learn the first of interesting tidbits scattered throughout the story in the development of our great nation. For example, why “wampum” was so invaluable in trading and the role felt hats played in our early commerce.  The soft pelt under the beaver’s outer fur was made into felt and felt hats were the height of fashion.  As Van Dyke muses, “there was a certain madness to it....that a whole colony, an empire could be founded, men risk their lives and kill in turn, all on account of a fashionable hat.”  It is this type of detail (and that’s only on page fifteen) throughout the book  (only 845 pages to go) that I found so interesting.  As for the valuable wampum, the belt little Pale Feather makes for her father is passed down through the generations and its destiny is sealed by the end of the book in a tender way that only a master storyteller can weave.

With the British invasion of New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony is lost to the British and given the name of New York, after the Duke of York.   Van Dyke’s daughter Clara marries an American born John Masters and so begins the Master saga. The next 250 pages bring to life the American Revolution where father John Master and son James Master are opposed as Loyalist and Patriot.   “November 25, 1783, at the head of eight hundred Continental troops, George Washington came peacefully down the old Indian trail from the village of Harlem and entered the city of New York.’  As they pass the Master home which survived the fire of 1776, John Master says to his grandson, Weston, “ My dear grandson, the world I knew is turned upside down. So let’s drink to the new one.”

Then comes the emergence of the city as a great trading and financial center, the Gilded Age following the Civil War, the explosion of immigration, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, World War II, the near-demise of the city in the 70’s and it’s rebirth in the 90’s.  And of course, the attacks on the World Trade Center. Through it all, there is the family drama of the Masters –their successes and failures and human frailties.  It is also the story of families representing the diversity of the city:  the Carusos, (Italians) the O’Donnells (Irish), Quash and Hudson, (slaves), Keller and Adler (German).

Some critics of the book say that in spite of these diverse groups interwoven into the story, New York is mainly the story of conservative well-off whites,  (the Masters) often opportunists, with not enough emphasis on the minority populations’ contribution to the city’s development.  Another criticism is that some important historical events were left out. 

My defense of the author is that this IS a work of fiction in an accurate historical setting and is his choice of what events serve the story best.   To cover 400 years in 800 pages with the human element interest one would have to be somewhat selective of what to embellish to make for an interesting story.  To list every happening like a laundry list or worse yet, like a history textbook, would hardly keep us turning the pages.  Like Michener, Rutherford makes us care about the effect of history on the lives of people...both as individuals and society as a whole.

In the preface Rutherford tells us, “All the families whose fortunes the stories follow are fictional...I have tried to set them amongst people and events that did exist, or might have done.”

For Arizonians who hail from New York, I think it will be a joyful homecoming to experience the origins of familiar landmarks and settings, such as Coney Island, Staten Island, Central Park, particularly the Strawberry Fields, the Dakota Hotel, or the Vanderbilt mansion.  As an infrequent visitor I want to go again with this book in hand and visit these sights with a greater appreciation of their history and evolution. If you lived back east this is the perfect book to curl up with beside the fireplace on a snowy day.  Well, in this case many snowy days as its bulk is no easy feat, but it beckons you like returning to a family and place you now know well.
If you get the paper version, you’ll have the benefit of several maps showing Old New York, Early Manhattan, 19th and 20th Century New York and the current city region.

If English-born Rutherford’s instruction to his children is any indication of how he feels about New York City, we can only assume his love.  Upon his death he requests his ashes to be scattered in the Hudson River.

New York, the Novel received the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction in 2010.  If you become a fan of Rutherford’s writing style, you’ll be happy to know he has written seven previous historical sagas:  Paris, London, Saurm, Forest (both of England), Russka, and the Dublin Saga with The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland.

I find it ironic that not only does the timing of this review tie in with Hurricane Sandy but with our country’s election for our next President. For if this book has a theme, the clue is in the first and last sentence of the novel. Both contain the word “freedom”.  His book, besides being a good story, gives us a great sense of what was sacrificed through the years for this precious freedom that is our right today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Art of Fielding a novel by Chad Harbach

As the country prepares to enjoy the 108th Baseball World Series, even those who may not be true baseball fans are often caught up in the spirit of America’s national sport.  If you are indeed a die-hard baseball fan, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach  might be just the book for you.  But don’t discount it even if you don’t know first base from a knuckle-ball pitch.  Described by one critic as the “greatest baseball novel in a generation”, the sports theme is metaphorically much grander—that of the human condition.

The title, The Art of Fielding, might lead one to believe this is a  how-to-book about baseball.  It is that to some degree but more a reminder that our lives are shaped as much by our mistakes as well as our successes and aspirations.  It is also the story of the fate of five people brought together at Westish College, a small private and fictional school on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

The line up, so to speak, is as follows:

Henry Skrimshander (mostly called Skrimmer):  A scrawny but magically gifted shortstop,  who in his entire high school baseball career has made ZERO errors.  He has committed to memory the philosophy in his personal bible: a fictional baseball handbook entitled The Art of Fielding.  That knowledge, combined with his doggedness determination and a rare innate talent, causes him to become a prized shortstop the major league scouts are clamoring over.  As Henry strives to break records, the tension mounts and makes this page-turner as exciting as bases loaded in a bottom of the 9th tie game.

Mike Schwartz: A student and athlete from Westich, who discovers Henry one summer while playing Legion baseball and recruits him to his college team where he is the catcher and captain. He eventually realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own.

Owen Dunne: Henry’s roommate and teammate, who introduces himself to Henry as “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate. “ Owen becomes caught up in an unexpected affair with the college president.

Guert Affenlight:   The college president, raised to this prestigious rank as a result of an amazing discovery as a Melville scholar in his undergraduate days at Westich.  Hence the Harpooner mascot and the brooding Melville statue that looks out over Lake Michign.  A longtime bachelor, Guert falls hopelessly and unexpectedly in love with Skrimmmer’s roommate,Owen.

Pella, President Affenlight’s daughter who returns to Westich after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

The lives of these five people become intertwined and their fates are upended when a routine throw goes disastrously off course for Henry.  As the season counts down to the final climatic game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, as well as their deepest fears.

Author Harbach, a Harvard grad with a MFA pedigree from University of Virginia’s graduate writing program, skillfully combines his encyclopedic knowledge and love  of the game with his passion for literature, citing countless references to Hamlet, Prufrock, Melville, Emily Dickinson and Whitman.   

In an interview last May, the life-long Brewers fan, said, “What fascinates me about baseball is that although it’s a team game and a team becomes a kind of family, the players on the field are very much the moments that count, they can’t bail you out.  This is the game my father played and the game he taught me...but women seem to like the book more than men.” 

Some critics say this is due to the sensitive exploration of fate and forever friendships, soured dreams and the sweet salvation of second chances.  One phrase I ran across that I particularly liked was, “’s intelligent writing filled with the tenderness of youth.” And I might add humor and satire, so much so that it almost bears re-reading to catch what you might have missed the first time around.

Whether you’re a National or American League fan, I think you’ll agree that Harbach’s first novel is a might even say a Grand Slam.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

If you were to go into a bookstore to find Marcelo in the Real World, it would be shelved in the young adult section and while it is an excellent choice for young readers, (receiving 15 awards since its publication in 2009) it is also a story that will touch adult hearts and keep them turning pages to see how a 17-year old deals with a moral crisis that deeply affects the adults in his world.

As author Sara Zarr, a National Book Award Nominee, says so well, “Marcelo in the Real World is a mesmerizing coming-of-age story in the realest sense—leaving the Eden of an extended childhood and slowly awakening to the knowledge of good and evil both outside and within.  Marcelo’s voice is at once innocent and knowing and the challenges he faces compelling. There were moments that made me feel as though I was seeing the world for the first time and along with Marcelo, wondering how it is to be endured.”

Marcelo Sandoval is a high-functioning, extremely self-aware teenager (17) with Asperger’s syndrome.  He has led an ordered and protected existence in a Boston suburb with his empathetic mother, a nurse, and his high power attorney father. He attends a special private school, Paterson, where he takes courses in social interaction and works with therapy ponies.   He loves Paterson.

But his father, Arturo, an ambitious Mexican-American who was top of his Harvard Law class, thinks Marcelo needs skills to survive in the “real world”.   He strikes a deal with him the summer before his senior year:  If Marcelo can follow the “rules of the real world” by working in the mailroom of the firm’s hectic office, he will allow Marcelo to return to his safe-harbor school for his senior year.  If he fails, he must attend the public high school.   The challenge is set and what happens that summer sets in motion a series of events that neither father nor son could have foreseen.

Marcelo’s inspiring and brave journey into the real world endears him to readers and in first-person narrative we are invited into his thought process which is so different, both innocent yet wise.  Seeing the world through his eyes is one of the beauties of this story and we can feel both his anguish and his wonderment of the challenges life is now presenting him.  The New York Times Review aptly describes his voice as one of “heartbreaking honesty.”

Marcelo is forced to think on his feet, multi-task and deal with deceptive people who try to take advantage of him, such as Wendell, the sex-obsessed son of his father’s slime-ball legal partner. He learns about competition, jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a photograph of a girl with half a face that truly connects him with the real world of suffering.  Empathy for her is the stirring of his emotional coming-of-age and he is compelled to solve the mystery behind the face.  His moral compass is then tested as much as his social coping skills when he uncovers a piece of suppressed evidence in a case involving his father’s biggest corporate client.  

With the help of Jasmine, the beautiful mailroom employee who has taken him under her wing, Marcelo struggles to find the courage to do the right thing at the risk of betraying his father.  And it is Jasmine’s inner goodness that is a striking contrast to the ugliness Marcelo has encountered in the real world. 

Favorable comparisons have been made between Marcelo and Christopher Boone, the protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (Doubleday 2003) where both voices have an appealing blend of naïveté and wisdom. 

Like Marcelo’s father, author Francisco X. Stork is also has of Hispanic descent and a practicing attorney in Boston.  He was educated at Harvard and Columbia Law School and has written several books for young adults.  And like Marcelo, he is still striving to find his “uniqueness”.  He writes on his blog: “Writing for me is the best tool for that... and so I write for young humbly walk beside them toward the discovery of our true self and the unique gift each one of us has received.”

I consider Marcelo in the Real World a true gift to readers.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Advice I would give to a newlywed...or anyone who likes to entertain on a moment's notice..or whoever want to serve something that looks hard to make, but is really easy.  Keep Pillsbury crescent rolls in your frig at all times.  Pillsbury makes life easy....a package of crescent rolls, a little egg wash ...voila!

Sausage Crescent Bread

1/2 lb. Italian turkey sausage (or regular Italian for more robust flavor if you don't care about fat content)
1 9- oz box frozen spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed as dry as possible
1 cup fat free cottage cheese, drained (or a mix of cottage cheese and feta for stronger flavor)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 8 oz. can Pillsbury Refrigerated crescent dinner rolls
3 slices provolone cheese
3 slices mozzarella cheese

Heat over to 375 degrees
Brown sausage and drain grease
In large bowl combine sausage, spinach, cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese and garlic

Unroll dough into one large rectangle on ungreased cookie sheet and press into 13/x8 in rectangle. Firmly press perforations and seams to seal.

Spoon sausage mixture in 4 in strip lengthwise down center of rectangle.  Top with slices of provolone and mozzarella.

With scissors or sharp knife, make cuts l-inch apart on long sides of dough rectangle to within 1/2 inch of sausage mixture.  Fold strips of dough up over sausage mixture to meet in center; pinch to seal.

Brush top of pastry with raw egg wash.

Bake at 375 degrees for 18-24 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from cookie sheet and cut into crosswise slices. Serve warm.  Enjoy...both the braid
( and all the compliments you will receive.)

ps filling made more than I could fit into the braid.I think there is enough filling for two packages of crescent'd need to double up on the 3 cheese slices you place on top however.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When you see the photo of Ann Patchett on the book jacket of her latest book, State of Wonder, it’s hard to believe someone so lovely and feminine could write a book describing some horrific images.  I guess that is the power of imagination and skillful writing which she has proven in her previous books, most notably Bel Canto. (2001 Winner of PEN/Faulkner Award).

The main character in State of Wonder is Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year old research scientist who does what has been described as “unremarkable” cholesterol research for a large pharmaceutical company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. She is also having an affair with the company’s CEO, Mr. Fox, who comes across as bland as her tedious research.  In the opening paragraph, Mr. Fox informs Marina that her research assistant, Anders Eckman, has died mysteriously in a remote part of Brazil. Eckman was sent  there to report on the progress being made by Dr. Swenson in her quest for a fertility drug that could make the company billions.

After Marina and Mr. Fox visit Eckman’s widow to tell her of her husband’s death, (by way of a very brief letter and no explanation) Marina, with great trepidation, succumbs to Mr. Fox’s request that she go to Brazil to determine how Eckman died.  The widow’s plea for an explanation and the sight of his three small boys, as well as concern for her former research partner, causes Marina to accept the assignment she feels totally unsuited for. And with that her unremarkable life takes a twist and turn she could never have imagined.

In a small tributary of the Amazon, the state of wonder kicks in as she begins a vivid and emotional trip.  Actually, even sooner as her plane lands, Marina imagines that “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” As one reviewer comments, “Ms. Patchett’s true genius is her ability to write about situations that truly stretch incredibility but you end up believing every word.”

In order to understand the circumstances of Eckman’s death, Marina must first find Dr.Swenson and here a sub-plot develops. We discover that Marina and Dr. Swenson have a history dating back to Marina’s medical school days—a traumatic history Marina has tried to forget but now it resurfaces with a vengeance.  Dr. Swenson does not welcome any visitors but she comes to trust Marina with her closely guarded research of  the Lakashi tribe in which women continue to ovulate until their death, producing children well into their 60’s and 70’s.  Patchett’s natives are only semi-human; they don’t possess civilized language but make sounds less like words and more like the call and answer of fish.  But deep in the jungle we finally discover the secret of their fertility—a visual image that may continue to haunt you long after you read the book.

Meanwhile, not far up the river in another tributary is the tribe of sinister cannibals who present yet another if the cloud of insects, snake-infested rivers and malarial swamps are not frightening enough.  The suffocating atmosphere is integral to the story where the jungle could be considered a character in itself.

This has been called a novel of darkness to light as Marina tries to find answers for Eckman’s family while navigating her inner personal journey with as many twists and turns as the Amazon itself.  If you like adventure, something out of the ordinary and great escape this might be the book for you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love praises Patchett, saying, “Her moral code after all thrums throughout her novels—where characters are often called upon to summon up their decency, take a bold action and shift forever some stale old paradigm of power.”   Marina certainly achieves that in State of Wonder.

Ms. Patchett lives in Nashville Tennessee where she is co-owner of  Parnassus Books.  For more information and a list of all her books, visit

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If you’re looking for a new author with a continuing mystery series, you might consider Canadian Louise Penny. She creates a fascinating world in the fictional setting of Three Pines, a rural Canadian village south of Montreal, just kilometers from the Vermont border. 

As Penny describes it, “The tiny fieldstone houses were built by the early settlers who cleared the land and yanked the stones from the earth. But most of the homes around the village green were made of rose-hued brick, built by the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, desperate for a sanctuary, hiding from a war they didn’t believe it.”  Named for the three stately pines in the center of the village, present day Three Pines of her novels appears idyllic with no police force, no traffic lights, no sidewalks, no mayor.  The place doesn’t have ordinary crime...just the worst possible crime... murder ...and on quite a regular basis.

The first murder to shatter the inhabitants of Three Pines occurs in Still Life, first book in her series (2005) which won numerous prestigious awards, such as The New Blood Dagger, the Arthur Ellis, the Anthony, the Barry Award and Dilys Award.

It is here that where we meet the interesting residents and characters who continue to evolve in future books.  Artist Peter who is often struggling with jealousy...not of a lover, but the with realization that his wife Clara may be the true artist in the family, Myrna who runs the used bookstore, Sarah and her delicious Boulangarie, Ruth Zardo, the poet who is always good for a laugh with her inappropriate comments and insults and Bistro owners, Gabri and Olivier.  (Caution: if you read all eight books straight through you will probably add a few inches to your waistline as the descriptive meals coming out of the bistro are tantalizing).  Hungry or not, your taste buds will be awakened. For example, fettuccine with shrimps and scallops sautéed in garlic and olive oil or a rich cheddar and apple soup, or a fruit-stuffed Rock Cornish game hen, done on the spit, or the seafood buffet with herring roe on kelp, pepper-smoked salmon, crab cakes, halibut, with bread fresh from the boulangerie. It appears that crime solving in Three Pines involves a lot of pondering over café de lait and warm croissants. 

And that brings us to Chief Inspector Armund Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and his unique approach to solving a murder.  “To catch a killer, you don’t necessarily move move back. Into the past. That is where the crime begins.  Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, has lodged inside the murderer.  And begun to fester. What kills can’t be’s not a gun, a knife or a fist. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled, gone wild and waiting for a chance to strike.”  As Gamache tries to uncover the source of that emotion, he befriends the villagers who often supply more evidence than fingerprints or DNA.  Gamache, of course, has his own demons and fears.  As his assistant Beauvoir says, it is because of his own human frailties that Gamache is able to recognize them in others.

On a deeper level, the crime provides a means for Penny's unusually empathic, all-too-fallible lead to unearth truths about human passions and weaknesses while avoiding simple answers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Louise Penny about six years ago as she was promoting one of he early books at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. She is charming and genuine, often with self-deprecating humor which perhaps explains one of the reasons she is able to create and develop such fascinating three-dimensional characters. As one reviewer says, “The books go beyond just being murder mysteries and become more about how we interact with each other and how we deal with things like ambition, fear, love and death.”  And I might add there’s some very funny stuff and clever dialogue too.

Now, eight books into the series  she never disappoints but seems to become a more skillful writer with each book. Perhaps this quote from her daily blog (which I recommend to anyone who wants to write as she laboriously details her process), explains why she continues to receive accolades and awards with each book:

“There are times when I'm in tears writing. Not because I'm so moved by my own writing, but out of gratitude that I get to do this. In my life as a journalist I covered deaths and accidents and horrible events, as well as the quieter disasters of despair and poverty. Now, every morning I go to my office, put the coffee on, fire up the computer and visit my imaginary friends, Gamache and Beauvoir and Clara and Peter. What a privilege it is to write.”

And what a privilege it is for us the readers to enjoy this Three Pines world Penny has created.

Her titles in the order they are published are as follows:

Still Life  2005
A Fatal Grace  2007
The Cruelest Month  2008
The Brutal Telling    2009
A Rule Against Murder  2009
Bury Your Dead    2010
A Trick of Light    2011
The Beautiful Mystery 2012 (August 28 release)

Although each book can be read on its own as a mystery, I recommend starting with the first one to fully understand and appreciate the development of the recurring characters.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

If you like Downton Abby,you might enjoy the Maise Dobbs series.  

The wonderful thing about discovering an author you enjoy who writes a series is the anticipation of the next book...just knowing that as you turn the last page there is another good book on the horizon.  And if you discover them after the series has been around a while, you can eagerly go from one book to the next with the characters you have come to love.

There are many popular and familiar series with recurring main characters for every taste.
Sue Grafton’s Kinsley Millhone in the alphabet series, beginning with A is for Alibi;  Lee Child’s Jack Reacher; James Patterson’s Alex Cross and The Women’s Murder Club; Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; Patricia Cornwall’s Chief Medical Examiner, Kay Scarpetta; and Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe in #1 Ladies Detective Agency—the list goes on and I am sure you have other favorites also.

This review is dedicated to two authors we don’t seem to hear as much about although I suspect we will as their books continue to receive literary awards too numerous to mention, as well as appearing on prestigious best-seller lists, such as the New York Times:  Jacqueline Winspear’s Maise Dobbs series and Louise Penny’s stories of life in the rural village of Three Pines with Inspector Chief Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. 

Both series are classified as mysteries, but they are so much more as they
delve into human nature, creating psychologically sound dramas with very real characters.  One critic writes, “When a mystery excels in the three P’s—plot, people and prose—it is a winner”.   I assume by “people” he refers not only secondary characters but foremost we must like and respect the main recurring character...the sleuth so to speak...enough to hang out with them repeatedly. And in a good series, this character has their own demons to conquer as well as cases to solve.

Maise Dobbs is a psychologist and Investigator in London, but she began her working life at the age of thirteen as a servant in a Belgravia mansion, where her employer discovered her reading in the library.  Fearing dismissal, she was instead rewarded for her knowledge quest with educational support from her employer and a family friend Dr. Maurice Blanche, revered for his work with Scotland Yard. 

Soon after Maise’s commencement from college, the Great War (1914-1918) intervenes and she enlists for nursing services overseas.  Her experiences in the war resurface in each of her nine books to date, revealing her great compassion and insight into the many sorrowful legacies of World War I. As Maise discovers, “the aftershocks of war can last for many years for those who fight and for the people who love them.”

There are currently nine books in the Maise Dobb’s series spanning the years 1929 to 1933 in England.  I suggest starting with the first, entitled simply Maise Dobbs, as it gives us Maise’s background, which is critical to every story and lays the groundwork for how she deals with people and situations as she solves cases.  It also establishes her personal relationships with her father and also her mentor Maurice who play significant roles as she evolves into the woman she is becoming.

The Great War plays a role in each book:  (in order of publication)

Maise Dobbs. Maise’s first assignment, a seemingly tedious inquiry involving a case of suspected infidelity, takes her not only on the trail of a killer, but back to the war she has tried so hard to forget.

Birds of a Feather.   Maise is hired to find a run-a-way heiress and discovers a connection with a murder she is also trying to solve. This book gives a moving picture of of the post-war despair that hovered over England during the “lost generation” era.

Pardonable Lies takes Maise to France where she reunites with a friend who lost three brothers in the Great War, including one who has an intriguing connection to her current case. She has been hired by a dying mother, Ms. Lawton, who never accepted that her aviator son was killed in the war.

Messenger of Truth.  London 1931. A famed artist, Nick Bassington-Hope, a WWI veteran, falls to his death, but his twin sister hires Maise to prove it was not an accident.  Once again we see a society struggling to recollect itself after the war.

An Incomplete Revenge evokes England between the wars when the old world crumbles and new horizons beckon working women like Maise. With the country in the grip of economic malaise, Maisie Dobbs is relieved to accept an apparently straightforward assignment to investigate a potential land purchase. Her inquiries take her to a picturesque village in Kent during the hop-picking season, but beneath its pastoral surface she finds evidence that something is amiss.

Among the Mad.  Christmas Eve 1931. Maise is in a race against time to track down a mad man before he inflicts destruction on thousands.

The Mapping of Love and Death. The parents of a cartographer killed in World War I, hire Maise to find the young man’s lover and possibly his killer, as evidence points to his having been murdered shortly before the dugout collapsed. The only clue: love letters signed “The English Nurse”.

A Lesson in Secrets.  As storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon in the summer of 1932, a pivotal chapter in Maise’s life foreshadows new challenges and powerful enemies facing her as she goes undercover to solve a campus murder and monitor activities “not in the interests of his Majesty’s Government.”

Elegy for Eddy. The most recent novel takes Maise back to her working class neighborhood to solve a murder where she uncovers lies and manipulation on a national scale. 

Although the plots themselves are interesting, I think what makes Maise an appealing sleuth is her unique style.  She solves crimes because she listens; she mimics body posture to get a sense of what people are feeling; and she uses empathy to build trust. As she solves each case, trying to unravel the mysteries of human nature, she of course learns much about herself as well.  We see her evolving with the passage of time also.

If this time period  (England 1914-1933) is of particular interest to you, visit Winspear’s website at and click  Blog on left-hand side.  There are numerous fascinating historical references to England and the Great War.  For example, Winspear writes, “750,000 young men were killed in Britain alone, 1,350,000 severely wounded and over 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked. And after the war, two million women of marriageable age for whom there was little chance of finding a partner to share life and have a family, were considered surplus.”

And, if you are among the many Downton Abby fans, I think the Maise Dobbs series will appeal to you.  Same country, same time period. Winspear’s novels are meticulously researched, appealing to history buffs as well as to fans of stories that center on the polite, well-mannered British.  What better time to delve into British history as we prepare to watch the London Olympics.

Next month I will review Louise Penny’s mystery series, introduce you to Inspector Gamache and acquaint you with the charming people in Three Pines, a rural village in Quebec.  First in her series is Still Life and Louise writes a daily blog about her life in Canada and her writing process.  Just Google Louise Penny to find her official website where there will be a link to her Blog.

Another bonus:  If you come to care for these two authors as I did, you can meet them personally as they both visit the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale on a regular basis, usually once a year as their new books are released.  Winspear is attractive and intelligent giving presentations like a mini course in history and psychology.  Louise Penny is as warm and witty as many of the characters she creates.

If you have a favorite series to recommend, I would love to hear about it. Please send me an email at: