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.