Monday, December 3, 2007

Daring Book for Girls

This isn't the easiest review I have had to write. The fact is, I didn't think this was the greatest book ever written. Actually, I didn't think the book HAD to be written. Why is it the Daring Book for Girls anyhow? Why isn't it the Dangerous book? Can't girls have some danger in their lives? I don't really get why there needed to be a follow up to the Dangerous Book for Boys. In my family, the Dangerous Book for Boys was just as interesting to the girl as the boy, if not more so. Just because the title said it was for Boys didn't mean that girls couldn't enjoy it. When did we get so super sensitive to gender that we have to split everything up, anyhow. Why can't there just be one Dangerous Book for Kids? Isn't that cool anymore?

I have to admit, I was put off by the cover, which to me was markedly girly. Why glitter? I didn't think that was the best choice. My girl has never been a pink princess glittery type, and when she sees that stuff, she naturally shies away from it, which would make this book an immediate turn off for her.

But let's turn to the content. I did like the idea of a toolbox, which I firmly believe EVERY kid needs, boy or girl. We're totally into our toolbox here, so much so that it's been on the radiator cover in the front hall since we moved it. It's just too convenient to actually put away, what with the hammers, tape measures, screw drivers, pliers, etc. Because it's always out, my kids have always had total access to the tools. No gender differences there! If it's a tool, they're both welcome to it.

But some of the content was neither daring or dangerous. Chinese Jump Rope? Friendship bracelets? Slumber parties and short-sheeting beds? It's more like Summer Camp Fun for Girls. Now, I admit fully that my daughter was way too old for this book. A 15 year old girl won't find anything that she either doesn't already know or doesn't want to know. But some of the content really irritated me. Like writing Thank You notes. Ugh. This just seemed to perpetuate the stereotype that the female writes the family correspondence while the males watch sports on TV. Plus, isn't writing Thank You notes something your kids learn when they are tiny tots? I know mine were writing such notes well before kindergarten. I'm also not sure why there were so many "Rules of the Game" entries. I know my kids learned all that stuff in elementary school PE classes.

Some of the content I did find interesting, but my daughter just rolled her eyes. That child is the queen of bershon these days. I always like reading about historical figures, male OR female, so I enjoyed the sections on:

  • Profiles on Queens of the Ancient World
  • Real-life princesses around the world
  • A Short History of Women Inventors and Scientists
  • Female pirates
  • Female Olympic firsts

Some of the crafts were interesting and looked fun. We've made a potato clock, but not a lemon-powered clock. We've made a flower press, but it's quite different than the one in the book.

I'm not saying that this isn't a book you should consider. In fact, if you have an elementary school aged girl, I think this would be a fun book for her to have. But kids 7-8 seem to be the target audience, and I can't see older kids having much interest since they probably know much of the content already. What did bother me throughout the book was that it was focused on what I consider girly pursuits instead of gender-neutral things, which are much more interesting. The Boy's book was much more transferable to a girl than this book would be for a boy, and that irritated me. I'm just not a fan of any gender-specific books. It's too exclusionary for my tastes. I know most people don't think like I do, so if you do like the idea of getting separate books for separate genders, then this is a fine book for a young girl. But she has to like glitter.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Reincarnationist

MotherTalk asked me to review The Reincarnationist, by M.J. Rose. I've never read any of Rose's other books, so she was a new novelist to me, and I had no idea of what to expect from this book.

This was a very complex novel comprising of many characters, and three distinct time periods. It had to be difficult to write, as all three eras intertwined to create one plot. Although I liked this book, I felt there were some distinct problems with it due to the complexity of the various storylines. First, the beginning of the book had a page or two that takes place in modern times, and then immediately switched to Roman times. This was confusing because the characters had not been developed which created a jarring feeling that I was reading the pages in incorrect order.

The present day character, JoshRyder is a professional photographer on assignment in Rome. While waiting for some visiting diplomats to arrive, he notices police investigating a young mother with a stroller. Just as he began to photograph the scene, there was a massive explosion that knocked Josh to the ground. When he awoke, he noted that he had gained the ability to mentally go back in time, first to Rome, and then later on to Edwardian New York City. Josh saw flashbacks, or, perhaps, memories, of events that seem to have happened to him 1,600 years earlier, in another life.

Josh is drawn to the Phoenix Foundation, a group that investigates reincarnation in children. He begins to work with the directors of the Phoenix Foundation both to discover his own past life flashbacks, which dominate his life, but also to help the society photograph auras that surround those with past lives.

On business, Josh returns to Rome to see a newly discovered tomb thought to be one of the Vestal Virgins from 391 a.d. He awakes from his hotel room very early in the morning and starts walking through Rome, realizing that he recognizes certain buildings and areas, and comes across the tomb hours before his appointment. However, the Professor leading the dig is there, and brings Josh down into the tomb where he sees the virgin in a crawling position, perfectly petrified. In her hand is a wooden box that contains 6 gemstones believed to be sacred magical 'Memory Stones' used to see past lives. While the "Memory Stones" have value as the massive gemstones they are, their true worth is only legend. But, if true, they could change the face of organized religion and humanity as we know them today.

Josh finds a secret tunnel in the tomb and starts to dig his way into the tunnel leaving the Professor behind. He hears noises and climbs back to the tomb to witness a guard shooting the Professor and stealing the stones in the box.

The Professor's murder begins the search for the stones, as Josh and the Professor's assistant Gabriella Chase try desperately to decipher the messages on the stones, as well as finding the stones themselves.

M.J. Rose weaves a complicated story in The Reincarnationist, unraveling a mystery across millennia and multiple lives. The narrative might have been more tightly constructed: there are questions left unanswered and characters who seem important but melt away; the subplot of Rebecca Palmer, whose hallucinatory experiences of past lives intersect with Josh's and prove so important to the plot, is forgotten about for a long stretch of the story. But the book is quite suspenseful in parts, and it has the great advantage of ending well, which is to say that the denouement is fitting but neither predictable nor easy. The book is an interesting premise for a novel but not as tightly written as I would have liked. The ending was both a surprise and a disappointment, and seemed to have been hastily decided as a way to wrap up the story. I think a better ending could have made this a better novel.

Thriller fans will probably see the ultimate villain coming at least a couple hundred pages before the wrapup. Fortunately, Rose introduces a wealth of evil characters to distract the reader and maintain our interest level. I would have liked to see more in the way of character development, an explanation of how learning of past lives really could lead to power, a more sympathetic protagonist, and less use of coincidence. Still, Rose's prose is satisfying and, despite its flaws, The Reincarnationist is a page-turning read.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Interred With Their Bones

MotherTalk asked me to review the academic thriller Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell, and I jumped at the chance. I love a thriller, and will read any type of academic thriller with joy. Although most people associate The DeVinci Code with academic thrillers, I don't. I much prefer a more psychological thriller where you get to learn about the subject matter at hand, but also more about the period than the characters themselves. Thus, Interred with Their Bones delighted me and held my interest as a mystery about a missing play by Willian Shakespeare. Because much of the action was held at my alma mater, Harvard University, and takes place in Cambridge as well as England, the Southwest of the US, and Washington DC, I was familiar with many of the buildings and places, having been there are a visitor or a student. That made the book easy to connect to, and more real for me personally.

Kate Stanley, Shakespeare scholar and Globe Theatre director is preparing for the opening of Hamlet when her ex-mentor and professor at Harvard, Rosalind Howard, flys in from Boston bringing Kate a small gold-wrapped box. That very evening, as Kate is supposed to meet Roz at a park, a fire damages the Globe, where Roz is found murdered in the same manner as Hamlet's father. Roz's mysterious gift box contains a Victorian mourning brooch decorated with flowers associated with Ophelia. The coincidences push Kate to go on a wild quest that takes her to Utah; Arizona; Washington, D.C.; and back to London, seeking answers to what happened to Roz and what the present Roz left with her meant. At every stop, the bodies pile up as Kate begins to unpiece the mystery of the missing play. But while Kate is searching, the question keeps popping up: Did Shakespeare really exist or was he the alter ego of another author or a group of authors? Between trying to prove that Shakespeare did exist, as Kate believes, and trying to find the missing manuscript, Kate is forced to question who is a friend, who is foe, and what they all want from the missing play.

This wild and wacky tale of Shakespeare, the wild west, a family gone rotten, and a lot of people trying to hide information takes readers to locations never associated in any way with Shakespeare. The story is based on fiction, but the basis is based on fact. There was a missing play, Shakespeare may or may not have existed, and scholars are still arguing over his existance. Regardless of the factual nature vs the ficticious nature of this book, it's a great tale that will keep you riveted to your seat as you try to put together the clues and figure out just who is the bad guy, and what they're all really searching for.

This is author Jennifer Lee Carrell's debut mystery, and a great start to a budding fiction career. Carrell's prose is crisp and her historical facts well-researched. An engrossing page-turner, Carrell's Shakespearean thriller will please mystery and Shakespeare lovers alike. I enjoyed this book much more than I initially thought I would. What could have been a dull read about academics turned into a stunningly crafted tale of intrigue, creepy characters, and a mystery that has kept academics arguing for decades. It contained all the right features to keep up my interest and enjoy a book that was an amazing debut for a very promising author.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed Wings


The title, On Borrowed Wings is very prophetic. Chandra Prasad has written a lovely novel about family, the early struggle of women's rights, and about Connecticut life in the 1930's. This is the story of a family with internal differences that can't be solved until a dramatic accident kills the father and son. Once the have died, the mother and daughter left behind can make changes in their lives, changes for the better although not changes that improve their family. Prasad weaves together tragedy and drama in a brave attempt to describe the inner workings of a family gone wrong.

Adele and her older brother Charles live with their once refined mother and granite quarry worker father. Their mother was a summer cottager in their small beach town, the daughter of a rich Philadelphia professor. She met and married Pa, the quarryman and was disowned by her parents. She ended up living a poor existence and was miserable. The only thing that kept her happy was Charles, her brilliant son she was training to get into Yale. She was the original helicopter parent, but only for Charles. Adele was there for chores and helping with her mother's laundry business.

After a terrible quarry accident, Charles and Pa were both killed. But Charles had already gained acceptance into Yale, so Ma determined to let Adele go in her place. Yale didn't admit women, so Adele had to take on the persona of her brother Charles.

Once she arrived at Yale, she made fast friends, was an outstanding student, and founded a tutoring program for poor Italian children in New Haven. She loved being at Yale, although her disguise was often difficult to maintain, especially after she fell for one of the boys in her class.

Meanwhile, Ma made overtures towards her parents and began to reconcile with them. They demanded that Adele and Ma come to visit them, but Adele refused. Ma wouldn't take no for an answer, cutting off Adele just as her family had cut her off years ago.

But Adele was stronger. She won a full scholarship and got to continue at Yale even without her mother's permission or support. She did so still hiding as a man.

This book is a delightful read and the story is one that will warm your heart. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is the typical story of girl masquerading as boy as we have seen many times in books and theatre. The story of Adele has more to do with her coming of age in a most unlikely way than it has to do with her hiding her identity in order to go to Yale.

Chandra Prasad has seamlessly woven a fascinating story. The meticulously detailed historical background is very interesting and actually quite educational but doesn't for a moment detract from the flow of the story. And what a story! It crept up on me. I was about 50 pages into the book before I realized that I was hooked. From that point I could hardly put it down. The moody mysterious suspenseful tone of the book, combined with a strong sympathetic main character makes this book a perfect escape!

Prasad's unique gift of weaving history with a fictional narrative and knack for painterly descriptions never ceases to amaze me. On Borrowed Wings is no exception. Before long, I was swept back to New Haven and Yale in the 1930s, immersed in the complicated life of a young woman. I understood Adele and empathized with her as she took risks to change her destiny. This triumphant novel is the finest I have read in a very long time.
On Borrowed Wings is startling and fresh and bold. The premise itself is not particularly new: girl disguises herself as boy in order to attend university and achieve both personal and educational goals. What made this book stand out, though, was that Prasad doesn't linger on the been-there-done-that gender-bender issues. Instead, she weaves together a vibrant history of Yale and New Haven, Connecticut, during the 1930s, and she creates the pervasive excitement, fear, and frenetic energy that is part and parcel of freshman year at any college. The main character, Adele (Charlie) Pietra is an intrepid, gawky, fun, always sympathetic character; she/he is all the more endearing for her quirks and occasionally exasperating behavior. Adele is particularly delightful when attempting to maneuver her way around a fitting for a man's suit, a physical examination in the gymnasium that requires nudity, and a school dance in which--yes--she must wine and dine her female date.

Prasad handles social issues of the day with a deft hand, including the Eugenics movement and anti-Semitism. Kudos to the author for giving what is essentially a brisk coming-of-age story exceptional humanity and pathos. I recommend it highly.

Friday, September 14, 2007

February Flowers

As part of the MotherTalk book tour, I was asked to review February Flowers, a newly published novel by Fan Wu about modern day university students in China. Having never been to China and knowing very little about the university system in China, I grabbed at the chance to review this book, and I'm so glad I did.

Set in modern day China in the 1990's, February Flowers is the story of two women who become fast friends despite their lack of pretty much anything in common. But the friendship in often challanged by the differences in the two women. Ming, who is 17 and in her first year at university, meets Miao Yan on the dormatory rooftop where Ming goes to practice her violin. Ming is a serious student, preoccupied with her studies in literature, both eastern and western. Yan, in her last year at university, is more worried about getting a job, finding a husband, and being allowed to remain in the upscale Guangzhou provence where the university is located.

Miao Yan seems to be addicted to living in the moment. Although she is a minority from a very small town in the rural north, she latches on to the fashion, food, and sexual lifestyle of the modern city. She has a succession of boy friends, dresses provocatively, and dreams of getting a job in the city of Guangzhou, where life is exciting, money flows like water, and life is good.

Chen Ming, on the other hand, is a lonely and serious student, who doesn't have a boy friend, and who for pleasure, or to deal with emotions she barely understands, plays the violin, alone on the dormitory rooftop. Ming, whose parents were exiled to farm labor during the Cultural Revolution, was brought up on the labor farm and has never been to a city until she discovers the vibrant, exhilarating city around her. With her new friend, Miao Yan, a worldly senior who gives Ming her first alluring dress and teaches her how to pose in heels, these two women's lives become entwined and bitter secrets from their past come to light, secrets that destroy their friendship but make them both stronger women.

Ming's characterization is representative of the post cultural revolution China of the 90s. Fan Wu does a beautiful job of creating a realistic setting where almost unlimited, but relatively new, freedom contrasts with the tight regime it grew out of. Ming is conscious of this freedom which Miao Yan comes to represent, while she simultaneously holds on to the notion of `good girl' that her parents expect. The tension between the two characters, and the concurrent tension within the university itself propels the story. An undercurrent of fear puts Miao Yan's relaxed cynicism in perspective as uniformed workers from the Security Department patrol the campus looking for overly made-up women or smokers. Governmental control forms a backdrop to the story as Miao Yan struggles with her desire to work in Shenzhen, border controls and dossiers. But everything, including the hint of feminism, which underpins Ming's awakening is handled subtly.

Fan Wu tells this story in a way that isn't clichéd or overly dramatic. The emotions expressed in all of the characters - not just Ming and Yan, but also their dorm-mates, fellow students, and the various boys and men that enter their lives - ring true. Fan Wu clearly knows of which she speaks. To fully understand these emotions and attitudes, it helps if one has been to China or personally knows any young Chinese, but any reader, even without having experienced today's China and young Chinese, will recognize and appreciate the characters' dilemmas, thoughts, and emotions.

This story is told in a voice that is simply beautiful and fragile. Wu hides nothing from us, and her honesty and sense of wonder come through beautifully. Her tone is down-to-earth but without any hint of sarcasm, cynicism or irony. And so the reader can relax and be completely absorbed by the book.

I highly recommend this book.

Interview with Fan Wu: http://www.compulsivereader.com/html/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1371

Article about Fan Wu:
http://www.theblurb.com.au/Issue70/FanWu.htm

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Maximum Ride provides Minimum Pleasure

It is very rare for me to completely hate a book. I read a lot, and I'm such a lover of words that I think cereal boxes can keep me enraptured. It's sort of sad how much I love to read. But, I did not love to read Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports by James Patterson. This is the first book I've ever read by Patterson, who is an extremely popular and prolific writer of popular fiction. To say that I thought his writing as poor would be kind. This was not a well written book. The storyline had a lot of problems that could have been alleviated if the prose were good. But it was not.

There were problems with the voice changing. The main character, Maximum Ride, or Max as she is called by her flock, is a female with a decidedly male voice. No matter how many times I was reminded that she was female, I saw her and heard her as male. Patterson evidentally had quite a bit of trouble writing her as a female because his dialog really rang false through the book. Additionally, Max often addressed the 'audience' of readers, which was odd, since we were only addressed occasionally, as an afterthought. It was unbelievable and a good editor should have caught this.

The storyline was almost silly. It is a tale of a world gone amok by a large corporation performing genetic experiments gone awry. Max and her flock of friends are bird kids that were an early genetic experiment. They are all able to fly and have wings tucked into their bodies. It was never described in this book exactly how that worked, but I assume that the other books in the series described it in more detail. Which was yet another thing that bothered me. This book could not stand on it's own. It referred to the other books in the series for backstory, that I found annoying since I have no plans to ever read the other books. It assumed that you were going to read the series in order, something that JK Rowling never did with the Harry Potter series. I feel that Patterson should have learned from Rowling how to provide continuity within a series.

The flock of bird kids have discovered that Itek, the international evil corporation, has decided to take over the world using a combination of death for anyone sick, weak, or elderly, and using genetically altered robot-people to provide order. Max has decided that it is up to her to save the world, and she goes about it using a systematic but often flawed plan. Max's biggest problem is that she isn't quite sure whom to trust, even within her flock, and her mouth which spouts sarcasm in every instance of danger. That dialog rang so false to me that it was disconcerting to read. It was if Patterson had an idea of what a young tween should sound like, and then wrote it as even more annoying. The final scene, where Max's flock comes together to destroy the Itek corporate headquarters hidden in a castle in Germany ends with a fight including rock throwing. It was just silly, and a disappointment to any reader hoping that there would be a logical ending.

This Young Adult novel was written for tweens and teens, however it was such a lame story, with such unrealistic characters and so poorly written that there would be no way I could ever recommend it any kid in my aquaintence. I was sorry to read such a haphazard mishmash of words, especially from an author who should have known better. To me, this book sounded like it was banged out in a weekend before a deadline. That's not good enough for my or anyone else's kids.

Reviewed as part of the MotherTalk book tour.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Other Mother

Recently I was asked to review The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross as part of the latest MotherTalk book tour. When the book arrived in the mail, I had a bunch of other book commitments and it sat in my pile for a couple of weeks but a few nights ago I started this book, and read it almost straight through, finishing it this morning. Intense would be the one word description for this book. Although I'm sure it's going to be marketed as a book about the mommy wars between work outside the home and stay at home moms, but this is so much more than that. In fact, that's almost a side feature of this book, which looks deeply inside the choices that women make once the become mothers.

This book has two narrators; Thea, the stay at home mother of three children, and Amanda, who moves in next door right before she is about to deliver her first child. Amanda works in the publishing field, and is on the path towards career success. Both mothers get to tell their side of the mommy war story, but this work is so much more than that. It delves into the fears that all mothers experience. Both mothers worry if they are good enough, if they are doing enough for their families, if they are choosing the right path as women.

Soon after Amanda's baby is born, a bad storm knocks a large tree into their new house, and Amanda's family must take refuge with her new neighbors. Thea puts up Amanda's family, but Amanda isn't the easiest houseguest. She refuses all help for the baby, she snoops through the cabinets and cupboards, she leaves a mess wherever she sits, and Thea becomes resentful. Amanda has made no plans on childcare for Malena, her infant, and after a series of disastrous tours of daycares and nanny interviews, she allows Thea to take Malena while she goes back to work.

Thea falls in love with Malena, who is an easy and delightful baby. Iris, Thea's toddler daughter is a very difficult and demanding child, and Malena fills the part of Thea that desires a baby to nurture. However, Amanda is a demanding and resentful employer. She doesn't like the way Thea is caring for her daughter, but does nothing to change the situation. Seething underneath their relationship is resentment for the choices each mother has made regarding work. Amanda isn't respectful of time, and is often very late to pick up her baby. She also is late in dropping Malena off, which makes Thea's life much more difficult. One night, Amanda does not call, is not reachable, and ends up not coming to pick up the baby until well after 9 pm. There had been an accident on the PATH train, and someone was killed on the tracks. Amanda is visibly upset, and rests her head on Thea's shoulder for comfort. The two women kiss, which destroys their relationship, as they are both unable to communicate their feelings to the other.

Thea's older daughter, a 13 year old who is good at cutting her parents out of her life, gets hurt on Amanda's property and is rushed to the hospital. Thea wants to blame Amanda, but realizes that this isn't really Amanda's fault, especially since Amanda's husband saved her daughter's life. Through a series of events, both women discover that they path they've chosen can be manipulated, altered, and improved, which brings them together as friends right after 9/11 almost kills one of their husbands.

This book is stressful to read. It is difficult because both women aren't particularly likable. As with any argument, they are zealots on either side, and don't really want to understand the other's point of view. But they did come together in the end, despite their differences, having both learned the art of compromise when it comes to mothering children.

I liked this book a lot. It was suspenseful, it was nerve wracking, and it had plenty of twists and turns to keep me interested right to the end. I wouldn't recommend this as a relaxing beach read, and it certainly isn't light chick lit. This is hard hitting fiction, well written and very well plotted. The characters aren't particularly likable, but isn't that true in life as well?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Becoming Jane Shines Brightly

Today I took my kids to see Becoming Jane as part of the current MotherTalk review tour. I had wanted to see this film despite my antipathy towards Anne Hathaway as an actress, never mind portraying one of my favorite authors, Jane Austin. I was interested in seeing this fictional backstory of the supposed love affair involving Jane and the dashing young Irish gentleman, Tom LeFroy. In actuality, there was never a love interest between Austin and anyone named Tom LeFroy that any biographer has sanctified, but the tale that Becoming Jane is based upon has been supposed by Austin historians and authors who have gone through her remaining letters and have pulled out this story of unrequited love.


The film was visually a feast of subtle images of English country life. The scenery was lush and green, the manor house of the wealthy patroness portrayed by the wonderful Maggie Smith was exactly how I had always pictured Lady Catherine's house in Pride and Prejudice, and the simple middle class life of Jane was so similar to my imagination's view. It was lovely to look at, a visual masterpiece of the quiet life of rural Hampshire.

Anne Hathaway, not a favorite of mine by any means, did an excellent job as Jane. Her accent was almost flawless, her manner of speech precisely how Jane presented herself in her novels, and her facial expressions and subtle mannerisms spoke volumes about her inner feelings. Hathaway was terrific as Jane Austin, delivering the sparkling dialog with just the right nuances. Although I had a lot of problems with Hathaway's classic beauty, lush lips, gorgeous shiny hair, and pure unblemished skin as Jane, I do realize that people don't want to see a very plain actress with thin pincurls, as Jane actually looked.


James McEvoy as Tom LeFroy was intimated to be the character upon whom Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice was based. His acting was even better than Hathaway's, as he portrayed the dashing but slightly tainted Irish gentlemen of little means and large family obligations.

The costumes were well done and particularly lovely for their soft, luscious tones. The production design, sets, and landscapes evoked the best of the English countryside, even though most of the film was actually filmed in Ireland. In addition, the score was particularly charming, with the phrasing of music sounding very historically accurate, and hence payed particularly homage to Austin's novels that often described balls, music, and dance.

Supporting performances by Julie Walters and James (That'll do Pig) Cromwell as Jane's parents were a definite highlight for me, as was Maggie Smith's portrayal of the wealthy but slightly sinister patroness.

Of course there were some questions that remained at the end of the film. Would Austin have passionately kissed LeFroy or agreed to elope with him, knowing that they both had no means to support themselves. Readers of Austin novels know how much emphasis she put on having a small stipend, and making a good and successful marriage. That Austin herself, as well as her sister Cassandra remained unmarried, speaks doubtfully to me that she would ever put herself in such compromising positions.

The final scene in the movie, where time has marched on, Jane is a published author and at a performance of a beautiful woman opera singer, runs into LeFroy after many years apart. He introduces her to his daughter, also named Jane, is a poignant scene with Jane coming to terms with her place as a single woman in society. In actuality, nothing like this ever happened to the real Jane Austin. Because of ill health Jane was moved to Winchester for medical treatment. She died there, from Addison's disease, Friday, July 18th, 1817 at the age of forty-one. Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral on July 24th, 1817 and mourned by all her family, including her mother and beloved sister Cassandra.

Becoming Jane captures the playful sense of Jane's sharp intellect and even sharper sense of humor. Much of the film is delightfully humorous, especially so if you're familiar with her novels. However, if you are unfamiliar with her 6 published novels (and shame on you if you are!), you can still enjoy the romantic tale of a delightfully spirited young woman stifled by society's rules and her break out to become a successful and much beloved author.

See the film trailer here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Baking Boot Camp

For the longest time I've been feeling somewhat stuck in life. I've finished one career lasting a very long 25 years, and I'm not really ready to move to Miami and eat dinner at 4:30 pm. I'm not a great crafter type person, although I do enjoy scrapbooking and knitting, not that I do all that much of either. I used to love counted cross stitch, but my eyes, they are no longer youthful and I cannot see the aida squares any more. Sad, but true.

However, I still do like cooking and especially baking. So the other day I ran across Baking Boot Camp at our local library and took it out on a whim, thinking it looked like a fun read. Not only is this a fun read, it's enthralling, exhilarating, and so fascinating I couldn't put it down. Now I want to find the second in the series, Culinary Boot Camp. But even more, I want to go to the Baking Boot Camp and experience it all myself.

Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at William College in northwestern Massachusetts, is the author of these books. She attended Baking Boot Camp, a 5 day program held at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate NY. The CIA is the largest cooking school in the country, and certainly the most prestigious. Goldstein describes in great detail not only every hour she spent in classes and baking in the school's kitchens, but every snack and meal served in the various dining rooms, included in the price of the Boot Camp.


In Baking Boot Camp, Julia Child Award-winning cookbook author Goldstein takes you along as she embarks on two demanding Boot Camp courses, Baking and Pastry, where the fatigues are chef's whites and the weapons of choice are whisks, piping bags, and a bench scraper. Goldstein chronicles progress through each day of each course, bringing to life the intensity, the rigor, and the camaraderie that set Boot Camps apart from other cooking classes. Along the way, she reveals the tips and tricks of baking and pastry pros, sharing their fascinating insights with us on everything from the importance of weighing all ingredients to the secrets of perfect puff pastry. Throughout the book, more than 100 photographs by award-winning photographer Ben Fink vividly capture the excitement of the program.


With Baking Boot Camp you can learn alongside Goldstein and her fellow students as they watch demonstrations, practice new skills, and receive critiques from their exacting instructors. You'll watch Goldstein discover the hands-on skills and secrets needed to perfect cookies, pies, cakes, and breads, as she builds the know-how and confidence to tackle more demanding creations such as profiteroles, eclairs, mousses, and souffles. To help you put these lessons to work in your own kitchen, the book includes nearly eighty delicious Boot Camp recipes - everything you need to start using professional techniques and embark on a lifetime of baking success.


Anyone who is seriously considering baking as a career or even as a serious hobby should read this book from cover to cover. This is not so much for the baking advice, which is very good, but maybe not as good as the very best manuals on the subject. It is to familiarize one with the disciplines of baking, as exemplified by the regimens enforced by the CIA. It is not for nothing that these courses are called `boot camps'. While the instructors are not really as strict as they are with their associate degree and bachelor's degree students, they still impose a healthy discipline, starting with the legendary CIA emphasis on both being on time and the proper uniform, including the classic white blouse, hounds tooth trousers (generally too big), white kerchief, and paper toque. And heaven help you if your hair falls out of the toque or the kerchief would not meet the approval of Auguste Escoffier.


Like very few other `cookbooks' I can think of, this volume is really meant to be read from start to finish, or at least up to the end of Chapter 10, the end of the 10 days of the two boot camps. The first ten chapters are divided into three types of sections. The first is a diary of Ms. Goldstein's experiences outside the classroom, involving finding a parking space early in the morning, breakfast, lunch, and breaks in the many CIA restaurants and dining rooms, and chatting with fellow students. The second type of section is narratives of lectures and baking experiences. These sections are by far the most interesting, as they contain lots of incidental tips on how things are done which you may not find in the usual text or recipe. The third section type is double page sidebars with text and pictures describing particular techniques.


While these classes are done for non-degree students, the recipes and techniques still come from the professional baking kitchen, using large commercial equipment, such as the 20 quart Hobart mixer (big brother to the 5 or 6 quart Kitchen-Aid) and recipes which are distinctly different from even the very best home baking. One example is the recipe for buttermilk biscuits. Even the best baking writers such as Nick Malgieri keep this very simple, following classic techniques of quick mixing and cutting. The CIA goes in for a more involved multiple dough folding technique, using some of the same principles used to make puff pastry (and yes, the book even includes a complete puff pastry recipe).


Two of my more interesting discoveries were that the expert bread baking instructor did not like and warned against the new `rapid rise' yeasts and that making creams such as crème anglaise, pastry cream, and other custards and meringues were virtually as important to the pastry profession as making doughs (pastry!).


One thing that I very much enjoyed about this volume is that the science of baking was clearly explained within each segment. Differences in flours, rising agents, even water was discussed which, for a science geek like me, made this book much more than just a plain old cookbook.


The recipes in the back of the book are the recipes that the students made in boot camp. Some were improvised, other follow the class text to the letter. I can't wait to try the recipes to see just how fabulous they are.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Norah Ephron's Neck

I just finished reading Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck. This is a book of short essays about motherhood, growing older, plastic surgery, and other delights of womanhood. To say I liked it would be putting it mildly. I loved this freaking book. LOVED IT.

The title essay is about how a woman's neck is the one body part that cannot be repaired all by itself. Either you choose to have a face lift with a neck job, or you deal with your neck. Evidently, there are various types of necks; scrawny necks, fat necks, loose necks, crapey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks and necks that are an amazing combination of the above. Who knew? What I do know is that I hate my neck, too. My neck is short and flabby and has a crapey big right below my chin from weight loss. It is ugly. Nora says that necks define age, and she's right. Isn't that something to look forward to?

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephrons' latest collection, is subtitled "And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," though it might more accurately be called "A Measure of One Woman's Life." A certain melancholy pervades the humor here. The book opens with the title essay about aging and concludes with a rumination about death called "Considering the Alternative." Between are essays about books treasured along the way, thoughts "On Maintenance" (bodily upkeep), the stages of parenting, a timeline of beloved cookbooks, cabbage strudel, her love affair with an apartment and "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less."

There's more, but basically this is a kind of retrospective -- wry and amusing, as you'd expect, but also a bit strained and sad. It's a condensation of a life graced with privilege, which can make empathizing with Ephron a bit difficult. We all end up too aware of our own deterioration, but we don't all have our hair done twice a week or have our unwanted facial fuzz "threaded" by a woman who uses "a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia." Then there are the three hours every six weeks spent having "four tiny, virtually invisible blondish streaks" added to her hair (which has already had the gray covered over), the weekly manicures and regular pedicures, and vast amounts of skin cream and bath oil. It's all brave (and funny) to talk about -- but odd, because if you've spent all that time and money trying to look younger and better, doesn't it make more sense not to tell anybody you've done it so they can think you just naturally look young and good? And then there's the time and the money. As far as money is concerned, she's earned it, no question about that -- but the specifics of what she's writing about, here and in other essays in the collection, are much less than universal. There are worlds where having your facial hair regularly threaded is as affordable as the judicious use of a pair of tweezers, but that choice is a luxury many women don't have.

Most women will love the essay about her purse. She may "feel bad" about her neck, but she "hates" her purse. She's writing here for women "who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away" and who aren't wildly successful at changing -- at the right time -- from a winter purse to a summer one. Her list of permanent purse contents includes loose Tic-Tacs, lipsticks with no covers, leaky ballpoint pens and crumpled tissues that might have been used but equally well might not have been -- who can tell?

There's a lot of interesting advice in a chapter called "What I Wish I'd Known." She tells us that "the last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," but she doesn't say how you know when the last four years begin. I like "If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit": So many things could be substituted for shoes in exactly the same sense. She tells us that "The plane is not going to crash," but later she notes "Overinsure everything." The essay's last words: "There are no secrets."

My favorite essay is "Parenting in Three Stages". Ephron defines each of the stages, and then leads into a fabulous rant about how parenting in these crazy times is all tied up in consumerism, competitive parenting, and lo, the mommy wars.

"Back in the day when there were merely parents, as opposed to people who were engaged in parenting, being a parent was straightforward. You didn't need a book, and if you owned one, it was by Dr. Spock, a pediatrician, and you rarely looked at it unless your child had a temperature of 103 or the croup or both. You understood that your child had a personality. His very own personality. He was born with it. For a certain period, this child would live with you and your personality, and you would do your best to survive each other. "

She goes on to say:

"Back in those days-- and once again, let me stress that I am not talking about the 19th century, it was just a few years ago-- no one believed that you could turn your child into a different human being from the one he started out being. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician who supplanted Spock in the 1980's, was a disciple of Piaget and his books divided babies into three types--active, average, and quiet. He never suggested that your very quiet baby would ever become and active one, or vice versa. Your baby was your baby, and if he ran you ragged, he ran you ragged, and if he lay in his crib staring happily at his mobile, that was about what you could expect."
She then leads into how raising children changed because of the women's movement, which added the gender-neutral term 'parenting', implying that men and women should equally share in the raising of children. She says:

"Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying. It was active, it was energetic, it was unrelenting. Parenting meant playing Mozart CDs while you were pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until he was old enough to unbutton your blouse. Parenting began with the assumption that your baby was a lump of clay that could be molded (through hard work, input, and positive reinforcement) into a perfect person who would someday be admitted to the college of your choice. Parenting was not simply about raising a child, it was about transforming a child, force-feeding it like a fois gras goose, altering, modifying, modulating, manipulating, smoothing out, improving.....

And by the say, all sorts of additional personnel were required to achieve the transformational effect that was the gold of parenting--baby whisperers, sleep counselors, shrinks, learning therapists, family therapists, speech therapists, tutors, ad if necessary, behavior-altering medication, which, coincidentally or uncoincidentally was invented at almost the exact same moment that parenting came into being...."
I'll let you read the rest for yourself, but this is a powerful essay on what being a parent is all about.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Garage Sale America

I must admit, I love a garage sale. I am not the kind of person that gets up at the crack of dawn and attacks poor homeowners hours before they are ready to put out their merchandise for sale. You know, the dreaded earlybirds. I'm more the "stroll in around 11" kinda garage sale shopper. In my city, most of the sales are on Sunday, not Saturday, and they tend to start later. Us Jews evidently like to sleep in.

It is rare that I'll just drive by a yard sale. If I see one, I'm gonna screech to a halt to see what they have. I've gotten some great bargains. A huge bag of yarn, still in nice neat skeins for $1. Lots of clothing for my kids. Books. CDs and DVDs. Even some furniture. To me, yard sales are all about buying a small piece of history.

When the MotherTalk folks asked me to please review Garage Sale America, I jumped at the chance. Who could do a better job of reading all about cheapskate decorating? I'm a natural! Note that I got this book gratis, and will be compensated with a $20 Amazon Gift Certificate for this review.
What I didn't expect when reviewing this book was the nostalgia factor. The author, Bruce Littlefield, evidently absolutely adores artifacts of my childhood. Photo after gorgeous photo showed things I grew up with, or that were in my friends homes. Things I never ever expected to be "collectible" like my best friend Cheryl Bronstein's Barbie lunchbox. Or my mom's old Waring blender and Pyrex storage dishes. Much of the items featured in the book aren't the kind of stuff I buy at my various garage and yard sales, but it sure was fun to look at all the stuff of my childhood that is now labeled "Mid-Century Modern". Totally cracked me up!

The book has great hints for both buyers and sellers. One tip sheet, called "10 Steps to a Good Deal" teachers how to bargain successfully, something most Americans are terrible at. In my years as a yard sale maven, I've seen some really poor attempts at trying to reach a compromise price.

Garage Sale America has some great finds. It lists the worlds longest yard sale, the world's largest garage sale, and even covers the foods found at the world's largest garage sale. Does anyone know what a McMethodist Muffin is? Evidently you can score one in Warrensburg New York at the world's largest garage sale. At the world's longest yard sale, you can drive 450 miles beginning in Jamestown Tennessee. The book states that there is rarely a mile without a yard sale held for 3 days in August.

If you like particular items, such a Bakelite or Lalique glass (I'm in the Lalique group), Littlefield gives you plenty of information to try and figure out if the piece you've spyed is real or fake. There are writeups on various collectibles, from marbles to Barbie. There is literally something for everyone in this book.

The last part of the book is my personal favorite. It shows how to use your finds to decorate your home, and the example shown is the author's own home, filled to the brim with all sorts of quirky yard sale finds. It's not exactly my taste, but it's way cool. I just wonder who has to dust all that stuff! There are a bunch of photos of his kitchen, and the one I loved best was the green kitchenette with the cow pitchers on the splash back. Oh, you have no idea of how that made me laugh. My crazy mother collected those cows. She had hundreds of them. They used to sit in little niches in our dinette off the kitchen, where we ate our meals. Hundreds of cows staring at you eating. Hundreds of cows mooing silently at you. Oh man, that is a crazy memory!

There are some great decorating ideas here. I thought the school roll up map of Europe was a brilliant window shade. I wish I had thought of that for the Boy's room when he was younger. He would have loved it. I love the furniture he found for the porch. Made me think of being a kid again. So comforting.

I've had my share of yard sales. Most of mine have been successful, netting several hundred bucks with each sale. I've sold a lot more than I've bought over the years. In fact, we're about to hold another yard sale sometime this summer. Wanna come? I've got great junk!

And, if you're going to miss my yard sale, this book has a listing in the back of all the not to be missed yard sales all over the county. I wish I could go to all of them. They all sound great!