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When our former student and acclaimed author Salvatore Scibona mails a book to our house with a simple typewritten note enclosed “A book I love for friends I love”,  I set all other reading aside and dive in.  Scibona wrote this blurb for the back of the book –

A big, chewy novel written with comic panache and an infectious tenderness toward the blunders of its heroes. The Unfortunates is both a mirror on the income inequality of the current moment and a social novel in the old, plotty mode: voracious for detail and punctuated by gasp-inducing turns of fate. Its subjects are money and the people unfortunate enough to have it. Who knew the rich deserved so much to be pitied? (Salvatore Scibona, author of The End)

Sophie McManus‘ debut novel lives up to the New York Observer’s pronouncement “This may be the literary beach read of 2015.” At the center of the story is CeCe Somner, an aging matriarch whose excessive wealth cannot save her declining health. Diagnosed with a rare disease, she qualifies for a pharmaceutical trail she can only participate in if she moves from Somner’s Rest into Oak Park, one of those god-forsaken “homes”.   Her delusional son, George, is none too happy to be rid of her since it gives him more freedom to compose an opera that he believes will launch his fame. George neglects his job and his new-moneyed wife, Iris, until everything spins out of control. The potential darkness of the novel is lightened by McManus’ hilarious prose. I laughed out loud! In one passage George puts headphones on his mother so she can listen to his masterpiece for the first time, and when she removes them, she describes what she heard in a splendid Juvenalian tirade that is its own music. McManus is a talented word weaver. I empathized with no character and loved them all.

Perhaps the truest line in the book is buried in a beginning chapter where a minor character says, “We need books  . . . because we are all, in the private kingdoms of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend.”  Sophie McManus has capably created such a necessary book.

How does an English teacher avoid a novel titled Language Arts?  I certainly could not, especially since I have been big fan of Stephanie Kallos since reading Broken for You in 2005.  And, of course, this cover with its looping arcs is pretty intriguing – and representative.

Language Arts is an ambitious novel – one I almost felt she was not going to be able to pull off due to all its looping arcs.  The main character is Charles Marlow, a high school English teacher who attempts to show students how language will shape and change their lives.  Charlie is also the father of an autistic son, Cody, who never masters the use of language.  Cody, now 21, must be placed in a new adult residence.  Charlie is divorced from his wife, Allison, with whom he has little success in communicating.  During Art Therapy at the new home, Cody collaborates with Sister Georgia, an aging Italian nun who is losing her language, all of which is photographed by one of Charlie’s students who is working there on her senior Language Arts project.  Sound confusing?  It often is.   To further muddy the waters, the timeline of the novel bounces between the present and Charlie’s elementary school days, when he was placed in an experimental language arts program that resulted in him penning an award winning story that was a loosely veiled expose of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage.  Also, symbolically significant is the elementary school instruction Charlie received in the Palmer Handwriting Method and the ways it knit Charlie’s life together with a mentally challenged classmate of his named Dana.

At times the novel nearly fell apart for me.  But there were passages about language – how is serves and fails us as human beings – that salvaged the book for me.  Perhaps it is because my mother suffered from aphasia during her last years with Alzheimers.  Perhaps because I love language, and teaching literature.  Passages like this one make the book worth recommending:

“Memory—uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable—is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we’re inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can’t be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now? Only by looking backward are we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame?”

 

Eighty-three year old Etta is full of life, but she has never seen the ocean!  So she decides to walk some 3,000 kilometers from Saskatchewan, Canada east to the sea.  She leaves a note on the kitchen table for her husband, Otto, stating “I will try to remember to come back”, and loads up provisions including a rifle and some chocolate before heading out.  It is Russell, life-long friend a neighbor to Otto, who eventually decides to set out after Etta.  The final title character, James, can only be described as a supernatural coyote who accompanies Etta along part of her journey.

 

This novel is all story, and as many of my favorite story tellers do, Hooper paints her landscape with the broad brush of magical realism.  I loved Etta and her feisty determination.  This novel is quirky and engaging.  Want to escape this summer?  Hike along with Etta and James.

Back in March, I got an Etsy Conversation notification from another Northeast Ohio entrepreneur who encouraged me to view her Kickstarter video and then get back to her if I was interested in sewing aprons for her soon-to-hit-the-streets vintage trailer bakery!  I know a great idea when I see one, and by the end of that day, I had a new business associate and friend, Shannon Keiber!  We worked together to select fabrics to compliment her logo and color scheme, I placed a huge fabric order and she gave me a down payment on 10 aprons that would be worn by her and her sales helpers, as well as be given out as rewards to her Kickstarter backers. 

We selected an adorable Tossed Trailers print fabric from Timeless Treasures for the apron skirts.  The pink background coordinates perfectly with the flowers in her Floured Apron logo.  The gingham in the logo is reflected in the bright blue Riley Blake fabric I ordered for the apron bodices and adjustable neck strap and ties.  Shannon liked the idea of using teal ric rac for accenting the deep functional pockets and apron waistlines.   Reminded of the old adage, “measure twice – cut once”, I measured about five times and did all sorts of mind-numbing calculations before I cut into the fabrics.  My other challenge was printing a simple black version of her  logo onto white fabric for a colorfast image that would withstand washings. 

Shannon understands branding and marketing.  She brings the knowledge she gained over twenty some years in corporate America together with her love for baking together in her new business venture.  Her Kickstarter goals were met, her custom vintage style trailer was built, and she is making her dreams come true by delivering “Homemade baked goods, straight from the heart!”  She uses high quality, local ingredients and bakes cupcakes, brownies, cookies, pies and breakfast pastries that are simple, beautiful and above all, delicious!

And, Shannon really loves aprons.  Check our her three part series from her blog here.  I was so pleased when she told me she had chosen me to make her aprons because she loved the many aprons I have available in my Etsy shop. After I had the 10 aprons made, we decided on a Starbucks about half way between our two homes as a meeting place.  I recognized her immediately because she was carrying a box of cupcakes (for me!).   

I felt an instant kinship with Shannon.  We sat over coffee and talked about our upcoming markets, problems with establishing fair pricing that also yielded profits, and the things that keep us awake at night. At that point, her trailer, which she named Rosie, was not finished.  She had debut dates lined up and I promised to keep in touch for progress updates.

I have to sing the praises of her product.  These chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache icing and fresh raspberries did not last long at our house, and even made a great breakfast the next morning with coffee in my new Floured Apron mug.

Since our first meeting, we have kept in touch.   The Floured Apron was a hit at its Cleveland Flea debut, made a local television morning show appearance, and I hear a Cleveland Magazine feature is upcoming.  Shannon said there has been enough interest in her apron that she would like to sell them, along with a few of my other aprons.

Just yesterday, I surprised Shannon at Aurora Farms where she was parked selling coffee, cupcakes, brownies and cookies.  I brought her an armload of aprons for her holiday weekend vending events.  And I finally got to see Rosie!  Bright blue and shiny white – you won’t be able to miss her this summer.

  

  

And as of today – there are aprons for sale!  Unfloured, one of a kind aprons, handmade and straight from the heart! 

All the Bright Places

I don’t want to give too much away, but the moment I finished reading All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven,  I posted a quick message to my teacher friends alerting them to tell all their book-craving students to put this title at the top of their summer reading lists.  The unlikely relationship between Theodore Finch and Violet Markey begins when they meet atop their Indiana high school’s bell tower.  In that instant they become “lifesavers” for one another – bouying each other through mean cliques, exaspering teachers, family issues, the wounds of the past and the uncertainty of the future.  

I fell in love with this book!  I devoured it.  It made me laugh and cry.  If I were still teaching I would be buying copies as end of the year gifts for my favorite students.  Of course Niven’s story is not entirely unique.  Of course the movie version, reported to star Elle Fanning as Violet, will be a hit.  Because the prose is smart and literary, the characters are flawed and real, and the theme strikes a chord with teens that still resonates in adults, All the Bright Places will become the next essential YA novel. 

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

March 13th, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Immediately, this book had three things going for it – a great first sentence, the fact that it is a road trip narrative, and the Greyhound bus that the protagonist is sitting atop on the front cover is taking her to Cleveland, Ohio (my hometown).  The first sentence is – “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay”.  In fact, that single sentence is the only one in the first chapter  titled A Thing’s Not a Thing Until You Say It Out Loud.  Mim Malone is 16  years old, she lives with her father and new step-mother in Jackson, Mississippi (aka Mosquitoland), and her mother is very sick in Cleveland.  During her happier “Young Fun” days, she lived with her mother and dad in Ashland, Ohio, so when she decides to get on the Greyhound for Cleveland, 947 miles away, she is sort of going home.  Of course, often the theme of YA novels that deal with divorce teaches you can’t revisit the past, even if you make it to Cleveland in time for Labor Day, a day Mim and mom made special together  when times were good.

The sections of the novel are marked by cities and miles to go.  Passages of Mim’s cheeky first person narration are interspersed with letters she write to Aunt Isabel, in which she refers to herself as Our Heroine and signs off Mary Iris Malone _ Mother-effing Mother-Saver.  Of course she meets a cast of cleverly drawn characters, of course she has scrapes with good and terrible luck.  Of course her father and step-mom are worried sick and intervene.  Those details are pretty predictable.  What isn’t so predicable is Mim’s wisdom and raw honesty.  As she says, “Opening scenes are funny, because you never know which elements will change over time and which will stay the same.  The world was, and is, mad.”

I loved Mim, and although this book is recommended for 12 and up, I loved this book.  David Arnold had made a brilliant debut! He is also a musician and his book trailer offers a great sneak peak at the story and his musical talents.

I close too many book reviews “If I was still teaching” but I would truly put this on a short list of books to preview for Book Circles and class reads.  I want to meet Mim and sit next to her on the bus.  Even if I’m already in Cleveland.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins rose to #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List last week, and I finished reading it just in time to agree – it is the new Gone Girl.   I never read Gone Girl, haven’t seen the movie either.  I would generally say crime fiction isn’t my genre, but after a recent train trip to Chicago to see our daughter, I found myself in a large downtown Barnes and Noble bookstore where I picked up a copy of this book intending to read the first page.  The first page turned into the first chapter, and then another and then another.  That is why The Girl on the Train will stay atop the best sellers list.  The narrative travels at a speeding train’s pace and, as the cover image hints, it compels the reader with a Hitchcockian, “Rear Window” brand of intrigue.

Rachel, one of the three female characters, is a sort of train wreck of a character.  She is an out of work, alcoholic divorcee who continues to take the train into London each day to keep up the charade of employment, so that the girlfriend who she is temporarily living with won’t kick her out of the apartment.  Since she isn’t really going to work, she can drink canned gin and tonics on the train and allow herself the revelry of staring out the window, imagining the lives of people she sees on the front porches outside the stations where the train stops.  And so it begins!  She sees something curious and disturbing one day – or does she?  Due to her abuse of alcohol and her fragile mental state, she frequently blacks out, or seriously doubts her memory in hungover light of day.  So can she be a reliable witness for a murder case?

She isn’t even a reliable narrator.  Neither is Anna, wife of Tom, Rachel’s ex-husband.  Neither is Megan, murder victim and wife of Scott, who has a secret past creepier than the events surrounding her murder case.  These three narrate the novel which switches frequently from story teller to story teller, from past to present, from the discomfort of home to the safety and anonymity of a moving train compartment.

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

February 15th, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

I loved The Rosie Project  and I can’t wait for the movie.   I love Don Tillman and his hilarious wife, Rosie, so I knew I would live the Rosie Effect.  I got a digital library loan of the novel, which was my first read in OverDrive.  I’m not sure I like it as well as I like reading Kindle editions, but it did give me the added satisfaction of letting me know I opened the book just 25 times and finished it in 6 hours and 36 minutes.  And what a fun six and a half hours those were.  (I read most of by a fireplace as a winter storm pounded the Northeast Ohio Lake Erie shore.)

In this sequel Rosie is pregnant with a baby she and Don had not discussed having together.  His quirks and idiosyncrasies as a man and husband look as if they will be exacerbated by the responsibilities of parenthood.  I laughed out loud many times while reading about the troubles Don manages to get himself into.  It is hard to believe that until recently Graeme Simsion was a name associated with the theory of data modeling and not a popular author.  Everyone I know who has read The Rosie Project loved it and I will be recommending the Rosie Effect for a long while to come.

Us by David Nicholls

February 1st, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)
I really enjoyed One Day by David Nicholls and had read enough pre-publication hype about Us to convince myself that I would love it too.  I was not disappointed!  Nicholls is an author and screen writer and I am already anxious for the movie version of Us, especially if the movie is true to the European vacation itinerary of the novel.
Connie Peterson tells her husband, Douglas, that she plans to leave him after they return from a trip they have planned to take with their son, Albie, who is about to leave for college.  The plan is a grand tour of France, Spain, Amsterdam and Italy, complete with all the art museums and requisite life-changing tourist stops.  But the life-changing happens as a result of people more than places. The reader travels along inside Douglas’s simultaneously humorous and painfully honest narration.  Although the optimistic reader hopes for a happily-ever-after ending, pleasant realism is a pretty good was to end a pretty endearing story.

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During a recent trip to Chicago to visit our daughter, we mastered Uber well enough to get us anywhere we wanted to go in the city. And I wanted to go to Eataly, Mario Batali’s 63,000 square foot Italian food emporium.  Just inside the front door was a dedication to Ernest Hemingway that reassured me we were probably going to like the place.  Of course, I am a fan of Batali from my daily, treadmill-time watching of  The Chew, which he co-hosts.  Also, David gifted me with a copy of Batali’s new America Farm to Table cookbook from Christmas.  I had read enough about Eataly to be intrigued and, I must say, it exceeded my expectations in a way that any store as large as five Trader Joe’s might!

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The motto above the door is one I certainly approve of!  If we had know that we could have gotten a glass of wine and walked around with it, we probably would have.  As it was, we really didn’t have any intention of eating a meal at Eataly, but the power of suggestion overwhelmed us.  Inside the two-story building are eight Italian themed restaurants, the largest of which is La Pizza & La Pasta, where we eventually took a seat at the counter so we could watch the daily pasta dishes being prepared.

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Lucky for us, there was no waiting.  Probably because it was still Sunday morning, but David and I used the “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” justification for ordering a glass of wine to go with a “pizza of the day”, which happened to be prosciutto!

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Our very friendly server started us with a plate of oil and a brown paper package of freshly baked bread before helping us select a Valle Reale Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to go with our pizza.

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We had a great time watching the preparation of the Daily Pastas and had no problem finishing the pizza, which had been perfectly baked in a stone pizza oven, also in view, and generously covered in fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.

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Fortified and ready to shop, we walked around for the best part of an hour taking in the fish counter and it’s corresponding restaurant,  Il Pesce, as well as the meat counter.  I understand there is also a meat-centric restaurant called La Carne, which is in  a remote corner of the second floor and a vegetarian eatery called Le Verdure, as well.

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If you to to Eataly, I would probably suggest starting the the center of the second floor, La Piazza, which is the busy Italian city center where you can order a glass of wine and stand at one of the tables to enjoy items coming directly from the counters or production corners located right behind them: La Mozzarella, Il Crudo, I Salumi & Formaggi and Il Fritto.

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We were off to investigate Italian wines!  I have a new interest in Nebbiolo, red Italian grape variety that is being grown at Quarry Hill Winery, where I work part-time.  Nebbiolo is most commonly used in Barolo and Barbaresco wines.  I though perhaps I could learn a little more about the grape from the young guy working in the wine department.  He was initially very interested in talking to me, but when I began asking some specific questions that were out of his range of knowledge and explained that I work at a winery in Ohio, he admitted he was also from Ohio – an OSU grad.  He suggested we could sample some wines at the nearby Vino Libero counter, where 6 casks of wine were “on tap” and, once again, you could stand at a tasting counter and enjoy your wine with a selection of marinated olives, or salumi, or prosciutto di parma, or even spicy tuna.

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I must say, the whole Eataly experience was a feast for the eyes.  Even the signs for the Toilette were clever!  We decided our trip home on Amtrack would allow for a small bag of groceries which we chose mainly from the selections of First Anniversary Celebration Sale bins that were prominently placed throughout both floors.

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In addition to a particularly flavorful Provolone that we found in the cheese shop, we brought home some a small jar of a white truffles and mushroom sauce, a tube of Triplo Concentrato dei Comodoro tomato paste, and a box of Barilla Bucatini n.9 – my new favorite pasta!

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Next time, and there will be a next time, we will plan on eating our way through both floors.  Mario Batali may have created a culinary circus in Eataly, but who doesn’t enjoy a culinary circus?