Guest Post: Author Erica Bauermeister offers a Recipe and a Giveaway!

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_Erica Bauermeister is the author of The School of Essential Ingredients, one of my favorite books so far this year! In my review I stated that my only complaint about this delectable book was the lack of recipes. Erica, taking me seriously, wrote a guest post for me and included a recipe for Tom’s Pasta Sauce. Thank you, Erica, for the guest post and the wonderful recipe.. I can’t wait to try it!! Maybe I’ll make it for the hub on Valentine’s Day.. hmmmm.

The idea for The School of Essential Ingredients came from a cooking class I took in Seattle, but the approach that Lillian, the chef/teacher in the novel, has toward food came from my experience of living in Italy for two years. While I was there I learned to see food as a conversation between ingredients rather than a lock-step set of rules I needed to follow. At first, that dialogue between ingredients felt as if it, too, was in a foreign language along with the Italian, but over time I learned to relax, to immerse myself in the flavors and textures of the ingredients, to worry less about using recipes. In short, I learned to play with my food.

droppedimageAnd what I learned is that cooking is a very forgiving activity. Switching out one ingredient for another is a creative act, not a destructive one. Coming out from behind the protective wall of a recipe allows us to come into closer contact with the food itself. Thinking of a recipe as an ice-breaker, a conversation starter, opens up endless possibilities.

So here’s a recipe to get you started, because in her review Lisa asked for one so very nicely. A bit of background: Tom is a bit of a mystery to the other characters in The School of Essential Ingredients, who know only that he carries with him a deep and personal sorrow. It is Lillian, the cooking teacher, who instinctively knows that participating in the creation of a pasta sauce from scratch will be one way to help him heal.

I offer this recipe with the hope that you will feel invited/directed/inspired to experiment. What would happen, for example, if you grated some orange peel into your sauce? Or used chicken sausage, or ground lamb with a bit of fresh rosemary? How might those bursts of creativity affect the life of someone you love?

Tom’s Pasta Sauce

Note: For best results, use Knorr’s extra-large soft chicken bouillon cubes.
Crush the whole tomatoes in a food processor, or chop them finely by hand.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 extra-large soft chicken bouillon cube (see note)
1 cup onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground Italian sausage
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup red wine
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and crushed (see note)
1 cup tomato sauce (more if you want)
Salt and pepper
1 pound penne pasta
Grated parmesan cheese (optional)

1. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil on medium-low heat until bubbles form. Crush the half bouillon cube into the oil and mix thoroughly. Add onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until translucent.

2. Add ground sausage, increase heat to medium, and cook until meat is no longer pink. Add milk and simmer until absorbed. (Don’t worry if it looks strange at first; the milk will mellow the wine and make for a wonderful, lush sauce.) Add wine, reduce heat to low, and simmer until wine is absorbed. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat.

3. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-3 hours, covered if you want a rich, but slightly thinner sauce, uncovered if you want a thicker sauce and the smell to roam through your house.

4. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook penne pasta according to package directions, until al dente. Drain pasta and place in a large serving bowl. Ladle sauce over pasta; top with grated parmesan cheese if desired, and serve immediately.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Do you play with your food? Erica would like to hear about it! She has generously offered three copies of The School of Essential Ingredients to help me celebrate my big 100K hit milestone! If you’d like a chance to win a copy of this wonderful book, all you need to do is send an email by Wednesday, Feb. 18th, to Erica at bookgiveaway@ericabauermeister.com telling her about your favorite dish. She will choose 3 winners from those entries. Please be sure to state in your email that you came from Books on the Brain. Good Luck!

<—–Oh! And please check out my left sidebar for other great 100K Celebration Giveaways!

Holy Sh*t! 100,000 Hits! And a Hachette Favorites Giveaway!

images-11It appears that I will hit a big milestone today or tomorrow. Never in a zillion years did I think this little blog of mine would reach 100,00 hits, but here it is! Unbelievable. Woo Hoo, Partay!

51ipo1fobxl_sl160_pisitb-sticker-arrow-dptopright12-18_sh30_ou01_aa115_The wildly generous Miriam at Hachette Book Group is sponsoring a Hachette Favorites Giveaway to help me celebrate! Leave a comment on this post by Monday, February 16th for a chance to win a big box of new fiction from Hachette, including The Little Giant of Aberdeen County 31bhf6sljl_sl160_aa115_(reviewed HERE), One Perfect Day (reviewed HERE), The Bishop’s Daughter (reviewed HERE), Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly, The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent, Run for Your Life by James Patterson and The Makedown by Gitty Daneshvari!

So, a little background on this blog. I started Books on the Brain at the end of September 2007 with virtually no idea about blogging, the book blogging community, html code, Google Reader, ARCs, memes, book tours, etc. No clue. None.

Laura Fitzgerald, author of Veil of Roses (who, incidentally, has a new book out and will be guest posting later this month!), had just talked to my real life book club by speaker phone. She was terrific, and when I emailed to thank her, she wrote back that I should check out her guest post at Stephanie’s blog, The Written Word. I loved the post, but was entranced by the blog. I’d never seen anything like it! I emailed Stephanie to compliment her on it and ask questions (many, many questions). She was so patient with me and so friendly. A day or two later I started Books on the Brain with this silly post, not realizing at the time how much it would change my life.

So let me throw out some stats: in about 16 months I’ve had 99,866 total views (as of this minute), 337 posts, 4,126 comments, 33 categories, and 927 tags. I don’t want to even think about the number of hours I’ve spent blogging. Or reading the blogs of others. Let’s just say it’s been substantial!

But the MOST wonderful thing about blogging, the thing that I just can’t get over, is this wonderful community. The people are so nice, so helpful, so intelligent, caring and kind. I’ve made amazing friends here and I’m so glad I found you. You’ve greatly enriched my life. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, emails, Christmas cards, and surprises (Care, you’re so cool!). Book bloggers are the greatest! Your comments and posts have made me laugh, informed me, enlightened me, given me much to think about, and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!

Help me celebrate by leaving a comment to enter the contest.  The contest is open to residents of the US and Canada only (no PO Boxes).  I’ll be celebrating all week with special guests and giveaways, so stay tuned!

Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_ The School of Essential Ingredients is a lovely new book by Erica Bauermeister. With intimate tables and soft lighting, heavy linens and crystal, glossy hardwood floors and fabulous aromas drifting out of the kitchen, Lillian’s is a place to celebrate, propose, and announce.  It’s the kind of restaurant that will surprise and delight, with personal attention from Lillian herself and creative meals that leave all of your senses satisfied. 

On Monday nights, Lillian teaches a cooking class at the restaurant.  Eight students make their way to class, coming through the side gate and following the golden glow to the kitchen in back, where they will learn to cook from a woman who knows how to inspire her students to create food from the heart and from their memories rather than from a recipe. 

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different student, alternating between reflections of their past and what is happening in the present, how they found their way to the class and how they get to know the other students.  Lillian seems to know just what her students need to learn, and the lessons transform not only their culinary skills but also their lives. 

Reminiscent of Garden Spells and Like Water for Chocolate, there is a bit of magical realism to the book- but just a touch- not overdone at all.  Abuelita is the woman who helped a young Lillian get her mother’s attention through cooking, who taught her to understand what is essential in each situation and what is not.  She shows her how food can evoke memories in a person, how you can bring about certain moods, certain behaviors and certain feelings with different types of dishes.  Lillian learns well and is able to pass that particular brand of culinary magic on to her students.  When they make a white on white cake, it brings back remembrances of the early days of a marriage for two of her students, a spicy tomato sauce brings thoughts of an Italian childhood for another, and a decadent tiramisu acts as the catalyst for a new romance in two more. 

Bauermeister’s vividly detailed descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and put you right into Lillian’s kitchen.  The writing is richly textured, lush and sensual.  It is really quite beautiful.    This is a debut novel but felt like it was written by a wise old soul.    

To give you an idea of the gorgeous flavor of the writing, and the beautiful imagery, here are a couple of passages.  I read an uncorrected proof of The School of Essential Ingredients, so the finished book may differ slightly. 

From page 23:

 At home Lillian opened the bag and inhaled aromas of orange, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate and something she couldn’t quite identify, deep and mysterious, like perfume lingering in the folds of a cashmere scarf. 

From page 35:

 Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life.  Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.

From page 158:

The air was beginning to fill with the sweet spiciness of roasting corn, the soft whispers of the tortillas flipping, then landing on the grill, the murmured conversation between Abuelita and Antonia, something about grandmothers, it sounded like.  Chloe placed the tomato on the chopping block.  She was surprised to find how much affection she had for its odd lumpiness.  She tested the point of the knife and the surface gave way quickly and cleanly, exposing the dense interior, juices dripping out onto the wooden board, along with a few seeds.  Grasping the knife firmly, she drew it in a smooth, consistent stroke across the arc of the tomato, a slice falling neatly to one side.

See what I mean?  The whole book is like that!  I just opened random pages and easily found wonderful examples.  My only complaint about this book is that there are no recipes, however that makes sense since Lillian is teaching her students to cook without using recipes.  Still, it would be nice to know how to make these dishes- or to know what essential secret ingredient to add to tonight’s dinner to make my children behave and my husband pay attention!  

If you like good fiction and good food, The School of Essential Ingredients, which will be released tomorrow, is the perfect combination of the two.  I realize I’m gushing here, but I loved the warm little world within these pages, and was sorry to leave it.  

The author’s website can be found HERE.

Sunday Salon- at night

Rockin' around the Christmas tree

Rockin' around the Christmas tree

Ok, I do realize that one should never drink and blog, but here I am, post-book club meeting, a tiny tad buzzed with no one in the house.  It seems like a good time to type up a Sunday Salon post.

Tonight our club discussed Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishi-something-or-other (my review can be found here).  The reviews were mixed but the discussion was terrific.  One thing I so enjoy about being in a book club (aside from the tremendous food!) is hearing other points of view about a book you thought you knew and were smart enough to understand- HA!  One club member brought something up that I never thought of and I’m so glad she made the point because I totally missed it.  The book is essentially about cloning and about a ‘school’ that treated one group of clones humanely- something like students but still less than human.  The point that I missed was how throughout history, groups of people were dehumanized as an attempt to justify the poor treatment they received- she cited slavery, the Holocaust, etc.  Seems obvious but I didn’t see it.  I viewed the book as a much more straightforward commentary on modern medical practices and politics and missed the bigger picture.  I have such a better appreciation of the book now.

I haven’t done much reading this week.  I’ve been dealing with some weighty family issues and that’s taken up a lot of my energy.  Plus the holidays are looming, and in my family I am the Christmas Holiday Organizer (aka the Christmas HO), which includes everything from decorating, planning, shopping, cleaning, baking, tree trimming, sending cards, etc. etc.  Ah, the responsibilities of a HO in December are endless.  I’m sure all you other HOs understand.

I did read about half of Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe and am enjoying it.  It’s a short book and I’d love to sit and just polish it off, but I haven’t been able to devote a good chunk of time to it.  Maybe this coming week.  I’m not sure what I’ll read after that, but don’t worry about me- I have a huge stack of books to choose from.

What are you reading this week?

Suellen Grealy, sister of author Lucy Grealy, is Hijacked by Grief

A friend sent me this article after reading my review of Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I had learned through an internet search that Lucy’s family was unhappy about the publication of Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, but didn’t realize to what extent until reading this. I have Truth & Beauty on hold at my local library, but after reading this I’m not sure I want to read it. I’m one of the 3 people on the planet who intensely disliked her book, Bel Canto, so reading Truth and Beauty was something I wanted to do only as an attempt to know more about Lucy. Thanks, Valerie, for sending this article from the guardian.co.uk to me.

Hijacked by grief

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy were close friends, both writers. Lucy died suddenly 18 months ago and Ann has since written an article and a book about her friend. What does such an intimate display of a loved one do to her family? Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, describes her sorrow and anger.

* Suellen Grealy

* The Guardian,

* Saturday August 7 2004

* Article history

There was an enormously distasteful story in the press some time ago. A devout elderly Muslim woman had died, and her body, when removed from the morgue for burial, was found covered with slabs of bacon. I was shocked on two levels: that there are people living among us who would do such a thing; and that such people have access to places even those of us who are not religious invest with sacredness. What saddened me most was that her family would never be able to divorce their memories of her from that awful, indescribably insulting image. In trying to make a point, someone had entirely altered the course of their grief.

“Grief” is a powerful little word. Like “love”, it accepts everything. Like “Europe” or “America”, it describes a place where anything might happen. In the land of “grief” people tear out their hair, stay in their beds, starve themselves, put their faith in saints and psychics, give up on love. All is forgiven, on the understanding that eventually they will return.

That Muslim family were hijacked on their journey. Nothing so malicious has touched me, but I think of them often, for my own grief has been forced down an unexpected path.

My little sister Lucy Grealy died in New York on December 18 2002, at the age of 39. She had accidentally taken an overdose of heroin. Her life had been hard, but she had also experienced more joy than many. As a child, she was diagnosed with a cancer in the bone of her jaw. Treating it was physically agonising and hugely disfiguring. As an adult, she wrote about her life, to enormous literary acclaim, in a book called Autobiography Of A Face. Even when she was alive, I found it difficult to read. Her descriptions of my father, who died in 1979, were unbearably true. Finding him on those pages, singing or talking to our dogs, was like dreaming. A phrase about looking out the window above the kitchen sink of our childhood home in Spring Valley, New York, was like chancing upon a yellowing photograph of a place I had once loved. When she wrote about my mother, I felt I was standing outside the door, listening to conversations I had already heard.

There was also irritation, for much of the book was careless. It was the first time I had experienced reading about my family and parts of my own life, and I realised how easy it was for Lucy simply to select her vantage point. I learned, too, how easily readers would accept it as the only true vantage point. But I was happy for Lucy. The book’s success was a first-class ticket to a world she loved, in which doing what she thought she wanted – writing – earned money.

Well before the publication of Autobiography Of A Face, Lucy had become friends with another writer, Ann Patchett. Ann was hugely patient with Lucy, who could be infuriatingly disorganised and irresponsible. She was able, it seemed, to accept Lucy’s constant need of approbation and affection, even when Lucy herself ignored, and even scorned, those needs in others. Ann was a good friend. Lucy’s life became harder, with endless reconstructive surgeries, frustration at her inability to recreate the crystalline beauty of Autobiography, and a loneliness she attributed to being “ugly”. Ann supported her throughout, with company, money, food and love.

Ann was a far better “sister” to Lucy than I could ever have been, but we never met while Lucy was alive. I had moved to London while they were still at college together. There had always been thousands of miles between us, and she was simply one of the many friends Lucy made so easily. When a review copy of Ann’s book, Taft, arrived by courier at my house in London, Lucy, staying with me, didn’t bother to open it. I wasn’t surprised by the way she tossed it dismissively on to a chair, for she rarely showed interest, at least to me, in other people’s achievements. I felt sorry for Ann then, because I knew how much she had done for my sister.

As Lucy’s life became more and more confused, I called Ann in exasperation. I had no idea that heroin had become so huge in my sister’s life. I knew she was unreachably sad. Oddly, while Lucy and I had spent hundreds of hours discussing the failings of our confused childhood, we skated quickly over the thin ice that might expose us to a truth – that Lucy’s illness had affected us all. She often had great – and comforting – insight into my mother’s lifelong depression, but the understanding between us was that my mother brought the worst of it upon herself. We made such a harsh judgment of our mother’s desperation that Lucy might have felt – in front of me, at least – that she had forfeited the right to her own. Ann, unwittingly, colluded. “Lucy’s so much like her mother,” I said over the phone. “Don’t tell her that,” Ann replied.

At the funeral in New York, Ann read a beautiful piece she had written. Afterwards, I was consoled by my new, transatlantic email friendship with Ann. Six weeks later, she wanted an article about Lucy to appear in the New Yorker but in the end settled on New York magazine instead. Ann emailed a document for my signature, a family permission to use Lucy’s letters. I was surprised that it did not mention the New York magazine article, but referred to HarperCollins, her publisher. I wish now that I had sent it to Lucy’s agent in New York. But I was grieving, and innocent of the implications.

That was my mistake.

At about the same time, my sister Sarah – Lucy’s nonidentical twin – and I were trying to sort through Lucy’s papers in Connecticut, where she had stayed towards the end of her life. A family painting had disappeared from her room, along with many other belongings, and Sarah and I were sad about this. Friends of hers, not including Ann, had already been there. Sarah and I sorted through our own feelings at the time, confused as they were, and tried to convince ourselves that friends Lucy had loved were just as “entitled” to have her things as we were. I still believe that, even now. Lucy had loved that painting, however, and I was disturbed that someone would feel more entitled to such a connection with her past. I believed my nephews should have had it.

While I was staying with Sarah, HarperCollins wanted to reissue Autobiography Of A Face with an afterword by Ann. We had read the afterword, and it was beautiful, but Sarah had asked, “Where are we in this story?” We are everywhere, I told her, like the paper it is printed on, though no one knows this but us. HarperCollins seemed very keen to issue it quickly, and we agreed. We thought, how could we not? We were in no state of mind to imagine the implications.

I noticed that the reading Ann gave at Lucy’s funeral and the piece in New York magazine shared similar phrases. The magazine had used a photograph of Lucy on the cover, and for a week Sarah, working in Manhattan, had to walk past a huge wall of these covers by the newsagent in the lobby of her building. She rushed past each day not looking, forcing herself to believe that having her dead twin’s face staring out at her was a good thing, because people had loved her. I felt so sorry for Sarah then.

Then Ann began to write what was to become Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with my sister. At first I believed that this was as it should be. Ann is an artist, how else could she express her grief? This was the defence I used to friends in New York. They had been surprised by some of the personal detail in the New York magazine article; they asked, “But why is she doing this?”

Later, Ann was in England for the Oxford Literary Festival. I heard a Woman’s Hour interview that she did – as winner of the Orange Prize for Bel Canto – with Martha Kearney. They discussed Truth & Beauty, then in progress. Ann appeared to believe that after the success of Bel Canto, critics would judge her less harshly for a work of nonfiction.

Around that time, Publishers Weekly in the US noted Ann’s forthcoming work of nonfiction about Lucy, referring to her as the “heavily disfigured writer who killed herself”. I was alarmed. Had HarperCollins released such a coarse and incorrect press release? But my concerns were brushed aside. Apparently it was a misunderstanding. Then I was alerted to reading guides published for the posthumous reissue of Autobiography Of A Face, with Ann’s afterword. One of the questions for discussion concerned my mother’s parenting skills. I cried almost incessantly with frustration. It was put down to the work of an inexperienced intern.

Three months before Lucy died, my mother’s depression took on the symptoms of dementia. I felt I had lost her. She had not been well for years – a huge source of sadness to me. Despite the efforts of my sister Sarah and I to help her, she was becoming more frail, more sad, more alone. Our conversations became surreal. Each one sent me deeper into despair. I was grieving for her. I tried to come to terms with the fact that she would never, after all, have the capacity for happiness. When Lucy died, I was already suffocating with loss.

On the morning of the funeral, my mother sat in her wheelchair crying, as she often did, terrified by her own constant fears. Sarah and I hugged her, trying, as we have both done all our lives, to protect her from her overwhelming despair. We have never told her that Lucy is dead.

In the spring of 2003, Ann was working, writing and living in what she described to me as “the Lucy factory”. I thought this was offensive, but didn’t say. She mentioned film rights. I was living in frightening and unfamiliar territory. For whom was this suffocating grief I felt? For my mother? For Lucy? The sadness that Lucy’s many other friends wrote about addressed only a tiny fraction of the tragedy my family had experienced. I envied the precision of their grief. How easy to focus on just one chapter of the intertwined lives of my father, dead at 57 from pancreatitis; my eldest brother, a schizophrenic, dead following a car accident in Nevada; my little sister, dead; my mother, subject to the idle scrutiny of book clubs across America, invited by those reading guides to judge her worth as a parent.

I’d had a framed photograph of Lucy for many years, which I loved. The only word I can think of to describe it is honest. I had loved it while she was alive, for the texture of her skin, for the closeness of her teeth, for a quality of nearness that made me feel if I looked at it long enough, she would blink. Now I looked at it and thought, who is this person? A public person, with a “legacy”, with “work”, by which we felt obliged to do the right thing. But what was the right thing? My husband said he could gauge my mood by whether he found the photograph hanging on the wall or hidden behind the chest of drawers in the spare room.

I was incapacitated with confusion. I felt, without being able to express it, that it was somehow indecent to risk laying my family bare for the sake of Ann’s personal expression of grief. I was afraid that with the publication of her book, there might be more inexperienced interns, another set of unsavoury reading guides, another reason for people to ask, “But where was Lucy’s mother?”

I wished that Ann would not publish the book. I admired and had defended her need to write as an artist, but I hoped she would finish it off, for herself, and put it under the bed. I’d have preferred her to work with a smaller publisher, one with less of a publicity machine than HarperCollins. That she’d ask for no publicity. I wanted her to wait until my mother was dead.

She felt it was her right, even her obligation, to write the book, and that it had to be HarperCollins because that was her publisher.

One evening before that conversation, when Ann was in London, we had walked arm in arm after dinner towards Notting Hill Gate. I told her I believed that Lucy, dead and thus completely free of the worldly obstacles of vanity and rivalry, would want us to console each other. I knew that Lucy, stripped down to the essence of sister and daughter, would want us to be happy together. Ann disagreed – she felt that Lucy would still be jealous of our developing friendship. It was almost as if she was excited by the idea.

Ann and I have not been in touch for some time. She offered a sum in exchange for permission to use Lucy’s letters to her in Truth & Beauty. Sarah and my brother Nicholas felt it was fair, a contribution towards the burden of my mother’s care – she was living in sheltered accommodation paid for by Sarah and me. I told them to do what they felt was right.

My sister Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister’s star. I wish Lucy’s work had been left to stand on its own.

There is a memory, one of thousands, that I would like to keep of Lucy. She is walking with my mother and me in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, near where my mother lived for many years. It is a warm and humid early evening, and I am taking photographs of them in a graveyard, trying to be arty. Lucy is wearing shorts, my mother a white linen shirt. One picture is of Lucy’s back and my mother’s face. Another is of my mother’s back and Lucy’s face. The one picture that I can’t focus on quickly enough is when they both turn to look at me, laughing, their foreheads nearly touching.

Why is that memory so elusive? Because it is so precious? Because it is mine alone, one that I don’t have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett’s personal vantage point?

Truth & Beauty has enhanced Ann’s reputation as a writer, though many have questioned the speed with which she published it, and the validity of exposing Lucy’s frailties, not apparent in Autobiography Of A Face. I’m sorry I stood by as this happened.

My sister Sarah and I have been travelling too long in the land of grief, and we would like to come home, to prop our pictures on the mantelpiece and to get on with our lives. But there is the book: what can we do with a grief thief?

UPDATE: I did go on to read Truth & Beauty. My review is HERE.

Sunday Salon

It’s finally SUNDAY!  I think a lot of us bloggers have a BBAW hangover this weekend.  So many posts to read, so many giveaways, so many awards and so much excitement!  It was a great week, put on by the tireless My Friend Amy, who did a phenomenal job putting it all together and keeping track of everything.  A round of applause for AMY!  (clap, clap, clap)

My BBAW giveaways will be ending this week too;  this one on Monday, and this one on Tuesday.  Hurry and enter if you haven’t already!

Fall has arrived here in Southern California. I used to love this time of year growing up in Michigan- back to school, sweater weather, fall colors, apple picking.  The change of seasons is more subtle in So. Cal. but when you’ve lived her awhile you start to notice small things.  We go from hot to warm, green to brown, and dry to not quite as dry, over the course of several months.  It’s still blazing hot right now, but it cools off in the evenings, and it’s chilly in the early morning.  The kids are back in school (and already have tons of homework), and by next weekend we’ll start to see pumpkins and scarecrows on porches to remind us that it’s fall, since the weather doesn’t offer much of a clue.

I’ve got so much reading lined up but it’s a challenge to find time.  My husband is in China on business, so I’ve been a “single mom” for the past week.  Things I’ve had to do without him include:

* going to Back to School night alone

* taking the girls on an overnight campout at their school (I  made the kids put the tent up, so it wasn’t that bad- it was just the carting things back and forth and the sleeping on the ground that sucked!)

* dealing with the emotions (“I miss daddy” sniff sniff)

* hauling the garbage cans to the curb and back (his job)

* feeding the dog and picking up poop (also his job)

* taking my youngest to her golf lesson (always a daddy/daughter thing)  

On the plus side, I’ve only cooked dinner once all week.  A couple nights we had leftovers, a couple nights we went out, and one night we had “breakfast for dinner”.  Oh, and I haven’t shaved my legs.  Ha!

Right now I’m reading Peony in Love by Lisa See.  I’ve wanted to read this since it came out, but was waiting for my book club to vote it in.  So far I LOVE it.  I was already a big fan after reading Snow Flower, now I’m a bigger fan.  Her writing is so lush and evocative- you get such a sense of the surroundings, you can almost smell the jasmine on the breeze.  Lisa is going to join our book club meeting in October by speaker phone and we could not be more excited!  

Next on the TBR pile is Immortal by Traci Slatton for Jennifer’s online book club at Literate Housewives (not to be confused with her regular blog, Literate Housewife). This one is somehow a cross between historical fiction and time travel.  It’s set in Florence in the 14th century, and the back cover says something about a golden boy having to make a choice between immortality and his only chance to find his true love (I’m paraphrasing wildly).  

After that, it’s on to The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff for a TLC Book Tour stop here on October 30th.  It’s about Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife of Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon church.  There’s also a parallel story about a present day murder in a polygamist family.  I can’t wait to start it.  

And last, but hopefully not least, I’ll be reading Run by Ann Patchett.  The only Patchett I’ve read is Bel Canto, which I intensely disliked, but because my friend Jill at Fizzy Thoughts liked Run so much, and then offered to send me her copy, I’m going to give it a try.  I’m also interested in Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), so I’m going to give her a second chance, and then possibly a third.  

I’m curious- If you’ve read a book that you didn’t like at all, do you give an author another chance and read more of their work?  Or do you “fire them” forever?  

Happy Sunday!

In Praise of Book Clubs, Volume 22

In this 22nd volume of In Praise of Book Clubs, CB James of the wonderful blog Ready When You Are, CB (where you can find out which book his basset hound, Dakota, has eaten lately) writes about his book club, which has the honor of being the oldest club we’ve heard about in this series!  Forgive me for not adding links to all 114 books they’ve read!

I’ve been a member of the same book club off-and-on since 1993. That’s fifteen years, with a hiatus for graduate school and a couple of breaks here and there. 15 years and 114 books read so far.

The original members all worked together at the same elementary school, but one who worked at the school in the next neighborhood over. We started off with Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, which we all enjoyed. For the first few years, our after school meetings begain with a “discussion session,” mostly complaints about various people we worked with and didn’t like. Then we’d move on to the book. Our reading taste in the early days was a bit more literary than it is now, but there have always been a dash of popular titles and young adult titles on our TBR list.
To choose books, anyone who had one they wanted to suggest brought it to the meeting and we all hashed it out, ultimately deciding the next book via consensus. We never picked a book that any of us had already read, which, in retrospect, may not be the best rule. Most of the time at least a few members enjoyed the book and there were many that we all loved, but there was Jeanette Wintersteen’s Written on the Body, which has become infamous among book club members as the book no one liked at all.

While the book club has been around for 15 years no single member has. I took a couple of years off for graduate school. Some members have moved away; some moved away and moved back. New members have joined. Currently there are nine active members, three former members and two members who stop in whenever they are in town, in one case in the country.
Our current book is Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. We’ve changed the way we select books; now each member takes a turn choosing the book, which is working out well. After 13 years, we’d fallen into a pattern where two or three members selected almost all of the books. This was okay with me, since I was one of the selecting members, but became a problem for other people. Like everything that lasts a long time, the club has changed the way it works over the years. This year, for the first time, we established a set of ground rules that everyone agreed upon. Bring a book or two when it’s your turn to select, or pass to the next person if you don’t want to choose; make a serious attempt to read the book no matter how much you do or don’t like it; come to the meeting with something to say on way or another.
We’ve all become very good friends over the years. We’ve watched one member’s daughter grow up and head off to college, attended member’s weddings and major birthdays and mourned the loss of several boyfriends and a beloved cat. (The cat was the greater loss.) I fully expect the book club to be around for another 15 years in one form or another and to hit 250 books read before the end. Once something has been around for a long time, it tends to stay around for a long time.

Here’s a list of all the books the club has read over the past 15 years. Not a bad reading list, if you ask me. The books I recommend are in blue. The pictures are books various members voted as their all time favorites. They are listed in the order we read them.

  • Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, Julia Alvarez
  • Becoming a Man, Paul Monette
  • The Ginger Tree, Oswald Wynd
  • Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

  • World’s End, T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  • The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Peristroika, Tony Kushner
  • Nobody’s Fool, Richard Russo
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Bingo Palace, Louise Erdrich
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  • Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Dorothy Allison
  • Dear Mem Fox, Mem Fox
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, David Gutterson
  • A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton
  • School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, P.E. Orenstein
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • Jazz, Toni Morrison
  • Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi
  • A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr
  • A Parrot in the Oven, Victor Martinez
  • The Color of Water, James McBride
  • A Prayer for Owen Meaney, John Irving
  • She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb
  • Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Brendt
  • The Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike
  • Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  • Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
  • Here on Earth, Alice Hoffman
  • A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher
  • Lolita, Valdamir Nobokov
  • A Perfect Agreement, Michael Downing
  • A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguri
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterho od, Rebecca Wells
  • Where the Heart Is, Billy Letts
  • Charming Billly, Alice McDermott
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
  • The Reader, Bernard Schlink
  • I Know this Much is True, Wally Lamb
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rawling
  • The Archivist, Martha Cooley
  • Dreams of My Russian Summer, Andrei Makine
  • The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  • Goodnight Nebraska, Tom McNeal
  • For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin
  • The Hours, Michael Cunningham
  • Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  • River Angel, A. Manette Ansay
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  • Corelli’s Mandoline, Louis de Bernieres
  • Girl with Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
  • Nervous Condidtions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • Wait ’til Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • I Married a Communist, Philip Roth
  • The Last Life, Claire Messued
  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  • House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III
  • The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Letham
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Seabiscuit-An American Legend, Laura Hittenbrand
  • Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
  • The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
  • The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Tears of the Giraffe, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Mystic River, Michael Lehane
  • Riven Rock, T.C. Boyle
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
  • How to Make a Tart, Nina Killham
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
  • The Sixteen Pleasures, Robert Hellenga
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hossein
  • Back When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguru
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Don’t Think of an Elephant-know your values and frame the debate, George Lakoff
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Mendocino, Ann Packer
  • A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • My Antoni a, Willa Cather
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundara
  • The Devil in White City, Erik Larson
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  • Songs in Ordinary Times, Mary McGarry Morris
  • Farewell my Lovely, Raymond Chandler
  • Hard Times, Charles Dickens
  • The Good German, Joseph Kanon
  • Julie and Julia, Julie Powell
  • Criss Cross, Lynne Rae Perkinds
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Black Swan Green, David Mitchel
  • True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey</li&g t;
  • Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck
  • Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
  • Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  • The Reading Group, Elizabeth Noble
  • Small Island, Andrea Levy
  • Eat, Love, Pray, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Losing Battles, Eudora Welty
  • The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
  • Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan
Blogger Bio:  C.B. James lives with his spouse and their many pets in Vallejo, CA.  He teaches 7th grade English and history in Marin County.  He has been in the same book club for over 15 years.  The book club is all teachers, most of them elementary school  teachers. When not teaching, reading or blogging, C.B. James can be found in his art studio where he makes mixed media art books or walking his Bassett Hound Dakota who would love to eat every book in the house if she could.
***Would you like to share about your book club here at Books on the Brain? If so, leave a comment and I will get in touch with you about a guest post!

For previous volumes of In Praise of Book Clubs, click HERE

For more info on starting your own book club, click HERE

For fun ways to make your book club better, click HERE

To win a copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin (who ADORES book clubs), click HERE

Book Club Wrap-Up: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Our book club met on Sunday to discuss Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, and we had the great pleasure to have Nancy visit with us by speaker phone!  It was such a treat to have her attend our meeting this way.  She was on her way to the airport to pick up her son but was still so gracious and kind.  She thoroughly answered every question we had with humor and wit, and gave us an incredible amount of insight into her characters, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the married woman he had an affair with, Mamah Borthwick Cheney.  

In 1907, both Frank and Mamah publicly and scandalously left their spouses and children (8 children between them) to go overseas for two years to carry on their affair, and continued to be together after returning home to this country.  Frank built Mamah a home in Wisconsin called Taliesin, where they lived together out of wedlock until Mamah’s untimely death in 1914. 

Our group enjoyed the book, but most of us disliked the flawed characters and their unpopular choices.  I think we all agreed that we enjoyed the discussion it generated even more than the book, and isn’t that what a book club is for.. great discussion? 

Frank, so flamboyant and eccentric, was such an egomaniac.  None of us cared much for him, although we could see the attraction for Mamah.  He was creative and intellectual, and he was interested in her opinion on everything.  In the beginning of their relationship, Mamah mentioned her grandmother and Frank wanted to know more.  

He sat down again and looked at her.  “Tell me everything,” he said.  

Tell me everything.  He might as well have said, “Take off your dress.”

Yes, attention is a powerful aphrodisiac.  But the man was horrible with money, he didn’t pay his debts or give credit where credit was due to the people who worked for him.  He lived beyond his means and bought things because he “needed to be surrounded by beauty”. In one memorable scene he bought a houseful of furniture, including three (3!!) grand pianos, all without consulting Mamah, whom he was living with at the time.  Nevermind he couldn’t pay the people who were helping to build his house.  Mamah, infuriated, insisted he return the pianos.

We liked Mamah a bit more, but couldn’t understand why she left her kids for years to follow Frank to Europe.  Clearly she was in love with him, but her husband, Edwin Cheney, was a nice and tolerant man who allowed her to do whatever she wished.  She had money, servants, freedom, friends, hobbies, household help, a caring husband and two beautiful children.  She wasn’t escaping domestic hell so much as carrying on an illicit affair, and I have to say we judged her pretty harshly. 

The issues Loving Frank brought up are still relevant today.  We talked about feminism, a woman’s place (then and now), maternal love vs. romantic love, duty, obligation, motherhood, careers, etc.  We talked about public people who’ve left their spouses for others (Brad Pitt, for instance) and how they are treated in the media.  We discussed how women are treated differently from men in that regard (Britney Spears and how she’s been skewered for being a poor mother).  

Some of us felt Mamah was a terrible mother for leaving her children to have a ‘bigger’ life than the domestic confines she found herself in.  Others felt that her personal growth was important enough to justify leaving her kids.  Some of us felt that if she had left to go on to do something great with her life, we could have been more sympathetic, but in truth all she did was follow a man around.   

We had the well worn “stay at home” vs. “working” mother discussion.  Some of us felt it would be less horrible to leave children behind with family to go explore other options in this day and age, with telephones and email and air travel.  In Mamah’s day, it took a month to go overseas, and there was no such thing as text messaging, IM’s or digital pictures to keep us up to date and connected to our loved ones who are separated from us.  All they had at that time was the painstakingly slow pace of the postal service or telegrams- it took weeks just to receive a letter.  

SO..  Loving Frank is a good book- and a really good book for a book club.  Ms. Horan did extensive research and then convincingly fleshed out her characters through fictional dialogue and situations that seemed very true and believable.  It’s historical fiction at it’s best. If you want to spark a great discussion with your book group, I would highly recommend it . 

Oh, I almost forgot- we had some awesome food!  What’s a book club meeting without good eats??  We decided on a European theme (where the lovers spent 2 years), so we had Pasta e Fagioli soup, bruschetta, some kind of cheesy broccoli pasta casserole, chicken sausage, Boston Crème Pie (not European, but who cares), and (of course) Chardonnay.  Tasty. 

The Loving Frank website can be found HERE.  Discussion questions can be found HERE.  

If you’ve read Loving Frank, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  If you’ve reviewed it, let me know and I’ll link it here.

If Only They Would Send Books AND Chocolate..

My day wasn’t going so well earlier.  It started off with a stupid fight with my stupid dear husband and went downhill from there.  It’s pretty sad when you find yourself snapping at the dog for not getting out of your way fast enough (and the poor dog has stitches on her head!) and then telling your 9 year old that her head would be shaved if she didn’t brush her hair RIGHT NOW.  And then the damn zipper broke on my favorite shorts- the ones that actually fit.  And for chrissake, is that a zit on my chin??  (Pass the Midol- and the chocolate- and the tissues!)  Grrrrrr grrrrrr grumble grumble leave me alone.  

Ok, so not the best day ever for moi.  But it did get better.  I had some really positive emails this morning on my new venture.  Yeah, me!  And then my dear husband apologized, because (obviously) everything was his fault.  And remember how I wanted to be WOWed by a book?  Let me just tell you, I have been WOWed, big time!!  I spent an hour and a half (while my kids were at their tutoring) reading, and I may not sleep tonight trying to finish this fabulous book.  

And then, the icing on the cake- when we got home, I had a package of two beautiful new books from Hyperion waiting in my mailbox.  They are Schooled by Anisha Lakhani (YA fiction that just came out yesterday) and Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon (chick lit, coming out Aug. 12).  They both look great.

Free books in the mailbox.. almost as good as chocolate!  Now, if only I could get them to send both!  

Thanks, Hyperion, for making my day!

Review: The Heartbreak Diet by Thorina Rose

The Heartbreak Diet: A story of family, fidelity, and starting over by Thorina Rose is like a comic book for adults.  However, there are no action heroes here:  no laser beams or men in capes; just the brave heroine, Thorina, who puts the worst part of her life on display in an honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful manner.  

Thorina finds out her husband X does more with his running partner than run.  She handles the discovery of his adultery with such dignity and class, even going so far as to meet the other woman, Vivienne- who is younger with glowing skin, bigger breasts, and an unencumbered lifestyle.  Thorina’s husband, a cruel selfish bastard, wants to try a polyamorous relationship (yuck) and they go through gutwrenching counseling sessions, but ultimately, he leaves Thorina and their two young sons (who later tell her, “Vivienne’s really nice!  It’s kind of like having another mom!” OUCH).  Thorina’s friends prop her up and keep her sane, and she eventually comes to terms with the end of her marriage.  

Ok, so the story isn’t very original, but the execution of it certainly is.  I really liked Thorina.  I laughed through her revenge fantasies and was completely charmed by the frankness of the writing and the freshness of the illustrations.  The Heartbreak Diet is a quick read. I read it in under an hour.  It was my first foray into the world of graphic novels, and I enjoyed it immensely.  This book would make a great gift for anyone who is on their own Heartbreak Diet, forgetting to eat lunch due to major distractions in their lives.  I would highly recommend it.