Friday, April 29, 2011

Books I'm Excited About

Here are some books I'm excited to dive into. The descriptions are from Amazon.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Yemen, 1935. Jama is a “market boy,” a half-feral child scavenging with his friends in the dusty streets of a great seaport. For Jama, life is a thrilling carnival, at least when he can fill his belly. When his mother—alternately raging and loving—dies young, she leaves him only an amulet stuffed with one hundred rupees. Jama decides to spend her life’s meager savings on a search for his never-seen father; the rumors that travel along clan lines report that he is a driver for the British somewhere in the north. So begins Jama’s extraordinary journey of more than a thousand miles north all the way to Egypt, by camel, by truck, by train, but mostly on foot. He slings himself from one perilous city to another, fiercely enjoying life on the road and relying on his vast clan network to shelter him and point the way to his father, who always seems just a day or two out of reach.

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

When the wife of renowned art critic Daniel Lichtmann plunges to her death, she is not alone. Lying next to her is her suspected lover, Benjamin Wind, the very artist Daniel most championed. Tormented by questions about the circumstances of their deaths, Daniel dedicates himself to uncovering the secrets of their relationship and the inspiration behind Wind's dazzling final exhibition.

What Daniel discovers is a web of mysteries leading back to pre-World War II Vienna and the magnificent life of Josef Pick, a forgotten artist who may have been the twentieth century's greatest painter of love. But the most astonishing discoveryis what connects these two artists acrosshalf a century: a remarkable woman whose response to the tragedy of her generation offers Daniel answers to the questions he never knew to ask.

Life is Funny by E. R. Frank

"'He's got poetry,' I go, all choky. 'He's got mad poetry.'" With these words from China about her crush Eric, debut author E.R. Frank proves her fresh knowledge of millennial teenspeak. In Life Is Funny, there is no dated slang, only the ripe hip-hop dialogue heard on subway cars and street corners. Frank's ear is perfect as she details the lives and loves of 11 Brooklyn teens on the cusp of adulthood. Though the stories are gritty, for every slam there is a triumph. Tough-talking Monique, who is pregnant by her abusive ex-boyfriend, finds real peace with Hector, a dreamy-eyed nurse at the prenatal clinic who knows that love is the only medicine that will cure her terminal anger. Rich-boy Drew rejects all the material possessions that his father can buy him when he finally makes the 911 call that saves his mother from another beating at his father's hands. There's also Grace, whose movie-star looks can't save her from her alcoholic mom's rages, and Eric, who has lost the ability to love anyone or anything except his little brother Mickey. Sonia feels the friction of being a good Muslim girl in an intolerant public school, and Ebony cuts herself to forget how much she misses having a father in her life.

Frank has penned a high-intensity, multicultural, multidimensional teen reading experience that will challenge and change those who open it. These are real teens in real time. Be prepared for them to rock your world.

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson

I devoured this book in two or three nights. Here is Amazon's description:

When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.

But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own. This is an amazing true story.

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma

When Alice Ozma was in 4th grade, she and her father decided to see if he could read aloud to her for 100 consecutive nights. On the hundreth night, they shared pancakes to celebrate, but it soon became evident that neither wanted to let go of their storytelling ritual. So they decided to continue what they called "The Streak." Alice's father read aloud to her every night without fail until the day she left for college.

Alice approaches her book as a series of vignettes about her relationship with her father and the life lessons learned from the books he read to her.


I Am in Love

I am in love. Obsessed even. With a woman. And no one is more surprised than me.

Her name is Ree Drummond, and she is the author of "The Pioneer Woman" blog ( And the cookbook "The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Reflections of an Accidental Country Girl." And her new memoir (though her story is far from over), "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels." She has a gazillion loyal and crazed followers and this fall will host a cooking show on the Food Network from her ranch. (This is hard for me to imagine, considering that her driveway alone is five miles long. Can you imagine getting all that equipment out there?)

I first heard about Pioneer Woman while reading a blog by another brilliant and talented writer/photographer/mother Tracy Morrison., the author of Sellabit Mum ( She called Pioneer Woman her idol and wrote about what it was like to meet her when she came through town on a book tour for her cookbook. How she agonized over what to wear, what to say, etc.. I briefly looked into who this Pioneer Woman was on the internet and thought, nah, not for me, country stuff, another cookbook, and besides, I would never go that gaga over someone.

Then Ree Drummond wrote the whole story about how she met her husband (famously known only as Marlboro Man) on a stopover trip to her Oklahoma hometown, in between leaving L.A. and moving to Chicago. I knew I wanted to read "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels" because I had read bits and pieces of her story on her blog and it sounded really intriguing.

I swallowed this book in one gulp. I may still have pieces of it stuck in my throat. And I will say, with only a tad of embarrassment, that this is the most wonderfully romantic story I have ever read. It is also funny. Because Ree Drummond is a great writer, and she is genuine, and she is delightfully human. Ok, so maybe she mentions his starched shirts one too many times. She can be forgiven because each chapter leaves you with a cliffhanger and you just have to keep turning the page. And though thankfully it has a happy ending, their story is not without its challenges.

When I finished this book I had to know MORE. I wanted to see pictures of her kids, her ranch, Marlboro Man, her. I spent a lot of time reading her blog, which goes back to 2006 and showcases her stunning photography.  I wanted to know about every corner of her life and I wanted her to be my girlfriend. I requested her cookbook, and though it contains a lot of meat-and-potatoes recipes (she cooks for cowboys, after all), it is the cookbook that shows us more about her life on the ranch. Did I mention that it is an absolutely beautifully designed book? I plan to savor it and go through it one page at a time.

So now you know about my new love. I'll be busy for awhile. Stalking. A redhead in Oklahoma.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Four Movies: Two to Applaud, Two Just for Laughs

I recently saw "Win, Win" with Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man, American Splendor)and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office, The Wire), and I want to give it a huge thumbs up. This is a hugely likeable movie with hugely likeable co-stars. Giamatti plays a down-on-his-luck lawyer who spies an opportunity when a client of his needs a guardian. He also coaches the high school wrestling team, which hasn't won in a very long time. He coaches the team with the man (Jeffrey Tambor) who shares his small law office. When the troubled grandson of his client runs away from home and shows up on his doorstep, complications ensue. Though it doesn't hurt that this kid is a star wrestler.

Can I just say that I love Giamatti and Ryan? Paul Giamatti never will be the typical Hollywood leading man, and yet in just about everything he does he infuses the role with so much humanity that he nails it every time. In this role he is lovable schlub who loves his wife and kids and makes a very bad decision. And we know that it could be any one of us coming to the precipice of that decision.

And Ryan, adopting a hint of the Boston accent she used in "Gone Baby Gone," is like your neighbor next door. I know exactly where she shops and how much she has to spend just from looking at her wardrobe. I have to admit I already admired Amy Ryan when I saw her go from her devastating character in "Gone Baby Gone" to her humorous turn on "The Office." But now I love her. Could she please be my girlfriend?

I almost forgot to mention that Bobby Cannavale (do you remember Will's policeman boyfriend on "Will and Grace?") does a hysterical and touching turn as a high school friend of both Giamatti and Tambor. They were all on the wrestling team together back in the day, and Cannavale desperately wants to recapture what might have been.

Here is the trailer:

This next movie is one I mentioned when I blogged about Emma Stone in "Easy A." I said that she was going to play the starring role in the film version of "The Help," the incredibly popular novel by Kathryn Stockett about race relations in 1960's Mississippi. The film comes out in August, and seeing the trailer all I can say is "I can't wait I can't wait I can't wait."

The next two movies I want to see purely for the belly laughs.

Hangover: Part II (Opens May 26)

The Bridesmaids, with Kristin Wiig (opens May 13)

It Takes a Special Person

I have a very good friend who is a teaching assistant for kids with significant support needs (a new term they have come up with..."don't we all have special needs?" she asks) in the public school where she works. Most are physically disabled in some way, some in huge ways, and most have varying abilities to communicate. We have had long conversations about who these kids are and what they bring to the human table in terms of opening our hearts and minds to different ways of being in the world. We have also talked about her frustration in dealing with the belief systems of educators and even parents who don't share her views about the range of possibilities for these kids.  She recently sent me a few brief stories and I realized that I wanted to share them with you here. (The titles are mine.) I have encouraged her to keep them coming. I sense a book in the making.

A Different Way to Travel

Today when we got back to school one of our students decided on his own that instead of cruising the halls on a scooter or in his walker he could push against the floor with his heels while laying flat on the floor and propel himself around. He asked me to open the door so he could head down the hall and several things happened: he really gave his muscles a tough workout, he got the chance to interact with a multitude of people (kids and adults) and he succeeded in achieving his goal to get from our classroom  down the hall and around the corner and all the way to his sisters classroom (by our bipedal standards this took a very long time). He reveled in his accomplishment.  "I did it!" he kept saying to himself. This is why I love what I do.

When fellow educators pass us more than once in this process we hear everything from "way to go!" to "you are working so hard" to "you aren't getting very far. " I in a state of astonishment that we are all in this same field and yet I have to interject for those latter remarks about how far he IS getting and how very hard he IS working in hopes of shedding some light on a dark mind. This learning curve is greater than the sum of its multidimensional parts and it is not just a need just for kids to be "in school."

Cookies or Sandwich?

We have a first grade student that is blind and is learning to navigate his world in a multitude of ways, including vocalizing his wants and needs. One morning during group when another student is busy passing out lunch cards and giving choices for that day we hear this savvy first grader, who does know what his preferences are, engaging in self talk in preparation for his turn. He is saying repeatedly "Do you want cookies or a sandwich? Cookies or a sandwich?" Cookies would not ever be a meal option, but it is good to know what you want and go for it right?!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Drowning in Books: Part Two

Update: I read "Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses (see Drowning in Books: Part One)" this past week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Great writing, interesting story. I believe this book will be especially attractive to yoga students, but there is a story here about a family, a marriage, and what makes us who we are, that can be enjoyed by all.

 The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I actually read two books this week! Booklovers have told me about this book for a long time, most recently my neighbors, who told me I would never look at my dog the same way again. And they were right. This story is narrated by Enzo, who's human caretaker, Denny, is an aspiring race car driver. Denny is married to Eve, and they have a daughter Zoe. When something happens to Eve and her parents go to extreme lengths to wrestle custody of Zoe from her father, all hell breaks loose. The entire story is told through Enzo's eyes, whose only wish is to come back in the next life as a human so he can have opposable thumbs and be able to speak all the thoughts that are in his mind. Through Enzo's narration the reader learns what the world is like from a dog's perspective, and why they do what they do. A really graceful, lovely story.

A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

Another "narrated by the dog" story. I have actually read about half of this book and it is really lovely. It follows the life (I really should say "lives," because this dog has several lives in succession) and the thoughts of the dog as he lives with a family through all its stages. Attached most closely to the boy in the family, he describes what it is like to visit the old couple on the farm (Grandma and Grandpa), one of his favorite places with its multitudes of smells and places to discover. He also describes how confused he is as the boy goes off to college and he is told to "stay." I have the feeling that if I finish this book it will be with a box of tissues next to me.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

When Elizabeth Gilbert visited the Twin Cities (see "Elizabeth Gilbert Fills the House" on this blog), someone asked her what is her favorite book to recommend to people, and this book was her answer. It is the true story of a Hmong family in Merced, California, who has a young daughter with severe epilepsy. How the family viewed this "illness," and how the medical community viewed it, created a clash of cultures with tragic results. Fadiman also gives the reader an extensive history of the Hmong people: their beliefs, their homeland, and the circumstances of their journey to the United States.

Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

I first heard of Elizabeth Benedict when she appeared as a guest butler on the Head Butler site, first writing about Joyce Carol Oates new book about her sudden widowhood, and then again when she wrote about the book "The Winter of Our Discontent: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale." I went to her website and read some delightful essays, then decided I would check out "Almost," one of her novels. The first chapter has me totally hooked and I plan to keep this one for myself to read. From the inside cover, "Almost divorced, Sophy Chase is in bed with her new lover - an art dealer and father of four young children - when the police call her with shocking news. Her almost ex-husband, Will, has died suddenly....Sophy takes off at once, hurled back into a life and a family - her husband's grown twin daughters and their prickly mother - she had intended to leave behind." Did I mention it is funny, intelligent, and promises an unforgettable cast of characters?

The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik

From the inside cover: "'We were a world of two, my mother and I, until I started turning into an American girl. That's when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. It became a taunt, a warning, an omen.' Jasmin Darznik came to America from Iran when she was only three years old, and she grew up knowing very little about her family's history. When she was in her early twenties, on a day shortly following her father's death, Jasmin was helping her mother move; a photograph fell from a stack of old letters. The girl pictured was her mother. She was wearing a wedding veil, and at her side stood a man whom Jasmin had never seen before." Eventually Jasmin convinces her mother to tell her the story of her first marriage at age thirteen, the years of abuse, and the daughter she had to leave behind to save herself.
Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley
My friend Deb P. recommended this book. I said I don't read crime or detective stories (my somewhat ill-informed impression of author Walter Mosley's work). She said this one is different. Fortunate Son follows two half-brothers, one white and one black, over the course of their childhood and young adulthood. One is not expected to live at birth, the other is unusually strong and thriving. As their life circumstances change, one goes through many hardships, while the other goes through life feeling completely disconnected from emotion. After ten years of separation they reunite under dramatic circumstances and discover what they have meant to each other all along. Booklist said, "Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, weaves the themes of race, destiny, and redemption into an astonishing tale of unlikely siblings and unconditional love."