Saturday, October 31, 2015

Apologies and Flight

Hello friends - long time, no see!


I wanted my readers to know why I haven't been posting book reviews lately. The reason is, I've been on vacation abroad. The relatively short trip (due to a lack of vacation time at my "day job") was to visit family and friends, but mostly to attend my 40th High School Reunion. Yes, I'm from the Evanston Township High School Class of 1975 (and yes, I'm that old). I'm glad to say that I had an absolutely amazing time - not the least of which included finding out that at least three of my classmates are librarians (how cool is that for someone who writes a book blog)!


Of course, while I was away, I did get some reading done. I finished reading The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford, which is about a woman who discovers her true calling at age 35, while overcoming her fear of flying and also realizing that her High School sweetheart was "the one" all along. This will be the next book I review here, so watch this space.

I also finished reading My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologizes by Frank Backman. You may recall that Backman's previous novel, A Man Called Ove, was my #1 book of 2014. Well, this book is nothing like that one, however it is fully in the running to be my #1 book of 2015 (I'm not sure yet if Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread will beat it out or not). Spoiler alert: DO NOT read the ending of this book in public, unless you're not embarrassed to be seen crying! Trust me on this. 

In recognition of my roots and High School history, I started reading a historical fiction book called What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age by Renee Rosen. This is the story of the tumultuous affair between Delia Spencer and Marshall Field. For those who are not from the mid-west, Marshall Field is the man who started the Marshall Field's and Company department store in Chicago in the late 1800s. Many say that Field invented the department store concept, and he most possibly coined the phrase "the customer is always right." My British readers might know the name, because it was under Marshall Field that a man called Selfridge apprenticed, and led him to open Selfridge's in London. When I was in High School (and for a few years afterwards while studying in college), I worked for Marshall Field's in their Evanston store. Unfortunately, several years ago the chain Macy's bought out Marshall Field's and Company. Because they refused to keep the original name on the flagship State Street store (all we asked for was a plaque saying "Macy's at Marshall Field's"), I vowed to never step into a Macy's store.

Because this was such a short trip, I didn't get the chance to buy too many books. Inspired by Backman and bought The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, as well as The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson (yes, I like translations). I also picked up a copy of Vintage Munro, a collection of Alice Munro's short stories that includes her acceptance speech from her wining the Nobel Prize in Literature. I've just started reading the first story and already I can see why Munro deserved to receive this prize.

One reading disappointment during my trip was the book The Five Times I Met Myself by James L. Rubart, that I could not finish. I'm sorry but someone should have mentioned that this was Christian Fiction before I asked for the ARC. I don't really have anything against Christian elements in a book, but this was a bit too much for me (remember, I'm not only Jewish, I moved to Israel). However, what I did read (that didn't have anything to do with Jesus), was very well written and had some very interesting elements to it. I'm positive this is going to be a hit with fans of that genre - but I'm just not one of them.

One other thing - just before I left for this trip, I succeeded in posting newly edited, full versions of all of my 170 book reviews here. I was going to make some kind of post to announce this accomplishment, but I just didn't have time (remember that "day job" I have). In the meanwhile, while I was on the road, I was nominated to participate in the Liebster Awards by fellow blogger Annette Steinnetz. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that I got this nomination exactly after reaching this blogging milestone. I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but it certainly looks like fun.

Thanks for reading (both this blog, and in general)!

Monday, October 12, 2015

What a Trader!

One Red Paperclip by Kyle MacDonald


Trading something seemingly worthless until you get something of real value might be a cheap trick, especially if it starts out with something as insignificant as a paperclip and ends up with a house. It may also seem like an impossible feat. However, that's exactly what Kyle MacDonald did. On the one hand, those of us who struggled to buy our homes might feel MacDonald cheated to get what others sweat years to achieve. On the other hand, it takes gumption, nay, chutzpah to actually attempt this, let alone actually make it happen. Others will say MacDonald is lazy, and his admitted laziness factors highly here. He wanted a house, but he didn't want to work years to earn enough to buy one. In fact, he didn't even want a job, but he also didn't want to sponge off his girlfriend. In the end, this wild exercise netted MacDonald a house. You can call him a trickster, a cheater or just lazy - but you have to hand it to MacDonald for his originality in achieving this dream.

As for originality, it dawned on me that MacDonald's stunt simply took the kid's game "Bigger and Better" and brought it into the realm of adulthood, the 21st century, and the Internet and cell phone era, taking an old concept and giving it a new spin. MacDonald's story plays out through websites, emails, and his blog, for the world to see. With this book, MacDonald also chronicles his travels to reach the people he trades with, while cleverly arranging his trips to coincide with places he has to be anyway. This means that MacDonald doesn't have to put out even a penny for any of his long-distance trades. Does that also make MacDonald a cheapskate? Well, he's broke actually, so you get the picture.

All that's well and good, but I was wondering if MacDonald didn't "spoil" this game for everyone else. Certainly, anyone attempting to mirror MacDonald's achievement has an equal chance at succeeding (although I doubt anyone will ever top MacDonald's result). He took this idea from an urban legend of his youth, to become an internationally recognized phenomenon. His success undoubtedly depended on being unique, and many of his trades probably couldn't be replicated today. Still, it started him on a path that has sustained him ever since, as you can see from his website. Considering the difficult economic times when these events occurred, this type of creativity deserves recognition.

More importantly, this is a book about 21st century and Internet culture. MacDonald debunks the notion that the World Wide Web is nothing more than an acceptable haven for sociopaths. By emphasizing the face-to-face trades, and the fun MacDonald has making new 'real life' friends, he encourages others to interact with the flesh-and-blood people behind the monitors. My only problem with this is that perhaps there should be a warning somewhere for younger readers, knowing that meeting virtual people in the flesh could be dangerous. This didn't even occur to MacDonald, but it did cross my mind. Still, MacDonald is an adult, so I guess that wasn't as much of an issue - at least not at the time. Getting up the courage to try something unconventional to make your dream come true is a universal lesson that MacDonald's book can teach anyone.

I must add that this book has a certain charm with oodles of humor, and a voice that is unique and real. Despite some over usage of words like "cool" and "awesome," I was enchanted from the get-go. Even though I read slowly, I found I just couldn't put this down, and read it all in one evening, laughing and guffawing from start to finish. MacDonald's writing style is, for want of a better phrase 'user friendly' and extremely entertaining. In short, Kyle MacDonald takes us on his journey of bartering things you don't want until you're left with the one thing you do want, in a 21st century version of the game "Bigger and Better." His success is astonishing, and his story will make you "LOL" with all the 'awesome' and 'cool' things and people along the way. For all that, I'll give it four out of five stars.



"One Red Paperclip" by Kyle MacDonald, published by Three Rivers Press in 2007 is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my original review, which appeared on BookBag.com, as well as on DooYoo.co.uk under my username "TheChocolateLady."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Gritty New York Stories and Poems

Resident Aliens by Beth Porter


"Resident Aliens" by Beth Porter is actually a collection of writings. On the menu is a novella, four poems and three short stories, all focusing on New York in the 60s. Before I discuss the various elements of this book, there is a small warning - nothing included here is for the faint of heart. These are gritty tales, darkly atmospheric with glimpses into the city's stark realities. They show off New York's rough edges, without makeup or apology. Written with a clear and confident voice, Porter lays this city bare and naked before her readers. But don't let that put you off. This is well worth reading, even if some parts make you uncomfortable.

To begin with, we get the novella "The Day after the End of the World," which makes up the bulk of this collection. For me, this was the shining star. The main character, Madeline (sometimes called Maddy or just Mad), is the unwanted child of Vera and Stan. They've recently moved to the apartment upstairs from Stan's brother Paul. Their daughter Zipporah (or Zippy) soon realizes that her cousin doesn't have the loving home she has, and takes Maddy under her wing. This duo becomes a trio when Kalinka (nicknamed Klinker by Zippy) and her family arrives from Wisconsin. Klinker's father is a sociology professor, on research sabbatical in New York, studying gangs. Their warm and loving temporary home in Greenwich Village is filled with the couple's Bulgarian roots and traditions. These three soon dub themselves the "Downtown Girls" and stick together like glue.

The story spans 15 years - from 1950 to 1965 - put together in dated diary-entry style. The headings are stark, marking the year and telling the reader how long it is until "the end of the world." Since we know the earth didn't explode in 1965, we can immediately assume that this is a metaphor for the story's climax. Covering such a large time-span with economy of prose isn't an easy task. I have to admit that as I began reading, it took me a little bit of time to get all the characters straight, since the opening entries jump around a bit. However, once Porter brings us to the meat of the story - the coming together of the Downtown Girls - everything becomes crystal clear.

Maddy really is the central character of this story, far more than Zippy or Klinker. But there's absolutely no problem with this focus (to explain further would require a spoiler). Her troubled childhood radiates into the other girls' lives and brings them all closer together. Even when Kalinka moves back to Wisconsin, the three continue to be together, making their reunion when Kalinka begins college in New York, all the more believable. All this is beautifully contrasted by the erratic behavior of Maddy's mother Vera towards her daughter.

What really impressed me with this story was how well balanced Porter wrote it. She gives us just enough of the year the three were together to cement these relationships. She also doesn't overweight us with Vera's torturing of Maddy, but we certainly get the point. Then she brings us forward to the girls coming together again, in a perfectly natural segue that leads to the metaphorical 'end of the world.' I'd even go so far as to say that the whole story comes together like a carefully choreographed dance. On its own, I'd have to give this novella a full five stars out of five.

After this, porter gives us four poems, under the umbrella title "Alien Voices." Poetry is a very personal venue and my taste in poetry is more for the lyrical than what is on offer here. That said, these are very evocative, and display a similar strong voice as the prose. These will probably appeal to more modern poetry lovers, as well as those people who don't usually read poetry - which is a good thing. All told, this small selection gets a strong three stars out of five.

Lastly, we get "Resident Aliens," which are three short stories. "Rena Waiting, 1962" is about an aging and obese prostitute. "In the Alphabet, 1963" tells the story of a Midwesterner photographer's mistaken visit to New York's lower east side. There she learns about the underbelly of the neighborhood from Terry, a young street-urchin, after she sprains her ankle when the heel of her shoe breaks. The final story "Way Out, 1964" is about Baby, a girl on the brink of starting her life, and her venture into the real world, which puts her on an unexpected path. Of the three, I found the last story to be the most intriguing, with characters that felt more realistic to me. The harsh words and base actions of prostitute Rena and the constant barrage of city-slang that Terry used in the other two stories were more difficult for me to connect with. While I'm certain that there are people like both Rena and Terry in the real world, neither of them are sympathetic characters. Of course, this is the whole point of these stories - to present less-than likeable people in their natural environment. All three of these New York vignettes are powerfully written, and even if you don't care for the characters, they are equally vivid through Porter's prose. For this, I'd give these short stories a healthy four stars out of five.

Obviously, this is a very solid collection, and together they give the readers a portrait of this particular era of New York's history with both nuance and austerity. While I would have easily been satisfied with the opening novella on its own, the three short stories compliment this by providing us with added dimensions of the seedier sides of this city. It may be my own fault that I wasn't totally convinced that the poems fit properly into this puzzle. While some of the parts felt greater than the whole, I'd say that "Resident Aliens" by Beth Porter deserves a solid four stars out of five, and comes strongly recommended. 


"Resident Aliens" by Beth Porter published by Womenstuff Publishing (April 16, 2013), is available from Amazon UK, and Amazon USA. I would like to thank the author for providing a review copy. A version of this review originally appeared on Curious Book Fans and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Deliciously Dressed Up Deceptions

Food Whore by Jessica Tom


Imagine losing your sense of taste. That would be bad enough for anyone, but if you're the top food critic for the New York Times that would be a complete disaster. That's just what happened to Michael Saltz, but then he found Tia Monroe. Fresh out of Yale, Tia is a starry-eyed a NYU graduate student in food studies. With her amazing palate and talent for describing how foods taste, Saltz knows exactly how to take advantage of Tia's first venture into the New York dining scene, and the people with all the influence and power.

Blurbs about this book call it a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Kitchen Confidential (Chef Anthony Bourdain's non-fiction book about the "underbelly" of the New York restaurant scene). I can easily agree with this, mostly because there are actually three things that come together here. First, there's the food, then there's the writing and finally, there's the fashion. Yes, fashion, because no one would show up in a four star NYC restaurant wearing anything less than the most up-to-date haute couture. The combination of these three things, mixed with the highly competitive world of chefs and restaurant owners, is the perfect fodder for intrigue and deceit.

Ms. Tom certainly knows her stuff, being a food writer herself. This comes through brilliantly with her amazing descriptions of the foods that Tia critiques. Every line telling us about the scents, textures and flavors in each dish contains such luscious imagery that we literally begin to drool with each new account. In short, Tom's food writing is perfectly succulent, and deserving of three Michelin stars, to say the least.

However, there's actually more than that here, as well. Saltz's usage of Tia in his deception comes with some benefits, not the least of which is an unlimited expense account at Bergdorf Goodman, known as THE fashion store for New York's most rich and famous. Tom also brings her writing talent into the detailed accounts of the outfits designed to help her look like she fits with the best eateries that the Big Apple has on offer. Here, texture comes with the fabrics and materials, combined with the design and quality of the items. The way Tom drops designers' names and portrays the way these clothes feel and look is equally as heavenly as how she depicts the scrumptious items she eats while wearing them. One might even say that Tom could easily have titled her book "Food and Clothing Whore," since the sexiness she brings to both is practically equal.

Speaking of sexiness, with all these beautifully made and perfectly fitting clothes together with the orgasmic qualities of the flavors and dishes included, you just know some actual sex will be involved in this story as well. Tom gives us two love interests, Tia's college sweetheart Elliot, and the extremely sexy, up-and-coming chef Pascal Fox. Between them, her backhanded work with Michael Saltz, graduate school and her first internship as a coat-check girl at a four-star New York restaurant, Tia has her hands full. Add to that two roommates, one of which looks like she's about ready to steal Elliot away from her, and having to deal with growing suspicions from her co-workers and her dean at school, and the plot thickens like a perfectly made custard. The cherry on the top is Tia's passion for food writing, which spills over into everything she does. Of course, when Tia feels that all this dishonesty is taking over, her regrets are equally as fervent. This makes Tia a very likable character, whose flaws and naivety makes her the perfect patsy, but with enough inner strength to keep her from being helpless.

With all of these delectable ingredients and opulent materials, you might wonder why I can't give this a full five out of five stars. This is mostly because, like many first time fiction authors, I felt the ending was a little too well wrapped up, and a touch hurried for my taste. Although Tom does leave some things to our imagination, such as Tia's future career and love life, it did seem to me that things worked out a little too easily. The final chapters also felt like Tom needed to get lots of information in after the dramatic peak of the story. I think I would have preferred directly jumping ahead several months, than having all of the post-climax details laid out for me. Despite this, I think Tom did a stellar job with this book, which I found to be a real page-turner and a truly enjoyable culinary (and couture) romp, with some of the most beautiful descriptive writing I've come across in a very long time. This certainly deserves a solid four out of five stars, and a warm recommendation. 


"Food Whore" by Jessica Tom, published by William Morrow & Co., release date October 27, 2015, is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me the ARC of this book via Edelweiss.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The First Modern Graphic Novel

A Contract with God and other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner


After I made a seemingly disparaging comment about comic books on another website, one of the commentators challenged me to write a review of a graphic novel. What better graphic novel to review than the one that most sites have dubbed the first modern graphic novel, and also attributes it to having helped spawn the genre and bring it to art form level. I’m talking about Will Eisner’s 1978 graphic novel, “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.”

This book is actually a quartet of stories, all set during the 1930s, involving people who lived in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. In particular, these are stories about the residents of 55 Dropsie Avenue – a tenement building of immigrants, most of whom are Jewish. As Eisner says in the introduction, this tenement was “a sort of micro-village” where “within its walls great dramas were played out.” Furthermore, he says “They are true stories. Only the telling and the portrayals have converted them to fiction.”

From this we can already see that unlike classic comic books, the stories here are far from funny although humor is injected where possible. Also unlike the graphic novels of today, there are no nasty villains with diabolical plans to take over the world while masked super-heroes with super-human abilities fight them. Instead tales contain regular people have been subjected to adverse conditions and in one way or another, have been corrupted (by life and/or circumstance). Because of this, some no longer act with the best of intentions, while others sometimes do heroic things by acting with no more special powers than what they can find within their hearts and through their instincts.

The four stories told here are: “A Contract with God”, “The Street Singer”, “The Super” and “Cookalein”. Each one is very individual and each has a lesson to it. The first one deals with gaining and losing faith in the religious sense (as the title suggests). “The Street Singer” tells a story about a man who is just that – someone who wandered the streets singing for cash that appreciative tenants would drop out their windows. This has more to do with hopes and dreams and how often we undermine our own selves. “The Super”, as in superintendant, deals with misconceptions and prejudice based on outward appearances. This theme is revisited in a slightly different way with the last story “Cookalein” which is the Yiddish name for a self-service motel, usually in the mountains, where people would go to get away from the heat of the city during the summer. These cheap vacation spots were often located near much fancier resorts which often provided employment (and/or gold-digging opportunities) for those staying nearby.

Despite the morals to these stories, they aren’t in the least bit preachy. Without being told, the reader understands the faults of the characters, and can see how they trap themselves or become trapped, by their circumstances. Their struggles are not unfamiliar to us even today, despite the stories having taken place 80 years ago. And because they are realistic stories about real people, we can continue to identify with them and their situations. It could be, therefore, that this is the first “classic” graphic novel.

Of course, because of the use of graphics to tell much of the story, this is a book that is a very quick read. And yet, because of the humanity that it contains, you might not want to hurry through it, and instead ponder over these people and their conditions. In short, Eisner has given us brief open-window glimpses into the lives of these ordinary people, and told us their timeless and interesting stories. More importantly, they are the types of people and tales that readers will probably want to revisit every so often. Certainly this book deserves a full five stars out of five, and comes highly recommended. 


"A Contract with God" by Will Eisner is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. A version of this review originally appears on Curious Book Fans, which appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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