Category Archives: Book Club

The Sunday Review

Cadillac Records  (2008) directed by Darnell Martin, starring Adrian Brody, Jeffrey Wright, and Beyonce Knowles

Where I Got It: Music Man picked it out at the library.

Genre: Musical biopic, DVD

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Amazon gives it four stars and so do I, but if you’re interested in the stories of early recording artists, this is a good movie for you. Cadillac Records tells the story of Chess Records and its importance to the growth of rock and roll. I’ve always wanted to go to the museum, and this movie reminded me to put it on my list. I gave it four stars because there’s some important history either left out or reworked to make the story have more box office appeal. The actors are compelling and it was fun to see Adrian Brody when he wasn’t being The Pianist or Salvador Dali.

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Where I Got It: Library

Genre: Historical Fiction

My Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s not a perfect story, but it’s not about a perfect person either. Kate Alcott used a real-life survivor of the sinking of the Titanic to create a historical fiction novel about a young dressmaker who hitches her star to famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. While the publication of this novel was clearly timed to coordinate with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, it’s still worth a read. I encourage you to read Kate Alcott’s essay on the Amazon site about why she chose this topic.

Love in a Nutshell by Janet Evanovich and Dorien Kelly

Where I Got It: Library

Genre: Romance with a little Mystery thrown in

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Love in a Nutshell wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. It’s very light reading with a typical innocent romance between a needy female and a strong handsome male. I couldn’t find any other articles about this book online, but as several of the Amazon reviewers say, the book doesn’t have much Janet in it. It feels like she put her famous name on a friend’s story to help it sell. It has a super cute cover, though. :)

The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Where I Got It: Netflix

Genre: Action Adventure, Mystery

My Rating: 5/5 stars

I finished up the Swedish versions of the trilogy via Netflix; I was totally hooked. I loved how Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist just picked up where they left off in the first movie and developed Stieg Larsson’s characters even more. I watched them all the way through in two sittings. Totally recommended!

Cannery Row (1982) starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger

Where I Got It: Music Man got it from the library

Genre: Fiction/Musical

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Imagine John Steinbeck’s novels (Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) turned into a stage play filmed as a movie. It’s an interesting construct that in my opinion worked very well. Nolte and Winger are believable as the crusty scientist Doc and the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Suzy, and they are surrounded with a cast of equally strong actors. In researching this movie I found out that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dreams was also based on Cannery Row and I thought I knew everything about RnH. If you decide to check out Cannery Row, just remember that I’m a musical theater nut and that may have colored my rating, but some reviewers called it underrated.

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The Sunday Review

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noël Riley Fitch

Where I Got It: Library paperback (500 pgs. of text, 69 pgs. of appendices)

Genre: Biography

My Rating: 5/5 for a discriminating palette

Noël Riley Fitch’s 1997 biography of Julia Child is not for the faint of heart.

It’s also not for the casual reader wanting to know a little something about this icon of the food world. It’s a dense, almost scholarly tome that has been researched and curated to give a comprehensive look at a woman who many of us think we know.

And it’s full of pithy Julia Child-isms.

Food is the live entertainment of the future (498).

It’s a shame to be caught up in something that doesn’t absolutely make you tremble with joy! (480)

I don’t think pleasure is decadent. It’s part of life, it’s the juice of life, it’s the reason for living, for everything we do! (460)

Only Moses disrupting the Red Sea caused more commotion than Julia Child’s hike down the housewares-jammed aisles of McCormick Place in Chicago. She fingered, squeezed, patted, bent, and lifted the new appliances, skillets, and microwaves at the National Housewares Manufacturers Association semiannual exhibition. (418)

She is a tomorrow person, not a yesterday person. (407)

Anyone who wants to read this book will already have read Julie and Julia and My Life in France, or at least have seen the movie.  Appetite for Life covers that time as well, but then goes on to finish the story that we didn’t get in those books.

If you are a foodie, you will love this book. Lots and lost of important people in foodie history are named and dissected and Julia Child’s life is examined in minute detail. Published in 1997 before her 2004 death, it doesn’t take you to the bitter end, but there’s a pretty long history of a woman who helped to change the way Americans look at food.

When Julia returned to the United States from her time in Europe, she was horrified to find all of the convenience products that American women were buying — she said they were shopping in the center aisles instead of the outside aisles where fresh produce was waiting. (242) I can really relate to this because I hardly ever go into the middle aisles anymore; I cruise the produce and meat sections for most of what I buy these days. The thing is, Julia Child was saying this in the early 1960s.

One of the good things about getting to be sixty is that you make up your mind not to drink any more rotgut wine. (368)

She is also a woman who reinvented herself in the second half of her life, and for me, it’s a personal motivator to think that perhaps I can also reinvent myself. And I don’t ever have to drink bad wine again. :)

My next Julia book: As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

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The Sunday Review

Prospect Park West: A Novel by Amy Sohn

Where I Got It: Library in audiobook

Genre: Realistic Fiction, Contemporary Satire

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Billed as a satire about Brooklyn’s trendy Park Slope families, Prospect Park West had real promise. There’s plenty of material to skewer, but Amy Sohn didn’t quite deliver on what could have been a really good book. She had all the components, including the oh-so-successful construct of intersecting plotlines, celebrity worship, name-dropping, sexy and sexless characters, and real estate envy, with a little do-gooder food cooperative action thrown in. Listening to it in the car, I was literally turned off by the initial gratuitous sex scene, and almost took it back to the library. Since I didn’t have any other books in the car, I kept listening, and as I came to know the characters, I was intrigued about where Sohn would go with them. Unfortunately, not all of the plotlines were fully realized, and I was left feeling as though there needed to be a sequel, or a television show, which is perhaps Sohn’s intent with this novel.

Oz and James Drink to Britain by Oz Clark and James May

Where I Got It: Library DVD

Genre: BBC television series

My Rating: 4 Stars

I plucked this out of the obscure British television shows bin at the library because I was looking for something that Music Man and I could watch together — he hates pretty much everything I watch on TV. I also hoped that our friend Frazer’s winery would be a part of this series, but apparently their success at the royal wedding came a little late for the television show. I’m going to link up the Amazon description because I couldn’t say it any more clearly.

Wine expert Oz Clarke and travel enthusiast James May combine their passions in this tasty travelogue as they embark on a summer road trip around the UK in a quest to find the drink that defines modern Britain. Starting in a barley field in Yorkshire, the hapless duo meander their way through the country exploring the best and worst of British beers and sampling numerous other drinks of the land, including wine, whisky, gin, vodka, and cider. Their destinations include maltsters, small breweries and distilleries, sparkling wine makers, and hop growers, and along the way Oz and James quibble and tiff with riotous results. Lighthearted and accidentally educational, this is a fun look at the state of drinking in Britain today.

We liked this set of episodes and buzzed through them pretty quickly. As a reformed camper, the best part for me was the slapstick comedy involving the 1970s-era caravan (camping trailer) that brought back memories of flat tires on the sides of deserted roads and impossible turnarounds where my Dad had to back the camper out of some God-forsaken place. :)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara

Where I Got It: Library DVD

Genre: Crime Fiction, Mystery

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Back when everyone was reading these books, I was put off by the violence and balked at reading them. Finally, I started Tattoo and couldn’t put the series down until I finished all three books. Then I took my time watching the movie; I was justifiably worried that the movie could not possibly do the book justice and that it would focus on the violence rather than the heart of this story. I was wrong. In director David Fincher’s hands, Larsson’s core plot comes to life. I’m not going to summarize the story; pretty much everyone has read the books, but I was pleased with the way Fincher focused on the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance. With the choice of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, the tortuous and brutal path to her bruised psyche was handled beautifully — with enough nastiness to allow the movie-goer who had not read the book to get it. Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist was solid, as was Stellen Skarsgard as Martin Vanger. The film is appropriately dark as befits a movie that is about the degradation of women. This film is a case where, although the book is better, the editing for the film was successful in maintaining the essence of the story. When I posted on Facebook that I had been watching Tattoo, several friends said that I should also watch the Swedish version, so I watched that one too, via Netflix. I liked the ending much better — no spoilers here — and I thought that Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth showed the dichotomy of her hard/soft character with more depth. Now I can’t wait to watch the other two Swedish versions.

Tangled: voiced by Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, and Donna Murphy

Where I Got It: Library DVD

Genre: Animated Fairy Tale (Disney’s 50th Full-Length Feature Cartoon)

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

There is nothing not-to-like about Tangled. The classic tale of Rapunzel is twisted in a positive manner to create a Disney princess who is feisty, likable, and brave. As adult movie viewers, we love the relationships built into this movie between Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder, the cute thief who rescues Razunzel, and between Flynn and his horse Maximus. The thugs are appropriately bad with a heart of gold — the bar scene is hilarious — and the animation is stunning, although I did get a little tired of the huge Precious Moments eyes on Rapunzel. The characterization of the witch Mother Gothel may be disturbing to children because she certainly does not present an unconditional love for Rapunzel, but as adults, we can appreciate the nuances involved in developing such a complex character in animated format. Tangled is another gem from Disney that is destined to be a classic.

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Book Club: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall came heavily recommended — it won the Man Booker Prize, and all that.

Image Credit

Hilary Mantel’s 672 page first installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy met every expectation. Once I sat down to finish it, I could barely put it down. I spent most of a full day devouring the last 400 pages. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good one.

Does the name Thomas Cromwell ring a bell?

Not Oliver Cromwell, who was a distant relation and was also important to English history. Thomas Cromwell rose from impoverished beginnings to a post working for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister. When Wolsey was unable to secure a dispensation from the Pope so that Henry could divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell deftly insinuated himself into Anne’s favor and became Henry VIII’s favorite minister. This resulted in a rapid rise to power and riches, which lasted until his execution in 1540 over the poor choice of Anne of Cleves for Henry’s fourth wife.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s rise to power along with Anne Boleyn and her family. It’s a triumphant book, in which we can’t help but cheer for the success of Thomas Cromwell and his family. Hilary Mantel has created a new paradigm for Cromwell in this lovingly crafted piece of historical fiction.

We already know the story, but what makes Wolf Hall exceptional is its attention to detail.

The book is full of characters, and if you aren’t already familiar with Henry VIII’s court, you will be by the time you’re done — be prepared to read with your Wikipedia open :).

For example, Mantel vividly describes Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with Hans Holbein, who painted at Henry’s court. This painting shows the turquoise ring that Mantel tells us was given to Cromwell from Wolsey — it’s the little things about this book that give us a human picture of a statesman who was also a man.

In this interesting article from The Telegraph, Hilary Mantel talks about how she decided to write a trilogy about this time period.

I was kind of surprised how the book ended and since I already knew there was a sequel, I felt that the book came to a sudden stop.

When she completed Wolf Hall, she realized she had too much material to just put it into her planned two books. Between Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light, which will be about Cromwell’s final downfall, Mantel added Bring Up the Bodies, which covers the year prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution.

“When I came to write about the destruction of Anne Boleyn (a destruction which took place, essentially, over a period of three weeks) the process of writing and the writing itself took on an alarming intensity, and by the time Anne was dead I felt I had passed through a moral ordeal,” the author told the newspaper.

“I can only guess that the effect on the reader will be the same; the events are so brutal that you don’t want to take a breath and turn the page, you want to close the book.”

The beauty of Wolf Hall — and why we as readers care about the essentially despicable Thomas Cromwell — is Mantel’s genius at drawing us into Cromwell’s mind. Her plot structure allows us to trust Cromwell’s plan and we believe that he will be successful.

It’s all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.

I can’t wait to read the next installment; I’ve already got it on hold at the library! I hope I don’t have to wait six months.

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Worth a reblog… WWSD (What Would Scarlett Do)?

One of my favorite bloggers writes and writes and writes… and it’s all worth reading.

This post just hit the spot when I reread it the other day. Jillian at A Room of One’s Own writes a conversation between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in which Scarlett discusses Jillian’s blog. I’ll warn you, though, it’s important to know the story to get all the jokes. Don’t you just love being an allusion monster?

Jillian has also written a similar conversation between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

If either of these books are on your “save for eternity — don’t you dare put that in the library sale” shelf, you’ll love Jillian’s interpretation.

I’m off to the family reunion; have a wonderful weekend!

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Ironing My Pillowcases

I received David Lebovitz’s lovely memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris, for my birthday. I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, and my son’s darling Curly Girlfriend gave it to me. I gave a little shriek of delight when I opened the Amazon package; I’ll admit it. I love Lebovitz’s blog — I’ve talked about it here and here and here! If you like the blog, you’ll also love the wry humor and great recipes in his book.

The book is a series of essays about an American learning how to live in Paris, and is full of juicy tidbits and advice. This one just hit home.

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be standing over an ironing board, pressing the wrinkles out of pajamas and kitchen towels, I would have told them they were insane. What kind of idiot irons his pajamas, let alone kitchen towels?

Lebovitz goes on to describe his discovery of vintage French linen, which he bought by the armful whenever he saw it at tag sales and stockpiled it, thinking that he might never see such fine linen again. It turns out he was wrong, by the way; he says that fine linen is common in France and he didn’t need to become a bedsheet hoarder. :)

Then he realized that he had a problem laundering  those gorgeous high-thread-count cotton sheets and cases. 

I … realized that [the beautiful linens] would come out of my mini washing machine a wrinkly ball, looking like one of those Danish modern white paper lamps; a tight, wadded-up sphere of sharp pleats and folds. So unless you’re a masochist and enjoy waking up after a rough night with bruises and abrasions on your arms and legs — which I don’t — those sheets need to be starched, ironed, and pressed into submission.

David Lebovitz solved his problem by sending them to the laundry to be washed and ironed, because he doesn’t have a dryer in his apartment and sheets have to hang up to dry. If you’ve ever stayed in a Paris hotel room, you know that space is at a premium, and there’s no room in a Parisian apartment to hang sheets to dry.

Being a servantless American, I have a lovely large washer and dryer, and my beautiful high-thread-count linens come out of the dryer pretty well, if I catch them quickly enough after the dryer stops. But I’ve always hated wrinkly pillowcases. Now that I’m a stay-at-home-wife, I’ve started ironing my pillowcases and the top trim on the sheets.

Which leads me to some recent responses to a post I made about ironing pillowcases on my other blog, Retirement 365.

I am blessed to have friends and relatives who take trains, planes, and automobiles to come to visit us, and we’re thrilled to host them in our home. We recently had a visit from college friends and spent two wonderful days running around Chicago eating, taking photos, listening to music, and drinking good wine. My husband’s brother and his family travel every summer from the West Coast, spending a fortune to fly five family members to Chicago, so that we can all attend the family reunion together. And they’ve been doing this for thirty years, never missing a summer. It’s hard to even put in words how much this annual opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our family means to me.

I think they are worth ironing my pillowcases for.

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My Week with Julia: Part One

I’ve always had this peculiar behavior; I like to read by theme or by sequence.

Every now and then I read through all my Cat Who books or my Dick Francis novels in chronological order. You’re probably already sick of hearing about my books about France, but too bad. I got a bunch more for my birthday. It’s my blog and I’ll write about France if I want to. :)

I watched Julie and Julia again the other day and decided it was time to do another theme party of books and movies.

First I decided to read Julie Powell’s follow-up memoir, Cleaving, to see if she still had the magic. I had heard that it wasn’t as good as Julie and Julia and that Powell had kind of disappeared into the literary wasteland of has-been authors. When I Googled her, the most recent hit is from 2009, and the last time she posted on her blog was in 2010. Ouch!

Julie and Eric on a good day in the kitchen.Image Credit

The complete title of the 2009 book pretty much tells its whole story: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. It truly is a story of obsession following the screaming success of Julie’s blog and Julie and Julia — of Julie’s tormented affair with “D”, of Eric’s philandering, and of how Julie found herself in her next new adventure, learning how to butcher meat. Published before the highly successful movie came out, Cleaving is an intimate story (maybe too intimate) of a woman trying to reinvent herself and build a future.

The book gets lots of bad reviews for its very specific telling of the inside picture of butchering and of Julie’s bad girl sex life. After getting over the structure which requires the reader to make pretty tenuous links between the cleaving of a marriage and the cleaving of an animal’s flesh and innards, I came to love Julie’s obsessions.

What we found endearing about Julie Powell in the movie Julie and Julia was that Amy Adams and Nora Ephron made Julie look kinda quirky and cute, but really, who chooses to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year?  I don’t think Julia Child was right when she suspected Powell of trying to get publicity riding on Child’s name; Julie is just that obsessive, and it shows in Cleaving. And most of the time it’s just plain — all right, I’ll go there — verging on craziness.

On the other hand, Powell’s prose is just plain good. I found myself caring about how to create a crown roast and how to use a band saw correctly. If you’re a foodie, she may well hook you in as she did me. There’s a lot of visits to restaurants and food industry insider information and I just ate it up — figuratively, of course.

So do I think you should read Cleaving? Yes, if you are a foodie and loved Julie and Julia. It’s the flip side of a very interesting woman, with a little hot sauce thrown in.

And then there’s the other flip side — Nancy Verde Barr’s memoir entitled Backstage with Julia

This is a really fun book if you care about Julia Child and her impact on the cooking world. Even Barr’s use of her middle name is due to the sagacity of Julia Child; when she found out that Barr’s mother was Italian, she told Barr to use her full name to give her cooking more credence. And that’s just one little story that appears in this loving look back at a phenomenal woman.

Backstage with Julia is a set of fond memories packaged together in a book that cannot help but endear itself to you if you are a foodie. Nancy Barr served as Julia Child’s production assistant and travel companion from 1980 until Child’s death in 2004. When she got the chance to work with Child — already a culinary icon — someone told her to keep a diary. She didn’t, but apparently working with Julia Child has enough emotional impact to sear the memories in one’s brain.

What was fun about this book for me was the parallels to the Julie and Julia movie. Nora Ephron based much of her script for the Julia parts on Child’s memoir (with Alex Prud’homme), My Life in France. Although Backstage with Julia tells of Julia’s success in the United States and her media empire, there are many memories that Barr recounts via Child that are recognizable to the movie fan.

Julia’s love story with Paul Child also plays itself out here. In 1980, when Nancy Barr first began working with Julia Child, Paul Child had already begun to have the small strokes and memory issues that plagued his later years. It didn’t matter to Julia; Paul was an integral part of her success and he went everywhere with her.

The scene in Julie and Julia showing Paul and Julia in the bathtub for their annual Valentine message was real, and in Barr’s retelling of this story, the reader can feel the humor and the love shared.

Both of these books are about dreams — Powell’s with finding herself and Barr’s amazing chance to work with and become a close friend of Julia Child. They are also really interesting to read, if you are the person who will find fun in knowing more about three fascinating women — Powell, Barr, and la divine Child. I thought this quote from Powell’s book really summed up why I wanted to share these two books with you. It’s fun — you get me — and since you keep reading my blog, you must enjoy sharing with me.

You share things with the people who want you to share them. Who get it. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

You’ll have to excuse me now; I need to roast a chicken. Bon appetit!

Want more Jennie and Julia? Check out my previous posts about Julia Child here and here.

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Reading Bonanza: Free Books

I’ve been reading this summer, but only a little more than I usually read because I’ve been working pretty hard on regaining control of my house.

I ran across this website today — books, movies, and more books for free! Just in case I need more books. Even if you’re not going to actually read them, the lists of “best books and films” are fun to peruse.

Although I respect the bloggers that are reading the classics — classics clubs are omnipresent among the book bloggers — that’s not why I read. At least not now.

Have a great weekend! I’m on a short break to celebrate my birthday.

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Book Club: Medium Raw

It’s no secret that I’m addicted to Anthony Bourdain.

I’ve blogged about him three times, writing about his trip to Provence, his Christmas trip to Austria, and his visit to El Bulli before it closed. Each episode of No Reservations is a treasure to be savored and watched over and over again.

So it’s not surprising that I finished Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook before I started on the Mount Library TBR stack.

It’s classic Bourdain, but in my opinion, a more humble and slightly gentler Tony than in his previous book, Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain’s writing is clear and beautifully imaged — he’s really showing us a secret side of the food business rather than just telling us. I pretty much couldn’t put Medium Raw down and I encourage you to read the book if you are a Tony fan.

Despite being older and wiser (and it shows in the book) he’s still got a few people that he savages, including Sandra Lee and her Kwanzaa cake episode. I had to see for myself whether he was just being snarky or whether it was really that bad and insensitive. I will leave you to make your own decisions.

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Based on the Book: Cezanne in Provence

I love movies, even if they are documentaries.

While not precisely based on the book, Cezanne in Provence is a wonderful background documentary to start my study of Cezanne’s work. Stemming from the National Gallery of Art’s  2006 exhibition of Cezanne’s paintings, the documentary film gives a lot of background information about Cezanne’s life in Paris and Provence and about his painting style.

The catalog from the exhibit has also been published in a 350 page coffee table book and shows Cezanne’s paintings in more detail. I’ve been slogging through it during cooking down time — you know those times when you are stirring something or waiting for something to come out of the microwave. I have to admit that I kind of skimmed all the really good stories and text in the beginning to get to some of the art and I’m feeling a little guilty about it. It’s really a gorgeous book and I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with it this week!

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