For Friday: Friday Reads – 5 Novels (1 down, 4 to go)

June 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

If You Were Here by Alafair Burke

This Friday, it’s books.  In particular, fiction.  Even more specifically, smart, well-written novels.  One I’ve read.  One I am reading.  And the other three are waiting patiently.  So many books, so little time.

Read:  “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner.

The year is 1975 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro’s family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.

The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. At its center is Kushner’s brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge. Thrilling and fearless, this is a major American novel from a writer of spectacular talent and imagination.

I loved this book from the chapter title on the first page, “1. HE KILLED HIM WITH A MOTORBIKE HEADLAMP (WHAT HE HAD IN HIS HAND).”

Reading:  “Jacob’s Folly” by Rebecca Miller.

In eighteenth-century Paris, Jacob Cerf is a Jew, a peddler of knives, saltcellars, and snuffboxes. Despite a disastrous teenage marriage, he is determined to raise himself up in life, by whatever means he can. More than two hundred years later, Jacob is amazed to find himself reincarnated as a fly in the Long Island suburbs of twenty-first-century America, his new life twisted in ways he could never have imagined. But even the tiniest of insects can influence the turning of the world, and thanks to his arrival, the lives of a reliable volunteer fireman and a young Orthodox Jewish woman nursing a secret ambition will never be the same.

Through the unique lens of Jacob’s consciousness, Rebecca Miller explores change in all its different guises—personal, spiritual, literal. The hold of the past on the present, the power of private hopes and dreams, the collision of fate and free will: Miller’s world—which is our own, transfigured by her clear gaze and by her sharp, surprising wit—comes brilliantly to life in the pages of this profoundly original novel.

Rebecca Miller’s ability to inhabit, and make real, the minds of an eighteenth-century Parisian Jew reincarnated as a twenty-first century Long Island fly and those of his two wards, is mystifying and it works.

On Deck:  “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann.

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.

Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.

New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

I am looking forward to digging into McCann’s latest work.

Ready to Load:  “If You Were Here” by Alafair Burke

If You Were Here is a thrilling novel of suspense from Alafair Burke, the author Dennis Lehane calls “one of the finest young crime writers working today.”

Manhattan journalist McKenna Jordan is chasing the story of an unidentified woman who heroically pulled a teenaged boy from the subway tracks. When she locates a video that captures part of the incident, she thinks she has an edge on the competition scrambling to identify the mystery heroine, but is shocked to discover that the woman in the video bears a strong resemblance to Susan Hauptmann, a close friend who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier.

What would have been a short-lived metro story sends McKenna on a dangerous search for the missing woman—a search that will force her to unearth long-buried truths much closer to home…

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Alafair Burke.  I’ve not yet read her crime novels (eight others prior to “If You Were Here”), but if they are half as insightful, intelligent and engaging as she is, I am in for a thrilling ride.

Soon:  “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen.

After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

I am a bit embarrassed to say that I’ve not yet read “The Corrections.”  It’s is my what-I-missed-the-first-time-around pick.

Happy #FridayReading!


Our Sting operation

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Non-profit Narrative 4’s first project, in partnership with Esquire Magazine , “How to Be a Man,” is a collection of over 100 stories from some of our best authors. They launched in Chicago last week. Wish I’d been there.

Narrative 4

We are still in a state of drunken happiness after last week’s successful launch of Narrative 4 during Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest.

In case you missed the festivities, get a glass of iced tea, pull up your comfy chair and click on this link to see the entire 90-minute event.

You won’t want to miss a great conversation between N4 co-founders Colum McCann and Luis Alberto Urrea about how story set them on their path.

And you REALLY don’t want to miss the incredible conversation once Sting, a member of N4’s honorary board, joined in and talk veered into the importance of story in their work.

The three, along with moderator Charles Miles from Chicago’s Youth Guidance, then gave the crowd of nearly 800 an idea of what happens during one of our story exchanges. First, Colum read a piece from a wrongly convicted (now released) inmate related his…

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Friday’s Cultural Pickings

May 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" 2

Image Source: NPR Music

It’s Friday.  It’s sunny.  It’s relatively warm.  Time to lighten things up a bit.  To that end, here are 5 items from this week’s cultural onslaught to help you while away the weekend.  Enjoy.

1. Andy Kulakov’s cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist“.  One seriously talented dude.

2.  The Target ad “Acceptance” created by Deutsch, Inc.  Originally released in 2012, it is airing once again.  I dare you not to tear up.

3. announced that the music from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has been released.  You can listen to a stream of the songs on NPR.  Because … Florence + The Machine, 100$ Bill – Jay Z, Bryan Ferry, Beyonce & Andre 3000, and more.  The soundtrack is available in the usual places (iTunes and Amazon) on May 7th.  Next up, the movie on May 10th.

4.  Steven Soderbergh –  A double punch.  First, The San Francisco Film Society released the video and transcript of retired filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s speech on the State of Cinema presented at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  As you an imagine, he is not optimistic.  One brilliant passage quoted in The New York Times reads:

Cinema is a specificity of vision,” he said. “It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

Second, earlier this week, Mr. Soderbergh began publishing a suspense novella titled “Glue,” tweet-by-tweet, @Bitchuation.  At last look, he was up to the conclusion of Chapter 11, all 140 characters and the occasional twitpic.  Epic.

5.  Sophia Grace and Rosie perform “Thrift Shop” on Ellen.  Just because.

Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs' Favorite Restaurants

If you’ve read this blog before, you’re likely already aware that I love to eat, and my friends love to eat, as does my family.  So when, not long ago, it came time to purchase a birthday gift for one of my foodie friends, you’ll understand when I say that I experienced kismet. Wandering through McNally Jackson bookstore here in New York, as I am wont to do on random weekends, I stumbled upon the perfect present, a recently published tome titled Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants.

According to publisher Phaidron, it is:

The ultimate restaurant guide chosen by the real experts: more than 400 of the world’s best chefs from Heston Blumenthal to René Redzepi and David Chang.

From bargain noodle joints to high-end restaurants; late-night haunts to all-day breakfasts; neighbourhood eateries to destination restaurants, Where Chefs Eat has more than 2,000 personal recommendations for where to eat around the globe.

Said friend loved it.  As luck would have it, he had a trip planned to Northern Italy just a few weeks later.  He perused the guide and decided on a side trip to Modena to visit Osteria Francescana, a tiny restaurant with only 11 tables, serving three different tasting menus (enough to satisfy the pickiest and hungriest eater), where food becomes art at the hands of chef Massimo Bottura. The osteria has earned three Michelin stars, was included in Food and Wine Magazine’s list of “100 Restaurants Worth a Pilgrimage” (May 2013 issue) and was just listed in the No. 3 spot of The World’s Top 50 Restaurants (according to the U.K.’s Restaurant Magazine).

I received his email after the meal, and I quote, “I can’t move.”  I loved that.

Molto bene!

Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs' Favorite Restaurants 2

Where Chefs Eat: A Guide to Chefs' Favorite Restaurants 3

Where Chefs Eat - Modena, Italy

Osteria Francescana - Modena, Italy

Osteria Francescana - Prosciutto from Parma

Osteria Francescana - Traditional Modenese tortellini in cream of Parmigiano Reggiano

Osteria Francescana - Tagliatelle with Bolognese ragu

Osteria Francescana - Vino

“The Imperfectionists” – Pretty Close to Perfect

January 21, 2011 § Leave a comment


If you missed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists when it was originally published in 2010, you’re in luck.  It’s just been released in paperback.  Well-received when it debuted, the novel made several best-of-the-year lists.  There’s good reason for this.

Recently, I caught Mr. Rachman on the first night of his North American book tour.  Held at Brooklyn’s Book Court, a more accessible and intimate space than I’m used to when attending readings in Manhattan, the author read from his novel and participated in thoughtful Q&A session.  Intelligent and forthcoming, he charmed the audience with his self-deprecating wit.  Humble but confident, humorous but at the same time quite serious, I found him to be somewhat like the novel itself.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it is composed of a series of short stories centered around an American-owned, English-language newspaper based in Rome.  Each story is told from the point-of-view of a different newspaper staffer (with the exception of one story which is told in the voice of an avid newspaper reader – according to the author, the only one based on true-life events and, not surprisingly, the most outrageous).  But you don’t have to be a news lover or have an interest in the art of reportage to appreciate the the stories and how Mr. Rachman has chosen to tell them.  During the Q&A, we learned that the individual stories came first (more were written than were included in the final version) and the unifying theme later.   And while it tackles the decline of the newspapers and the printed word, much of the focus is on the messy, complicated lives of the staff away from the paper.  Only when you reach the end, do you experience the full impact of the individual narratives and, not incidentally, do you appreciate the brilliance of the novel’s structure.

So, make the trip to your local bookstore or click your mouse, set aside the weekend, and be prepared to be transported to another time and place (and, yes, to laugh and cry).  Mr. Rachman’s grasp of human nature, and his ability to translate that into the written word, make this one not to miss.

Read well.

Book Love – The Second Time Around

March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

What makes us turn away from a book one day and then six months later pick it up, turn to the first page, and read spellbound, as though it’s the most beautiful thing ever written?

Has this ever happened to you?  Because it’s happened to me a few times of late.  I start to read a book, usually one that has won some award or another, or has come highly recommended by a friend or a reviewer, only to find myself slogging through, 50 odd pages in (sometimes only 30 pages in).  I keep picking the book up, knowing I should be enjoying it, but I’m not.  Then I find myself not reading for a few days, a serious no-no if  you’re a writer, until finally I talk myself into putting the book aside.  Guilt consumes me.  I get over it (more quickly now).  I  go back to the bookshelf or the bookstore and select my next literary adventure.

Then, maybe four or six months or even a year later, the castaway reasserts itself.  It falls off the nightstand, is unearthed from the pile on the floor, is mentioned on some best-of  list, and my curiosity piqued.  I pick the book up, usually dust it off, and begin again.  This time I get caught up in the story, am moved by the language, and fall in love with the characters.  I can hardly believe that I’m reading the same novel.

Books I fell in love with the second time around: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Book of Negroes (Someone Knows My Name ) by Lawrence Hill, The Sea by John Banville, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortens0n, and even Saturday by Ian McEwan (I am still flummoxed by that one).

Why did the book draw me in, enchant me, and move me the second time but not the first?  Is there some chemistry that is required between the reader and that which is being read that was missing in original attempt?  Since it’s the same book, the same words printed on the same pages, it would follow that during the fallow period it is the reader that changed in order to meet the reading of the story in a different way, to create the right chemistry.  Maybe I’m over-analyzing this.  But knowing that I almost missed the pleasure of reading all five the titles above, this has required some thought.  Now I know that if there’s a book that I  really do believe I should appreciate, but don’t, I put it aside and return to it at some point when it tugs at me, really tugs at me.  At that point, whatever needed to change in me, must have changed.

So here’s my suggestion: if there’s a novel or fabulous non-fiction book that you’ve set aside and, after some period of time, you find yourself thinking about it, make a cup of tea, open the book to the first page, and read.

You never know what might happen the second time around.

“Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town”

February 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

There is a saying in Italian, “Meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista,” which means that it’s better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist.  In other words, eat well.

"This book is about some people I met and the lessons they taught me about living slow"

The Italian saying is found on front flap of Douglas Gayeton’s fabulous book, Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, published late last year.  Which also happens to be when I came across it, browsing the bookstore as I have a tendency to do much too often.  It’s large, and it stuck out from the shelf, or at least it stuck out to me.  If you’ve read other posts on this blog you’ll know that’s probably not all that surprising given my love of food, and Italian food in particular (although I do have a French bistro fetish, but that is another post altogether).

Douglas Gayeton is a filmmaker, photographer, writer, and now organic farmer in Petaluma, California, who was sent to Italy by PBS to make a documentary.  The film never did get made, but the photos he took were arresting, and PBS posted them on its web site.  Gayeton’s genius was the concept of a “flat film” image created by combining multiple photographs captured over a period of time into one photo which portrays a meaningful representation of the event, and then layering each with “handwritten notes, anecdotes, recipes, quotes, and historical facts and that cleverly bring context and color to the subject of each sepia-toned image and draw us deeper into this romantic, rewarding, and progressively rare way of life.”  He describes the process, which he discovered one afternoon during a long family lunch, in a short video.

As you page through the book, a narrative unfolds, slowly.  Just as it should.  Each photo tells a story.  You’ll have to turn the book around to read many of the quotes and sayings.  You’ll want to meet Marino who makes marble funeral stones with his two sons, Fiziano and Luca, and Guiseppina, the egg lady who knows her chickens (Conosco i miei polli – I know my chickens).  You’ll want to learn a few new Italian words, like una scampagnata (an outing) and i funghi (mushrooms) and la moglie (the wife).  You’ll want to eat, well.  This gem of a book is an homage to a way of life that, even in Italy, is disappearing.

There’s a reason so many of us flock to Italy.  Almost anyone I know, after returning from a trip, says it’s the food, it’s the quality of life.  It’s about the pleasure of carefully choosing, preparing, and eating real food, and taking the time to appreciate it and those with whom we’re eating.  In America, this is known as “Slow Food.”

If we choose, we can incorporate elements of “Slow” into our lives here.  We can make an effort to know where our food comes from, and, whenever possible, opt for produce grown close to home or meat from animals raised in humane environments on small, local farms (more on this in an upcoming post).  We can cook and teach our children to cook.  We can sit down at the table, together, and enjoy a meal (A tavola!).  Douglas Gayeton reminds us of this, and that sometimes:

“Il troppo stroppia”

More than enough is too much.

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