Books and Donuts

Today, March 19th, is St. Joseph’s Day, noteworthy in Italian families for the fried donuts traditionally made and consumed to celebrate the feast day.  In Hawaii, any day is a good excuse to eat fried donuts, known as malasadas, but on the East Coast, many Italian families eat zeppole.  The ingredients of the dough vary and the small donuts can be cream filled or plain, baked or fried.  But the traditional recipe my grandmother used was fast and easy, resembling a beignet.  Click on the recipe – here.  Good with a glass of milk back in the day but now great with coffee and a good book.  Here are a few books I’ve been reading while munching my donuts:

A Mystery by Jennifer EganManhattan Beach

The first time I tried reading Egan’s Manhattan Beach, I could not get past the first fifty pages, but when I tried again, the story flew by in a day.  Some books you just have to be ready to read, or, in my case, forced to read for a book club discussion, but glad I did.

title.esplanade  The dull windup (which had me stopping in the first read) was Anna’s sad childhood with her disabled sister, and her twelve year old yearnings for a better life as she accompanies her father to a house on Manhattan Beach, where he is obviously making a deal with a rich organized crime crook.  But stay with the story – it gets better.

Set during the Rosie Riveter era of World War II, Anna becomes the first woman diver working on ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  After her father mysteriously disappears and her sister dies, Anna’s mother leaves her alone in the big city. But this working girl knows her way around, finding an unlikely girlfriend in Nell who leads her to that same mobster boss in a nightclub, igniting a relationship and a story worthy of a film noir plot.  The murder mystery revolves around Anna’s father, but the resolution is unexpected.

In his review for the New York Times, Amor Towles, author of The Gentleman from Moscow, notes the importance of the beach and the ocean in Egan’s book:

“Turning their backs on the crowded constraints of their urban lives, all three {main characters}look to the ocean as a realm that while inherently dangerous also promises the potential for personal discovery and an almost mystical liberty.”

With her incise language Egan cleverly leads the story to a satisfying ending, and simultaneously informs the reader about an era, a location, and a woman’s vocation based on real events.

35411583  Listening to Sophie – Surprise Me!

A few bystanders may have wondered what I was laughing about as I tried out my new Beatsx earbuds, listening to Sophie Kinsella’a Surprise Me.  Kinsella’s newest addition to the Shopaholic series has heroine Sylvie married to Dan and mother to twin girls. Her job as a development officer at a family museum seems in jeopardy, and a doctor’s prediction of longevity for the couple alerts them to the long years ahead in their relationship. To shake up their ten year marriage, Kinsella has them surprising one another, creating laughable and ridiculous circumstances.  A serious note threatens to reveal a family secret, but with her usual wit and charm, Kinsella leads the reader to the expected happy ending.

81d62354b0e8908efae37b21420cdf5160d125f7Flavia is Back in Alan Bradley’s The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

My favorite detective is back in Bradley’s newest addition to the Flavia de Luce mysteries – The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place.   Flavia’s father has died; to recover from their grief Dogger, their old family friend, has taken Flavia and her sisters on a fishing excursion.  Flavia hooks a dead body instead of a fish, and the mystery begins.

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this perspicuous young woman with an extensive knowledge of chemical poisons and a flair for solving crimes, you are missing a good time.  This is the ninth in this series, from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, but you can start anywhere.

Related ReviewA Red Herring Without Mustard


Listen to This Book – Only Child

51l+GCnsXVL._SL500_  Although the news after a school shooting is devastating and continuous, the distressed lives of the child survivors can only be imagined, but in Rhiannon Navin’s Only Child, a six year old first grader tells you how it is.  Some books need to be read, but Only Child on audible in the voice of Zach, the young hero who hides in the closet with his class while his ten year old brother becomes one of the victims, is one to be heard.  The disconnect between the innocent young voice and this tale of senseless killing will bring you to the experience like reading alone could not.  So, listen…

From the pop, pop, pop of the gun outside the classroom to the surprising identity of the shooter, Only Child reveals the crushing events, so often in the news lately.  As Zach tries to understand what has happened, where his dead brother has gone, his mother’s erratic behavior and his father’s disconnect, he also remembers his brother, diagnosed with O.D.D. (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), as the hyperactive and bright older boy who bullied him, and more often ignored him.  When he checks his brother’s bed daily to be sure he is really not there, and rebelliously moves into a corner of his brother’s walk-in closet, his quiet assertiveness and need for a return to order and peace is a counter to his family’s constant stress.

The horror of the killings and the aftermath is somehow increased by Zach’s sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on the floor, sucking on the ear of a stuffed animal.  With his calm voice, he tries to make sense of this new world around him, but it isn’t easy.  His parents marriage falls apart in the collateral damage, as Zach’s mother creates a campaign against the shooter’s parents and Zach’s father’s infidelity is exposed.  Zach escapes to his hideout to talk to his dead brother, but finds it harder and harder to cope.

This heart breaking tale is saved by the resilience of one little boy, who carefully and logically works to save himself and those he loves with hope and persistence.

White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.


A Book List from Independent Booksellers

If you are looking for a good book, two local independent booksellers in Carmel, California have some suggestions.  Many titles were new to me (but then I tend to stick to fiction) so I checked out their reviews and summaries, and offered a quick assessment.

Here’s the list:

  • Reactions by Theodore Gray – the third and final installment in the trilogy of The Elements, Molecules, and Reactions – chemistry in pictures and stories. Gray offers molecule quilts too – I may find that more interesting.
  • Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman – based on the popular food blog, this cookbook promises to rival Ina, Nmartha, and Nigella with recipes and food ideas from a recovering vegetarian.  I love cookbooks and am always happy to find a new one.
  • The Undiscovered Islands by Malachy Talkack – National Geographic promises it is “Packed full of intelligent musings on everything from religion to astronomy, alchemy to the occult…an exploration of two dozen islands once believed to exist but no longer on the map.  This one might make it to my to-read list, if I can find it in the library (unlikely).
  • Van Life by Foster Huntington – photos of life on the road.  I’m not a fan.
  • Going Into Town by Roz Chast.  I read it, loved it, highly recommend it.
  • Grant by Ron Chernow – biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I never made it through his Hamilton, so will probably skip this one.
  • The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – Police detective Gemma Woodstock works to solve the murder of a former classmate in this debut mystery.  This one has possibilities for my audible wish list.
  • Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan – the author’s memoir.  I’m not big on memoirs, so will probably skip this one too.
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfield – New York Times calls this “a powerful novel about a search for a missing girl that’s also a search for identity…”  and notes a comparable book would be Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  A winner – going on my to-read list.
  • The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After Happiness by Heather Harpham – NPR says  “…Harpham relives the heartbreak, hope, and terror she experienced as she watched her infant daughter cross the abyss of a life-threatening disease. Into this tension-torqued story of sickness and health, she works in the fraught tale of her own evolving relationship with {her ex-husband}.” Might be good if you liked When Breath Becomes Air, but I think I will skip it.
  • The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas -mixed reviews about a fictional novelist who marries when she would rather write.  I might give it a try.
  • The Kinfolk Entrepreneur: Ideas for Productive Work by Nathan Williams -introduces readers to creative business owners around the globe. … a chocolatier among them.  Has pictures, so might be worth a look.

Have you read any of these?


Penny Vincenzi

British best-selling novelist Penny Vincenzi died recently at 78.  A profilic writer, Vincenzi focused on strong female heroines – a little romance and sex mixed with family secrets and intrigue.  I’ve read a few of her books, but can’t remember the plot of even one; I do remember them being long, with more plot than the usual romantic Chick Lit.

When asked if she aspired to write more “highbrow material,” she said she didn’t:

“I have a strong aversion to people saying the kind of novels I write are escapist.  Books ought to be escapist.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a good old healthy slug of glamour and glitz.”

51fO4NCUIpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Her writing has been compared to Barbara Taylor Bradford and Julian Fellowes, and her bestsellers include The Decision, The Best of Times, Absolute Scandal, and her latest (2017) A Question of Trust.

Maybe I’ll try her again.  Escape is good.