Saturday, November 22, 2014

6 Good Books to Check Out This Winter

Looking for a good book to curl up with? Here are six great reads, three of which (marked with an asterisk *) are among my favorites of 2014. (As per usual, books are listed alphabetically by author. Also, if you want to see my previous recommendation, just click on the BOOK NOOK label at the bottom of the post.)

*Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander. Nonfiction. This book is for everyone who has ever attempted to brush up on their high school language skills or tried to learn a new language after the age of 40 (or 35, or 22).

More than a memoir, Flirting with French chronicles Alexander's attempt to master French at the age of 59 and shares some of the science behind language acquisition and its effect on the brain. As per usual, Alexander, the author of 52 Loaves, about his adventures in bread-making (which I also recommend), imbues his tale (and struggles) with frankness and humor. Highly recommend (and not just because I happened to read it while trying to learn Italian and could totally relate.)

*Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Fiction. A powerful, moving, beautifully written coming-of-age story about two motherless teenage girls, half-sisters, trying to make a life for and support themselves in 1940s America. The older sister, Iris, whose mother has just died at the opening of the book, and has no idea she has a half-sister, harbors dreams of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. The younger sister, Eva, the illegitimate daughter of Iris's philandering, no-good-but-charming father, doesn't know what she wants -- and is unceremoniously dumped on Iris's doorstep, or in her parlor, the day of Iris's mother's funeral, by her mother.

Eva quickly forms a bond with Iris and commits to helping her in her quest to become a movie star. Soon, the girls are fleeing Ohio, and their father (who has been stealing from Iris), for Hollywood. Soon, Iris gets noticed by studio executives and seems to be on her way -- until circumstances conspire against her. Soon after, she is forced to flee, traveling back across the country to New York, with the help of a studio hairdresser, Diego, who has befriended her, dragging along Eva -- and her father, who shows up on her doorstep just as she is about to leave.

With the help of Diego and his sisters, Iris and her father land jobs as a governess and butler to a nouveau riche Italian family in Great Neck, while Eva works in Diego's sisters' hair salon in Brooklyn. However, once again, Iris's ambition (and passion) wreaks havoc on their lives and the lives of others around them, and as Iris is sent off to war-torn London, Eva is left to pick up the pieces in New York and find a way to support herself.

I can't adequately put into words why I loved this book, but I did.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. Romance. I love a good Indian novel -- and I love a good romantic tale. So I was predisposed to like A Bollywood Affair. A humorous yet heartfelt tale of mistaken identity, and mistaken assumptions, A Bollywood Affair tells the story of Mili Rathod, a good, naive girl from a small village in India who is married at four to a boy not much older than she is -- and never sees again. After waiting nearly 18 years, however, she decides on a whim to apply for a grant to study in the United States, thinking that she will become more desirable to her estranged husband, a pilot, if she is better educated. 

Her betrothed, however, has no idea that he and Mili are still married, thinking the marriage was annulled long ago. And is, in fact, expecting his first child with his beautiful wife. When he discovers that his current marriage may be void, he panics and turns to his brother, Samir, a bad boy Bollywood director with movie star good looks, to help him. Soon after, Sam tracks down Mili in Michigan, where she is studying Sociology on a grant and slaving away in a Chinese restaurant, washing dishes. But he finds he is unable to serve her with the papers that will annul her marriage. 

You can probably figure out the rest, though the story features many unexpected, often poignant, sometimes very funny, twists and turns. 

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer. Fiction. When “Sasha” Karnokovitch's mother, Rachela, a mathematical prodigy considered one of the greatest mathematician's of her time, or of any time, passes away at her home in Madison, Wisconsin, in the dead of winter, a kind of Pandora's box is opened. For it is rumored that before she died, Professor Karnokovitch may have solved one of the greatest unsolved math problems. As a result, her death and shiva become an excuse for dozens of  her (eccentric) fellow mathematicians to fly in from around the world to mourn her and celebrate her -- and dig around her house and office to find the elusive solution.

Both poignant and funny, The Mathematician's Shiva, is part (fictional) biography, with flashbacks to Rachela's hardscrabble childhood in Siberia, part mystery, and full of wonderful characters.

Note: You don't have to be a mathematician, or fond of math, or a Jewish intellectual of Eastern European or Russian descent to enjoy or appreciate the book, but it vouldn't hoit.

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers. One of the better, and better written, memoirs I've read in a while. (No doubt in large part thanks to Ms. Chambers.) You don't have to be a gourmet chef or a foodie to enjoy this book, but it helps.

The memoir begins with Samuelsson's hazy recollection of his biological Ethiopian mother, who he doesn't even have a picture of, and how he and his sister are adopted by a kindly Swedish couple who cannot have children. He then describes his childhood in Sweden, his love of food, developed while cooking with his Swedish grandmother, his desire to travel the world and embrace the flavors of other cultures, and his ambition to be not just a good chef but a great one.

While food and cooking feature prominently, Yes, Chef is also the story of a young man finding his way in the world -- his disappointments and mistakes, his challenges and triumphs. I didn't always like or admire Samuelsson while reading this book, or at least the young Samuelsson, but I could appreciate his journey.

(FWIW, The spouse and I actually met Samuelsson at a dinner years ago and were pleasantly surprised by how gracious and modest he was. And man can he cook! So I curious to read his memoir. Also, both the spouse and the teenager read Yes, Chef when it came out in 2012 and liked it very much.)

*The Heist by Daniel Silva. Mystery/Espionage. This was my first Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon spy novel, and even though it is the 14th book in the series, The Heist stands on its own merits, and Silva does an excellent job of making new readers to the series not feel like they've missed something.

Taking you on an adventure around Europe, The Heist opens in Venice, where we find Silva's protagonist, an Israeli art restorer and spy, restoring  an altarpiece by Veronese. However, when a former (fallen) English spy, known to deal in stolen artwork, is found brutally murdered in his Lake Como villa by a London art dealer friend of Allon's, and word on the street is that the deceased may have been hiding or trafficking a famous missing masterpiece by Caravaggio, Allon is forced out of semi-retirement and sets off to find the Caravaggio and the killer(s).

Lovers of spy novels and books about art heists, especially ones set in exotic locales, should greatly enjoy The Heist. I did.

So what have you all been reading? Anything you'd recommend? If so, please leave a Comment.

And before any of you tell me I have to read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, it's on my list. (Just waiting for my turn at the library.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Snow day for panda!

In my house, "snow" is one of those four-letter words that get you a dirty look. Sure, snow can be pretty. But get a lot of the stuff, even a few inches in a short period of time, and it's no longer fun. Schools and highways close. Driving can be hazardous. And all that shoveling can put a major crick in your back, even cause a heart attack.

That said, not everyone hates snow as much as I or the people who live in and around Buffalo, New York, do right now. Skiers love the fluffy white stuff, as do kids, and... pandas.















Just check out this adorable security footage of Da Mao, the Toronto Zoo's Giant Panda, who apparently loooves the snow. Da Mao has even come up with a new winter sport, according to the Toronto Zoo, "bear-bogganing."



I do not know the official Chinese translation of Da Mao, but I'm pretty sure it means "lover of snow."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The cutest (and tiniest) Thanksgiving ever?

We here at J-TWO-O love a good Thanksgiving feast. And this year, for the first time, the teenager, who loves to cook, will be preparing all the food.

She has already ordered a turkey from the butcher, and plans on making cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and Brussels sprouts to accompany the bird, which, she informs us, will be spatchcocked (which means the cornbread stuffing will actually be dressing). For dessert, she is planning on making a pumpkin cheesecake.

But rather than tell you about our Thanksgiving preparations, allow me to show you how I envision Thanksgiving going down in our house....



I am still trying to decide if I am the dust bunny or the teenager is.

[I adore HelloDenizen's "Tiny Hamster" videos, but he may have outdone himself with "A Tiny Hamster Thanksgiving."]

Wishing you all a very happy, and tasty, Thanksgiving...


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Koalas, the secret to world peace?

The 2014 Group of Twenty, or G20, international conference took place this weekend in Brisbane, Australia. This annual event is an opportunity for leaders from around the world, including the United States, Russia, China, and Germany, to discuss the major issues affecting the global economy and come up with solutions.

As you can imagine, being cooped up in a convention center for two days straight, responding to or trying to prevent global economic crises, can be quite stressful. But this year's Australian hosts came up with a brilliant tactic for heading off potential hostilities and getting the G20 participants in a good mood.

Their secret weapon: koalas.

As anyone who has ever looked at or held a koala knows: it is hard to be angry, or stressed out, or in a bad mood when cuddling an adorable koala.
















Seriously, how cute are those two little koalas, sniffing each other while adorably clinging to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and United States President Barack Obama? They make even Abbott and Obama look cute and cuddly!

Indeed, no one is immune to the smile-inducing cuteness of koalas, not even Russian President Vladimir Putin! (You try smiling with all that Botox. But with a koala, you can!)






















[Is it just me, or does that koala look about as happy as Ukraine did when Putin grabbed it?]

I think the Australians are really onto something -- and that future G20 host countries should follow its lead, with China organizing baby panda cuddling sessions, India having world leaders cuddle with baby elephants, and the United States inviting dozens of puppies to mingle with world leaders.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stressed? Try some kitten therapy.

Life is stressful. Fortunately (at least for some of us), there are kittens.



[H/T Mashable]

"You can't be stressed sitting in a box full of kittens."

Indeed.

In fact, studies have shown that interacting with cats, and dogs, can reduce or mitigate depression and improve your health.

So next time you are feeling blue, or stressed, think warm, fuzzy thoughts or, better yet, visit a cat cafe* or consider volunteering at a shelter.

*For those kitty lovers on the East Coast.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To boldly shave where no man has shaved before

So apparently, manscaping is still a thing. And Gillette isn't the only one to get into the act. Now Schick has entered the jungle (so to speak), advertising the new Schick Hydro Machete Groomer razor for men with a new video and original song titled "Crib in My Pants."

Pay attention, guys.



[H/T Mashable]

Hey, it's not like we're asking you to wax or do laser. (Though what's good for the goose....)

Fave line: "I went into the forest. I couldn't see any tree."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Astro + the return of winter storm season

The 2014-2105 winter storm season has now officially begun (shudder) with Winter Storm Astro hammering the upper Midwest with snow -- and causing highway and school closings.

Hearing this news this morning, two questions immediately came to mind: 1) OMG winter already? And 2) Winter Storm Astro? Who names a snow storm Astro (the name of The Jestsons' beloved, goofy Great Dane)?

Astro














The answer to the first question is apparently "yes." The answer to the latter, the same people who brought you Winter Storm Nemo. That is, The Weather Channel.

Personally, I do not have a problem naming winter storms. I agree with The Weather Channel that it makes it easier to talk about something when you give a name to it. And we name hurricanes (and typhoons), so why not big, nasty snow storms?

But if you are going to give something big and scary and shivers-inducing a name, the name should likewise be big and scary and shivers-inducing. It should be imposing. It should connote strength. It should make you fearful. In other words, it should not be named Nemo, or Astro, or Linus.

Of course, not all of this season's winter storms have unimposing names, as you can see:












 I think Frona, Gorgon, Hektor, Juno, Neptune, Pandora, Quantum, Sparta, Thor, and Zelus are perfectly fine names for a winter storm.

[And this just in: The Weather Channel has named this season's W storm Wolf. I know you are as excited about that as I was.]

But Linus? 


















I don't know about all of you, or the folks over at The Weather Channel, but when I hear or see the name Linus, I don't think "Quick! Run to Home Depot and Stop & Stop and stock up! There's a ferocious winter storm coming!" I just envision a kid sucking his thumb, clutching a blankie. (Of course, if Winter Storm Linus turns out to be a wet blanket, then the storm will have been appropriately named.)

Lucy would have been a far better choice. Just ask Charlie Brown.

And Venus? The goddess of love and beauty? Sure, that first snowfall can be beautiful. But unless you are a skier or plow snow for a living, there is nothing lovely or beautiful about a foot of snow and being trapped indoors for days. Especially if it's the twenty-second time in a few months.

So, what do you all think of naming snow storms? Good idea or bad? And what do you think of this year's crop of winter storm names?