Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year-end book review: my 14 fave reads of 2014

I read over 80 books in 2014. Many of which I thought were good, but not great; a few (I'm looking at you, Donna Tartt) really pissed me off; and a dozen or so that delighted, enlightened, or captivated me -- and made me wish I could write like that.

Herewith, a list of my 14 favorite, or most memorable, reads of 2014, both fiction and nonfiction, listed alphabetically by author.

(For a complete list of all the books I reviewed this year, click here or on the Book Nook label at the end of this post.)

One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern. Fiction. A story about redemption, friendship, and not judging a book, or a person, by its cover, or appearances. The main character, and, in a way, deus ex machina, is Kitty Logan, a disgraced journalist who seeks to redeem herself and to pay tribute to her recently deceased mentor and editor, Constance, by writing the story Constance had wanted to write but didn't. The story? We don't exactly know (until the end of the book). All the editor left was a list of 100 names. It is up to Kitty to track down the 100 people on the list and figure out what ties them together and to Constance.

I loved this book, and not just because I started my professional life as a journalist, or that I, too, had a beloved editor and mentor named Constance (though it helped me to instantly connect with Kitty, her coworkers, and her subjects). I loved it because of the stories Kitty uncovers in her quest, the great writing, and how uplifted the book left me feeling when I finished reading it.

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, where Iris gets noticed by studio executives and seems to be on her way. Until circumstances conspire against her and she is forced to flee again, this time to New York, with the help of a an avuncular studio hairdresser, Diego, dragging along Eva and their father, who shows up on their doorstep just as they are 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.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Fiction. The beautifully written, poignant story of two teenagers whose lives are forever changed by the Second World War.

Marie-Laure, who is blind, lives in Paris with her doting father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History. But when the Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, taking with them a dangerous secret, to the coastal town of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle lives.

Werner, a year older than Marie-Laure, lives with his younger sister in an orphanage in a German mining town. However, when Werner's talent for fixing radios is discovered by a local party official, he wins a spot in an elite, and sadistic, Hitler Youth academy -- and is soon after conscripted into the army, where his mission is to ferret out resisters and those seeking to bring down the Nazis by secretly broadcasting information.

Eventually, Werner's work leads him and his team to Saint-Malo, where his and Marie-Laure's lives collide  and change forever.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg. Fiction. Who would have thought watching Match Game all those years ago that Fannie Flagg would become a beloved, best-selling author? Though I guess I shouldn't be that surprised as she was always funny and clever. But as we (I) know, being funny and clever does not necessarily translate into being a great author. And I think Flagg is a great author.

I loved The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion (as I did her other books). And I learned something, too -- about early female aviators, the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), who helped America's World War II effort. At the risk of sounding cliche, I laughed and I cried (albeit mostly to myself) all throughout this dual tale of a kindly but much put-upon Alabama homemaker (and her domineering mother), set in the mid-2000s, and a family of pioneering female aviators from Wisconsin during the 1930s and 1940s.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Fiction. I could not stomach Eat, Pray, Love, and it was only after being reassured that this book was totally different and well worth a read that I checked it out. And I am glad I did.

Not a typical "Jennifer Book" (as I prefer upbeat, happy reads), while much of the book is sad and depressing, Gilbert's prose are so eloquent, and her story of botanist/heiress Alma Whittaker so compelling and inspiring, I could not put the book down. (I particularly enjoyed the section about Roger the dog.)

As for how to describe The Signature of All Things, you could say it is a book about mid-19th century botany and botanists, which it is. You could also call it a novel of adventure and self discovery. Which it also is. You could also call it the tale of a dysfunctional family and of love and loss. And it is those things, too. Just read it.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Fascinating (somewhat fictional though based on fact) biography of Fanny Vandergrift Osborne Stevenson, the wife of author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano. Fiction. I am not a big fan of short story collections. Not sure why. I think it's because I find them uneven and unsatisfying. But something about The Other Language intrigued me enough to check it out. Maybe it's because I love books set in other places, told from a non-American (in this case, Italian) point of view.

In any case, while the stories in The Other Language are all a bit (or more) sad and depressing -- tales of love (or lust) and loss -- they are beautifully and movingly told (the word poignant keeps springing to mind). I also found them all too relatable and  admired the author's ability to capture pivotal moments in relationships. 

The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Nonfiction. The Nazi occupation of Paris observed from inside the Hotel Ritz, where Nazis, the rich and famous, Allies, and spies for both sides lived and mingled. A work of nonfiction, the book at times reads like a spy novel or pulp fiction and includes plenty of glitz and glamor, as well as a history of the Hotel Ritz and some of its famous occupants and regulars, going back to its opening in 1898.

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley. Nonfiction. One of the best biographies I've read -- extremely well researched and very well written. Ridley gives readers a full-blown portrait of Edward VII, aka Albert Edward or Bertie, from his boyhood to his coronation and death, uncovering many previously unknown or forgotten facts about not only Edward but about his role in governing England and the political conflicts of the time (mid to late 1800s through the early 1900s). She also gives us a glimpse into the life of Queen Victoria, his mother, a horrible sounding woman and mother, and her family, and Bertie's wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark. A fascinating read. Highly recommend, especially if you are an Anglophile.

Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax.Warning: Do not read this book unless you have on hand a really good pastrami, or corned beef, or turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with a side of coleslaw. Which, considering there are no great delis anymore, or very few, will be tough to find. So prepare to be hungry.

Save the Deli in short is a love letter to that temple of smoked or cured meats and schmaltz that Jews (and non-Jews) have flocked to for centuries. Sax, a Canadian, spent several years traveling the United States, Canada, and Europe in search of the last remaining delis, sampling their wares and writing about what made them great (both the food and the people) and why so many once great delis -- institutions -- closed (mainly in New York, because the rent is so high) and why and how they have managed to survive in other places (namely Los Angeles).

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, Gabriel Allon, 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.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This may have been my favorite book of 2014. Very funny. Reminded me of The Big Bang Theory, in a good way, as the main character in The Rosie Project, Don, like Sheldon, is a scientist, who is "socially challenged" (i.e., has Asperger Syndrome or similar). Though in this case it is the Sheldon character, who is good looking and into cooking not comic books, who falls for the Penny character, Rosie, who is a sexy bartender (similar to Penny), though also very intelligent. Got it?

Okay, for those who have no idea what I'm talking about, The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy about a health-obsessed Australian geneticist with Asperger's who creates a compatibility test for finding the perfect mate and winds up falling for a sexy bartender who smokes. (Just trust me and pick it up. You won't be sorry.)

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone. Fun, fast-paced read/memoir about a young man's love of (or really obsession with) magic. Very entertaining and informative (though I may never play poker or black jack again).

So what were some of your favorite, or most memorable, books that you read in 2014? Let me, and everyone else know, via a Comment.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Politically correct Christmas* carols

*I mean Holiday

Imagine that all the beloved Christmas songs we knew and sang (most of which were written by Jews) had to be politically correct, i.e., racially sensitive, or non-discriminatory.

Well, you no longer have to imagine, thanks to Paint!

Presenting "Progressive Christmas Carols":

Wishing everyone a merry ChanuMasZaa... and a Happy New Year. (It's still okay to say "Happy New Year," right?)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why all the news isn't fit to print

I started my career in magazine publishing, as a researcher/fact checker for a glossy Manhattan-based magazine. Like the narrator in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, without all the cocaine or partying.

Back then, in the 1980s, every magazine and newspaper had a fact checker/researcher on staff, often a whole team of them, to ensure that they got stories right.

It was not a glamorous or an easy job. Often you would butt heads with writers (many of whom couldn't actually write), who would play fast and loose with the facts. (One such writer, whom I worked and butted heads with constantly, eventually took his column to The New York Times, where I doubt it's ever been fact checked.)

But fact checking was considered an essential job -- and if you did it well, not only did you feel the pride of saving the publication from a potentially messy, litigious situation, but you would eventually get promoted.

Today you would be hard pressed to find a fact checker at any publication.

Instead, for actually many years now, magazines and newspapers, especially the digital ones, have come to rely on writers, many (most?) of whom are too busy or lazy to fact check (and have never taken a journalism course or been properly trained) to check their own facts. A very scary proposition -- and why we continue to see stories blow up upon closer inspection.

But what about editors, or producers? Shouldn't they be verifying stories before they are published or aired?

Yes, yes, they should. And some do. (Albeit mostly nightly TV news producers, who know their asses will be toast if they screw up a story, especially one having to do with politicians or the government.)

But thanks to budget cuts, a 24x7 news cycle, and the constant need for more page views or higher TV ratings, there is so much pressure on news organizations to spit out the news quickly, especially sensational or breaking news, that fact checking, or in-depth research, goes out the window and door -- or is only done at a most basic level.

The sad thing is, in many (most?) cases, checking the facts doesn't require much, just asking a few questions (albeit the right ones) and requiring proof that something is, in fact, true.

But apparently that is too much work for some publications, even prominent ones, such as New York Magazine, whose story about a Bronx high school student making $72 million trading stocks during his lunch hour was quickly proven to be false (i.e., untrue), after editors and producers at other news organizations asked the teen some simple, basic financial questions, which he couldn't answer, as well as for proof, which he couldn't produce. 

However, lest you think that New York Magazine is the exception, it isn't. Just look at Rolling Stone or The New York Times, both of which have been shown to be negligent in regard to fact checking recently. (Though in the latter's case, it's been going on for some time now. Which may be why you no longer see "All the news that's fit to print" on the Times's masthead, or at least on the digital version.)

And that is why, boys and girls, you shouldn't believe everything -- or even half of what -- you read, especially online, or take it with a grain of truth.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hanukkah music spectacular

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) begins next Tuesday, December 16, at sundown. And as no winter holiday is complete without some festive holiday music, here are three Hannukah music videos sure to entertain Jews and Gentiles alike.

First up, "Hanukkah Song Mashup," from Elliot Dvorin and the Key Tov Orchestra, or as I like to think of it, "What Michael Bublé might sing this time of year if he was Jewish":

Next, a cappella group Six13 does a Chanukah spin on Taylor Swift's "Shake it off," titled "Chanukah":

And last, but not least, The Maccabeats are back with their Hanukkah spin on Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" titled "All About That Neis":

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How do you punish a teen?

So how does one go about punishing a teenager in our modern, enlightened age?

Yelling doesn't work.

And corporal punishment is out.

So what do you do when your now teenage kid acts up or breaks a rule? Do you give her a time out and send her to her room? 

Do you take away his computer and/or mobile phone and/or gaming console and/or TV privileges? What if he needs his computer to do homework -- and he needs his phone so he can text you or you him? What if you don't have a gaming console or your kid doesn't watch TV?

Can you ground kids if they are on a sports team or in a play or a concert? How does that work? 

How do you teach teens that breaking rules or promises or being irresponsible has consequences -- and punish them in a way that they won't be inclined to do whatever it is again? And to punish them in a way that hurts them more than it hurts you, without actually, you know, hurting them?

How do you drum it into their hormone-fueled, sleep-deprived brains that it's not okay to dis mom and/or dad or to blow shit off just because they don't feel like doing whatever or spaced?

And how many strikes do they get before you throw them out?

We are fortunate in that the teenager is a good kid, who, for the most part, is respectful and follows the rules. But she's still a teenager and slips up once in a while, sometimes because she just spaced. Sometimes just to zing it to mom. (And it's always mom, never dad.)

And, like many (most? all?) teenage girls, she thinks if she says she's sorry a dozen times, promises to never do whatever it was again, and, when all else fails, cries hysterically, that we will not punish her. And, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, the tactic often works, especially if her father is around.

But this morning, the teenager really scared me. Even though it was snowing and the twisty, hilly roads to school were icy, she still wanted to drive herself to school in the Mini Cooper. We let her, but only if she promised to text us the minute she got to school, to let us know she was okay.

She never texted.

I texted her a little after 8 a.m., long after she should have arrived. Nothing.

I texted her again at 8:30. No response. 

At 9 a.m., I called the school, and asked the office to page her or confirm that she had arrived at school. The woman was very sympathetic and sent someone to find the teenager. Five or six, maybe more, agonizing minutes later, she told me the teenager was in Math class. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the woman.

Then I got mad. And I emailed the teenager that we needed to have a talk when she got home.

Two hours later, I finally received a text from the teenager, apologizing profusely. But she knew she was in big trouble, and asked if she was going to be punished, and if she promised to be on her best behavior could we not punish her this time.

I told her we wouldn't punish her this time, but that for the next week, through next Friday, every time she takes the car, she has to text or email or call me as soon as she gets to where she is going. She slips up once, she has to take the bus to and from school -- her worst nightmare -- and has her car privileges revoked for 24 hours. And do not even think of asking us to chauffeur her. She spaces a second time, that's another day of riding the bus. 

To me, that's not a big punishment, but to the teenager, it's death. (She loves driving more than anything, except cooking.) 

So, what are your thoughts on appropriate punishments for teenagers? Please let me know via a Comment.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Talk about a wrong number

As longtime registered Democrats, the spouse and I were greatly surprised, and amused, to start receiving calls during the last presidential election from various Republican candidates, the Republican party, and Mitt Romney. 

I actually picked up the phone a few times, to tell them to stop and put us on the "do not call" list, but most of the calls were robo-calls. 

If that wasn't bad enough, now we have the Tea Party calling us. (Thank Cablevision for Caller ID.)


Which made us wonder, Do these people not do their research? And if they did, are they desperate or delusional? And if the latter, do they really think that calling us during dinner or at bedtime is going to endear us to the cause?

For that matter, do any of these politicians, pollsters, survey companies, telemarketers, and nonprofits really think, especially in the age of Caller ID, that people are actually going to pick up the phone, during dinner or when they are putting kids to bed -- and give them money? (I feel a bit bad for the nonprofits, but there are other, better, less in-your-face ways of reaching people, like email.)


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Art. It does a brain good. (Releasing my inner artist.)

When (and where) I went to school, Art was a part of the curriculum, considered just as essential as English, Math, Science, History (or Social Studies), learning a second (or third) language, and Physical Education (aka Gym). Even at my tiny all-girls high school, they made time for Art (drawing, painting, pottery, etc.), if not every day, every other day. For which I am eternally grateful.

The Art room was a haven for many of us. There we could, for a little while, forget about the stress of Physics, or Chemistry, or Pre-Calc, or college applications -- and explore and enjoy our creative side.

How sad that over the years so many high schools have cut funding for the arts -- or no longer require students to take an art class. And how sad is it that so many of us who loved drawing or painting or doing pottery as kids no longer have the time or energy to do it as adults?

True, drawing and/or painting require a lot of time -- and patience. Things that we working parents typically don't have a lot of.

And why draw or paint when there are digital cameras or smart phones? Who needs a portrait when you can take a selfie?

Apparently, I do.

Last year, feeling incredibly frustrated with work and my life, I signed up for a beginner drawing class, though our adult continuing education program. Not having drawn anything, except doodles and birthday cards, for over 20 years, I was often frustrated. But I didn't drop out. (Though I did take a break from drawing when the class ended.)

However, I soon realized, I missed drawing. So this fall, I decided to take another drawing class, with the same teacher, a wonderful woman named Martha.

While drawing may not be as difficult as Physics, or Chemistry, or Pre-Calc (at least to me), it still requires an immense amount of concentration, patience, and practice. Things I don't have in abundance (if at all).

But when I am sitting in that window-filled, sun-drenched classroom, with my big pad of paper and my pencils and eraser, struggling to capture the image in front of me (inwardly, and outwardly, cursing), something amazing happens. Suddenly, I forget about everything else -- the boiler that's not working; the oven that has to be fixed; work; laundry; bills. And I am just in the moment.

Best of all, at the end of the day (or class), I have something to show for my efforts. Something I have made with my own two hands, that I can look at and say, "wow, I did this," and feel good about myself.

Art. It does a brain good.

Following are some of my favorite drawings from my Studio Art class. Next up: Colored Pencil Drawing.


"Flower Child"


"Bust of David"

"Lady Slipper Orchids"

"Still Life with Mason Jar"