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The Newburyport Literary Festival: What a Weekend!

Warning: This is a long post – I wanted to capture the fullness of the weekend.  There’s a lot of “I did this and that,” running from one activity to another.  But that’s what the weekend was — run, run, run and fun, fun, fun!

The 6th annual Newburyport Literary Festival was held last weekend, April 29-30 up in beautiful Newburyport, Massachusetts.  I enjoyed speaking with the co-chairs, Vicki Hendrickson and Jennifer Entwistle, at a luncheon in Boston last year, but this was the first year I had attended the festival.  It was a wonderful weekend – full of author readings, panel discussions, and social activities.

It all took place in various venues (two independent bookstores, an arts center, City Hall, the library, the Maritime Museum, and several churches donated meeting space) in beautiful Newburyport – a historic seaport on the north shore.  I met up with Sarah from Archimedes Forgets, and wandered the downtown area a bit.  It’s a lovely, walkable city, lined with quaint shops and boutiques; I’ve put a few photos of store signs and the spring scenery in this post.

The festivities began Friday night with Opening Ceremonies marking the contributions of William Lloyd Garrison, a son of Newburyport who was a fierce abolitionist and proponent of women’s suffrage.  After a moving introduction by a descendent of “Lloyd” Garrison, the stage moved to a panel discussion of Garrison and the causes he supported.  The panel was moderated by Ellen Fitzpatrick  (UNH and The News Hour), Kate Clifford-Larson (Simmons College), and Lois Brown (Mt. Holyoke).  Much of the weekend line-up was focused on “The Freedom Narrative,” the theme of this year’s Festival.

After this opening panel, Sarah and I met up with the other bloggers on our panel – Kevin from Boston Book Bums and Marie from Boston Bibliophile.  We joined others at “dinner with the authors,” an evening of conversation with many of the authors appearing at the festival, people involved in organizing the NPBT Lit Fest (so many hands worked to pull off this weekend!), and others from the community.  Dinner was catered by the Grog Restaurant, which built the menu around food that would have been available during the Civil War.  This included brown bread (baked in a can), oyster chowder and haddock.  The chef blurred the line a bit with a delicious butternut squash ravioli served in a sauce of butter, cut apples, and apple cider.  Historically accurate or not, it was delicious!  During the dinner I peeked at the silent auction items which were on display in the next room – my trigger finger had me bidding, and I won a “bucket of fun” from a local art gallery and a family membership to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  A win-win for me and fundraising for the Newburyport Lit Fest!

After a good night’s sleep, I enjoyed a casual breakfast at the inn where I spent the weekend, then dashed off to catch the last half of a presentation by Bethany Groff and her book, Dirty, Sexy Newbury: Love, Death, and Barnyard Brawls in Early Newbury History. The author had us laughing out loud as she transcribed and deciphered old court records, putting them into contemporary language and historical context.  I purchased her book, but didn’t have time to stay to chat and ask her to sign it.

I headed over to the Firehouse Center for the Arts, where Paul Harding read from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers. After about a 20-minute excerpt (we were hanging on every word, even those who’ve read the novel were mesmerized by hearing the author read his own work), he opened up the auditorium to Q&A.  One great mental picture that stays with me is his explanation that he writes like a Roomba – he knows the parameters of the story and ricochets from scene to scene until he has it all covered.  When editing Tinkers, he laid out the various scenes and literally moved them around on his living room floor, like a puzzle, until satisfied with the arrangement.  Harding also shared that his next novel will be out from Random House in 2012; it’s set in the same village and involves the next generation (but is not a sequel).

Paul Harding was quite a lead-in to our Book Blogger panel!  We took the stage in the same auditorium (comfy castered chairs in a loose semi-circle; like The View but without any arguing!) and began with Denise introducing us and our blogs.  She then led us through a moderated discussion; we talked about everything from content, relationships with publishing professionals and readers, the “voice” and “personality” of our blogs, and monetizing (or not) the blogs.  Denise opened it up to questions from the audience – we learned that the audience included bloggers (not necessarily book bloggers), readers, and authors.  It really was a great conversation, which probably could have continued had not 1. our time been up, and 2. our belly alarms reminding us that it was time for lunch!

We each recommended two books to the audience, which booksellers had available outside the hall. They were:

  • Boston Book Bums – Crimes of Paris (Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler) and The Peach Keeper (Sarah Addison Allen)
  • Archimedes Forgets – Secret Keeper (Mitali Perkins) and Written in Bone (Sally Walker)
  • Boston Bibliophile - The Outside Boy (Jeanine Cummins) and Enough about Love (Hervé Tellier)
  • She Is Too Fond of Books – Little Princes (Conor Grennan) and The Honeybee Man (Lela Nargi)

Marie and her husband, Sarah, and I joined Jason from Brain Candy Book Reviews for a nice lunch at Agave.  I hadn’t met Jason before, and it was – as always – such a pleasure to put a face (and real person) to the avatar on Twitter.  I only once called him “Brian” (which I knew I would do, melding the Brain in his twitter handle, @BrainCandyBR).

After lunch, Sarah and I enjoyed a presentation by Howard Frank Mosher, “Transforming History Into Fiction: The Story of a Born Liar.”  Mosher gave an entertaining slide show and talk, recounting the book tour for Walking to Gatlinburg, in which he visited 100 cities in one year (in a vehicle that looked like a K-Car, affectionately nicknamed “the loser cruiser” by his family and friends).  Mosher playfully remarked that “writers are liars and thieves” and that the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental” is “the biggest fib in the publishing industry – of course they’re based on real people!”  Howard Frank Mosher is the author of over a dozen books, three of which have been made into films.  I took the opportunity to purchase Walking to Gatlinburg, and enjoyed chatting with Mosher while he inscribed my copy.

Later in the afternoon I walked to The Book Rack to hear Meg Mitchell Moore read from her forthcoming novel, The Arrivals.  This is the story of 3 grown children who return home for various reasons – lots of exploration of sibling-sibling and sibling-parent relationships.  The book will be out from Reagan Arthur Books at the end of this month; it’s part of a two-book deal, after enjoying The Arrivals (set in Burlington, Vermont), we’ll have about a year to wait for Moore’s second novel, set in lovely Newburyport.

The Closing Ceremonies were a collection of readings and music inspired by the America of 1861. I was introduced to “melopoeia,” poetry spoken to musical accompaniment (not sung), and to “polyphony,” a poetry reading in many voices.  After the closing ceremonies we ventured to a party at the home of Andre Dubus III and his wife, Fontaine Dubus.  They’re a local family who have been supportive of the Festival since its inception; I have Dubus’ memoir (Townie) cued up on my to-be-read shelf, and am listening to The Garden of Last Days (when there are no kids with me in the ‘swagger wagon’). The evening was a great way to wrap up the Festival; I’m looking forward to the 2012 celebration!

Weekend Cooking: The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie from America's Test Kitchen

We at She Is Too Fond of Books are not afraid of trying wacky dessert recipes; there was the Twinkie Sushi incident:

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The Cherpumple experiment:

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And, recently, the faux Spaghetti and Meatball Cake:

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So, when Sarah told me about The Boston Blogger Cookie Challenge from America’s Test Kitchen, I thought, “Sure!  Piece of cake!  This will be a great excuse to bake cookies, but … how different can their cookie really be from my standard Toll House cookie?”  You wouldn’t believe the difference!

We were directed to this recipe for ATK’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie from the May 1, 2009 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It’s more than “just” a recipe, with tips on equipment and ingredients (ATK runs independent product testing and recommends specific brands), as well as explanations on why a particular technique is used.

I began the project by gathering the ingredients, which are listed by weight as well as volume.  ATK recommends weighing dry ingredients for best accuracy; I don’t have an electronic kitchen scale (hello, Mother’s Day!?), so I used measuring cups.

After setting the oven to preheat to 375, I lined two cookie sheets with parchment (a wonder product!). The recommendation is for 18×12 baking sheets; mines are 15×10, so I had to do three rounds of baking.  Larger cookie sheets are another item I’ve added to my kitchen wish list!

I whisked 1 3/4 cups unbleached all -purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, then set it aside.  Since I was measuring my flour with a dry measure cup (instead of a kitchen scale), I used ATK’s suggested “dip and sweep” method – dipping the cup into my bin of flour, then sweeping a straight-edge across the top.  This went contrary to instinct – I was raised on the “spoon and sweep” method, and thought dipping would compact the flour in my cup – but I took the dare to “dip and sweep!”  A silly little thing that taught me it’s OK to step outside my comfort zone, and that Mama’s not always right.

Next, I browned butter by heating 10 tablespoons unsalted butter until melted, then keeping it on the heat and continuously swirling the butter in the pan another few minutes until golden brown.  I’d never browned butter before, and was pleased that 1. I didn’t burn it, 2. It smelled so good!, 3. It wasn’t as intimidating as I expected.  I followed the ATK tip to not use a non-stick skillet for this task, as the color of the coating would make it difficult to tell when the butter was browning.  I poured the browned butter into a large bowl, then added another 4 tablespoons unsalted butter and stirred it until melted.

To the bowl of butter I added 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 3/4 cups packed brown sugar, 1 teaspoon table salt, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, whisking the ingredients together.  It’s as if the staff of America’s Test Kitchen had peeked inside my pantry – a note instructed “Use fresh, moist brown sugar instead of hardened brown sugar, which will make the cookies dry.” Instead of chipping away at the hardened block of brown sugar on my shelves, I bought a new package!

I added 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk to the butter/sugar mixture, whisking until smooth.  I let this mixture rest for 3 minutes, whisked again, and repeated the cycle a third time.  According to ATK, this “whisk and wait” technique allows more of the sugars to dissolve, leading to better texture and flavor.

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I added the flour mixture, stirring with a rubber spatula until just combined, then added 1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips. The recipe indicates that I could have used chocolate chunks instead, and an optional 3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (toasted).  Since our elementary school is “nut free,” I chose not to include the nuts – as if any of the cookies would be left for the kids to take to school!

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The dough makes 16 cookies formed into 3-tablespoon balls, baked one sheet at a time. The suggested baking time is 10-14 minutes, so I turned the sheets at the 5-minute mark, then started watching them at the 10-minute mark, pulling them out when the edges looked set and “crinkly” and the centers were still puffy.

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The one instruction I didn’t follow is “cool cookies completely before serving.” My kids knew what I was up to, and had been hovering around the kitchen, volunteering to lick the bowl and take care of any errant chocolate chips.  We bit into these as soon as the chocolate chips had cooled past the burn-the-roof-of-your mouth stage.  Feedback from the younger set included These are huge!  They’re crunchy and chewy! and Can I have another one?!

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J and I were more about analysis, looking to ATK’s explanations for why this is a better cookie – he commented on the perfect density (which may be a fancy way of saying “crunchewy”) and was impressed with the “structural integrity” of the cookie, while I was impressed at the huge difference those extra steps (browned butter, “whisk and wait”) made on the final product.  The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie tastes like a gourmet cookie – with a hint of butterscotch/toffee and the fine balance of crisp crunch and satisfying chew. It is a gourmet cookie, and I’m so glad I took on the challenge!

Author Event: Kate Payne and *The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking*

A few weeks ago, Kate Payne visited the bookshop to present her book, The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking: Decorating, Dining, and the Gratifying Pleasures of Self-Sufficiency — on a Budget! This is a nice paperback original from Harper Design (with a nice price point, just under $20).  I was telling people it makes a great gift for college grads, those getting their first apartments, newlyweds, etc.  I thought the target market was “hip” twenty-somethings; that may be the original intent, but I learned from reading The Hip Girl’s Guide – and from our conversation with Kate Payne – that it’s never too late to learn new homemaking tricks!

The group at the bookshop enjoyed a lovely roundtable discussion with Kate; we chatted about food preservation, quick home repairs, ironing solutions, and budget-wise decorating ideas.  Kate began by reading a few excerpts from the book.  One of my favorites is this passage from a section in the Introduction titled “Why Homemaking?”:

Because it’s cool to have a cool house.  It’s damn gratifying to throw down a loaf of homemade bread with your home-preserved blueberry jam. Because feeling in control in your own house does wonders for every instance when you’re not under that sweet roof.

And that’s really what it’s all about – not “keeping up with the Jonses” or having a kitchen floor so clean you can eat off it – but feeling in control and happy in your home sweet home.

The book is divided into three sections: Part I gives quick (and inexpensive) decorating ideas room by room.  Kate is a master at repurposing found objects into fun and functional accessories for the home.

Part II is a more nuts-and-bolts guide to housekeeping tasks; this is where you’ll find instructions on how to fold a fitted sheet (confession: I’m content with my “you’ll never see it going by in a bus” efforts at folding linens!), and how to create non-toxic cleaners from items you can find in the grocery store (we have three family members with allergies/asthma, I’m taking steps to ditching the chemical cleaners – this is a great resource!).

Finally , Part III, “Life After Restaurants,” looks at cooking, preserving food, and projects for entertaining/parties.  Kate talks about CSAs, farmer’s markets, buying spices and grains in bulk (another change I’ll make), organic produce (where to prioritize), and food co-ops.  She gives instructions on the best way to freeze meats, vegetables, and herbs, as well as an overview of canning and a handful of recipes.  Resource listings are abundant, and I was pleased to see a nod to one of my favorite canning sites, Food in Jars (Marisa’s recipe for Tomato Jam is the best!).

I’ll end with the publisher’s description of The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking.  Whet your homemaking appetite with this, then check out The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking blog and follow Kate Payne (@hipgirls) on twitter:

This is not your grandmother’s handbook!  Modern women need a modern approach to domestic pleasures – a guide to doing household things on their own terms.  The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking does just that with east-to-follow, low-cost solutions to make your home an inviting space for living and entertaining.

Spotlight on ... Secrets of the Library

I’m pleased to welcome Lisa Dale to She Is Too Fond of Books!  Lisa is the author of Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier, which was published in April by Berkley/Penguin.  A little about the novel:

Thea Celik has devoted herself to running her Newport coffee shop, to parenting her daughter, and to being a meaningful part of her in-law’s loving family. Her life is mild but satisfying—she’s sure of her place in the community and in her family. But when her childhood friend and husband Jonathan uncharacteristically cheats on her, her certainty about her role in the world is shaken.

Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier is the story of one woman’s determination to rediscover a new life while trying to maintain the old. The book asks, When the bonds of friendship, family, and love are tested, how long will they hold?

Lisa Dale is also the author of Simple Wishes and It Happened One Night.  You can read more about her and her books on her blog, her Facebook page, and on twitter.  She enjoys meeting with book groups via Skype (or even in person in the NJ/NY/CT tri-state area).

When I asked Lisa about writing a ‘spotlight on bookstores’ post, she asked if she could write about libraries instead.  But of course!  A building filled with books … and people who love books?!?  This sounds like a place I could spend some time:

Over the years, I’ve called many libraries “home.” But no library was more important to me than the library in the town where I grew up in northern (rural) New Jersey.

Each day, after middle school ended, I would walk to the library (because the library was closer than my house), and I would hang around until my mother came to pick me up after she got out of work. I spent lots of hours in that library. I mean, lots.

In theory, I was there to get my homework done. Instead, I read novels.

I plucked random books from the shelves and read and read—and sometimes snuck in math and science when I absolutely had to.

I read anything and everything—I found one of my lifelong favorites, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, by browsing (I remember being nervous that it was too “old” for me when I was middle school, but I loved it just the same). I was reading Tolstoy one month, but I was reading the Sweet Valley High series or The Babysitter’s Club the next.

Being alone in a library is a great way to get an education. :) Not only for the brain, but for the imagination as well.

The library kicked my imagining into overdrive. The old building had a staircase that curled majestically up the center of the building—I used to imagine walking up and down it in a giant and gorgeous ball gown, as opposed to my habitual tennis shoes and rolled up jeans.

I used to imagine meetings of war heroes in the upper rooms. I imagined grand parties with glittering people. I imagined what might happen if I got locked in the library overnight.

But for all my reading and writing and daydreaming, I’d never seriously thought about being an author when I was young. People used to ask me if I wanted to write professionally, and I told them “no way.” Even when I was in college and a professor suggested—with dire earnestness—that I should consider being a writer, I scoffed.

I was intensely serious about my writing. But memories of all those books I saw on the library shelves…they were like something out of a dream. Not the stuff of real life.

Now, the release of Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier marks my third novel—and of course it’s a dream come true.

Funny enough, I think that the books I’m writing now are the books I was looking for when I was browsing library shelves as a kid—romantic and thoughtful. Sexy and intensely emotional in a poetic way.

And as for my old library, and all my hours of reading and daydreaming there, I sometimes drive past when I’m back in my hometown. But I haven’t gone back in.

This may be cheesy but it’s the truth: I used to imagine there was secret treasure buried in the basement. Now I know it was always right out in the open, sitting on the shelves. :)

Thank you, Lisa!  Your essay brought back great memories of the many hours I spent in our library after school.  I’m looking forward to adding Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier to my home library, and am going to check to see that this treasure is on the shelves of our local library as well.

Interview: Elizabeth Hun Schmidt and *The Poets Laureate Anthology*

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing The Poets Laureate Anthology, a collection of all US Poets Laureate to date, along with biographical material, photos, and essays that place their work in context of their time.  This lovely book has a Foreward by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and is edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, who wrote a wonderful Introduction explaining the nature of the position, and the arrangement of this anthology.
In my review I explained how the book has helped me feel more comfortable dipping into the enjoyment of reading poetry:
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt has included not only the signature piece and other well-known verse of each Laureate, but also lesser-known poems which allow the reader to experience the scope of each poet’s work.  Her introductions to each section include biographical material as well as sharing what the poet accomplished while in office and what was happening in the country (in the world) at that time.  I approached the book by reading (aloud) the key poem and one or two others, then referring back to the introduction to put the work in context.
It is my further pleasure today to interview the editor, Elizabeth Hun Schmidt:

She Is Too Fond of Books: In arranging the sections of The Poets Laureate Anthology, you chose to reverse the more typical order of a historical perspective. How does a reader’s understanding of the changing (and repeating) nature of themes benefit from arranging the chapters in reverse chronological order?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: I wanted readers to start with the most engaging, contemporary poetry, on subjects that  touch upon events in the more recent past (such as W.S. Merwin’s profound meditation on the tragic events of September 11, 2011.)  I admire many of the poems by the older poets, but I didn’t want the volume to begin with poetic language that might at first read seem remote, or off-putting, on even, to some readers, fusty. So the choice to put the recent poets first had more to do with the language the poets’  use—their contemporary diction, usage, idioms— then with anything thematic.   I’m certainly very interested to hear from readers about any thematic patterns they  discover in the reading through the anthology, though I always suggest that readers begin by skipping around. It’s hard to read any anthology straight through from first poem to last.

SITFOB: As a novice reader of poetry, I definitely benefited from reader the more contemporary (more accessible to me) poetry first; and I did, as you suggest, skip around as I grew more comfortable reading it. I note that you included a range of work for each poet, aside from the signature poems for each poet laureate, what criteria did you consider when selecting the poems that are included in the anthology?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: First, I read every poem I could find by every poet, setting aside my “first read” favorites.  I think most poems need to be read at least three times before they begin to open up to a reader’s mind, but I know most readers don’t have the time. In a book of this length, readers flip through the pages,  read quickly, look for a poem, or even just a line, that immediately jumps off the page. So I first read for poems that grabbed me at first read. At in my case, that means poems that surprise, head off in an unexpected but enlightening direction. Then I read for “greatest hits.”  I looked up the most anthologized poems by each poet and added those poems to each poet’s folder. Finally,  I researched the poets’  lives and looked for poems that were either written while the poet held the post or written about a political event. Then I read through all the poems I had set aside again—first-read poems, greatest hits, and political poems, if there were any—and tried to come up with a balanced group of tried-and-true favorites and a few new surprises. It took me over three years to complete the book, and I read each poet’s selection at least four times before coming up with the final selection.


SITFOB: Oh, that’s so interesting, to learn of the three broad groupings you used!  With first-reads, greatest hits, and political poems, we really do see a solid representation of each poet’s work.  Understanding how you selected the poems is a nice lead-in to my next question, what are the goals of The Poets Laureate Anthology? Do you see it as a volume for those who already appreciate poetry, an introduction for novices, a reference for students, or simply (and significantly) a cohesive collection that reflects America in the 75 years since the “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” position was created?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: I have two hopes for the volume: 1) that people who consider themselves non-poetry readers find the book inviting enough to discover the primal pleasure of reading poetry and 2) that people who know they love to read poetry discover new poems or perhaps even whole new poets in reading the anthology.

SITFOB: As someone who falls into the first camp – a non-poetry reader – I can vouch that you’ve met your goal! I’ll admit I had a very foggy understanding of the role of the poet laureate before reading the essays written by you and by Billy Collins. In your research, and in talking to lay people, did you come across any anecdotal misconceptions?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: Yes! Most people I meet think the president appoints the poets laureate— and not the librarian of congress. Many people also think the that the United States Laureates read at presidential inaugurations. Not so.  Robert Frost is the one, at JFK’s –and by most accounts,  he stole the show. Perhaps that’s why no president since then has asked a Poet Laureate to read!

SITFOB: It’s refreshing to know that I’m not alone in my misunderstanding (or general lack of knowledge) about poetry and the Poet Laureate in particular -The poetry and background information in The Poets Laureate Anthology has certainly helped to clarify and and make me much more comfortable reading it. Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work in editing this volume, or about the importance/nature of the U.S. Poet laureate?
Elizabeth Hun Schmidt: Just that it was a pleasure and tremendous honor. I learned a great deal. In a few cases (Josephine Jacobsen and Robert Hayden)  I learned to love poets whose work has long been hard to find, and I discovered new poems by poets I thought I new well. And I had more fun than I thought I would reading and writing about the poets’ lives for the introductions. In so many cases the poets have led courageous, iconoclastic, focused, and disciplined lives. I knew I would love the verse. I had no idea I would become captivated by just about every poets’  biography.

SITFOB: Thank you for talking with me today, and for sharing the lives and works of our Poets Laureate.

Thoughts on *The Wife's Tale* (audiobook review)

  • The Wife’s Tale written by Lori Lansens; read by Justine Eyre
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio on MP3-CD; MP3 Una edition (February 10, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1441817488

Back-of-the-box blurb: On the eve of their silver anniversary, Mary Gooch is waiting for her husband, Jimmy — still every inch the handsome star athlete he was in high school — to come home. As night turns to day, it becomes frighteningly clear to Mary that he is gone. Through the years, disappointment and worry have brought Mary’s life to a standstill, and she has let her universe shrink to the well-worn path from the bedroom to the refrigerator. But her husband’s disappearance startles her out of her inertia, and she begins a desperate search. She boards a plane for the first time in her life and flies across the country to find her lost husband. So used to hiding from the world, Mary learns that in the bright sun and broad vistas of California, she is forced to look up from the pavement. And what she discovers fills her with an inner strength she’s never felt before: perfect strangers who come to her rescue, an aging, sometimes hostile mother-in-law who needs her help, friends who enjoy her company. And through it all, Mary not only finds kindred spirits, but reunites with a more intimate stranger no longer sequestered by fear and habit; she takes small yet courageous steps toward her authentic self.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ thoughts: Go, Mary, go!  The Wife’s Tale is Mary Gooch’s story, told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who dips back into the past to tell us a bit about Mary’s childhood (developing and supporting her current character), her time dating Jimmy Gooch, and the twenty-five years of their marriage.

Mary Gooch is a kind-hearted woman who has always had “such a pretty face” and, except for a few short years during courtship and early marriage, has been a victim of the Obeast.  ”Obeast” is what Mary hears the family doctor say to her mother as she steps off the scales as a pre-adolescent, immediately conjuring up images of a beast – one which is always present, menacing, and perhaps to fierce for her to even attempt to conquer.

To say the Mary is a sympathetic character may be a bit of a misnomer.  In the first hour or so of listening, I found her to be simply pathetic – not much going for her, a dead-end job with colleagues and a boss who didn’t respect her, “friends” who were more companions than true girlfriends, and a very very unhealthy relationship with food.

I was immediately drawn to her and her story, though.  Clearly she’s a kind and good person – Jimmy Gooch seems to have been supportive of her (not demeaning her about her weight issues, but certainly not in a co-dependent role either), she’s a caretaker to her mother, and takes seriously the responsibilities of her low-level employment.

So where did Jimmy go?  And more importantly, why did he go?  Back-story may give a few clues; Mary has been more and more reluctant to be social – she doesn’t travel, and often opts out of even simple dinner parties because she truly “doesn’t have a thing to wear.”  When Gooch goes missing the day before a planned Silver Anniversary party, the timing is eerie … has something happened to Gooch, or is he making a statement of some sort?

Mary’s search for the answers – and for Gooch himself – lead her from their small Toronto suburb to Los Angeles.  The road is not easy, but a few well-place “kindness from strangers” incidents show Mary that perhaps it’s her kindness, her inner beauty beyond the Obeast, that’s being reflected back at her.

I really enjoyed this novel and seeing Mary’s reactions to other people (that circular path of reacting to people who are reacting to Mary, who is reacting to another person …).  One thing that struck me with the audio (which may not have hit me in reading a print edition), were a few mentions of God (“she”) in Mary’s search.  While I was driving and listening I thought, is this a sneaky Christian fiction book (a book with a message that I didn’t expect at the outset, I mean).  I don’t think it is; but, it’s worth mentioning – there are some wonderings about the stars and the cosmos and the grand order of it all, but no heavy-handed lesson.

Justine Eyre’s narration was excellent – comfortable pacing, with gender and character differentiation.

The audiobook was shared by a friend, who also enjoyed The Wife’s Tale.

Weekend Cooking: spaghetti and meatballs cake!

The kids were home on spring break from school last week – we had taken a family vacation in February, so it was Momtertainment all week long at Chez SITFOB!

On Tuesday, my friend Donna and her boys came over to visit; we caught up with each other while the kids played, then we all made this project that I had seen in Food Network magazine.  It is completely from mixes and prepared food (box cake mix, two tubs of white icing, frozen strawberries):

Bake two 9" round chocolate cakes. Frost one with white icing.

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Break the second layer into pieces and roll them into "meatballs." Eat the rest of the second layer - then wash your hands again!

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Meatballs just like Grandma used to make!

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Add a few drops of yellow food coloring and a teaspoon or so of cocoa powder to white icing. Mix it up and adjust color until you reach the look of 'al dente' pasta.

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Use an icing bag (or ziploc with small hole cut in corner) to pipe 'spaghetti' in a figure-8 fashion on the plate and around the meatballs.

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Run frozen strawberries (thawed) thru the food processor or stick blender until they're mostly smooth, with a few 'tomato' lumps.

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"Can I offer you some fresh grated cheese?" That's white chocolate chips, run thru the hand grater.

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"Too many cooks in the kitchen?" No! They divided and conquered, and created a masterpiece!

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The house specialty - A plate of spaghetti and meatballs

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Yum!

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Curious to see what’s happening in other kitchen around the blogosphere?  Head over to Beth Fish Reads’ round-up of Weekend Cooking posts.  She hosts this weekly feature, where you might find other culinary “adventures”, cookbook reviews, shared recipes … if it’s food-related, it qualifies!

Spotlight on Bookstores: *Toad Hall Bookstore* in Rockport, Mass.

Today’s Spotlight on Bookstores post is written by Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss (forthcoming from Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, June 2, 2011). I’m really looking forward to reading Alice Bliss, and will share a Tuesday Teaser as we get closer to publication date.  In the meantime, here’s a snippet from the publisher’s synopsis:

… a coming-of-age novel about love and its many variations–the support of a small town looking after its own; love between an absent father and his daughter; the complicated love between an adolescent girl and her mother; and an exploration of new love with the boy-next-door. These characters’ struggles amidst uncertain times echo our own, lending the novel an immediacy and poignancy that is both relevant and real. At once universal and very personal, Alice Bliss is a transforming story about those who are left at home during wartime, and a teenage girl bravely facing the future.

Beth Hoffman, author of the New York Times best-seller Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, says: “Heartbreaking yet edged with promise, Alice Bliss explores the wounds of war, love, and family bonds while illuminating the strength of a young girl’s spirit. A stunning debut.”

I know it’s got my attention – the novel is based on Ms. Harrington’s one-woman musical, Alice Unwrapped. The author is an award-winning playwright, lyricist, and librettist, who teaches playwriting at MIT.

Laura Harrington is also a supporter of Toad Hall Bookstore, a lovely independent bookshop with a selfless mission.  This Spotlight is especially timely, as we just commemorated the 41st anniversary of the first Earth Day.  I plan to visit Toad Hall the next time I’m on the north shore (yes, it’s within driving distance of me, hooray!)

Toad Hall Bookstore in Rockport Mass is housed in a gorgeous granite building on Main Street. With the ocean just behind the bookstore and views to T.S. Eliot’s Dry Salvages, Toad Hall is in a stunning location. You can watch sailboats, kayaks, rowboats, and children swimming and beachcombing.

Toad Hall is just steps from the new Shalin Liu Performance Center. So, if you happen to come to the acclaimed Rockport Chamber Music Festival, come early and discover a wonderful independent bookstore.

In addition to being a bookstore Toad Hall is also a nonprofit organization dedicated to propagating environmentally conscious living. All net proceeds go to environmental projects and education. Toad Hall bills itself as “A Literary Community with Environmental Concern.”

Amy Pierson is the dedicated bookseller who specializes in hand selling books, creating community around environmental issues, and supporting local authors. In spite of its small size, Toad Hall has a wonderful selection of fiction, and showcases many local authors. Their cooking and gardening sections are top notch, and they have a remarkable selection of books about the environment, including the now seminal book about oceans: Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World, by local author Deborah Cramer.

A spiral staircase takes you downstairs to a cozy, carpeted room lined with books for children. It’s only fitting that a bookstore called Toad Hall would have a wonderful selection of children’s literature. Even though my daughter is now grown, I love to browse this section of the store.

Toad Hall has always given 100% of its profits to environmental projects. Founded in 1972 as the direct result of Earth Day, the bookstore has donated over $133,000, mostly in the form of small “seed money” grants. In many cases projects would not have moved forward without Toad Hall’s support.

Thanks so much for introducing us to Toad Hall, Laura!  They definitely deserve a shout-out for the services they provide to the community, both as a full-service independent bookstore and for all their efforts toward educating people about environmental issues.

Readers, you can learn more about Laura Harrington and Alice Bliss at her website Laura Harrington Books, follow her on twitter (@bookalike), and follow her author fan page on Facebook.

Author event: John Bemelmans Marciano and *Madeline at the White House*

A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of hosting John Bemelmans Marciano for an afternoon event with his newest book, Madeline at the White House.

If the jacket photo looks familiar, but the name isn’t ringing any bells, it may be that you’re more familiar with the work of John’s grandfather, Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote the original Madeline books.  John Bemelmans Marciano has carried on the family tradition with three additional Madeline books (Madeline and the Cats of Rome, Madeline Loves Animals, and Madeline Says Merci).  He uses the same materials Ludwig Bemelmans used in his illustrations, and the rhyming text has a similar cadence.   It’s a wonderful, almost seamless, way to extend the story of Madeline and her friends.

In Madeline at the White House, the girls march “in two straight lines” to the White House to visit the daughter of the President, a charming young girl nicknamed Candle due to her flaming red hair (it also happens to rhyme with Randall, which is the last name of the President and his family).

The story takes place in spring, and references are made to the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn, and a magic carpet of cherry blossoms that sweep Madeline and Candle across Washington, DC to take in the sights – the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument. Additional iconic illustrations include the Oval Office, Lincoln Bedroom, and Arlington National Cemetery.

Ludwig Bemelmans is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and took great pride in having become a US citizen and rising to the level of Second Lieutenant in the US Army during WWI.

Madeline at the White House was a concept that Ludwig Bemelmans was working on at the time of his death.  He was, apparently, in contact with Jacqueline Kennedy about the book, under the working title Madeline Visits Caroline.

John Bemelmans Marciano has taken the concept and made it his own.  My favorite part is the illustrations, which highlight our nation’s capitol much as the original Madeline book did for Paris.

At the author event, children sat on the floor while Mr. Marciano read Madeline at the White House (taking care that the audience – young and old – could see the illustrations, and engaging them by asking questions or leaving off a rhyming word for them to fill it).  He shared some additional insight about his grandfather and the inspiration for Madeline, then signed books and posed for pictures; it was such a treat for everyone; and heartening to see the young audience hanging on his every word.

John Bemelmans Marciano has written several non-fiction books for adults, including Anonyponymous, a must-read for word nerds!

On the road to Sharon Springs, NY

Some of you may be thinking, On the road to where?

Others, who’ve read Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoir, The Bucolic Plague, may be nodding in recognition at the name of the small town in upstate New York where the book is set (truthfully, the Central Leatherstocking Region, or ‘Central New York,’ but much more “upstate” than Manhattanites usually mean when they refer to anything north of the Hudson!).

And, while I’m in the mood for full disclosure, I should mention that The Bucolic Plague is one of three memoirs penned by Mr. Kilmer-Purcell.  The others, I Am Not Myself These Days and Candy Everybody Wants are on my proverbial wish list!

When I reviewed The Bucolic Plague, back in August 2010, I said “This is the kind of memoir I love – real people having fun/quirky adventures and confronting obstacles that have the power to make or break them.”  I recommended it to my “old” Connecticut book group, who enjoyed it so much that they decided to take a spring-is-finally-here pilgrimage to Sharon Springs.  It took me about two blinks to say “I’ll meet you there!”

a room at the American Hotel

We drove up the second weekend of April – spring hadn’t quite sprung; I saw some snow on the ground as I drove Rte. 90 across the Berkshires.  In Sharon Springs, the sun was shining, and several people were willing the season along by raking and clearing flowerbeds of winter debris.  Despite the lack of colorful flowers, spring was in the air with a gorgeous sunny weekend and a spring was in our steps as we enjoyed a weekend away (without the 8 husbands and 23 kids among us!)

Sharon Springs was apparently the place to be in the 19th century, the natural springs were a draw for the well-to-do from Manhattan and further afield. When I-90 came in, the Rte. 20 corridor gradually became less-frequently used, and Sharon Springs (and other former resort towns) along the route saw a great decline.

"Don't go away mad, just go away"

So what caused Kilmer-Purcell and his partner, Brent Ridge, to stop in Sharon Springs on their way back to Manhattan on an autumn weekend of apple-picking?  Why did they fall in love with the village and decide to buy the Beekman Mansion?  The author talks about it in his memoir, and a big reason is the American Hotel and its proprietors, Garth Roberts and Doug Plummer … but I’m getting ahead of myself …

My Connecticut friends arrived at the hotel about a half hour before I did, and selected our rooms – the inn has nine guest rooms, and we took four of them. Stepping across the wide front porch, we entered the lobby, a small, tastefully decorated area.  The reception desk is a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship – new this season, it is oak (I think!) with inlays of birch and maple.  Garth later told me that it was made from trees they had cut down when they enlarged the parking lot of the inn; the trees were planked, aged, and make into this showpiece (no, I don’t have a photo to post!  Note to self: email the inn to ask for a photo).

Further back on the first floor is the bar (yes, we spent some time here), with a door to the back patio (not yet open for the season when we visited).  Our rooms were on the second floor; there’s a second-floor front porch open in-season.

The rooms are each comfortably furnished with antiques; the bathrooms are completely updated, with new fixtures and details like a make-up mirror and upscale toiletries.  Each room is decorated in a different style, with the unifying feature of and classic white bedspreads atop warm featherbeds – I slept so well, even in a twin bed!  We laughed at this take on a “privacy, please” door-hanger.

The Beekman Mansion

Lunch was across the street at the Black Cat Café, then we browsed a few shops on Main Street – Cobbler & Co. (packed with stuff, each room a different theme! The staircase up to the second floor looks like it’s been autographed by everyone who walks through the door), McGillycuddy’s Naturals (I picked up some olive oil soap and a yummy peppermint lip balm), The Finishing Touch (great prices on scarves and costume jewelry), and, of course, the Beekman 1802 Mercantile.

We then hopped in the car to do a drive-by of the Beekman Mansion, the homestead that Josh and Brent purchased and have returned to a working farm.  Maybe “drive-by” isn’t quite accurate; we did stop to take some pictures, but did respect the pleas for privacy.  The farm is open to the public only for special events; there were none scheduled this weekend, in fact, “The Fabulous Beekman Boys” were in Los Angeles promoting their television show which airs on Planet Green.

After taking a series of photos, we looked for other local sites to visit.  The fistful of tourist brochures we picked up indicated we were close (20 miles?) to the Howe Caverns, a series of underground caves.  Half of the group braved the 80-minute underground tour, the rest enjoyed spending time relaxing in rocking chairs on the porch; I was in the less adventurous group, content with chatting and soaking up the sun.

Back at the American Hotel, we changed for dinner, and met in the bar.  There we met George (that’s his back in the photo, really!), the American Hotel bartender (and also the village mortician), Michelle (the fun-loving realtor who sold the Beekman to Josh and Brent), and Austin Jetton (a Broadway musician turned chocolatier who creates Austintacious truffles). And, of course, the proprietors of the American Hotel, Garth and Doug, who are extremely gracious hosts (even when we got a bit obnoxious … and I’ll admit that when you get eight girlfriends away for the weekend, enjoying fine wine and dining, it can get a bit non-Emily-Post!)

Kyle - "waiter of the year!"

Dinner was A-MAZ-ING!  Seating began at the early-bird hour of 5:00; we opted for “late” dining at 7:00 (yes, this is still early, but not for Sharon Springs). After a delicious meal (really, check out the menus – we began with crisp ginger carrots, fresh bread with herbed butter … and FOUR HOURS LATER ended with maple cake and Beekman 1802 goats milk cheesecake).  Our server, Kyle, was entertaining, patient, and lots of fun; the assistants (Tina and Jenna) likewise treated us well.  Although we begged, pleaded, flirted, and did everything but burst through the kitchen door, we were unable to meet the chef, Lee Woolver – a man of mystery, with fantastic culinary skills.

After a very good night’s sleep, we were back in the dining room for brunch.  Doug greeted us with a well-placed inquiry about how we were feeling after the night before, and our server was careful not to crash the flatware.  Breakfast was also top-notch — blueberry pancakes, swiss and asparagus omelet, homemade granola …. yum!


Garth, 'the girls', and Doug (note his it's-Saturday-night kilt!)

My friends headed south to Cooperstown for the day, but I opted to head back to Boston, as the drive was a bit longer for me.  The weekend was a blast – who can argue with “eat, drink, and be merry!”??!  I’d like to come back with J for a weekend, perhaps in the fall during the Harvest Fest; we could take in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Cooperstown Brewing, then loop up to Sharon Springs.  I’m so glad my friends and I were able to explore the village that Josh Kilmer-Purcell shares in The Bucolic Plague, and hope to meet those Fabulous Beekman Boys on a return trip.