Weekend Cooking: Gram's Hermits (at last!)

A memory: A tin, originally used to package factory-made cookies or biscuits; now holding a treat from Gram’s kitchen. Sometimes it’s her applesauce cake, it might be oatmeal thumbprint cookies, or – my favorite – her hermits.  Chewy gingerbread bar cookies with a sprinkling of crunchy sugar on top; some bites have raisins, adding to the sweetness.  Best when dunked in a cup of cold milk, the tin of hermits doesn’t last two days before it’s empty and returned to Gram, with a smiley-faced “please fill me!” note inside.

A challenge: I have been looking for Gram’s hermits recipe for-EVER!  Well, off-and-on for several years, heating up a year ago when I posted my “In Search of Grammy’s Hermit Recipe” post, even trekking to a vintage cookbook store in New York, hoping to spy something familiar among the classic tomes at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.

I was starting to accept that I must have thrown out the recipe in a pile of papers during a move or a mad cleaning fit.  I emailed my sister, pleading “do you have it??!”  She sent one back, suggesting it might not be Gram’s, but maybe we could modify it until it matched our memory.

One last effort at going thru every. single. piece. of. paper. on my cookbook shelves and binders (I won’t post a photo, it would scare you).  And guess what?!?! I found it!  Granted, it was in J’s hand-writing (the best we can figure is that she set him down with a stack of my favorite recipes 20 years ago, and he copied them), but it’s her recipe!

Gram’s Hermits

  • 1/2 plus 1/3 cup shortening (yes, I bought Crisco!)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • Mix all ingredients, press into 11 x 17″ jellyroll pan
  • Sprinkle additional brown sugar on top.
  • Bake 9-11 minutes at 375′.  Cool completely, and cut.

I asked my sister’s permission before posting this recipe, since it’s the closest thing we have to a family legacy. She said “Share away; that’s what recipes are for, especially the oldies but goodies.”

You might have noticed the “I <3 Adriana” widget over in my left-hand sidebar; it just so happens that Adriana Trigiani is interested in family recipes (and fashion, but I’ve got even less in that department!).  Her memoir, Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from My Grandmothers is a wonderful peek at wisdom passed down through the generations (my review).

Ms. Trigiani is running a contest for book bloggers attending Book Expo America (BEA) in May; check out the details at this link.  Did I mention the prizes? Five bloggers will win lunch with Adriana Trigiani and an abbreviated version of her Greenwich Village walking tour (the setting for several of her books, including Very Valentine and Brava, Valentine).

There are even more Weekend Cooking links at this round-up, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.  You may find cookbook reviews, kitchen tips and tricks, or other family recipes.

Book Review: *The Coffins of Little Hope* by Timothy Schaffert

  • The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Unbridled Books; 1 edition (April 19, 2011)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1609530402

Back-of-the-book blurb: Timothy Schaffert has created his most memorable character yet in Essie, an octogenarian obituary writer for her family’s small town newspaper. When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town. And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of YA gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper’s presses. The Coffins of Little Hope tells a feisty, energetic story of characters caught in the intricately woven webs of myth, legend and deception even as Schaffert explores with his typical exquisite care and sharp eye the fragility of childhood, the strength of family, the powerful rumor mills of rural America, and the sometimes dramatic effects of pop culture on the way we shape our world.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Timothy Schaffert’s The Coffins of Little Hope examines both the macro and micro news that capture our attention. The novel is set in a small town in Nebraska where the biggest conduit of news is the County Paragraph. Those of us who’ve lived in small towns understand the type of stories that make big news – scout troop activities, renovations of the local diner, and full articles about golden anniversary parties.  Perhaps the most telling part of these local papers is the obituary section; this is where we truly learn about the deceased – not simply names and dates, but stories that illustrate a trait or habit.

Essie Myles is the obituary writer of the County Paragraph (family-owned for generations, and now under the tutelage of her grandson, Doc).  Now in her eighties, Essie gives the impression that she has been set in her ways since Day One (this, on Page One):

I still use a manual typewriter (a 1953 Underwood portable, in a robin’s-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn’t quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like.  I need the hard metal clack, and I need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingers inky.  Without slapping the return or turning the cylinder to release the paper with a sharp whip, without all that minor havoc, I feel I’ve paid no respect to the dead.  What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?

Though my name does not begin with an S, my byline has always been S Myles because I’m Esther, but more often Essie, or Ess, and thus S (just S, no period) on the page.

Some might say Essie is eccentric for her unusual habits (she’s partial to walking around her house at night completely naked, or clad in a vintage silk kimono), but she’s no more unusual than any of the other wonderful characters in The Coffins of Little Hope.  From Essie’s own family (Doc, his niece Tiffany – who Doc has raised for the past seven or so years, Ivy – Tiff’s mother, recently back from her life in Paris and wanting to rekindle her maternal flame), to residents and visitors to the town, Schaffert offers fine details to make personalities and proclivities of each player come alive.  We see them them all through Essie’s eyes; she’s the docent guiding us to her perspective of these realistic portraits.

Two news items capture the attention of the town and beyond.  One begins within – Lenore, a young girl of about eight years, is reported missing by her mother.  The mother, Daisy, claims the Lenore was abducted by Daisy’s itinerant boyfriend, and aerial photographer by the name of Elvis.  Eyebrows are raised, but concern doesn’t dim when the townspeople realize they’ve never seen Lenore, and there’s no evidence of her existence – no photographs of her short childhood, no memorabilia or collection of her ‘treasures.’  Does Lenore exist?  Regardless, this is big news for a small town; when the national news gets the story, a cult-like following of Lenorians descends on the town, which “recognized [its] need for notoriety.”

The second news item is a nation-wide (strong enough to be world-wide, actually) obsession with a series of Young Adult novels about Miranda and Desiree, two sisters living at Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misguided Girls.  The eleventh (and final) book in the series will be published soon, and rumors and speculation abound.  As Essie observes:

Even if you had never read a word of the Miranda-and-Desirees, it was impossible not to be versed in the language of the books, and their characters and places, and to be curious about how it might all end.

If the Harry Potter phenomenon comes to mind, I think you’re on the right track.  This obsession with pop culture, with living inside a fictional world is something Schaffert wants the reader to consider – how can a novel sink itself into us so thoroughly, while a real-life missing child story fades when there’s “no new news” after a while?

Another strong theme is that of family, the roles we play in them, and the needs they meet.  The linear relationships between Essie, Doc, and Tiffany would form a spiderweb pattern on a family tree (Essie is Doc’s grandmother; Doc is Tiffany’s uncle), yet they are a family of two households.  When Ivy returns, eager to pick up parenting Tiffany where she left off, the transition isn’t a smooth one.

And what of Daisy, and her possibly phantom daughter Lenore?  Did/does Lenore exist?  Does Daisy need a daughter to nurture, or does she simply want the attention that Lenore’s disappearance brings?  Did the Miranda-and-Desiree novels influence her actions?

S Myles wonders the same thing, and Timothy Schaffert brings us on that journey of discovery with her.

Spotlight on Bookstores: *Ravenna Third Place Books* in Seattle

I’m delighted to welcome Sarah Jio to She Is Too Fond of Books today, spotlighting Ravenna Third Place Books, one of thebookstores that she frequents in her hometown.  Sarah is the author of The Violets of March, a delightful novel set in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and following interconnected dual story lines; it will be on bookstore shelves in less than two weeks!  Her second novel, The Bungalow, is scheduled to follow in Summer 2012 – there’s no stopping this busy mother of three, who, in addition to being a novelist, is the health and fitness blogger on  Keep up with Sarah Jio and all the news on The Violets of March and her other work by visiting her website and following her on twitter.

Dawn, thank you so much for having me! I’m gearing up for the release of The Violets of March (out on April 26!), and am ridiculously excited about seeing my very first book in a bookstore (a dream come true for this author who wrote her first “book” at age 7—it was called “A Tugboat’s Dream,” but I won’t embarrass myself with the details!). I frequent many bookstores in my hometown—Seattle—but there’s one in particular that my husband and I take our three little boys too often: Third Place Books in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. I’ll be paying a visit there soon to see Violets on the shelf, and, OK, to snap a few silly author photos of me being goofy, holding the book, etc.

I adore this bookstore for many reasons—the homey feel, the proximity to our home, the friendly staff, the great little children’s section where my three boys (ages 4, 2, and 8 weeks) always find a new Spiderman, Thomas the Train or other picture book to fall in love with. I love seeing them get excited about reading, and I’ll always remember the first time my middle son, Russell, showed interest in books—at, of course, Third Place. A picture book all about trucks (loaders and lifters, dump trucks, garbage trucks—you name it, it was in there!) caught his eye, and his little face lit up with such incredible joy. He loved the book so much, we couldn’t bear to take it away from him, so we let him take it into his crib for naptime that day. Consequently, he slept with the book for the next many months. He’s now 2 and still loves it. We’re fairly certain he’ll be packing the book along with him when he leaves for college.

Bookstores are places for family memories, and also, at Third Place, great meals. At the amazing adjoining café, called Vio’s, they serve the world’s most to-die-for falafel sandwiches and lattes made with the perfect thick and creamy foam (I’m a major foam person). Bliss. Good books, good times, great food (and let’s not forget, amazing coffee) are made for each other, and Third Place Ravenna hits the spot.

Thanks for sharing Ravenna Third Place Books with us, Sarah!  I can absolutely relate to the young ones taking favorite books to bed with them :) A family-friendly bookstore that has an adjoining café (and, according to their website, also the Third Place Pub for those times the kids aren’t with you) … sounds like bliss, indeed!

Save the Date for the Newburyport Literary Festival!

State Street, Newburyport; photo from Wikipedia

Attention lit lovers in the Boston area and Southern New Hampshire … and, of course, those willing to drive longer distances for a great event: The end of the month welcomes an exciting event to the north shore. The Newburyport Literary Festival will be held April 29 – 30, 2011.  In a nutshell (from a press release):

The Newburyport Literary Festival (NLF), organized by the Newburyport Literary Association, annually celebrates reading, and the love of books. The 2011 NLF features more than 40 writers of distinguished fiction and non-fiction – including short story writers, children’s authors, biographers, nature writers, critics, screenwriters, poets, novelists, and journalists – who will read and discuss their work in venues throughout Newburyport’s historic downtown.

The weekend begins with an Opening Ceremony on Friday evening, when three distinguished historians discuss William Lloyd Garrison (a native of Newburyport, and a major force in the Anti-Slavery movement both in the US and abroad).

The Opening Ceremony is followed by “Dinner with the Authors” (buffet and cash bar for $50 per person), including a silent auction.  All proceeds – and any additional donations – benefit the Newburyport Literary Association.

Saturday brings “Breakfast with the Poets,” followed by a full day of activities and events to suit every reader.  Here’s a sample:

  • Michelle Hoover, Lee Houck, Steve Yarbrough discuss “Write What You Know: Personal History in Fiction
  • Brunonia Barry reads from The Map of True Places
  • Elisha Cooper discussesEye Candy: The Art of the Picture Book”
  • Dyke Hendrickson presents on “Migration and Mill Cities in the late 19th and 20th Century New England” (this speaks to me, as my grandparents were from these mill cities on the Merrimack River – Haverhill, Amesbury, Newburyport)
  • Elizabeth Atkinson presents a “read and bead” as she reads from I, Emma Freke, and audience members make beaded creations from supplied materials.

Truly, something for everyone!  Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Children, Middle Grade, Young Adult … with a well-deserved emphasis on history, in this the 150th year since the beginning of the Civil War.

Check out the full schedule online. You may see some familiar faces around 11:00, at a panel called “Book Bloggers: A Conversation About Books With the People who Blog About Them.” I’m thrilled to be on this panel with Marie from Boston Bibliophile, Kevin from Boston Book Bums, and Sarah from Archimedes Forgets.  We’ve “met” the panel moderator, Denise Lacey, via email; she’s also a blogger and “is fascinated by the power of social media to effect political change and achieve business objectives.” Here’s the panel description:

Book reviewing has changed dramatically over the past decade due to the influx of social media, reader forums, and blogs. Book bloggers have established themselves as a legitimate force in the publishing world but with so many people writing about books on-line, how does the average reader find the blogs that fit their interests? How do bloggers interact with authors and publishers? Join four Boston book bloggers as they talk about their blogs, their relationships with authors, and their relationships with you, their readers

Toward the end of the panel we’ll each be recommending two titles to the audience.  My picks are both recently published, a memoir and a children’s picture book.  Curious?  Attend the panel, or stay tuned for the reveal in my wrap-up post.

The day concludes with a Closing Ceremony at which “A collaboration of local and visiting poets, musicians, actors, and local citizens will present an evening of readings and music inspired by the America of 1861.”

The weekend will be a great celebration of books, history and the people who write them (authors and history-makers, that is).  If you can’t join us, please following Newburyport Lit Fest on twitter (@NBPTLitFest), or “like” their Facebook page. Newburyport is such a beautiful town; I may have a hard time pointing my car south and heading home on Sunday!

Thoughts on *An Object of Beauty* by Steve Martin (audiobook)

  • An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin; read by Campbell Scott
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio; Unabridged edition (November 23, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1607886129

Back-of-the-box blurb: Lacey Yeager is young, captivating, and ambitious enough to take the NYC art world by storm. Groomed at Sotheby’s and hungry to keep climbing the social and career ladders put before her, Lacey charms men and women, old and young, rich and even richer with her magnetic charisma and liveliness. Her ascension to the highest tiers of the city parallel the soaring heights–and, at times, the dark lows–of the art world and the country from the late 1990s through today.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: What a fantastic peek into the art world!  We see snippets of all the players – artists (struggling and successful), critics, collectors, gallery owners, auction house workers (from the lowest rung, relegated to the basement-level “bins,” to the influential managers of the various departments). We see the cycles of the art market – how politics, world and economic events, and the whims of the taste-makers affect that market.

Behind-the-scenes, we see Lacey Yeager, and follow her from her first days in the “bins” at Sotheby’s through her many incarnations as she travels through various positions.  She’s looking for her sweet spot in expertise and influence, and will stop at nothing to get there.

The novel is told from the third-person perspective of Daniel Franks, a platonic friend.  At the outset, Daniel tells the reader/listener that, of course he wasn’t privvy to all the conversations and observations he’s about to relate, but that he knows enough to fill in the gaps.  I was so caught up in Lacey’s story, that I often forget it wasn’t an omniscient narrator, and was pulled out of the story when I had to get a hold of the “I” that would suddenly be introduced.

This excerpt illustrates that sudden “I,” but also gives a glimpse of Lacey’s determination to rise out of the menial work at Sotheby’s:

A year and a half passed well. I had reviewed a small show for the Village Voice and had received a complimentary note from Peter Schjeldahl, who was the main critic there at the time. Lacey was moving up at Sotheby’s, literally. Frequent paperwork kept her upstairs, and she found that newcomers, mostly young white girls just off a collegiate slave boat, were being sent down the mine shaft to replace her, staggering out of the elevator hours later, with dilated eyes, happy once again to see the sun. She was kept from a significant raise on the premise that new employees were really interns learning the business, and during one of our increasingly rare lunches, she told me this: “Guess what I figured out: Sotheby’s is my yacht. It’s a money pit. I’m losing money just to work there. I can last another year and then I’m headed for whore town, which good be kind of good, depending on the outfits.”

Is Lacey obnoxious, conceited, and ruthless? Yes.  Did I enjoy An Object of Beauty for the steps I was able to take in her shoes (as observed and imagined by Daniel Franks)? Yes.  Is Campbell Scott’s narration well-paced, with good inflection and careful distinction of the character’s voices? Yes.

Recommended, especially for its look at the art world.  The plot, although not riveting, was very good and kept me company through many miles on the treadmill.

Book Review: *Table of Contents* by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp

  • Table of Contents: From Breakfast with Anita Diamant to Dessert with James Patterson – a Generous Helping of Recipes, Writings, and Insights from Today’s Bestselling Authors by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Adams Media (November 30, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1440504037

Back-of-the-book blurb: Have you ever wished you could enjoy an Italian dinner with Frances Mayes? Or swap recipes with Jacquelyn Mitchard? It’s all possible in this unique cookbook that features recipes drawn from the works of today’s bestselling authors, along with intimate insights that help bring their most beloved books to life.  Includes more than 100 dishes and drinks created by fifty writers.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Table of Contents is a full of collection of recipes and personal reflections from over four dozen contemporary authors.  These aren’t simply recipes that appeared in novels and were extracted for the cookbook, they were submitted specifically for this project, with the idea that readers like to sample the food they’re reading about.

Are you reading Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun?  Her Summer Shrimp Salad will be perfect at a lunchtime discussion of the book.  Adriana’s Limoncello fits the bill for an evening reading of Very Valentine or Brava Valentine.  Is fantasy more your style?  You’ll enjoy the imagined “Lunch at Shiz University” from Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.  He presents Oh Sweet Ozcrust Glinda Tart, a yummy peach/plum tart; and easy too, he encourages “thawed commercial dough (unwrap it, and thump into lumpiness so Munchkins think you made it by hand the day before)”.

Authors are presented in alphabetical order, with a headshot, list of selected works, and brief interview/survey questions.  These usually follow the format “inspiration,” “readers should know,” “readers frequently ask,” and “influences on my writing,” but some diverge (and sometimes are very surprising, as in Barbara Delinsky’s “the lone influence on my writing,” in which she admits to being kicked out of high school Honors English due to a lack of interest in reading and writing).

The recipes are placed in context of the book, whether it’s a general connection to the setting/history, or if the dish is mentioned in the plot of the novel. These introductions to each recipe are really the heart of the cookbook, making a personal connection between the author, the reader, and the food.  It’s really a smart and winning format.

A grid cross-references recipes by book and author; a complete index also uses these three reference points.  Since this isn’t a general cookbook, you won’t find a list of conversions, handy substitutions, or instruction on basic cooking techniques.  Only a very few recipes struck me as beyond my comfortable reach in the kitchen (for a discussion of Ape House, I might choose to serve a simple banana bread, rather than the very involved suggested recipe for Salmon en Croûte).

Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp are the creators of the website Book Club Cookbook, a wonderful resource for book groups.  Previous books include The Book Club Cookbook and The Kids’ Book Club Book.

Book Review: *The Kitchen Daughter* by Jael McHenry

  • The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery; Original edition (April 12, 2011)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439191699

Back-of-the-book blurb: After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I loved this novel!  Oh, you want to know why … here goes … The Kitchen Daughter has all the right components – realistic characters, a compelling plot, dialogue that rings true (anyone who’s ever argued with a sister will agree!), and a family secret ingredient.  Even the format adds to the balance, with recipes that are integral to the story, without being gimmicky or distracting.

Jael McHenry had me at “Bread Soup,” which is the title of Chapter One.  Each chapter is named for a recipe, included (on an illustration that looks like a hand-written recipe card) at the top of the page.

In “Bread Soup,” we meet the narrator;  Ginny Selvaggio is a woman in her mid-twenties who is “socially awkward,” – uncomfortable in close physical contact with others, averse to crowds, hesitant to make eye contact – and has shown compulsive tendencies (she went through a “Turkish rug” phase as a child, now finds security in the solid geometry of rectangles).  She has always been sheltered by her parents, following “the rules” as outlined by her mother. Readers may recognize the behavior of someone who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

In this excerpt, Ginny is struggling with the mass of mourners who have descended on her parents’ home – her home – after their untimely death (p 2):

But at home, things are worse.  There isn’t even a moment for me to be alone before the house fills up.  Strangers are here.  Disrupting my patterns.  Breathing my air.  I’m not just bad at crowds, crowds are bad at me.  If it were an ordinary day, if things were right and not wrong, I’d be sitting down with my laptop to read Kitcherati, but my laptop is up in my attic room on the third floor.  There are too many bodies between me and the banister and I can’t escape upstairs.  This is my only home and I know every inch of it, but right now it is invaded.  If I look up I’ll see their faces, so instead I look down and see all their feet.  Their shoes are black like licorice or brown like brisket, tracking in the winter slush and salt from the graveyard and the street.  Dozens.

Note how Ginny uses “licorice” and “brisket” to describe the shoes.  Her senses are in tune with food, the familiar and comforting rhythms of cooking center her when the world around her is escalating.

Without the support of her parents, Ginny now needs to navigate that world alone.  Perhaps she’ll find her way indirectly, through her routines, Gert (the housekeeper), and Midnight (her cat).  And her cooking – Ginny’s collection of hand-written recipe cards may be the key to getting herself back on her feet. However, Ginny’s attempts to prove her independence are thwarted by her younger sister, Amanda, who makes many assumptions about Ginny’s future.

As I read Ginny’s story – so authentically told in her voice – I ran through a seemingly endless wheel of emotions – empathy, surprise, anger, happiness, sadness, and -ultimately – satisfaction.  Never did I feel the author was manipulating my emotions; I really was so caught up in Ginny’s narration that I walked in her shoes and felt her reactions to a degree.

Did I have a problem with Nonna’s ghost, or the idea that Ginny attempted to conjure others through her cooking?  Not at all.  I accepted it as magical realism or Ginny’s way of coping.  I didn’t over-analyze or struggle with it; I simply let the story unfold around me and Ginny in that very rectangular kitchen.

In the process of learning more about herself, Ginny explores her relationships with her mother, her father, and Amanda.  Or, maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg thing … maybe exploring those relationships led to a better understanding of her own self.  Either way you crack it, The Kitchen Daughter is a literary omelette to be savored, filled with all my favorites and a few surprises.  (You thought I wouldn’t stoop to a play-on-words pertaining to food?! That’s nuts!)

Author Jael McHenry earned her MFA in creative writing at American University; her work has been published in North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review.  She is a passionate home cook who blogs at The Simmer Blog.  You can read more about her and The Kitchen Daughter on her website, and follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Review copy of The Kitchen Daughter was provided by Simon and Schuster / Gallery Books and TLC Book Tours.  Check out the complete TLC Book Tour schedule below – you may find author interviews, guest posts, and a giveaway or two (you might want to stop back here tomorrow, too … I’m just saying!)

Spotlight on Bookstores: *Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe* in Asheville, North Carolina

She’s done it again!  Kathy – the intrepid reader/reviewer/blogger/traveler at BermudaOnion - recently sent me a Spotlight on Bookstores post about Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in Asheville, North Carolina.  This is Kathy’s FOURTH Spotlight on Bookstores guest post (thank you, Kathy!) … she truly practices what she preaches about supporting the local independent bookstores that offer personality along with their paperbacks (yes, and hardcovers, audiobooks, sidelines, etc.  I was in an alliterative mood just now).

Kathy’s posts are always accompanied by gorgeous bright photos that show off the unique nature of the store.  I’m including them all here, along with some other tidbits and links gleaned from the Malaprop’s website.  Here are Kathy’s thoughts:

A trip to Asheville, North Carolina wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Malaprop’s. Located in the heart of Asheville’s vibrant and eclectic downtown, Malaprop’s has been an Asheville landmark since 1982.

Since it’s filled to the brim with quality books, you’re sure to find just what you’re looking for in this inviting bookstore, and if you need help, there’s plenty of friendly and knowledgeable (not to mention multi-lingual) staff there to help you out. The store boasts a huge “regional interest” section and plenty of autographed books.

Malaprop’s hosts events almost daily and is a stop for almost every author who tours the South. These events are lively and fun and often draw a large crowd. There’s also a small cafe with free wi-fi for customers.

It’s probably a good thing we don’t live closer because I’d probably be in there every day if we did!

Downtown Asheville

This first photo is a group of musicians hanging out on a corner in downtown Asheville.  This so perfectly captures the arty feel of the city.  Asheville is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a beautiful area – outdoor activities include hiking, white water rafting, and photographing the natural beauty of the area.  The city itself has many galleries, restaurants (known for a local food movement), and art/theater centers.

Isn’t this Flat Iron sculpture fun!?  It’s on Asheville’s “Wall Street,” across from their own Flatiron building (an 8-story structure, while Manhattan’s Flatiron is 22 stories).

Malaprop's exterior

Malaprop’s is located on Haywood Road in downtown Asheville.  Check out this history of Malaprop’s, complete with the story of how the bookstore moved to this location – the support within the community is a two-way street!

The same article (a letter from the owner, Emoke B’Racz), indicates:

As a political exile from a communist country, I cannot overemphasize my passion to provide a space where freedom of expression is supported, where important literature—from authors backed by major publishers to those who self-publish—is available to all, where censorship has no place, where respect and service are practiced daily, where women feel safe, where all are welcome, and where books are the stars.

We’ll end with some photos of the interior store – it’s a lively spot!  Eye-catching displays, welcoming chairs (although I’m partial to the photo of readers squatting and leaning down to browse the shelves …. bookshop yoga!), and a sense of fun show in the photos.

Learn more about Malaprop’s on their website, view their video event archive, and follow them onTwitter.

Thanks, Kathy!  I wonder where you’ll take us next?!

Rebecca Rasmussen's *The Bird Sisters* takes wing today!

Today is launch day (flight day?) for Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters.

The story of The Bird Sisters is inspired by Rasmussen’s grandmother, who felt a loneliness early in life, with the death of her parents and a tenuous relationship with her sister.  The author reimagines the sisters’ relationship in the tale of Milly and Twiss, providing she says “proof of love” to her grandmother.  It’s also a reminder to Rasmussen (and the reader!) that “home doesn’t always translate to four sturdy white walls,” and that home truly is where the heart is.

Here’s the publisher’s synopsis:

When a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds’ heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can’t, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who’ve brought them. These spinster sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health.

But back in the summer of 1947, Milly and Twiss knew nothing about trying to mend what had been accidentally broken. Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn’t change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn’t exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly’s eye. And, most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.

And a little tease from page 2, as Milly admits that the company of a stranger may be preferable to the uneventful passage of time that she and Twiss have settled into.  The last sentence, her response to the lost tourist, as she points to the unmarked spot on the map, is especially telling:

But even she missed the sound of strangers in the house, the way the pine floors creaked under new weight. Had it really been a month since a person other than Twiss had spoken to her? Time had a funny way of moving when you didn’t want it to and standing still when you did. Milly didn’t bother to wind the cuckoo clock above the sink anymore; there was something sadistic about the way it popped out of its miniature door so cheerfully every quarter hour. But the visitors! Though she and Twiss had devoted their lives to saving birds, not wishing for them to be injured, the last few years Milly had perked up whenever a car turned into their driveway instead of continuing up the road. Most of the time, the people would be looking for directions back to town. They’d spread out their laminated touring maps with expressions of shame because “just in case,” the words they’d used to justify buying the maps in the first place, meant they were lost, and there were no noble ways to say that. The men would look up at the sky, trying one last time to discern east from west, and the women would look down at the ground because their husbands had failed to understand a simple map. Milly would put the couples at ease by admitting that she missed a turn every once in a while, even though there wasn’t one to miss. She’d point to the blank space between the hills and the river.

This is where you are.

Want to read more?  The Bird Sisters is on shelves today; pick up a copy for yourself, then pop over to my Giveaways page to enter to win a “book club in a box” for your reading group — up to ten copies of the novel, plus a Skype chat with Rebecca Rasmussen.

Brief Book Review: *Pictures of You* by Caroline Leavitt

  • Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (January 25, 2011)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565126312

Back-of-the-book blurb: Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor, Isabelle, is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but of the lives of the devastated husband and fragile son that the other woman, April, has left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. As these three lives intersect, the book asks, How well do we really know those we love—and how do we forgive the unforgivable?

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Briefly, what I really liked about Pictures of You is the character of Isabelle; I found many of her actions and reactions to be so realistic – the panic of getting behind the wheel of a car after being involved in a fatal accident, the feeling of responsibility for the family of the victim, and her eventual ability to find strength within herself.

Caroline Leavitt chose to make Isabelle a photographer, which was absolutely brilliant.  There are so many metaphors she created to show how the camera can be both a lens to see objects and people in a different light, to frame a situation in a more (or less) flattering manner, and even to act as a barrier (or layer of protection) between people.

When the novel opens, Isabelle is a photographer at the Beautiful Baby studio on Cape Cod. Childless, there is a painful irony to Isabelle’s place of employment; she is paid to capture a fantasy of the smiling baby, the hand-holding siblings, and the multi-generation family portrait.

Unfortunately, the fine details of Isabelle’s characters were negated by my issues with some conflicting details in other parts. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a novel and my knowledge of local geography threw off my stride in reading/enjoying the book.  Note my gripes about Franklin standing in for Provincetown in The Postmistress and Chatham being mispronounced in the audio edition of The Island.

In this case, the coincidence of two women from the same (unnamed) town on the Cape being involved in an accident three hours from home was a bit much for me to swallow.  Add to this Isabelle paying someone $100 to drive her to the scene of the accident, stopping for a cup of coffee before returning home (six hours on the road, plus some time for coffee?  For $100?  I don’t know why I let things like this throw me off course when reading … but they do!)

So, I got hung up on my inability to suspend disbelief and simply absorb the characters and their stories.  Others were more accepting; read what these blogger/reviewers have to say:

  • Julie at BookingMama says: “It’s a marvelous book for discussion.”  So true!
  • Swapna at S.Krishna’s Books says: “I was so involved in the characters and their stories. … They all seemed very lifelike and real to me.”
  • Largehearted Boy says: ”

    Leavitt is a masterful storyteller and unveils her characters through acutely seen details”

Visit Caroline Leavitt’s website for more information about the author and her work, and to view a book trailer for Pictures of You.

Do you get fixated when you read something that doesn’t seem to “fit” in a novel?  Do I just need to lighten up?!  Yes, this is why I could never be a novelist … there are people like ME who are too nit-picky!