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.)

WTF?

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.)

Thoughts?

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.

"Sneaker"















"Flower Child"























"Cat"























"Bust of David"























"Lady Slipper Orchids"

















"Still Life with Mason Jar"

















"Annabelle"























"Rooster"


Friday, November 28, 2014

Scientists prove what moms have long suspected about teens

In breaking scientific news, researchers from the Universities of Pittsburgh, California-Berkeley and Harvard claim to have scientifically proven what moms have long suspected: that the teen brain shuts down when subjected to criticism from mom.

Allow me to illustrate with this Gary Larson cartoon:





















(Apparently teens and dogs are not so different, at least when it comes to criticism.)

So next time, moms (and dads) when you are criticizing your teen, and you yell at them "Are you listening to me?" The answer is, no.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

6 Good Books to Check Out This Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Snow day for panda!

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

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















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



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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The cutest (and tiniest) Thanksgiving ever?

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

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

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



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

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

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


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Koalas, the secret to world peace?

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

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

Their secret weapon: koalas.

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
















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

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






















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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stressed? Try some kitten therapy.

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



[H/T Mashable]

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

Indeed.

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

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

*For those kitty lovers on the East Coast.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To boldly shave where no man has shaved before

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

Pay attention, guys.



[H/T Mashable]

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Astro + the return of winter storm season

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

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

Astro














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

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

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

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












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

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

But Linus? 


















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

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

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Can we please have a moratorium on Christmas...

At least until after Thanksgiving?

I don't care how incredibly cute the John Lewis 2014 Christmas advert featuring Monty the Penguin is...


(And it is insulin-injection-needed-stat cute.)

I do NOT want to see advertising for Christmas on November 7th...

When I beheld the ad above and this Christmas spectacle at Stamford Town Center, featuring Santa Claus, several elves, and Christmas music being blasted from speakers...






















And I especially do NOT want to start celebrating Christmas on November 1st (when the Crowne Plaza in New Orleans put up its Christmas decorations), or on November 6th (which also happens to be my birthday and when John Lewis published its Monty the Penguin Christmas advert), or pick your date in November!

Nor do I want to celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah, for that matter) on Thanksgiving. (DO YOU HEAR ME, RETAILERS? Apparently not, except for you, Nordstrom and Costco. For which I thank you.)

Can't a girl enjoy the fall, and some turkey and stuffing, in peace, without feeling pressured to shop? (I'm pretty sure the mas in Christmas does not stand for mas shopping.)

I am so exasperated, I am thinking of starting a petition on Change.org. But before I do, I would love some feedback from all of you. Do you think I'm a Scrooge and that we should start celebrating Christmas as soon as Halloween has ended? Or do you think, like me, that the Christmas season should not begin until December 1st? Please let me know via a (respectful, non-abusive) comment.

I wish you a merry November.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

In case you missed the news, earlier today, in New Zealand, AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd was charged with "attempting to procure murder," i.e., hiring a hit man... to kill two people.

Why is that bit of news blog worthy?

If the title of this blog post didn't tip you off, one of AC/DC's biggest hits (released back in 1976) was the song "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," about... hiring a hit man (albeit from the hit man's perspective).

if you got a lady and you want her gone
but you ain't got the guts
she keeps nagging at you night and day
enough to drive you nuts
pick up the phone
leave her alone
it's time you made a stand
for a fee
I’m happy to be
your back door man


dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap, dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap
dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap, dirty deeds and they're done dirt cheap


Rudd was also charged with drug possession -- and listening to too many AC/DC songs. (Okay, I made that last bit up. But you don't have to look far to figure out where he got the idea.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

2014 Worst Halloween Costumes finalists are...

Remember when Halloween was a holiday for kids, to dress up and show their (or their parents') creative side? When parents who accompanied their kids trick-or-treating would dress like warlocks and witches (with big noses and warts!), or Frankenstein and his bride, or Dracula and one of his victims -- and didn't look like hookers with their pimps out looking for tricks?

Of course, that was before Victoria's Secret and Yandy.com put the Ho in Halloween.

And things have only gone from bad to worse, as this year's crop of bad costumes illustrates.

Following are my top five picks for 2014's Worst (or Most Offensive) Halloween Costumes (all of which are currently available for purchase online).

5. The Sexy Jellyfish. Keep your distance, boys, lest she sting you! (Seriously, WTF were they thinking? There is NOTHING sexy about a jellyfish.)






















4. The Spliff. Which I hear is very popular in Colorado and Washington.






















3. The Sexy Unicorn. (That's one horny costume!)






















2. The Ebola Nurse. (No wonder they caught the Ebola virus! That hazmat suit is more like a hazmat bikini!)






















That Ebola Nurse costume is pretty bad. But the worst, or most offensive, Halloween costume may be the Ray Rice and Janay Palmer elevator costume.






















Makes you want to take a slug... of whiskey.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's not bitching...

It's Verbal Release Therapy.

In fact, when you think about it, or the alternatives, bitching is downright good for you.

When you hold in all that anger, all that frustration, what do you get? An ulcer. Or high blood pressure. Or a serial killer. You're like a ticking time bomb, ready to go off.

But by bitching (or kvetching, or grumbling, or complaining, or venting*) about that jerk who cut you off on your way to work, or your computer crashing right in the middle of typing that important paper, or why you seem to be the only person in the house who is able to change a roll of toilet paper (or load/unload the dishwasher, or put shit away, or do laundry, or clean up), or how no one ever reads your blog posts, or how your football team sucks, or -- you get the idea -- you release all that stress and frustration and negative energy into the ether and can begin the healing process.

[Deep breath in through the nose... vent out through the mouth. Aaaaaah.]

Of course, like everything else in life, you should bitch, or complain, or vent in moderation. (Nobody likes a whiner.) Preferably to someone who loves or cares about you, or whom you are paying, who will be a good listener, and will not tell you to "relax," or "chill out," or "what you should do is," which will only result in more anger and frustration and... bitching.

This has been a public service announcement.


*Did you know the English language has over three dozen words, or synonyms, for complain?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cats explained. Sort of.

It's Monday at 4. I've been up since 3:30 a.m. (neighbor's alarm went off... again) and can barely focus. And I can barely type because a glass exploded in my hand yesterday afternoon, slicing the top of the middle finger of my right hand. (Fortunately, I do not believe I need stitches, but it hurts like heck.) So about the only thing I'm capable of doing at this point is watching cat videos -- and blogging about watching cat videos.

First up, "CAT LOGIC," from Cole and Marmalade:



Next, a topic near and dear to me (in fact as I type this, my black cat, Felix, is sitting in my lap, rubbing up against me), "What it's like to work with cats!" also from Cole and Marmalade.



Hey, at least I'm not blogging about Ebola or the mid-term elections.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Would you like a medal for that?

As all of you J-TWO-O blog readers know, the spouse and I have a running debate about how to load (or not load) the dishwasher. A debate that apparently rages at a lot of other houses as well, including fictional ones, like the Johnsons on black-ish, the new ABC sitcom about a successful, two-income African-American family (who have been likened to the Huxtables of The Cosby Show).

I laughed out loud at this scene, titled "Dre Wants Credit from His Wife [for loading the dishwasher]."



If only his wife, Rainbow, had had Man Medals, a brilliant idea for the man who feels he deserves an award for changing the toilet paper roll, taking out the garbage, or emptying the dishwasher (though there is no Man Medal for loading the dishwasher -- for a reason).






















There also isn't a Man Medal for making the bed, which the spouse did all by himself yesterday! (Next time you can post a photo on Facebook, honey.)

Or for doing the laundry, or the dishes, or mowing the lawn -- things, which I have heard rumors, some guys do (without their wives even having to ask!).

Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. After all, the spouse does help out with grocery shopping. And he helps clean up after dinner, and he does take out the garbage and fix our computers. (Thank you, honey!)

And, I admit, like the wife/mother on black-ish, and a lot (all) women I know, I like things done a certain way -- my way. And I hate mess, or disorganization. So I wind up doing and taking care of stuff. Just because. And I don't expect a medal.

Yet when a man does one thing, like changing a diaper, or taking the kids to school, or baking cupcakes, he expects -- and often gets, from friends and coworkers -- an effing ticker-tape parade.Which pisses me off.

So, ladies (and guys), how's that Women's Liberation thing working out for all of you?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Finally, a celebration day for us germaphobes! Let's break out the hand sanitizer and celebrate, people!

And Global Handwashing Day could not have come at a better time, what with people here in the United States (and around the world) freaking out about Ebola and Enterovirus 68.

Though do you really need such an extreme excuse to wash your hands?

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and any healthcare professional can (and will) tell you, the number one way to avoid getting sick is to WASH YOUR HANDS
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage
(You paying attention, honey?)

Equally important is how you wash your hands, which, according to numerous studies, most of us don't do properly. So how do you wash your hands properly? Again, according to the CDC (and health professionals), to properly wash your hands you should:
  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap -- lathering the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds -- the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel, paper towel, or hand dryer them UNTIL THEY ARE COMPLETELY DRY as germs love moisture.













Don't have access to running water, soap, and a towel? Use hand sanitizer. (I carry a bottle with me at all times -- and make the spouse and teenager carry a bottle with them, too.)

And no excuses! If astronauts can wash their hands in space...



you can do it here on Earth!

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Life with Teenage Daughter Who Now Drives

As some of you may recall, two weeks ago the teenager acquired a driver's license -- and my nine-year-old Mini Cooper. At the time, I was rather stressed out, first about her road test, because the teenager was so stressed out, and I literally felt her anxiety (and yes, I am using literal in the literal sense). Then because OMG! MY DAUGHTER HAD HER DRIVER'S LICENSE AND WAS DRIVING... MY CAR! At 16!

[And she'll have fun, fun, fun 'til her mommy takes her Mini away.]



As a child of New York City (i.e., Manhattan), I had zero interest in acquiring a driver's license or a car when I was 16... or 17. Why go through the hassle when you can walk, or take the bus, or the subway, or a taxi anywhere? Indeed, in New York (i.e., Manhattan) a car was a burden, and a big expense, where people paid more for monthly parking than they did in rent.

It was only because my father INSISTED that I learn how to drive before I went off to college that I took driving lessons at the end of my senior year of high school. And let me tell you, learning how to drive in Manhattan is not for the faint of heart (nor is the New York Department of Motor Vehicles -- shudder). And even though I did, in fact, acquire my driver's license before heading off to college, I had zero desire to drive in the City (and still don't).

However, I realize that in the suburbs, especially where we live, being able to drive gives teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. Not unlike the feeling(s) I and my friends had being able to get around the City on our own.

So now each afternoon, instead of rushing off to school to pick her up, or take her to the gym or some other activity, I sit alone in my office, typing on my computer, my cat napping in my lap, repeatedly glancing at my mobile phone, waiting for her to text me where she is and that she is okay, and waiting to see or hear the Mini.

And I wait. And I watch. And I wonder.... How did she get to be so big, so independent, so grown up? What happened to my little girl?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The return of Pumpkin Spice Season

[Alternate title: Pumpkin Spice: The Meme That Wouldn't Die]

Welcome to another Pumpkin Spice Season, that special time of year, formerly known as October, where everything is flavored with that magical, mystical seasoning known as "pumpkin spice" (what we in our house still refer to as "cinnamon" and "ginger")

I admit, there was a time, many years ago, when I looked forward to having a Pumpkin Spice Latte (now known simply by the abbreviation PSL to the pumpkin spice and Starbucks cognoscenti), back before Pumpkin Spice became a meme.

Pumpkin Spice Milano Cookies
And even now, the thought of a Pumpkin Spice Latte seems quaint compared to some of the outrageous pumpkin spice products clogging supermarket shelves -- from Nabisco Pumpkin Spice Oreos and Pepperidge Farm Pumpkin Spice Milano Cookies (blasphemy!) to Pumpkin Pie Spice Pringles (ew) and Pumpkin Pie Spice Jif Peanut Butter (WTF?) and Thomas' Pumpkin Spice Bagels (no, just no -- though they are made with "real pumpkin").

What's next? Pumpkin Spice Condoms?

(Before you all get too excited about Pumpkin Spice Condoms, which IMHO, are a brilliant idea, I regret to inform you that the rumors about Durex creating a limited edition Pumpkin Spice Condom are false. Sadly. However, I would not be the least bit surprised to see them come next Pumpkin Spice Season.)

Fortunately, in another month or so, Pumpkin Spice Season will be but a memory and we can move on to Peppermint and Gingerbread season.

Monday, September 29, 2014

This month's best cat + dog videos

I don't know about all of you, but by this time on Monday, I am in dire need of a cute and/or funny cat (or dog) video. So as a public service, I give you the best cat and dog videos you will find online this month. (You're welcome.)

First up, "Ouvrez-Moi," wherein a cat attempts to convince a male human to open the door... in French (with English subtitles). Love this video.



And speaking of strange cats, this cat apparently loves to be vacuumed. (Our cats enjoy a good lint rolling, but vacuuming? Uh, no.)



Next, the reason the spouse and I are not getting a St. Bernard... even though they are very sweet dogs.



Finally, the award for Cutest Beagle Video of the Month goes to KLM, for "Lost & Found Service."



Makes you almost want to leave something on the plane next time you fly KLM.

Friday, September 26, 2014

New book recommendations

For this Book Nook post (click on the Book Nook label at the end of the post to see previous recommendations), I've divided the books I've read (since my last book post) into three categories: Books I Loved, Books I Liked, and Books I Didn't Like.

Feel free to add your thoughts and recommendations in the Comments section. 

Books I Loved

One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern. The moving story of a young, disgraced journalist's quest for redemption and her desire to pay tribute to her recently deceased mentor and editor by writing the story she (the editor) 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 Logan, the disgraced journalist, to track down the 100 people on the list and figure out what ties them together and to Constance, her beloved former editor and mentor.

I loved this book, and not just because I started my professional life as a fact checker and writer for a magazine (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.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Another great read -- 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.)

Books I Liked (Some More, or Less, Than Others)

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. Goodwin's subject matter and style harkens back to Edith Wharton and Henry James. So if you are a fan of either writer, or that genre, you will probably enjoy The Fortune Hunter (and Goodwin's previous novel, The American Heiress, which I also read and liked). The story takes place in late nineteenth-century England and involves young, orphaned heiress Charlotte Baird and her love interest, Bay Middleton, a dashing, and philandering, British rider and huntsman who is the pilot (a hunting term) for and we suspect paramour of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who wants Middleton all to herself. A work of historical fiction, though filled with real characters and events -- well written, but I wished Goodwin had not distorted or changed so many facts.

The White Magic Five and Dime (A Tarot Mystery) by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco. Reminiscent of The Spellman Files mystery series, which I greatly enjoyed. (Main character as well as the tone is very similar.) Cynical thirty-something woman, who works as a telemarketer in Chicago, gets a call that her estranged mother, a con artist, has died and left her her occult shop in a small tourist town in Arizona. She goes to claim her inheritance and winds up investigating her mother's murder and nearly getting killed herself. An often humorous mystery from the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes. Hard-working, nearly broke single mum Jess, struggling to take care of her estranged ex's sensitive, artistic, Goth teenage son and come up with the tuition money to send her (and her husband's) daughter, a petite math prodigy to a good private school, winds up falling for a nerdy software developer -- who's been indicted for insider trading and who's life is falling apart, and whose vacation home she cleans -- who agrees to drive the family, along with their big, lazy, farting dog, on a crazy road trip to Northern Scotland so the little girl can participate, and hopefully win, a big math contest. Got it? British chick lit. Not my usual cup of tea. But endearing and charming. (I must be getting soft in my old age.)

Redshirts by John Scalzi. A witty/funny sci-fi/mystery that pays homage to the original Star Trek.

The Four Graces by D. E. Stevenson. Described as "Little Women meets World War II," which sounds about right. Set in 1940s England, The Four Graces introduces readers to the four lovely Grace sisters and their father, the local vicar, who live in a quiet, and quaint, English country parish -- and whose lives are changed by the war and the arrival of two new men and a meddling auntie. Originally published in 1946 and re-issued this summer. Read with a cuppa.

The Accidental Apprentice by Vikas Swarup, the author of Slumdog Millionaire. Twenty-something Delhi electronics sales girl Sapna Sinha is approached by a mysterious stranger in a temple who offers to make her the CEO of his billion-dollar company if she passes seven "leadership" tests. While Sapna is tempted by the money, she turns down the offer, repeatedly, yet circumstances force her to change her mind -- and launch Sapna on a series of adventures around Delhi, which lead her to question what it is she truly wants out of life. A fascinating, well-written Indian thriller.

The French House, a memoir by Don Wallace. I kept wanting to really like this book, and I sort of liked it, or the idea of it. I just didn't like or care for most of the people (who almost all came off as self-centered or self-absorbed or un-self aware, especially the narrator) -- and thought it could have used a bit more editing to smooth out the often jarring chronological jumping around. That said, I think anyone who has ever dreamed of buying a fixer-upper in a beautiful foreign country where they don't really speak the language will appreciate, and probably enjoy, Wallace's tale of his and wife's adventures in home ownership on the tiny French island of Belle Île, off the coast of Brittany, especially you Francophiles.

(Coincidentally, this weekend the House Hunting in... column in the The New York Times features a charming manse located in... Brittany -- a steal at only $1.03 million!)

Books I Didn't Like

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A well-written horror story, couched as a mystery. A definite page turner, but I hated the characters, all of them, and the ending. Wish I'd never read it.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I was completely beside myself with disgust reading this book -- and detested it so much I couldn't finish it. Cannot believe it was short-listed for the Man Booker. (Actually, I can believe it as I rarely have liked the books that make the cut.)

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go. Another well-written book, in terms of the prose style, though overly long and drawn out in parts (i.e., rambling and boring, at least to me) and the ending pissed off not only me but seemingly every person on GoodReads.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The hardest 90 minutes of my life as a parent (to date)?

The hardest 90 minutes of my life as a parent (other than labor, which was the hardest 18 hours of my life)? Waiting to find out if my daughter passed her road test, to obtain her driver's license.

I think I was a bigger wreck than the teenager, who was pretty anxious and nervous. Which is why we had the spouse go with her. (His nickname, back in the day, was "the human Quaalude," for his immediate calming influence.)

The appointment, at her driving school, in a car she had taken lessons in, was for 7:45 a.m. So she and the spouse left the house at 7:20 a.m., to make sure she got there on time, which they did. However, she didn't actually start the test until 8:30. (WTF is that all about?)

Can you say nervous mother?

After pacing around the house, changing light bulbs, doing laundry, cleaning the cat boxes, wiping down ceiling fans, texting the spouse, for what seemed like an eternity, the spouse texted me at 8:50:

"Pass."

"Perfect score."

"THANK YOU JESUS," I texted back (even though we're Jewish -- though so was Jesus).

Now the teenager has to wait 48 hours. Then go to the DMV (again with the spouse) to get her actual license, which will entail waiting on another line, for at least an hour.

Then I will officially hand over the keys to my Mini Cooper and the real worrying will begin.

So, any words of advice from you fellow parents of teenage drivers? This is a whole new world for me, having grown up in Manhattan, where no one drove, at least not teenagers. And I am terrified.

UPDATED 9/26: It's official. The teenager is now licensed to drive. Got her license -- with a really nice photo! -- from the DMV this morning.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Let's do lunch!" and other social lies

I admit it. I can be incredibly gullible, and naive.

For example, for years (and still even now, occasionally, even though I'm supposedly older and wiser) I actually believed that when someone said to me "Let's do lunch!" or "Let's grab a coffee!" or "Let's do dinner!" she (or he) meant it. And I would stupidly try to arrange a coffee, lunch, or dinner date with said person, often repeatedly, only to be blown off or stood up (every time).

What a rube I was (am).

What I didn't get, or understand, until recently, was that when people say "Let's do lunch!" etc. what they almost always mean is "I want to end this conversation -- or get away from you -- NOW, but I don't want to seem rude or impolite, or have you dislike me, so I will say something nice that will make you think I like you, so you will like me, like inviting you to have a coffee or meet for lunch, even though there is no chance in hell that I would spend an hour with you."

It's the same thing when people say "Call me!"

If they really wanted to talk to you, they would pick up a phone and call you, not ask you to call them.

At this point you are probably thinking one of two things (other than "Wow J., have you always been such a cynic?"*):

1. But, J., when I said "Let's have lunch!" I really meant it. At the time. But, you know, I have, like, a zillion things to do, and I spaced. And I didn't mean to blow you off five times. Really!

Uh huh.

Or

2. Really, it took you this long to figure it out?

I know. I am ashamed of myself.

Look, I get people are busy. And I am sure that some of you are totally sincere when you say "Let's  have lunch," etc. But if you don't really want to have lunch, or coffee, or dinner with me, or whomever, why put the invitation out there? Why not just say "Gotta go!" or "Bye"?

Maybe one of you psychologists or students of human behavior can help me out on this one. Maybe we could, you know, grab a coffee, or have lunch, to discuss it.

UPDATE 1: Of course, when I say "let's do lunch [or dinner or coffee]," I totally mean it.

UPDATE 2: "Email me" is just as bad, if not worse, than "Call me," unless the person doesn't have your email and he knows you have his. (Yes, I'm talking to you, guy on Twitter who was too effing lazy to email me his "great small business story idea.") Really bad? When someone emails you the message "call me."

*Yes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Finally, some GOOD news!

I love Jimmy Fallon's feel-good segments on The Tonight Show. And I particularly loved this segment he ran last night titled "I've Got Good News and Good News," where he asked local NBC news anchors from around the country to read stories that would make us happy.



Thank you, Jimmy Fallon. I needed that. And I look forward to the next installment, where that guy who said he would call you, does, and we find out that brownies are, in fact, good for us.

If only local news made us happy every night.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Teaching an old broad new tricks

Every year in September, when my daughter goes back to school, I get restless. It's not that I want to go back to school (shudder), but I long to learn new things, to have my brain challenged (though perhaps not too much), and to meet new people who share my interests*. (Writing, especially writing from home, about the same thing, month after month, year after year, is lonely and mind numbing.)

So, for several years now, each fall, I have signed up for some sort of adult education class. One year it was jewelery making; another photography; last year it was drawing and bridge. While I haven't made any new friends (sadly), I have learned new skills and/or unmothballed some old ones -- and felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

Typically, I play it safe, picking classes I feel I will be good at, where I'll learn something but won't put too much strain on my brain. (I seriously underestimated the brain power, or memorization and rapid addition and subtraction skills, necessary to play bridge, however, even on the beginner level. Bridge is hard! Though I would love to find a friendly threesome I could play bridge with, preferably of my generation.)

This year, however, I decided to kick things up a notch -- and signed up for Pilates, advanced drawing, and beginner Italian.

Today I had my first Italian class. I really enjoyed it. The instructor is fabulous. But I was embarrassed and frustrated at how tongue-tied I was trying to speak Italian, even the simplest phrases! I was a straight A student in French and Russian! Then I remembered, Italian isn't French, and I'm not 16. (God, old age sucks.) And it's much harder to learn a new language in your 40s than it is in your teens, or even your 20s.

As for Pilates, which I started earlier this month, it's teaching my body a new language.

While I've been a gym rat most of my life, and have worked out with personal trainers, what I like about Pilates is that it combines strength training and flexibility with proper breathing and alignment and coordination (kind of like yoga) -- no deafening music that is de rigueur with spin and aerobic classes; and no flailing around in a classroom with 20 other sweaty women trying to figure out what the heck you are supposed to be doing.

I also really like working out on all the different Stott Pilates machines, many of which wouldn't look out of place in a torture chamber. (Fifty Shades of J.?) Best of all, not only is my body getting a good work out, my brain is, too.

Who says you can't teach an old broad new tricks?

Finally, to nourish my creative side, I'm taking a drawing class, the follow-up to last year's class. Hopefully, I will learn how to draw people and animals this session, two things I've never been good at. And who knows, maybe I'll make a new friend.

So, what classes are you all taking? Anything you'd recommend? (I'm dying to learn how to build furniture, but I don't have the time or patience at present, nor someone to teach me.)


*I am still looking for females to watch Giants and/or Jets games with me -- and go to Mets games with me in the spring.