Thursday, December 18, 2014

Meow! A Visit to NYC's First Cat Café

The other day my friend and I went to the Meow Parlour, New York City's first cat café, which just opened on Monday. A cat café is a place where people can interact with adoptable cats in a kind of commercial living room; you pay for time and can pet and play with the cats there. The idea started in Asia and allows people who live in the city- who may have small apartments, or who may not be allowed to have pets, as well as those who are looking for a new best friend- to spend time with cats.

The Meow Parlour is located on 46 Hester Street, and they have an associated coffee shop and bakery nearby. Customers can bring coffee and sweets from the bakery to the Meow Parlour but not other outside food, and the cats don't roam the bakery itself. So you can enjoy a cat themed snack without the cats if you wish!

Both adults and children can use the Meow Parlour but they have separate hours for young kids with adult supervision. I went on a Tuesday at lunchtime, when there were about half a dozen humans competing for the attention of about an equal number of cats.

You have to reserve slots in advance on their website and pay in half-hour increments. Even though they just opened up this week and they're already booked to the gills, it's sometimes possible to to book time on short notice, especially during daytime hours. If you're in the area and love cats, I recommend it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: THE LOST BOOK OF MORMON, by Avi Steinberg

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri, by Avi Steinberg. Published 2014 by Nan A. Talese. Memoir, Travel, Religion.

This is a book that's just a pleasure to read. Avi Steinberg's first memoir, Running the Books, came out in 2011 and was also a pleasure to read, albeit one that tackled a very different subject- prison libraries (and I recommend that book if you liked Orange is the New Black, just by the way.). The Lost Book of Mormon is part travelogue, part meditation on the nature of writing, part history. Steinberg starts in Jerusalem, where he has lived on and off for most of his life, examining the sites in that city that are connected to the Mormon faith. He really starts by trying to locate an actual copy of the Mormon holy book in Jerusalem, and that story alone is worth reading as a comic portrayal of life in the holy city.

But things really get going when Steinberg embarks on an organized tour of Mormon holy sites in the new world- Mayan sites in Central and South America to be precise. He hitches his wagon to a group of Australian and American Mormons, a big extended family traveling together, and Steinberg virtually the sole outsider, non-relative and non-Mormon. This section of the book is funny, fascinating and very enjoyable, kind of like A Walk in the Woods only on a bus and with a group.

He keeps this outsider's perspective throughout the book, thinking about Joseph Smith, the uses of storytelling and fiction, and the religion as an idiosyncratic product of American culture. He doesn't support the Mormon faith per se but doesn't criticize it either, rather he uses the phenomenon of Mormonism as a jumping-off point for meditations on literature and religious scripture as a literary creation. This is not a book about the Book of Mormon so much as it is about Steinberg's encounter with the faith, and especially so when he gets to his participation in a reenactment of episodes from the Book.

Along the way he talks about his own struggles and in particular his faltering marriage. Not everyone is going to be interested in his personal life and the mixed reviews on social media bear this out. Personally I enjoyed the whole thing cover to cover. I think I just like his voice and point of view. I would definitely recommend the book to memoir readers but warn readers expecting a conversion story or something very pro-Mormonism to stay away. Again it's not critical- it's just not about being an endorsement or serious analysis pro or con. It's a quiet, kind of meditative book, and well worth your time.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review from Random House.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I had a pretty slow reading week, although I did finish The Bell, which was wonderful. Really, if you don't read Iris Murdoch you need to start. She's not flashy- she wrote really solid, really enjoyable literary fiction. When people look at bookstore display tables and complain about the lack of serious fiction by women, I wonder why they don't read Murdoch.

So this week I'm still in the thick of all the rest of the books I was reading last week- The Hilltop, Not My Father's Son and I Hate Martin Amis Et. Al. I will be starting a new book, today if my Kobo battery recharges in time for my subway trip this afternoon.

Carol Birch's 2011 Booker nominee Jamrach's Menagerie is next month's Booker Prize Book Club selection. I've been meaning to read it for a while, ever since a co-panelist of mine at a book blogger's panel recommended it. Sadly I weeded out my copy before I moved, so I'm borrowing one from the library. I actually searched multiple bookstores for a paperback copy without success so rather than order I decided to just borrow and read the ebook version- hence the need for my Kobo to charge up!

What are you reading today? See more at and have a great week.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Published 2014 by Knopf. Literary Fiction.

This year's Man Booker Prize winner is a tough, tough read, but a very rewarding one. Australian novelist Richard Flanagan tells the fictional story of Dorrigo Evans, a doctor and survivor of the Japanese POW camp that built the Burma Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon in 1943. The railway was built using forced and slave labor; thousands of people died constructing it under unimaginable conditions. The novel documents the experiences of Dorrigo, several ordinary soldiers on the line including Darky Gardiner, a young man who tries to find the good in every day even when circumstances are at their bleakest.

And there always seems to be a new low. Flanagan gives us excruciating detail on the privations and suffering the men endured- the starvation, the long long miles of walking, the arduous work done without proper tools, the ever-increasing demands of the soldiers directing the work, and the brutal beatings and humiliations inflicted by the guards. He also gives his characters startling humanity, including the guards and taskmasters who regard suffering as a matter of course and the POWs as less than human, because they are prisoners, alive and not dead.

The cruelties of the Burma Railway have been documented in other books and films- The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel that became the David Lean film being the most famous example- but what Narrow Road brings to mind for me is the more recent nonfiction Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's recounting of the Louis Zamperini story, particularly his time as a POW in Japan. Zamperini was not involved in the Burma Railway but Flanagan's story echoes some of the the same themes and particulars, especially the POWs' living conditions. Hillenbrand's book also explains in historical terms why the United States ceased prosecuting Japanese war criminals, which I found very helpful in understanding those parts of Flanagan's book in which the story moves to the guards' post-war experiences.

Because Flanagan does try to tell the story of the railway from their perspective too, a choice I think is brave and challenging. Those passages were also hard to read, the rationalizing of torture and cruelty, and Flanagan, without justifying anything, I think is trying to talk about how someone can be capable of violence, and comfortable with it. I think he's trying to talk about how a culture of violence perpetuates itself, showing the whole life cycle of it, from earliest humiliation to its effects far downstream, on people on whom a hand was never laid.

In this book, those people are the women in Dorrigo's life, particularly his wife Ella and his many mistresses. Dorrigo marries Ella out of social expectation; he's deeply in love with his estranged uncle's young wife Amy, whom he believes has died while he was at war. He spends the rest of his life trying to bury his grief and his post-war trauma in affairs and in his public life. In his post-war life he becomes a kind of spokesman for the POWs on the railway and becomes a very well-known public figure. At some point, he has to reconcile all these parts of himself, find a way to move forward.

There is a beautiful, terrible poetry to The Narrow Road and I found the book very hard to put down. I would read short passages at a time, take breaks, come back, read more, come back. It's disturbing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes bleak and almost impossibly sad, and yet I didn't want it to end. Flanagan has written a wonderful and difficult book that I would recommend to just about anyone, a classic deserving of the recognition it's received.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, December 8, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Last week was really crazy for me and Monday was the worst of it, so I never got around to doing a What Are You Reading? post last week. I finished The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Augustus, and I read Elena Gorokhova's new memoir out in January, Russian Tattoo. I read her first book, A Mountain of Crumbs, several years ago and loved it. That book covered her youth in 1970s Russia; her new book is about coming to the United States. It was very good!

This week I have a whole new slate of books.

I started I Hate Martin Amis Et. Al., by Peter Barry, a weird and compelling book about a half-Serbian Englishman who goes to Sarajevo to be a sniper at the height of the siege during the Balkan Wars. I picked it up in London last year.

I've also been reading Assaf Gavron's The Hilltop, about an unofficial Israeli settlement that has been ordered to disband. It tells the story of a group of settlers, their lives and conflicts, in a black-comedy style.
My new at-the-gym book is Alan Cumming's memoir, Not My Father's Son. It's much darker than I expected and I have to say, I'm loving it. The writing is fresh and accessible and better than the average celebrity book, and I'm finding his story fascinating. I wouldn't really call myself a fan of his acting- I'm not that familiar with his work- but I've heard so many good things about the book and so far it's great.
Finally I decided to treat myself to some Iris Murdoch, one of the best English-language writers of the 20th century. I picked The Bell, about a lay religious community and the shenanigans within. It's just wonderful. Murdoch is always a delight to read.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Review: JUST CALL ME SUPERHERO, by Alina Bronsky

Just Call Me Superhero, by Alina Bronsky. Published 2014 by Europa Editions. Literary fiction.

Alina Bronsky's latest novel is probably the hardest for me to get into, but was very rewarding once I did. Set in modern day Germany, she tells the story of Marek, a teenager whose face was mutilated after he was attacked by a rottweiler. Nowadays he's bitter, a virtual shut-in who wears dark glasses and avoids others until his mother makes him go to a support group for disabled people. Things take a while to improve. He's cynical and uninterested in the others, whose issues range from terminal illness to physical disability to mental illness.

Her earlier books, Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of the Tatar Cuisine, were favorites of mine that tackled family dysfunction in ways that were painful and real. Her latest takes a slightly different subject and works it over with the same level of psychological insight and literary craft.

The book was hard for me because I can relate to some of Marek's issues. When I was a teen I was in a car accident that left me with a permanent disfigurement; but luckily it's one that I can hide most of the time and I've always said I feel for people with facial disfigurements because I can just put on long pants and that's that. When it's your face, there's nowhere to hide, and the self-conscious feeling I have at the beach or the gym is the way some folks feel all the time.  So it's tough, and you've got to learn to be very strong to muscle through it.

But when you're young (and even when you're older) toughness can mean anger and Marek is still angry, at himself, at the accident that changed his life, at others whose glances and expressions remind him that he's different, even if it's only his appearance that's different. He's infatuated with Janne, a beautiful wheelchair bound young woman in his group, competing for her attention with other young men and behaving like the immature kid he is. When the group goes on a trip together things come to a head and he alienates some members of the group. At the same time though he gets word that his estranged father has died, and what happens next surprises everyone, Marek especially.

I ended up loving this book with its tough-necked characters and the insights they gain into each others' lives. The tone of the book changes in the final third and this was where it all came together for me as Marek learns things that challenge his assumptions about everything, himself most particularly. It's a must-read for Bronsky's fans and also provides a lively portrait of modern German life at that same time its themes of redemption and growth are universal. Sometimes, the person in whose eyes you most need to be redeemed are your own, and learning that is the hardest thing of all.

This is my 13th book for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore where I used to work.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood!

Last night my husband and I got to attend a great event at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan- a literary tribute to the great Margaret Atwood, on the occasion of her 75th birthday. Her birthday was November 18 and she admitted she'd been to several parties and tributes, "less than 10 but more than 6," and that this was the last. Well, it was a fitting way to end the official celebrations.

The evening started with Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, reminiscing about reading her favorite Atwood novel as a Smith College student. That was Alias Grace (also my favorite) and she talked about how the book helped teach her about rhythm and cadence after an in-class exercise in which her professor had students go around the room reading one sentence each from the first page. She then gave her gift, 75 hypothetical cakes (which were written down on cards and delivered to Atwood in a box). The imaginary cakes were whimsical, weird and fun. Among them were
  • a deck of cake cards,
  • a collection of gilded cake deities,
  • a cake with words that you find as you slice it, eventually telling a story, and in a nod to Atwood's invention, the Long Pen,
  • a cake that can be sliced remotely from anywhere in the world.
Next up was prolific author and blogger Chuck Wendig, who talked about how awesome it is to be retweeted by Margaret Atwood and gave us a list of things we might not know about her, such as
  • she's a "social media badass" and a zombie afficionado,
  • she accurately predicted our current cultural apocalypse,
  • she helped create her own beer,
  • she was personally insulted by Doug Ford, brother of Rob,
  • she supports imaginary libraries of the future, and
  • she plays World of Warcraft.
Then Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians series, appeared and read a passage from The Handmaid's Tale which described the fall into dictatorship in that world. He went on to discuss her prescience and foresight when this novel came out in 1986.

But that was just the pre-show. Advertising for the event stated that there would be a "special guest," and the audience let out a collective gasp when Neil Gaiman crossed the stage to interview Atwood. The two had a wide-ranging and funny conversation about such topics as how big Canada is, witches, the thought police in America, the Long Pen, lurid covers on classic novels from the 50s and 60s, The Chronicles of Newgate, and Atwood's own "origin stories" as a writer. It turns out there are two. In the first, her now-deceased aunts say that she announced her intentions to be a writer at the age of 6. In the second, she says she knew she would be a writer at age 16.

It was a really great night. There was a signing after but I didn't bring anything to be signed, and we weren't allowed to take photos in the auditorium, so I hope this summary can give you a taste of what it was like.

Atwood is probably my favorite living author at this point and it was a treat to be in the audience for such a special event. Sometimes living in New York isn't so bad when I get to attend something like this!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: THE WORLD OF POSTSECRET, by Frank Warren

The World of PostSecret, by Frank Warren. Published 2014 by William Morrow. Art, Popular Culture.

In 2004 Frank Warren started asking people to send him postcards with their secrets written on them. People responded in droves to the opportunity to participate in his public confessional, and he's received countless secrets since then, started an extremely popular website/blog (, traveled the world doing events and shows, and published five earlier books.

This book is several things. It's a collection of secrets, like the earlier five. It's also a look back at the project, now ten years old, containing reminisces by Warren and his mail carrier, and stories about controversies, victories, special secrets and more. He also discusses the fate of the PostSecret app, and what the future might hold for the project, hinting that he's looking for a successor to take it on.

I've always been fascinated by PostSecret and have made a habit of visiting his blog every Sunday to see the latest secrets. I think the project appeals to people on several levels. There's an aspect of voyeurism at wanting to see others' secrets. There's a wish to find out if someone else has the same secrets one has. (Am I the only one who...?) And there's the art itself, the beautiful and strange and wonderfully bizarre and personal images and messages that people take the time to produce. Finally, I think the project appeals to people not only as a way to express their own secrets but to see others reaching across the digital world, reaching out, and being that person who receives the message, like a message in a bottle.

The messages take all forms. Just about any secret you can think of, you will find on the website or in one of Warren's books. It makes you think how alike we all are, how we struggle with so many of the same things. Empathy is the biggest take-away, the chance to consider struggles from many different  perspectives. I wonder about the stories behind the secrets, too. What compelled the person to share, what got him or her into the situation and how will it be resolved? What's it like to live with these secrets day to day? Probably, it's the same as it is for all of us to live with our secrets. Reading this book reminds you you're not alone no matter what you struggle with.

I recommend it to readers who like the confessional and the personal, and I also recommend it as a holiday gift for anyone for whom you bought Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half last year. It's the kind of thing that different kinds of people who enjoy on different levels, including a lot of people who wouldn't think of picking it up for themselves. It can kind of hang out on the coffee table or the nightstand and be the kind of book you pick through a little at a time, then return to in a quiet moment now and then, a book for introverts if you will. I liked it.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Holiday Traditions & My Favorite Cookbooks

The holiday season starts soon!

At Thanksgiving and Christmastime, tradition takes over from the chaos of everyday. My family and I plan get-togethers and parties, and we all have our favorite foods to bring and enjoy. Thanksgiving is low-key and homey; I bake a cheesecake for Thanksgiving, then muffins and scones and cake for family gatherings the following weekend. When Christmas hits, everything just gets more sparkly. I bring out the sparkly pins, sparkly sweaters and cover my home in decorations. My cooking gets in on the sparkles, too, as I plan and execute my yearly cookie spread.

The grandmother of all baking books is the Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking. It's out of print and hard to find, and my copy is all cracked and falling apart, but it's still the one I turn to for the basics and even the not-so-basics. You'll get all your classic cookies here plus fun things like a Christmas-tree-shaped cinnamon bread and more. I don't know what I would do without it.

For Thanksgiving, my family loves for me to make the scone recipe from this book; for Christmas, the Mexican wedding cake cookies and gingersnaps, peanut kiss cookies and coconut macaroons are standbys.
These "Cranberry-Orange Pinwheels" are a beloved staple of my Christmas cookie table, always made with Nantucket cranberries straight from the bogs.

The Gourmet Cookie Book is a collection of recipes from the storied magazine, and not just any recipes. This volume collects the "single best recipe" from 1941-2009. It's not just a cookbook but a little bit of social and culinary history. Each cookie has a story, and the cookies range from the easy to the difficult, the classic to the exotic.

I've made black and whites, strawberry tarts and discovered a new family favorite in the "Mocha Cookie," a rich chocolate cookie with an espresso-powder kick. And it's a really fun book to read to boot.
When I worked in synagogues I came across Marcy Goldman's A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and it's become one of my favorites. For post-Thanksgiving brunch my family loves the "Delicatessen-Style Classic Sour Cream Coffee Cake," a rich, buttery bundt cake laced with nuts and spices and topped with an almond-flavored glaze. It's amazing! And this is another can't-go-wrong cookbook.

This photo shows the coffee cake on the left and the scones from the Pillsbury book on the right, on our Thanksgiving buffet table a few years ago. The cranberry corn bread in the center is from a book  I no longer own and whose title I don't remember.

Now that we've moved, I'm not sure what's going to happen to our holiday traditions. This will be the first year either my husband or I have had to travel for holidays and I've already decided not to bake and transport a cheesecake. Instead, I  ordered a chocolate babka from a New York baker and had it shipped home.

And my cookie spread? I don't know. It would be nice to think I could round up enough New York friends for a holiday party, but it's hard enough to get together every day. So we'll see. I definitely want to bake- I just need to make sure there will be people who will eat! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I finished a couple of books last week. A Spy Among Friends is going to be one of my favorites for the year, and then I read the very short but fascinating Widow Basquiat, a biography/memoir by Jennifer Clement of Suzanne Mallouk, a Canadian woman who became the muse and lover of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and remained his friend to the end of his life. The book is a great portrait of New York and the art scene in the 80s. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Madonna and others make appearances too.

This week I'm very nearly done with Augustus, by John Williams, an epistolary novel about the Roman emperor who brought 200 years of peace to the empire. It's fascinating and wonderful.

I'm loving The Narrow Road to the Deep North, this year's Booker Prize winner by Richard Flanagan. It's a hard read- think Unbroken only fictional- but beautifully, almost impossibly beautifully, written. It even has a tragic love story at its core.

My friend gave me an ARC of Zac Bissonnette's new book, The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, a history of the ubiquitous plush that charts the rise and fall of the crazy craze of the late nineties when people flipped them for hundreds of dollars and lined up at Hallmark stores and ate Happy Meals till they puked to get the teenies. I never did any of that, but I did collect them and I'm finding the book to be fascinating and a really good time. It comes out in January.

What are you reading this week? I hope everyone who celebrates it has a very Happy Thanksgiving!