29 December 2011

Book Review: Kristin Hannah's Home Front (audio)

I should be clear up front that a book like Kristin Hannah's Home Front would never be one that I would pick up to read, but I'm less particular about what books I listen to on my daily commute.  There was a complimentary CD version of Home Front (read by Maggi-Meg Reed) available to booksellers and I made good use of it.  It is definitely not my cup of tea, but I do understand what many readers find appealing about her.

Home Front is a story about a family, more specifically about a couple, Michael and Jolene.  Michael is a high powered criminal attorney with little time to devote to his family.  Jolene is the perfect wife and mother of two girls Betsy and Lucy Lu (not to be confused with Lucy Liu, as I first heard her name), but she is also a Blackhawk pilot in the National Guard.  When her unit is called to serve in  Iraq, everybody's life changes.  Before she leaves, Michael tells Jolene he doesn't love her any more and naturally she hardens her heart against him as a means of survival.  At this point, spoilers lie ahead, so be forewarned. I just cannot be arsed to do the whole hide-by-highlighting-the-text bit:  Meanwhile back at the ranch, parents have flip-flopped their roles and Michael becomes a full-care parent with the aid of his own mother, while Jolene becomes more and more distant, both literally and figuratively.  Jolene's helicopter gets shot down, leaving one crew member to do on site and both Jolene and her best friend gravely injured.  Jolene loses her leg and (eventually) her best friend, launching her into full-on depression, but apparently nobody notices or cares enough for her to get counseling.  I mean, who are these people?  Why doesn't someone take note of her mental state? And oh, yeah, she's got PTSD, which her husband conveniently recognizes because his big case is defending a young Marine who shot his wife. Michael & Jolene: will they or won't they reconcile?  Will they become a family unit again? Will bratty Betsy buck up?  Possibly. Will obnoxious Lucy Lu ever stop being obnoxious? Possibly not.

If I sound flippant, it's because I have two major gripes with this story: it's both overwrought and repetitive.  If I read (well, heard) a version of "her old way of life was lost along with her leg" once, I heard it a couple dozen times.  Hannah is, unfortunately, a master of tell, don't show, and apparently telling things once isn't enough for her.  The story is patently formulaic and utterly predictable, which I don't always object to, but it is pretty emotionally manipulative, which I think is a greater sin.  What could have been  a truly interesting book exploring modern gender roles, taking hard look at how PTSD can affect soldiers & their families, and moreover about the way our country has abandoned those soldiers to their own devices without proper mental and psychological care has turned out to be very trivial, indeed. There is a line near the end of the book that I'm paraphrasing, something like, "How can it be more difficult to return home than it is to go off to war?"  I wish Hannah had crafted a more substantive answer to that very compelling question.

(I also wish the book had been better edited.  For example, at one point in the third person narration it says "Michael was literally at the end of his rope."  Why, no he wasn't.  He wasn't literally at the end of any rope--not hanging from one, not being pulled by one. It bugs me when people use "literally" incorrectly and any editor should know better than that, even if the writer doesn't. So in this case, not only is the language trite, the usage is incorrect. Gah.)

This was clearly not the book for me, but I would still listen to more of Kristin Hannah's books if I could get them for free, so I suppose there's that.  After all, I listened to the entire book, and I found myself crying in traffic on more than one occasion. Several, actually--I was drawn emotionally into the story in a way that I wasn't expecting, but that might have as much to do with the good reader as the story itself; it's so hard to say. The author clearly has a strong readership, and I suspect that people who are drawn to Nicholas Sparks' stories (which I also find overwrought, but plenty of people like 'em for what they are) or to Jodi Picoult's style of storytelling would really enjoy Kristin Hannah's novels. 

Have *you* read Kristin Hannah?  Are you a fan? Tell me what I'm missing!

27 December 2011

Top 10 for 2011


January 2011 marked the first time in years in which I actually recorded in a journal the title and author of every book I read.  Not coincidentally, my participation in Goodreads and my own book blogging rose exponentially.  The last time I had recorded the books I read (and by "books read" I include both unabridged audio books and novel-length fanfiction pieces) was in 2002, and that year I read 113 books.  Not wanting to set myself up for failure, my Goodreads goal for 2011 was 125 books, so I was quite gratified to see (as of this writing on 23 December) that my tally actually came to 148, with one week left to hit the Big 150.  I might just make it.

Thus my deliberation over my Top Ten for the year--I have never truly read as many terrific books in a single year as I have read in 2011.  My personal parameters to be included on this list is that the book had to be published either in hardcover or paperback in 2011, which eliminates a good number of backlist books, not-yet-published books, and some excellent pieces of fanfiction.  Here's how my overall reading stacked up:

Fiction: 129
Nonfiction: 19
Audio: 13
YA: 32
Fanfiction: 10 (I did not count re-reads within in the same year)

In no particular order, then, here are my picks for 2011.  Each hyperlinked title will take you to my review of the book.  Last year, as I recall, I had only reviewed about 2/3 of my Top Ten 2010 list, so here is even more evidence that my book blogging has been on the rise for 2011:

Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (NB: This was probably my favorite, but not necessarily the best, book of 2011.  After all, it's not every book that makes you want to dye your hair a color not found in nature)

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Open City by Teju Cole (In my masterful and superior opinion, 
Cole was robbed of the National Book Award for this book)

Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji

Submission by Amy Waldman (these last two almost function as two halves of the same coin -- both are stories of politics & religion in a post-9/11, anti-Islamic western world; one is emotionally engaging and the other is emotionally detached)


Best Nonfiction: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller


Best YA: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly


Honorable mention: The Song of Achilles (not published until next year), 
but would have otherwise been in the Top Three.  

With the exceptions of The Sojourn, which I picked up from a generic White Box mailing to my bookstore, and Revolution, which I received from my Secret Santa, all of these books came from my wonderful sales reps, whom I'd like to thank here.  Y'all are terrific and I'm so very grateful that you keep me in books.  In order from the book listed on top: Jennifer Philpott from MPS, Anne DeCourcey from Harper, Ann Kingman from Random House, Michael Kindness from Random House, Roger Saginario from Hachette, and Karl Krueger from Penguin/Viking. (Some publishers are represented more than once, which is why I have more books listed here than reps, and there are some reps, like John Muse from Simon & Schuster and my many great University Press reps, whose books didn't make it to my Top Ten list, but who ought to be recognized, too.)

25 December 2011

And So This is Christmas...


Image source: http://www.disclose.tv


NB: This is a slightly modified post from last year that I wanted to reuse for Christmas.

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  But there's a Christmas song lingering in my mind right now that I have been listening to more or less on a loop for the last couple of days.  I love sacred Christmas carols, though I'm not Christian. Agnostic, I suppose is the proper term.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. A lapsed Whiskeypalian if you want to get playful with it.  Whatever it is that I believe, it's reinforced by listening to traditional ecclesiastical music and looking deeply into my dog's eyes and listening to my cats purr.  And whatever spark of the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my recent soundtrack  Loreena McKennitt's performance of Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.  Okay, so  regardless of any divine stuff,  a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that, if not his divinity.  But what does the celebration of his birth mean for the world today, all those angels and mangers (bacon creche?) and glorias in excelsis deo *? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, yet so sorely lacking in our current times where grace and graciousness are endangered species.  

With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling--
Yonder peasant, who is he? 
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence,
By St. Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, 
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bring them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together.
Heedless of the wind's lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night grows darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze the blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, all good folk, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
You who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourself find blessing.

Here's a link that will take you directly to a YouTube video that uses McKennitt's haunting song. It's not just the song, for me, but also the arrangement that is so important.  I love the melding of a traditional western carol and adding Celtic and Middle Eastern musical elements as well as instruments you don't normally hear outside a medieval/Renaissance festival. The Middle Eastern aspect actually places the song in a historical context like never before, and I like that it feels like it has come full circle.

* Glory to God in the highest
**And on earth, peace to all people

24 December 2011

Pandemonium Giveaway Winner



Thank you to everybody who entered my Pandemonium giveaway.  My gently-read advance reading copy of Lauren Oliver's sequel to Delirium, to be released in March 2012, goes to...


Nikki, please send me your mailing address and I'll get this out to you by the end of the year.  Congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did!

 Thank you, Random.org, for an outstanding job picking a random number.

20 December 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Santa, May I?

 Oh, the Top Ten Tuesday meme.  It's so much fun to participate, and all the more so when I have time to write up my answer the week before.  This week, the good folks at The Broke & the Bookish want us to list the top ten books we hope Santa (or the fairies, or the Christmas Pig, or your childhood guardian of choice) brings us.  Like the rest of the book blogging world, I love getting books for Christmas.  Unlike the rest of the book blogging world (or at least unlike most of it), people rarely gift me with books.  You see, I work in a bookstore and now everybody who might have bought me a book feels intimidated about buying books for me.  I get it, I suppose.  I have access to advance reading copies, not to mention a generous employee discount and a good relationship with sales reps who are generally happy to send me books, gratis.  But it also makes me sad because nobody ever gives me a book and says, with real urgency, Read This.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  Woe is I.  There are much worse problems to have, so without further ado, here is a list of books I'd love to receive:

1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  It's a door-stopper, but also a literary game changer.  I want this one.

2. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi.  I just had a customer rave about this book to me.  (In fact, it was local writing sensation Kelly Link who raved about it, which makes me want to read it even more.  We just discovered that we both love Molly Gloss's book, The Hearts of Horses, so I had a booksellerly moment.)

3. If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black.  This looks really good.  I've got a coworker  (Nieves--she's awesome) who has been raving to me about this book, and she's even let me borrow it. You see, I'm not a particularly good book borrower (don't ask me how, but when I handle borrowed books they inevitably end up damaged), but if it were my own, I wouldn't have to worry about damaging it.

4. Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan.  This is the sequel to The Last Werewolf and I can't wait to sink my teeth into it.  Pun absolutely intended.

5. General travel literature.  Especially if it's funny or about a warm climate.  A la Bill Bryson or J Maarten Troost.  Maybe Tony Horwitz's Blue Latitudes or even the 2011 Best Travel Writing anthology. 

6. What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. 2010's Matterhorn was a monument of Vietnam literature, but it wasn't my piece of cake.  I think, though, that I would like Marlantes' non-fiction account. 

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I never actually read this book, though I'm not sure how I escaped it.  But my husband recently read it and loved it, so maybe he'll give me his copy. 

8. The last book in the Incarceron series by Catherine Fisher.  Don't know when it will be published, but if there's an ARC floating around out there, I'd love for Santa to bring it to me.

9. Well-written memoirs of interesting women.  This year I read Alexandra Fuller's memoir/bio of her mother, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which I loved. Anything else that fits the bill would be great.

10. Any book that the giver has read and loved and wants me to read, too, so that we can have a shared experience.

What about you?  What is the #1 book on your book wish list this year? 

NB: Last chance to win a copy of Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver.  Click here to sign up! 

19 December 2011

Book Review: White Truffles in Winter by N. M. Kelby

First of all, isn't this a lovely cover, sensuously hinting at all of the good food writing contained therein?  I do believe that it is the cover the first drew me to this book back when my Norton sales rep, David, was in town.  He left me a copy of the ARC months ago but I'm just now getting around to reading it.  Like that sweatshirt that my mom got me says, it's always a case of So many books, so little time. 

This is the story of the great French chef, Escoffier, and his life and loves, told in a variety of ways: from the present, in which his wife Delphine, is dying but longing for him to create a dish in her honor; from chapters of the memoir which the present Escoffier is currently writing; and from the past, in which we get third person accounts of Escoffier's feats, ranging from wartime survival to loving Sarah Bernhardt, to running the kitchen at the famed Savoy in London.  This hodgepodge of narratives robs the book of any real coherence.  Early on, at least, the chapters alternate on a regular basis but in the latter half of the novel it switches a little willy-nilly and the novel suffers from this lack of continuity.

There are some gorgeous passages describing food in this novel--probably the best food writing I've read since Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody.  And I found my heart aching a little bit for Delphine, who on her death bed wants her husband to pay her the same compliment that he's paid his lovers through the years: to immortalize her through food.  But there is very little character development here, and what little there is of Escoffier's development leaves me vastly disinterested in him.  He seems to be a man of neither action nor honor. 

The writing serves the story well enough, and there are a few moments of simple eloquence of art, food, & truth--and that narrative integrity simply be a matter of perception:
"Impossible stories--they are the key to all good restaurants.  It [the "fresh" sole] could be frozen; it makes no difference. The diner will think it fresh, glorious. He pays for the story. If the story is told well, with imagination and conviction and the right amount of ego and embroidery, then it is true enough.  And something that is true enough is all anyone can ever ask for."
If I had gone into this novel with any sort of expectations, I might say that I was disappointed. But instead I'll say that this was a pleasant interlude between far more serious and literary novels--an amuse bouche, if you will.  In the end I found myself not caring much whether Escoffier created a dish for Delphine or not, or whether he had betrayed his country or not, or whether Sandra Bernhardt was pitiable or not.  Reading about the intense passions the French reserve for their food, however?  Now that was worth the prix fixe dinner! 

18 December 2011

Broke & Bookish Secret Santa, or What a Haul!

I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up to participate in this year's Secret Santa, hosted by the good folks at The Broke and the Bookish (yes, the same good folks who sponsor the Top Ten Tuesday meme). But when TB&B matched my Secret Santa to me, I really hit the jackpot.  Ms. Thorp (whose blog is unknown to me--I'd love to find out more but a Google search didn't turn anything up) knows how to treat a gal: she filled my box with loads o' goodies: yummy gummy candies, two pairs of cheerful Christmas socks (Dobby would be *so* jealous), and a magnetic kitty notepad, which would be awesome enough on their own.  But she also sent me lovely copies of Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution and Abraham Verghese's My Own Country, two books which, while vastly divergent, have been on my reading list for some time. 

So this is my space to say thank you, Audrey Thorp, for your extreme generosity and goodwill.  I can't wait to start my new books, and if by some remote chance you see this post and wish to make your blog known to me so that I can become an ardent follower (but not in a stalkerish way), I'd love that!

15 December 2011

Book Review: Two Short Story Collections by Nathan Englander and Rahul Mehta

It wasn't my express intention to travel with two collections of short stories last weekend when I traveled to Jackson, but that's how the ball bounces sometimes.  The first, Quarantine, by Rahul Mehta is a backlist book from Harper Perennial that I originally purchased for vacation in October but never got the chance to read.  I bought it after reading a review on somebody's blog that I follow, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.  The stories in Quarantine are definitely discrete stories (in other words, this is not a novel-in-stories), but they are all explorations in character for young, gay men of Indian extraction.  I found the collection good; always thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing.  Family and cultural expectations weigh heavily on these young men, often resulting in unintentionally cruel or destructive behavior to both their partners and elders.  This appears to be Mehta's first published book, and his short stories are in the popular modern US style (think of the kind of short stories published in The New Yorker these days), which is not my preferred short story style (my two favorites are Jhumpa Lahiri and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt).  But just because it's not my cup of tea doesn't meant I'm not looking forward to his future work, and I think his is a voice to be reckoned with. (NB: This book qualifies for my South Asian Challenge)

The second collection I read on my trip, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander, gets the award for unwieldiest title of the year, all homage to Raymond Carver aside.   I very much admired Englander's debut collection of stories many years ago called For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and thus was happy when Ann Kingman, my Knopf sales rep, gave me an ARC of this new one to read. Like Mehta's, these stories are about the lives and times of a particular contemporary cultural group--in this case, American and Israeli Jews.  And like Mehta's, these stories are always thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing, and of a New Yorker-y style (I know for a fact that the titular story was published there earlier).

I didn't realize that I would be essentially writing the same review for two story collections that on the surface are quite dissimilar, but when you boil 'em down turn out to be surprisingly identical.  There's a certain narrative remove from each collection, and while Englander has an unconventionally structured first-person story that is presumably somewhat autobiographical, each book has a sameness running throughout it.  I used to think that Englander's voice was one to be reckoned with, too, but now I have to question my judgment.  This collection may be strong in terms of the writing, but it doesn't show much range.  Then again, I have a co-worker who levels that same criticism against Lahiri, whose work I love and emotionally engage in, so maybe you shouldn't pay attention to what I say.

14 December 2011

Eating (and Drinking) My Way Through Jackson

As soon as I learned that my husband and I would be traveling to Jackson last weekend, I began compiling a must-visit list of restaurants and foods that would complete our trip. There are many things that I love about New England compared with Mississippi, particularly the politics and the summers, but  regional cuisine ain't one of them.  Up here in the Kingdom of the Yankee, bbq is more like a noun than a verb, and if you can find grits or sweet tea at all, even mediocre samples, you're lucky. We were traveling so that DH could promote his newest middle grade book, The Cheshire Cheese Cat, and as such we were tied a good bit to the itinerary that Peachtree Publishers and the host bookstore, Lemuria, had planned, but that still gave us plenty of room to maneuver, as you'll see.

(Image found online)
Now, I'm not a fast food fan.  I eat meat but I try my best to avoid any factory-farmed food, which eliminates most fast food options.  I cannot, however, resist the siren call of Krystal Burgers when I head South, and thus our pilgrimage began during our layover in concourse A in ATL.  My DH also confesses to a deep-seated fondness for these sliders, as the chain began in his hometown of Chattanooga, TN.  It really is the perfect blend of mustard, pickle, and onion, and oh, those warm, pillowy buns.  We each ate two burgers and shared an order of fries and sighed with satisfaction before boarding our connecting flight to JAN.

Patrick & Elizabeth, a dynamic sibling duo! Note the stained glass.
Next up was dinner at El Charro, a Mexican restaurant that has opened in Jackson since I lived there.  My dear friends, Patrick & Elizabeth, and I have a tradition of eating Mexican food together when I'm in town and El Charro was a good addition to our food ritual.  The atmosphere is a fun one, filled with both families and local college students, and the food was really quite good.  I had one of the vegetarian platters with chile relleno and spinach enchiladas.  Not, perhaps, thoroughly authentic, but I was more than satisfied, and the price simply cannot be beat.  My entire platter was only $7.99.  My main complaint about Mexican food at home is that it is either good or affordable, but never both, so I wish there was a place like El Charro in western MA.  Plus how can you not like a restaurant with fun stained glass windows like those?

Broad Street Bakery

Those grits are mmm-mmm, good!
On Friday, Emily Grossenbacher, the children's bookseller at Lemuria, had arranged for us to visit a couple of local schools to talk about Cheshire Cheese Cat and the art of illustration.  To use my DH's own colorful language, the thought of talking to hundreds of 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade children makes his ass suck wind, so clearly we had to fortify ourselves with breakfast at Broad Street Bakery, housed in the same building as Lemuria.  As a transplant from WI to MS, I was leery of grits, but once I embraced them, it was with the fervor of the twice-saved finding salvation through Jesus.  So believe me when I say that Broad Street's cheese grits are unparalleled--I've paid twice as much for half as good in the heralded breakfast restaurants of New Orleans (Brennan's, Commander's Palace, etc). Creamy and cheesey and hot and delicious and yummy and I'm about to run out of ways to praise them 'cause my mouth is watering at the sheer memory.  You don't know from grits if you've never eaten them at Broad Street. Just a cup of grits and a side of their minted fruit salad was enough to send us once more into the breach of those middle schoolers. 

After DH's last presentation for the day, all three of us were hungry so we stopped in at The Hickory Pit to nosh on some pulled pork sandwiches.  I'm afraid that I inhaled my own sandwich so quickly that I neglected to take a photo of it, but I found a photo on the Jackson Metromix website that shows the unsauced pulled pork, served up with coleslaw (on the sandwich, not the side) and a side of chunky fries where you can actually taste all of their potatoey goodness.  Note to Yankees: if you're served a pulled pork sandwich that's already doused in sauce, you're not getting authentic BBQ.  The customer should always be the one to add the sauce, and ideally there should be more than one option.

photo credit: Jackson Metromix.  Note lack of sauce.
At Hickory Pit, you get your choice of hot, mild, or sweet sauce.  They're all good. Plus, it's affordable.  It's done fast-food style, so you pick up your food at the counter and bus your own tables, which keeps overhead down.  Many so-called bbq places up north where I live charge you three times what we paid for our sandwiches AND they have the gall to serve wine.  No, sir!  Beer or sweet tea, or water in a pinch--those are the only three permissible beverages to accompany bbq.  (I nearly drank my weight in sweet tea that day at Hickory Pit.  They've got the best ice and their lemon wedges ain't stingy.)

Primo's Cafe & Bakery
We had one mission to complete in-between leaving the bookstore and meeting friends for dinner, and that was procuring a caramel cake for the following evening.  I don't know why, but caramel cake doesn't seem to exist north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Come to think of it, that might be what the War of Northern Aggression was really about.  (Just kidding--I don't really think that, or call the Civil War that, except around Yankees who judge me based on my accent.)  Anyway, back to the cake.  Caramel cake is nothing but a yellow layer cake with caramel icing.   It's not complicated to make, exactly, but it is a little fiddly to get the icing right since there's a small window of temperature between grainy icing and burnt sugar.  We called Campbell's bakery first, but they need 2-3 days' notice to make a caramel cake. We found one at Primo's bakery, which is cute as a button. Best $37.50 I've ever spent.  We also picked up a small round layer of strawberry cake, which is another Southern delicacy not easily found up  north, more's the pity.

Please note full moon rising above the restaurant
Source: Char's website.  Our booth is in the bottom left corner
It's truly a shame that we ate lunch so late in the day because it meant we weren't able to do justice for dinner that night.  DH and I met up with Elizabeth and her husband, Tim, for dinner at Char, another restaurant that has opened since I departed Jackson.  Well, it was wonderful. The four of us had a cozy semi-circle booth and we celebrated our first reunion since their marriage two years ago in New Orleans with a round of cocktails--all good, all generous pours.  Tim and I each ordered the house salad with comeback dressing.  (Lawd, but do you know how long it's been since I've seen comeback dressing on a menu?  Too long!)  They were good, and Tim gave his an A while I would award mine a B for being overdressed.  Elizabeth and DH only ordered one course each: a salad with grilled salmon for the former and an appetizer-portion of marinated crab claws for DH.  Tim and I then moved on to the filet mignon special and the bbq shrimp & grits appetizer, respectively.  All four main courses were excellent, and despite everybody at the table pitching in to share DH's crab claws, there were still some left over.


Tim obligingly demonstrates the size of the cake compared to the human head.
The piece de resistance, however, was dessert.  We ordered two for the table: the chocolate cake as big as your head express and their award-winning pecan caramel butter crunch.  I'm not a big chocolate cake person, but even I could tell that Char's was something special, but for me it was nothing compared to the butter crunch, topped with vanilla ice cream and a Granny Smith apple cinnamon glaze. That might be one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth.  It pained me to leave any of it on the plate, I tell you, but eating dinner less than four hours after a big lunch was simply not a challenge I was up for.

Besides the opportunity to catch up with Elizabeth and Tim, one of the best things about our dinner was our server, Lloyd.  He was soft-spoken, pleasant, knowledgeable, courteous and he possessed the rare instinct of knowing the exact number of times to check in with us without making us feel rushed, interrupted, or neglected. When I discovered that I had forgotten to photograph the chocolate cake the size of a human head before we all demolished it, he had another one made up in the kitchens for us.  That Lloyd.  What a sweetheart. 

This post is getting a little long in the tooth, so let me be brief about two meals on Saturday so that I don't waste space and readerly goodwill.  We breakfasted at Broad Street one more time before DH's booksigning: more cheese grits, some freshly-squoze orange juice (feel free to say "freshly-squeezed" if you want to, but don't expect me to say anything but squoze), a biscuit. My dad drove up from Purvis, MS, to have lunch with us, so we took him to Bravo, which was really good, but I have no photos to share, plus it's a restaurant owned by the same folks as Broad Street, so I've given them enough bandwidth for now. 

Cathead Vodka logo
That afternoon we met up with our  pal Mel Evans, who drove us up to Gluckstadt, MS, to see her son's new company, Cathead Vodka, the only legal still in MS.  Austin Evans and his business partner Richard Patrick started Cathead nearly two years ago as a means of combining two of their favorite things: booze and the blues.  We got a tour of the facility and sipped some of the goods, too.  Austin and Richard are joining forces with Lazy Magnolia Brewery (founded by my ol' MSMS classmate, Mark Henderson) to produce a whiskey made in part from the latter's Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.
A portion of Cathead proceeds goes to support music & the arts

Richard & Austin in front of their still
Label maker for Cathead Vodka (it's yummy!)

After a while we bid adieu to Austin & Richard and headed back to the hacienda, Chez Evans at Fox Hollow, to get ready for that night's gathering. John and his bookstore staff work harder than anybody I know during the month of December (they elect to work every single day between Thanksgiving and Christmas--I remember doing it myself back in the day), so John decided to invite his booksellers out to his place on DH's and my last night there to kick back, share stories & beverages of the adult variety, drool over his library, and make fools of ourselves over his pool table. Some pizza pies and that fabulous caramel cake topped off this wonderful evening of books, blues, and brews.

'Tis a fine, fine thing
Look at all of that caramel goodness!

Yes, caramel cake is a fine, fine thing.  But I really need to end with a photo of the two men I love most in the world: my DH and John Evans, the man who is mentor, friend, and father figure, all rolled into one.  They love each other, I love them both, and I would not have met (and married) the one if it were not for the other.  To friends and fellowship, I raise this particular glass of bourbon, and if it happens to go well with the caramel cake, so much the better.

My DH and John


 NB: Interested in winning a copy of  Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver's much-awaited sequel to Delirium? Click here!

13 December 2011

A Poo in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush?

Mr Hankey, from South Park Studios website
Let me give fair warning: some readers may find this blog post vulgar at best and offensive at worst.  So if you're squeamish about any of the words in the title, I'd advise you to come back and visit my blog another time.  Otherwise, read on, you sickos.

It's not every day that one hears a humorous anecdote about pooing in one's hand, so imagine my surprise when this past Thursday when visiting Jackson, MS, I heard about two separate and completely unrelated poo-in-hand incidents.  My husband and I traveled to Jackson to promote his newest book for middle grades, The Cheshire Cheese Cat, and we were pretty stoked to learn that our arrival coincided with David Sedaris's reading at Lemuria, one of the country's great bookstores, and the store in which I first plied my trade.

I had met Sedaris once before about 12 years ago at Lemuria for his Me Talk Pretty One Day tour, one hot July day when the power happened to go out in our building.  Trust me when I say you don't want to be stuck inside a building with no windows that can open at the height of summer in Mississippi.  It's the kind of thing that makes tempers flare and egos grow larger than the Grinch's heart after he hears the Whos singing on Christmas Day.  Sedaris, however, was as gracious as he could be to the store staff and the customers who braved the swelter to meet him, and though I hadn't read him up until that moment, I have now become something of a completist where his work is concerned, reading all of his essay collections and owning most of them on CD to enjoy regularly on my daily commute.

Last week, though, Sedaris's fame in Jackson had grown considerably since my visit with him and he read to a sold-out crowd for the paperback release of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.  My husband and I got to play the former-employee-of Lemuria card, though, and perch on barstools with the rest of the staff at the back of the room.  After reading the titular story and an unpublished essay about what he'd do if he ruled the world, Sedaris started sharing some diary entries he'd written about outrageous stories people have told him through the years.  One of them was a bizarre little tale about poo.

Apparently somebody once confessed to Sedaris that when she was in a public restroom and in need of moving her bowels, she would poo first into her hand before gently letting the poo slide silently into the water, so great was her need to keep people in neighboring stalls from knowing what she was doing.  That's right; she pooed in her hand so that nobody would hear the tell-tale kersplash of her Number Two.  But that's not even the worst of it: Sedaris found himself relating this tale among friends and fans alike, with several people corroborating that they didn't think it was odd at all to poo in the hand instead of in the bowl--and in fact had either done it themselves or knew somebody who had.  Who are these people? And do we really trust them to wash their hands thoroughly afterwards?

Sedaris's delivery is uproariously funny (and even better in person than on audio) and my eyes were bright with unshed tears from laughing so hard.  But little did I know that two hours later over dinner with friends that I would be given the opportunity to say, "Speaking of pooing in your hand..." You see, my husband and I joined some dear friends for dinner after the reading.  Over dinner one of them casually mentioned a girl she knew who had to be monitored when she went to the restroom because she pooed in her hand.  Frankly, I don't think this segue to my talking about the Sedaris event could have been improved upon.

So you must see, dear reader, how compelled I was to share these anecdotes with you.  I mean, what are the chances that I would be treated to back-to-back poo-in-the-hand stories? The odds have to be astronomically high against, right?

I think I'll close with a photo that my friend thoughtfully shared with me that I think you'll find shows a certain synchronicity: it's a photo of that day's dessert in the cafeteria at school.  Tune in next time to read how I ate my weight in cheese grits and pulled pork sandwiches and caramel cake during my trip to Jackson.

 NB: Interested in winning a copy of  Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver's much-awaited sequel to Delirium? Click here!

Chocolate covered bananas. Yum!

06 December 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites



I love this week's Top Ten Tuesday theme, hosted each week by The Broke & the Bookish.  This week they are revisiting their first ever TTT by asking us to list our childhood favorites.  I spent my earliest childhood in a small mill town in Wisconsin and then later in a small town in MS.  We didn't have a lot of money for books but Wisconsin had an excellent library, which my mother encouraged, and I was lucky to have adults in my life who gifted me with books once I moved to MS (where the library was a joke, sadly).

In no particular order, here are the books that defined my childhood.  I'll use the sixth grade as a rough cut-off point between childhood and adolescence.  Looking back on these now, it's amazing to me that my mom found as many books with strong girl characters as she did back in the 1970s and early 1980s--all the more impressive since she has never, ever self-identified as a feminist.

1. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink.  This was a Newbery award winner that happened to be set in Wisconsin.  Naturally I devoured it. 

2. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The first book was also set in Wisconsin, which I loved, and I went on to read all of them, even the icky First Four Years with all of the romance and wedding and baby stuff. A grandmother figure gave me the entire boxed set on my birthday, which I treasured.

3. The Pippi Longstalking books by Astrid Lindgren.  Talk about strong female characters--Pippi was literally the strongest person I knew.  I might have loved the South Seas book best of all. 

4. The Trixie Belden mystery series by Julia Campbell and Katherine Kinney.  Lawd, I loathed Nancy Drew, but Trixie was a tomboy whose mystery solving I could really relate to. 

5. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  I loved the next two books in the series, too.

6-8. A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle.  I still remember the magic of first reading about misfit Meg, smart but with no way of fitting in. My adult sister gave me these for Christmas the year I turned seven and they helped me understand my world. 

9. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.  I still remember the one-sentence description on the back of my edition: "How Aslan, the noble lion, saved Narnia from the White Witch."  I was instantly smitten.  The same grandmother figure gave me the entire boxed set for Christmas one year, which I read until they fell apart, but the first book was always my favorite.

10.  Not sure what book should go here since nothing else is a clear favorite.  I'll go with Edith Hamilton's Mythology, but it could have easily been Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Maybe some of Walter Farley's The Black Stallion books. 

How about you?  What books are on your list?  Harry Potter would surely have made my list if they'd been written a couple of decades earlier!

NB: I've got a Lauren Oliver giveaway for her forthcoming book, Pandemonium, if you want to click here to enter.