Best Books Of 2016

Author and FOFriend, Linda Wolfe, recommends five books for the new year.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, My Daughter, Myself: An Unexpected Journey. She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years. Her latest reviews capture everything from 1960s Kabul to present-day hostages in Somalia.

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NUTSHELL
by Ian McEwan

Nan Talese/Doubleday.

If you haven’t already read this, put buying it at the top of your To Do list. And give it to yourself, not someone else, though that’s not a bad idea, either. With Nutshell, the masterful McEwan, of Atonement and Saturday fame, has produced another masterpiece. This, despite its absurd premise – or maybe because of it. The absurdity? The story is told by a foetus.   

He’s a clever little fella. Knows all about wine, especially his mother’s favorites, French burgundy and a good Sancerre, which come to him, he explains, “decanted through her healthy placenta.” Knows too all about  Norway, with its generous social provisions, and Italy with its excellent regional cuisine. How is this possible? It’s because, he tells us, “I listen. My mother likes the radio and prefers talk to music…I hear, above the launderette din of stomach and bowels, the news, wellspring of all bad dreams. I listen closely to analysis and dissent.”

He also listens to his mother’s conversations. And, poor little eavesdropper, he overhears her plotting with her lover, his uncle, to murder his father. She is Trudy. He is Claude. Get it?  Nutshell is, in a nutshell, Shakespeare’s Hamlet as experienced and related by an unborn baby. This one sure doesn’t like Claude. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” he says. “By this late stage [of pregnancy], they should be refraining on my behalf.  Courtesy, if not clinical judgment, demands it. I close my eyes. I grit my gums. I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.”

The book is hilarious. Its also wondrous, with every sentence chiseled to perfection – perhaps in homage to Shakespeare. Most delicious of all, Nutshell is a page turner. Its suspense builds and climbs as we wonder if this older-than-his-years, or even older-than-his-months little creature who’s telling us the story will be able to prevent the murder.

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE NEWS OF THE WORLD
by Paulette Jiles

William Morrow.

This book had me reading on the edge of my seat and metaphorically biting my nails. A historical novel, it’s set in the wilds of Texas in the years immediately following the Civil War. The story is told by elderly Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes his living by driving his covered wagon to isolated small towns where he reads the news of the world to settlers with no access to newspapers. One day, he’s asked by a federal agent to take on the task of transporting to her remaining family members a ten-year-old child who, at the age of six, had been taken captive by the Kiowa Indians after they scalped her German-American parents.

The girl is a handful. She doesn’t want to be rescued. She considers herself a Kiowa, and has become very attached to her captors. (Apparently, we learn in an endnote, this was common among children taken by Indians; very few of them wished to be rescued and returned to relatives.)  She has no memory of what her original name was, so Kidd gives her a name: Johanna.  

At first the Captain finds the girl, with her blond braids flaunting bits of stick, her immobile face, and her icy blue-eyed stare, “malign.” She finds him hateful, and proves to be a kicking, screaming, disobedient passenger, always trying to run away. But after they are attacked by truly malign men, and against great odds they together manage to fight them off, the unlikely pair bonds. In time, Johanna, who has learned to call herself “Cho-Hana,” comes to love the “Kep-dun,” who one day she dubs “Kontah,” Grandfather in the Kiowa language. The Captain himself has learned to admire his spunky little charge, and like a real grandfather, dotes on her and longs to see her have a happy future. But trouble awaits when the pair finally makes it to San Antonio, where Johanna’s remaining relatives live.

Jiles is a poet, and she knows how to use her music to play upon the heartstrings. I defy you not to shed a tear, as I did, at what happens to Johanna when she is reunited with her family – and to pray that once again the Captain will find the strength to rescue her.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_COMMONWEALTH
by Ann Patchett

HarperCollins.

Patchett is unpredictable as a novelist, and I don’t mean as regards her art, which is reliably wondrous. I’m referring to the kind of tale she tells in each book, its whos and wheres and wherefores. Commonwealth starts out in California as the story of a married couple who fall in love with other people, divorce their partners, and try to meld their unwieldy bunch of children, three of his, two of hers, into a viable extended family. They’re successful at this. The children become very close. But they are uneasy with their new stepparents and angry at the parents who broke up their original families.

What we get is a tapestry, a complex and exquisite weave of different threads, in which each thread is the tale of one of those children or parents relating what happens to them over a long period of time. Fifty years, to be exact, enough time for the children to grow up and old, and the parents to grow aged. There are lots of characters, lots of threads, a sister who becomes a lawyer, another who becomes a Zen monk, a misfit of a brother who bears a burden of guilt all his life about a tragedy that befell another brother, and, most memorably, the gentle Franny, who falls in love with a writer much older than she is and makes the mistake of telling him the story of her family, only to see him use it, to her embarrassment, and for his own self-aggrandizement. Patchett, treating all her characters with abounding compassion, makes every one of them so vivid and recognizable that you’ll be as fascinated by how they develop and change over the years as you are in how time treats your friends.   

Interestingly, at first Commonwealth seems like a book about extended families, of which we have read many in recent years. But it turns out to be about something newer, and and more important. Patchett’s characters marry, and have children, and get divorced, and some of them remarry and acquire new children, and their children marry and have children, and some of them get divorced and remarried and also acquire new children, so that the “family” keeps growing and expanding. One of the book’s final, stunning scenes shows us that not only do today’s extended families grow ever larger, but that the very idea of family is changing.  When Franny’s mother, late in life, marries a man named Jack Dine, and Franny goes to their Christmas party, she realizes that she can’t keep everyone there straight. “She knew the Dine boys, that’s what they were called late into their fifties, but their wives and second wives confused her, their children, in some cases two sets, some grown and married, others still small…There were members of the Dine family who considered her in some vague sense to be a sister, a cousin, a daughter, an aunt. She couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”  

I think Commonwealth could well have been entitled, The Way We Live Now, like Trollope’s book of that title, for what it really is about is a world in which increasingly the very word family has come to seem something altogether new.  

51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between
by Hisham Matar

Random House.

In 2007, when I first fell in love with the work of Libyan-born writer Hisham Matar, it was because I had just read his novel, In the Country of Men, a polished, psychologically astute novel about a little boy who inadvertently betrays his father to the jailers of a repressive regime. The child’s grief at the loss of his father’s presence, plus the burden of guilt he feels for causing that loss, were haunting. I did not know until I read Matar’s eloquent memoir, The Return, that at the time he was writing In the Country, the author was himself struggling with grief over the loss of his own father to the repressive regime of Qaddaffi, and even struggling, with a kind of survivor’s guilt, what he calls, “the guilt of having lived a free life,” for he and the rest of his family had fled the Middle East to live zin exile in London.   

Matar’s father, Jaballah, had not had a free life. An outspoken opponent of the repressive Qaddaffi regime, he had been kidnapped in 1990, imprisoned, and after a few years during which he wrote letters to his family which were smuggled out of Libya by political supporters, never heard from again.  Was he still a prisoner, held in some miserable dungeon, like the one fellow prisoners called, “The Mouth of Hell”? Or was he dead? The uncertainty turned Matar, then nineteen years old, “into a bridled animal, cautious and quiet. I could not stop thinking of the detestable things that were surely happening to my father as I bathed, sat down to eat….I stopped speaking. I hardly left my London flat,” he writes, and, “You make a man disappear to silence him, but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.”

During the years that followed the kidnapping, Matar, his mother, and his brother, Riad, spent endless hours trying to raise public awareness of what had happened to Jaballa, and to arouse British diplomats into finding out what they could about his whereabouts, all to no avail. So in 2012, after the fall of Qaddaffi and before Libya fell victim to competing militias including Al Qaida, when for a brief time the country was peaceful, Matar went there to see if he could learn something of his father’s fate.  

The Return is the story of that trip. Matar travels with his mother and brother, and the three of them manage to find and reunite with relatives they haven’t seen in years. We visit along with them, discovering the Libya that was, and its rich culture and fascinating traditions.

The book is heartbreaking. Matar learns of a prisoner who may or may not have been his father (but seems likely to have been), a man who recites Libyan poetry from his cell a night, and then one night is heard no more. He learns the details of Qaddaffi’s notorious 1996 massacre of twelve hundred prisoners (his father was most likely one of the men brutally killed that day). And he learns how his father, surviving for many years in the most horrendous circumstances, became a symbol to his fellow prisoners of all that was once steadfast and noble in Libya.

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51IV0du+hBL._SX405_BO1,204,203,200_SWING TIME
by Zadie Smith

Penguin Press.

I’m not a big fan of Elena Ferrante. Perhaps it’s the fault of the translator, but I find the language of her acclaimed Neopolitan novels flat and dull. But of course, like everyone else, I’ve been a sucker for the books’ subject – female friendship — a matter so important to so many of us females, but so little written about.  Well, no need to slug through those Naples novels. Zadie Smith of White Teeth fame, arguably England’s most renowned novelist and certainly its liveliest stylist, has just come out with Swing Time, a novel about female friendship which pops and sizzles and rocks. It’s all here, the passionate attachments we women form with friends, first when we’re young, later on, throughout our lives, the way we measure our lives against those of our friends, the way our friendships support and sustain us and the way they can grow stale, can wither with time or distance or achievement, or die sudden deaths from envy or betrayal. Not to mention the way we never, no matter what, forget our first best friends.

The unnamed narrator of Swing Time lives in one of London’s depressing housing projects.  She meets the girl who will become her best friend, a pretty child named Tracey, also the denizen of a housing project, when she’s seven years old, at an after school dance group. “There were many other girls present,” she tells us, “but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas.” Each girl has one white and one black parent. The narrator’s mother is black, a Jamaican immigrant bent on climbing up and away from the projects through education and discipline, her father a white postal worker with little ambition beyond caring for his daughter. Tracey’s mother is white, permissive, free-spending, imbued with bad taste, and determined to see Tracey, who has talent as a dancer, become a star. Tracey’s father, who rarely comes to see his wife or his daughter, is a gambler and petty thief; he’s been in prison, but Tracey boasts when he’s absent that it’s because he’s a back-up dancer traveling with Michael Jackson.

The narrator shares Tracey’s love of dancing, though not her talent. No matter. Together they bond over dance VHS tapes, spending endless hours watching Fred Astaire and other hoofers do their routines. To both girls, it seems that their friendship is forever. But time and the differing aspirations of their mothers intervene. Tracey becomes not a star but a minor chorus line dancer and the narrator, after attending university, becomes the personal assistant of a famous singing star, an international celebrity patterned on Madonna and named Aimee.

Along the way the narrator will have boyfriends — I especially liked her college beau Rakim, who wore “skinny dreadlocks to his shoulders, Converse All Stars in all weather, little round Lennon glasses.  I thought he was the most beautiful man in all the world. He thought so, too.” She will travel, with Aimee, to distant places. New York offers to her “her first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in our curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons.” Gambia, where do-gooder Aimee wants to establish a girls school, offers “polygamy, misogyny, motherless children (my mother’s island childhood, only writ large, enshrined in custom).”  

Along the way, the book will offer perceptive reflections on race and class, plans will be realized and thwarted, there will be scandals and betrayals, babies dubiously adopted, lovers lost and stolen, and friendships that teeter and totter yet offer identity and belonging in a world that rarely does. This is an action-packed cinematic novel that also thinks hard on its swiftly running feet.

{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices Part IV

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS
by Miriam Toews

McSweeney’s. 317 pp.

Canadian writer Miriam Toews is another author with an inimitable dazzling voice, one in which she can write about sorrow in a way that makes you laugh, even as you feel tears surging behind your eyelids. At one point in this novel of two sisters, Yoli, the younger of the pair, reads the opening of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover to her depressed and suicidal older sister, Elfrieda: “Ours is essentially a tragic age,” Yoli reads, “so we refuse to take it tragically. The catclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” Yoli’s goal is to inspire Elfrieda to just get on with her life, to scramble over the obstacles. But the medium is the
message here. Refusing to take tragedy tragically is Toews’ modus operandi as a writer.

Elfrieda is a highly successful concert pianist. Yoli is an unsuccessful writer of bad YA novels. She is in debt, separated from her husband and two children, and has been having a lot of unsatisfying casual sexual encounters. Her latest lover, Radek, a sad-eyed Czech violinst, is “very pale with black wiry hair that covers his entire body. …I admire him for not burning it or ripping it all away like North Americans who are terrified of hair and fur in general.”

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Nevertheless, it is Yoli who has been spared the family curse of depression. When the book opens, Elfrieda, who has attempted suicide several times in the past, has just swallowed a large amount of pills. Found unconscious by the girls’ mother, she has been rushed to a hospital where, unfortunately as far as Elfrieda is concerned, she has been revived. But another suicide attempt is still very much on her mind when Yoli arrives to sit by her side. “After she’d been moved from the emergency ward to the psych ward,” Yoli tells us, “They’d found her lying on the floor bleeding from her head and clutching her toothbrush in her fist the way you’d hold a paring knife if you were just about to plunge it into someone’s throat.” Elfrieda means business, and Yoli must do all she can not just to keep her sister alive, but to make her want to stay alive in the future.AUTHOR2

Yoli wisecracks her way through her shared past with Elfrieda and their present cataclysms and somehow manages to bring her sister back from the abyss – from the kinds of sorrow we all have, and which we all must endure.

The novel is fresh and sassy, and the two sisters feel like friends you’ve always wished you knew.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

{FOF Book Critic} Cold Year, Hot New Voices Part III

Yes, it was a wretched winter.

But the polar temperatures and alpine snow piles allowed me to stay at home guilt free and chores be damned, curl up under the extra quilt and read. Besides which, some of the books I read helped me keep warm. Because they were hot. I don’t mean porno. I mean they were the kind of literary works that have some heat and sizzle. I read four such novels this winter. All four were written by women, one of them a debut novelist, the others well established in their native countries of England and Canada but little known in the U.S.—a provincialism on our part that is being rectified by the publication here of their sparkling new works.

Over four weeks, I’m introducing you to each of the books.

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THE WALLCREEPER
by Nell Zink

Dorothy, A Publishing Project. 193 pp.

It’s not often one comes across a novelist with a voice as offbeat and altogether original as Nell Zink’s. She writes as if she’s fencing — her sentences feint, thrust, parry, leap, and time after time take a jab that goes right to its target: your gut. She’s been writing for years, but what she wrote was what she calls “impromptus,” communications which she merely sent to friends –“long involved things,” she says, “like Viennese-style operettas and entire novels just to illustrate points in conversation.AUTHOR

It was only at the urging of one of those friends, her fellow bird lover, Jonathan Franzen, that she wrote the first draft of The Wallcreeper; its life began as an impromptu for him. I don’t buy the impromptu thing. Zink’s paragraphs may move with the zing of sudden thoughts, but the sentences have been chiseled, the words curated. Here she is on spotting cranes: “They were sock puppets with red heels.” And here she is on seeing geese: “They passed overhead in so many Vs that they merged into Xs and covered the entire sky like a fishnet stocking.”

Did I say that she’s not just good at descriptions, but she’s hilariously funny? Here’s Zink on marriage:

“Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out.” And here she is on pregnancy – it’s “one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk.”

Her narrator, Tiffany, is a newlywed. Working at a low-level typing job in a pharmaceutical company, she latches on to Stephen, a scientist at the company who has just received an offer for a better position in Europe. After a three-week courtship, the pair marries – Stephen because he doesn’t want to be in Europe all on his lonesome, and Tiffany because she believes having a man to be dependent on will bring her happiness. Alas, it doesn’t work out quite that way. For one thing, Stephen wants things she doesn’t want. Like sex standing up in the kitchen only three weeks after she’s had a miscarriage and her “down there” has not yet healed.

“I was there in a state of mournful passivity while he knelt down and licked me,” Zink writes, “touching my asshole rhythmically with one finger and petting my thigh in counterpoint. I felt sad. His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake.”

Still, that’s not the worst of it. Tiffany thinks maybe she’ll feel better about the encounter once they progress to intercourse. “However, that was before he entered my butt with the rest of his hand followed by his penis and the metaphoric auto-da-fe became a thick one-to-one description of taking a dump.” Stephen comes, “crying out like a dinosaur,” after which Tiffany falls out of love with him, having discovered, “He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate.”shutterstock_221547388

Still, she and Stephen stay married. They set up home in Switzerland, then Germany, spend a lot of time pursuing Stephen’s favorite hobby, birding. and even raise a bird together, the wallcreeper. Tiffany is miserable, She becomes a serial adulterer. And although her hope is to become an important player in the environmental field, she isn’t serious about the work it would take, and would rather get her jollies by having affairs with men who are important in the environmental field. Other women, she thinks one night, “were out there somewhere being taken seriously for doing serious work saving nature from whatever, while I studiously fucked not only their husbands but even my own as though miming reproductive acts were my sole aim in life.”

Tiffany eventually gets her act together. She and Stephen break up and she gets a degree in hydrogeology, founds an ecological planning bureau, and goes on to writes papers that have great impact in the field of ecology. It’s an old Women’s Lib story: unhappy housewife finds herself through a career. But, oh, how Zink tells it! Her novel, which will probably teach you a lot about ecoterrorism, and more about birds than you probably thought you wanted to know, is rather like a bird itself: free frying and very far out.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.

{Books} The 8 must-read books for FOFoodies, this year.


‘Twas the week before Thanksgiving and there was turkey to brine, vegetables to chop and pies to bake. Didn’t we just do this?

Whether we have passed the fork to an FUF hostess or still host Turkey Day dinners in our own homes, cooking and food become top of mind this week. For those doing the hosting–the supermarket scramble, labor-intensive prep, mad rush to get the dishes from oven to table in time (and all at the same time), is enough to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of even the most passionate FOFoodies. For those of us who are guests to our Thanksgiving feasts, we still have to navigate busy grocery stores, stand on bakery lines and interpret our hosts subtle hints or in some cases, very particular instructions on what to bring.

Enter Annette Gallagher Weisman. Annette is a freelance writer, book critic and award-winning essayist. This week, she shares four scrumptious cookbooks, two fabulous chef memoirs, a marvelous new book about wine and a book of witty personal essays on the history of food trends. Just when you were about to put down that spatula and call it quits–these 8 books will get you excited about cooking, again.

Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as Professional Eater by Gail Simmons
Hyperion, 288 pages.

Gail Simmons, currently the host of Top Chef: Just Desserts and the Special Projects Director at Food & Wine magazine, was a former judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and continues to travel worldwide to taste, judge and experience a mind-boggling array of foods. The subheading of her memoir “My Life as a Professional Eater” prompts the question, how does one become a professional eater?  Simmons says she had no idea after graduating from college what career path to follow, so she made a list of things she loved to do and came up with four: Eat. Write. Travel. Cook. Then she connected the dots and followed the food line. Ingenious.

Simmons left Canada, where she’d grown up, to attend culinary school in New York. She then worked briefly on the line at two top New York restaurants, Le Cirque 2000 and Vong. Later, she became an assistant to eminent food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten. Simmons admits she had a smooth path with few obstacles in work or in life to hinder her from reaching the top of her profession.

Today, when Gail Simmons talks about food, people listen. In her memoir, she regales us with a personable account of her Jewish background in Toronto, talks about her marriage to her husband Jeremy as well as other life experiences. But Simmons main focus is on food. In a straightforward and frank manner she reveals the story of what it’s like to work behind the scenes of the culinary world.  If you want a step by step guide as to how she earned her food stripes with an overview of the flourishing food biz, this book is for you.

Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich
Viking, 288 pages.

Perhaps, like me, you saw Joe Bastianch along with Gail Simmons recently on Dr. Oz. I was struck by the quiet-spoken, calm demeanor of this trim, elegant bald-pated restaurateur. You’d never think he’s the same one who uses the F word throughout his memoir. Like Anthony Bourdain, author of food classic Kitchen Confidential, Bastianich has an in-your-face style of writing: a tell-it-like-it-is replete with colorful language.

Joe Bastianich’s father, Felice, ran a family restaurant in Queens, his mother, Lidia, is a well known chef and author of several cookbooks. Joe himself, partnered with Mario Battali to found the famed Babbo restaurant in New York together, going on to participate with him in ventures like Eataly, an Italian megamall of artisanal food and wine and several boutique restaurants and shops. He reveals all the nitty gritty details about running a restaurant, the day-to-day stuff, the costs and how to cut them, the staff, and the food and how wine is marked up. In fact, there’s a great deal about wine. Not to mention a year spent in the vineyards of Italy where Joe, post stint on Wall Street, learned to make wine. Bastianich looks fit (he lost a considerable amount of weight marathon training). Yet, he says he drinks about a bottle of wine a day!

Bastianich also offers many revelatory anecdotes about celebrity diners.  Entertaining and informative, this is the real dish about what it’s like to be in the restaurant business today.

A Table At Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes From New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant by Sirio Maggioni and Pamela Fiori
Flammarian, 256 pages.

It is a fact: Le Cirque is a fabulous restaurant. Since 1974, Le Cirque has been in three different New York City locations. It opened in the Mayfair Hotel on East 65th Street, in 1974, moving from there to the Villard Houses in the New York Palace Hotel in 1997. Then, in 2006 it moved again to its current more contemporary home at 1 Beacon Court, across from the Bloomberg Tower, where a formal jacket is not needed at the bar and a more casual menu is offered.

If you don’t live in Manhattan or can’t afford to dine there, this book will make you feel as though you know the restaurant well, are familiar with its cuisine and haven’t missed out on the dish about the celebrities, powerbrokers and socialites who are regulars. A Table at Le Cirque is not a cookbook, rather a story book with prized recipes.

Owner Sirio Maccioni is the ringmaster of “The Circus” as well as the ultimate meeter and greeter. Page after page of fantastic photographs show him welcoming innumerable stars and notables including Jackie Onassis, Sophia Loren, Andy Warhol, The Reagans, Danny Kaye, Barbara Walters and royalty from many countries, even Pope John Paul ll. No matter how famous the person, if you think you saw them at Le Cirque, you did.

While Maccioni used to be a one-man show, his co-author Pamela Fiori says his three sons Mario, Marco and Mauro now relieve the pressure of running this restaurant by weighing in on every major decision. Fiori, former editor of Travel and Leisure and Town & Country is an elegant woman who knows a thing or two about spectacular restaurants. She speaks fondly of Maccioni, Le Cirque’s almost 40-year history in its three different locations, and the fact that until now Sirio has never published a cookbook.

About half way through the book we are treated to the recipes of the chefs who have been part of the Le Cirque family, from Jean Vergnes, co-owner initially, to the current chef Olivier Reginensi, and those in between including Daniel Boulud and David Bouley. These treasured recipes such as Black Tie Scallops, Bouillabaisse Le Cirque, and Spaghetti Primavera (still an off-menu request) are accompanied by full color photographs.

Ricky Lauren The Hamptons: Food, Family and History by Ricky Lauren
Wiley, 256 pages

Ricky Lauren is the kind of fab woman many of us would like to be. After all, she is brilliant—an author, photographer, artist and psychotherapist. She is also beautiful and married to a handsome man, Ralph Lauren, the arbiter of American good taste. It’s a given any book she writes will exude style and grace.

In this, Lauren’s fourth book, she depicts through family recipes the homes she and her husband  have lived in over the past forty years: in Southampton, Amagansett, East Hampton and Montauk. But, the book is not only a collection of recipes by one of its celebrated residents; you will also find inside essays about the history of the area, its architecture, culture and lifestyle. If you’ve never been to the Hamptons you will enjoy this exclusive resort vicariously. If you have, you will relate through these culinary scenes the appeal that attracts so many to the Hamptons way of life.

Lauren describes her homes, such as the one in East Hampton, in a way that captures their relaxed lifestyle. “The patio outside our living room had a low wall of flat stones around a rectangular terrace. The wall was an excellent place for perching. To turn the patio into a lounging area, we placed denim-covered mats against the inner walls and added tray tables. To this we added a multitude of bright-colored throw pillows. We often picnicked there under huge Italian Veronese marketplace umbrellas. If it rained, we could pile everything indoors to suggest sofas in an empty corner of the living room.”

The recipes are easy to follow and focus on healthy and colorful ingredients. They include Morning Smoothies, Cinnamon and Vanilla Challah French Toast, David’s Pea Soup, a Hamptons Beach Party Barbeque, Seafood Frittata of Shrimp Scallops and Crabmeat, Dylan’s Sunshine Salad, Nana’s Hungarian Beef Goulash, her Rum Laced Brownies, a Strawberry Soufflé along with Andrew and Ricky’s Chocolate Mousse are all worth the small effort to prepare. The full page color photographs of each recipe look like culinary art.

The Hamptons by Ricky Lauren would make an ideal gift for anyone who is hunkering down for the winter and dreaming of summer by the sea.

Lunch in Provence by Rachel McKenna and Jean-Andre Charial
Flammarian, 232 pages/245 color illustrations

The cover photograph of a weathered gray wooden table, set with just three pieces of old silverware conveys the feeling from the outset that simplicity equals beauty. Such evocative images by Rachel McKenna and the clear layout of recipes have a calming effect. It’s as if we are transported to Provence and held in a state of reverie; life slows down and so do we just by turning the pages.

The introduction is written by award-winning American chef and author, Patricia Wells, who herself has homes in Paris and Provence. But the star of the book is a French chef, Jean-Andre Charial, owner/winemaker of several Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence, the most celebrated being Oustau de Baumaniere. Throughout the book he gives opinions about life and cooking and the importance of fresh ingredients.“The best food is the simplest–it should just be an expression of the produce and then it is tres bon.”

There are 35 recipes, one to a page, with full color photographs alongside typical Provencal dishes such as grilled sea bass with ratatouille and leg of lamb rubbed with rosemary and anchovies. The text is laid out sparingly, and includes quotes from famous authors and chefs, so you can read it easily with time to ponder over each one.

What this book does best is convey the sensibility of the region along with gorgeous images of the French countryside and its produce.  If you’ve been to Provence it will evoke happy memories. If you haven’t, you’ll  feel like you have.  And your favorite Francophile will appreciate the gift of having Lunch in Provence, too.

The New York Times Book of Wine: More Than 30 Years of Vintage Writing edited by Howard G. Goldberg
Sterling Epicure, 592 pages

Overheard at a wine tasting, “Hmm it has an amusing bouquet with just a hint of
apple strudel, a lively torso and long legs.” Do you a) concur, b) laugh or c) vacate the premises?

While the above comment is fictitious, it is not far off from some of the creative descriptions one will hear after a person you barely know has sniffed, swirled and tasted a wine you thought was just okay. But the comment is perplexing. Is it good or bad? Do you care? Wouldn’t it be fun to respond with some enigmatic repartee?

Kick lack of knowledge and pretension to the curb, and buy yourself The New York Times Book of Wine. Encompassing 30 years of vintage writing by Eric Asimov, Frank J. Prial, Florence Fabricant, Frank Bruni, and as they say, many more, all in the capable hands of esteemed editor Howard G. Goldberg, this book is a treasure chest filled with opinions about wine.

The best way to discover something, I find, is by osmosis. Whether it is watching your mother cook as a child or listening to a bedtime story with a message, the process becomes effortless. You’ll find 156 articles in this book, which are just like stories to be read individually, in a cluster, or out of sequence at bedtime or any other time. They are by no means dry tales, but interesting, useful and often funny accounts of every aspect of the wine biz.

Intriguing titles like “Affairs to Remember,” “Pairing Wine with Chinese Food,” “Why Red Wine and Cheese Have Stopped Going Steady,” “A Sommeliers Little Secret: The Microwave, and What You Drink with What You Eat,” make it hard to stop reading. I’d love to quote from many of these essays, but by the time I finished we’d be up all night. However, I’ll leave you with a quote from “Words, Words, Words” near the beginning of the book. In this humorous piece by Frank J. Prial he cuts through the clutter of what he terms “winespeak.” This is one of many actual descriptions Prial found on a restaurant’s wine list, in this case about Gevrey-Chambertin, “that is fathoms deep and as pleasingly prickly as a kitten’s tongue.”

Despite the kitten reference, Gevry Chambertin remains one of my favorite wines. But don’t buy this book just to learn something. Buy it for the love of wine and a good story.

Martha’s Entertaining: A Year of Celebrations by Martha Stewart
Potter, 432 pages.

This one by lifestyle maven Martha Stewart isn’t new–it came out last year–but if you don’t already own it, you ought to. Or, at least give it to a good friend.  And considering I still have Martha’s first Entertaining book that came out in 1982,  it’s safe to say this bigger and better version will last a while.

What Stewart brings to the table is perfection. No matter what the time of day, breakfast, lunch or dinner, whether a picnic at sea, an ice cream social, bridal shower, Fourth of July barbeque, or Thanksgiving dinner, Martha has you covered with dishes like Lobster Sheperd’s pie, Wild mushroom lasagna, desserts to die for such as Pavlova, and special drinks, such as Elderflower martinis. And somewhere in the middle you’ll find a glossary of peonies. Trust Martha to think of that.

Weighing in at a hefty four pounds, this book belongs on a coffee table. It’s the kind of book you  “ooh” and “ahh” over, because the photographs by Frédéric Lagrange and others are so beautiful.

There are idyllic scenes, on a yacht, in the city, in the country, of houses, flowers, patios, and, of course, dishes so tantalizing you want to eat the pages. Though, in fact, one almost forgets about recipes until you come across them toward the back. Martha’s personal chef who compiled them is none other than Pierre Schaedelin, a former chef at Le Cirque, so you know these dishes don’t just look good, they will taste good, too.

One photo shows Martha sitting next to Billy Collins, who is standing and reading, presumably a poem. Nothing like having a former poet laureate for dinner! Perhaps it is an ode to Martha for a lovely meal. And why not?  I think I’ll write a poem myself to thank her for this book.

The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnick
Vintage, 336 pages.

Quickly: if you could ask anyone to a dinner party, who would it be? The first person who comes to my mind is playwright Oscar Wilde, famous for witticism such as “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” and even on his deathbed quipped “Either that wallpaper has to go, or I will.” Unfortunately, Oscar’s not around anymore.  But another witty man and a know-it-all—in a good way–is–Adam Gopnick.  Longtime writer for The New Yorker Gopnik writes on any topic with erudition, yet his work is always punctuated by wit and verve.

His latest book, The Table Comes First has just come out in paperback, an ideal gift for the true foodie in your life. From the first restaurant in—where else–France, to famous names in gastronomy through the ages, to current day food trends, localism, organic farming, sustainable living, you name it, Gopnick explores it all. Call it a conversation with the reader about the meaning of food.

“The point of eating is to slow down life long enough to promote what Brillat-Savarin called, with simple charm, good cheer. It doesn’t just take time, but makes time—carves out evenings, memories.”

He also discusses food throughout the book via email letters to an art and food critic Elizabeth Pennell, who died in 1936, as if she were a confidante alive today participating in this epistolary relationship.

“Dear Elizabeth: I have read and reread your chapter on the perfect dinner party many times. And I like it. How hard we have to work to make perfection, and yet when it happens, the truth is that it falls on us like grace.”

Dinner parties are for guests who make us laugh and cry, who say things like, “Either that wallpaper has to go or I will.” And we all love being in the company of a person like that, even if, for those of us who don’t know Gopnick personally, we only get to be in his company while perusing the pages of his thought-provoking book.

images: someecards.com

{FOF Guru Book Review} Hotel Vendôme–will this book Steel your heart?

Every book that FOF Danielle Steel has ever written has been a New York Times bestseller, including her latest novel, Hotel Vendôme (Random House Publishing Group, November 2011). It follows an ambitious man as he transforms a shabby Manhattan inn into a luxurious, five-star hotel. His seemingly perfect life comes to a halt when his wife, Miriam, takes off with a rock star, leaving him to raise their 4-year-old daughter, Heloise. Is this Eloise for grown ups? Not quite… But, Kirkus Reviews says the novel will “appeal to the most dedicated of Steel’s fans,” although many readers say it falls flat. “It seems Steel has run out of story lines,” says one Amazon.com reviewer. “44 Charleston Street, about a single woman who opens her home to boarders, was disappointing as well. Now we have a hotel. What’s next, an apartment complex?”

Does FOF Book Guru Barbara Phelps agree? Did Hotel Vendôme make her want to check in or out?

Did you enjoy this book?
Three quarters of it. The description made me feel like I was owning and running a grand hotel. I could feel the passion of the owner and I was gripped by the things that he and his daughter experienced. However, the plot became a runaway carriage ride–rampant changes of scene, many emotions running high…I wanted to slow it down!

Was it a page-turner or did you have to push through it?
It was a page turner and really had me wound up in their lives and emotions.

What would you want to ask the author, now that you’re done reading?
I would ask Ms. Steel why she felt the need to try to cram so much into the last quarter of the book.

Would you recommend this to other FOFs?
I would recommend it to other FOFs–to both those who love Danielle Steel and those new to her. It was a bit different from her average plot lines.

If you had to classify this book would you call it a “must read” a “pass” or a “skim it” book?
A must-read. I did find it flying by as I read it and was excited to get back to it each day.

One FOF will win a copy of The Intolerable Gourmet cookbook to review. By entering this contest you are agreeing to read and submit a written review of this book to FabOverFifty and to send a photo of yourself to accompany the published story.

(Contest closes 12/1/2011 at midnight E.S.T. See all our past winners. See official rules. Our panel of editors will choose winners based on the quality of their written comments. We look for clear, concise writing; creativity; and thoughtfulness.)

{FOF Guru Book Review} Bonjour, Happiness

Jamie Cat Callan grew up in Connecticut, though she claims, “I have French blood running through my veins.” As a little girl she observed her French grandmother– the way she dressed, the way she cooked, the way she loved. French women don’t worry about being skinny, young enough or accomplished enough, she observed.

In her most recent novel, Bonjour, Happiness! (Citadel Press, 2011) Callan studied the lives of French women to discover the recipe for true happiness, or ‘joie de vivre,’ and to share it will all her readers. “[It] translates the joie de vivre into a language of life that is not so foreign.” wrote a book critic for Kirkus Reviews. But, what did our FOF guru, Orelle Jackson think? Is there such thing as a recipe for happiness? And if so, did she find it in this book?

1. In a nutshell, what is the book about?
Happiness. Early in the book the author points to the subtle difference between the American “pursuit of happiness” and the French term “la recherché du bonheur” or “looking for happiness.” In this, she suggests we are chasing happiness. We see happiness as something elusive – down the street, around the corner, while the French are looking for happiness. It’s as if they already know it’s there, hiding in plain sight and if they stop they will find it – Voila! The author, who had a French grandmother, suggests French women may have the edge on the rest of us when it comes to happiness or joie de vivre. In part, this book is a guide to French style and taste and the French way of life, but it also is her own journey of discovery.

2. What is the genre of this book?
This book would fall into the self-help genre.

3. Did you enjoy it?
While this is a charming book, I didn’t love it. I liked parts of it, but I found it repetitive and the whole premise problematic. I found the process of her self-discovery tedious, exasperated by her infatuation with everything French and her belief that this was the path to happiness. I was relieved to get to the last part of the book when the author finally realizes that the secret to happiness is “finding those moments in your own ordinary life, finding the people and the simple pleasures of living that will bring you happiness.”

4. Was it a page turner, or did you have to push through it?
Although it was light reading, I found it difficult to stay focused because it did not hold my attention. This is the kind of book I wanted to merely skim through.

5. What would you want to ask the author, now that you’re done reading?
I was struck by the relationship she had with her mother and wondered if she got closer with her mom before she passed away.

6. Would you recommend this to other FOFs? Did you find yourself telling friends about the book as you were reading it?
I did tell friends about the book, but I would not give it a strong recommendation.

7. What part of the book did you like the most? What parts did you like least?
One of the most poignant parts of the book is when the author goes with her mother to get fitted for a bra after her radical mastectomy. In other parts of the book there seems to be an emotional gap between the mother and daughter. In this short but beautiful section, the complexity and the beauty of the mother-daughter relationship is revealed. The chapters “Good Enough to Eat” and “Weight Watchers in France” are also interesting. These two chapters really get to the big differences between us and our French sisters – our attitudes toward food and weight! While we use food as medication, punishment, or reward, our French counterparts use food as nourishment, celebration and occasion. On the opposite end of the spectrum I could not help but notice ambiguity. If happiness comes from loving yourself “for who you are right now – your beautiful, fragile, imperfect self” then why did it feel like most of the book implied if we were only French or behaved like French women or dressed like French women, we would be happy? In some ways I felt like this book should have been two books (or two essays) one about French living and style and one about Ms. Callon’s journey of self-discovery.

8. Is this book similar to any other books you have read? Which?
I have not recently read a similar book.

9. Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
There are beautiful, elegant and happy women in all parts of the world, and while their environment and ethnicity may play a role in their happiness, it is their ability to accept themselves and to see beauty in themselves and in the world around them that accounts for their happiness. While reading this book I was once again confronted by the fact that for most of our lives we measure ourselves against others and too often, find ourselves lacking. We torture ourselves with these perceived inadequacies. We punish ourselves because we are not enough – not smart enough, not thin enough, not rich enough, even not “French” enough. It is wonderful that as an FOF we begin to gain some perspective or enlightenment and realize we are “enough.” Let’s hope we can shorten this journey of enlightenment for the women and girls in our lives.

Also, while reading the book, I kept wondering just how happy French people are, so finally I did a very basic (non-scientific) internet search on depression levels in France. The results indicate France has a high rate of depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) report referred to in this article is complex and interesting.

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By entering this contest you are agreeing to read and submit a written review of this book to FabOverFifty and to send a photo of yourself to accompany the published story.

(Contest closes 11/17/2011. See all our past winners. See official rules. Our panel of editors will choose winners based on the quality of their written comments. We look for clear, concise writing; creativity; and thoughtfulness.)

{FOF Guru Book Review} The Earthbound Cookbook

If anyone is an authority on organic food, it’s Myra Goodman, co-owner and co-founder of Earthbound Farm, the world’s largest grower of organic produce. Her first cookbook, Food to Live By (2006), was praised by a Library Journal book reviewer who compares it to The Organic Cook’s Bible by Jeff Cox (Wiley, April 2006), one of those most well-known organic cooking resources to date.

In her latest cookbook, The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet (Workman Publishing, 2011) Myra pairs green living tips with all new recipes. Is this cooking guide as fresh as her first? FOF book reviewer, Darla Martin worked her way through and reported back.

In a nutshell, describe this cookbook.
It is about eating well and living green. It includes lots of recipes and green living tips.

Did you read her first book?
No, but I would like to now.

Did you enjoy it?
Yes, indeed.

Was it a page turner, or did you have to push through it?
Even though it is a cookbook, I read it page by page just like a novel.

What recipes and tips did you like most? What did you like least?
I liked finding new ways to cook a few veggies. I tried the cauliflower tart which I liked very much. I have marked the Coconut-Crusted salmon (p. 134) to make soon and the Chicken and Green Olive Enchiladas (p. 109). I’ve made enchiladas before but this is a new twist. The Jicama and Orange Salad with Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette sounds like a great winter salad to make when traditional greens and tomatoes aren’t in season.

I didn’t like searching here and there for the green living suggestions, which are sprinkled randomly through out the book.

Is this book similar to any other books you have read? Which?
I own and read a lot of cookbooks. This is a nice addition to my collection and I think it has a definite “California” feel.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share . . . ?
While I enjoyed the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it for everyone. Several recipes called for hard to find ingredients, such as lemongrass, or ingredients that are expensive such as truffle oil. I’m a dedicated foodie and live in a cosmopolitan area (San Fransisco Bay) so I’m willing to hunt down unusual or even expensive items. I don’t think that most people would.

Want to review books for FOF? Apply to be a book guru, here.

{FOF Book Guru Review} The Crabby Cookbook

The Crabby Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 2011) is a collection of humor, survival tips and recipes for the “kitchen-challenged,” written by FOF actress Jessica Harper (star of movies such as Minority Report, Stardust Memories and Pennies from Heaven). “I thought it was high time a book acknowledged that not everybody experiences the joy of cooking; that sometimes cooking for a family on a daily basis can be really irritating!” said Jessica in a January, 2011 interview. “This book, with 135 easy recipes, is for those people, crabby cooks like me!” On the book jacket, former-Gourmet editor and New York Times restaurant reviewer, Ruth Reichl, called it “soo much fun. You stand in the kitchen laughing when you should be cooking.” Does FOF book guru, Karin Zindren, agree?

What is the genre of this book?
Cookbook.

Did you enjoy it?
It’s one of the most entertaining cookbooks I have ever read.  It can be read in part or in total and you won’t miss a beat.

Would you recommend this to other FOFs?
Yes. Even as I read the book, I would call friends and family to tell them about it.

What part did you like most? What part did you like least?
I liked the stories just themselves and the recipes were a bonus. I made the Killer Pumpkin Pancakes for my granddaughters who HATE any type of pumpkin and loved these. I also made the Bruschetta with Someone Elses Tomatoes and the Slammin’ Yam Soup (I’m vegetarian so I used veggie broth and it was still great!). The Cauliflower in Disguise was great too, I even tripped up my husband with this one! Some of the recipes were too ambitious for me, probably one of the few down sides to the book.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share . . . ?
If you ever felt alone in world of cooking, this book is one you should definitely read…more than once!  Oh, and try some of the recipes, they were worth the effort.

Want to review books for FOF? Apply to be a book guru, here.

{FOF Book Guru Review} Lost and Forgotten Languages

Ruiyan Xu’s first novel, Lost and Forgotten Languages (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), is the story of Li Jing, an investment banker from Shanghai who, after a massive accident, loses the ability to speak Chinese. His wife, Meiling, is devastated that she can no longer communicate with her husband, and the two become more and more distant as the book progresses. Rosalyn Neal, an American doctor, offers Li Jing’s only hope for recovery and Li Jing ultimately falls in love with her. According to Publishers Weekly, “The characters are portrayed with empathy and care, but the suspense over Jing’s fate is lost in too many narrative digressions and an ending that falls flat.” Does FOF book reviewer Karen Smith agree?

In a nutshell, what is this book about?
This story is about language, how words bind intimate relationships and also how we see and present ourselves. Author Ruiyan Xu got the idea for her book during her childhood. Her family emigrated to the U.S. from Shanghai and she felt isolated because she didn’t speak English. Like most children, she learned it quickly and she lost her native tongue. When she returned to China in her teens, not knowing how to speak Chinese made her feel isolated once again.

Did you enjoy it?

I found it enjoyable, yet deeply troubling.

Was it a page turner, or did you have to push through it?
Not a compelling page-turner in terms of pace or plot, but steadily interesting.

What would you want to ask the author, now that you’re done reading?
I would like to ask Ruiyan Xu about her own experiences with languages lost and found: did she find herself with different personalities in English and Chinese? Is it possible to use language independent of culture?

Would you recommend this to other FOFs? Did you find yourself telling friends about the book as you were reading it?
I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a book that asks more questions than it answers.

What part did you like most? What part did you like least?
My favorite part of the book was the trip that James, Rosalyn and PangPang made to Hangzhou. That interlude shows the characters what is possible in the alternate universe of the English language, both good and bad. I found the ending unsatisfying.

Is this book similar to any other books you have read? Which?
While I haven’t read anything directly comparable to this work, the disintegration of a marriage and family because of new language barriers takes the reader into the familiar territory of love and loss, flirtation and affairs, betrayals and misunderstandings.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share . . . ?
There is a shallowness to Xu’s characters that makes it difficult to be more than a spectator to their situation. A better writer would have given the characters more depth so we could identify with them. Instead, Xu keeps us focused on the language problem itself. What would happen if you were ‘robbed’ of your native tongue in a traumatic accident? How would you talk with your spouse? What about your job? Your children?

Want to review books for FOF? Apply to be a book guru, here.

{FOF Guru Book Review} Over the Rainbow Bridge

A few months ago, we asked FOFs to tell us about the charities and organizations that are most important to them. FOF Shirley Enebrad responded to our call. “My little boy Cory was diagnosed with leukemia at age three. He died right after his ninth birthday,” said Shirley. “One of the things he made me promise before he died was for me to help other parents going through the same difficulties that we faced alone.” As part of this mission, Shirley joined and eventually became the president of the Candlelighter’s Childhood Cancer Foundation of Western WA, a support system and organization for families facing childhood cancer. She also wrote a book about her experiences called Over the Rainbow Bridge. Here, FOF book guru Katherine Watson shares her review of Shirley’s story.

In a nutshell, what is this book about?
Over the Rainbow Bridge follows author Shirley Enebrad on an emotional roller coaster as she deals with divorce and then, being the single parent of a terminally-ill child. In the book, Shirley recounts the years she spent advocating for and protecting her nine-year-old son Cory, who was plagued with cancer and suffered through painful chemotherapy treatments. Cory made the decision to terminate chemotherapy and end his life naturally and Shirley supported his decision.

What is the genre of this book?
It is an autobiography. Shirley tells her own story with Cory’s story weaved throughout.

Did you enjoy it?
I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It isn’t easy or pleasant to read about a suffering child. However, Shirley does a nice job of showing what Cory contributed during his short life on earth, including his words of wisdom and his description of heaven and God.

Was it a page turner, or did you have to push through it?
The issue of allowing a child to decide to end chemotherapy, motivated me to continue reading.

What part did you like most? What part did you like least?
This book helped me understand the thought processes of a grieving parent. Shirley is confronted by medical personnel who have been trained to sustain life and heal and are not always equipped to deal with emotions of patients and families.

Would you recommend this to other FOFs? Did you find yourself telling friends about the book as you were reading it?
I work in a hospital setting with pastoral care and social workers. The nurses and hospital workers I spoke with feel they deal enough with death and dying in their professional lives and would not choose this book for relaxing reading. If someone is prepared to make the emotional investment needed to read about a terminally ill child, then this is a remarkable story.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share . . . ?
This book confronts a tough ethical issue that parents of terminally ill children wrestle with — letting your child choose to end treatment. Shirley let Cory choose and he made the decision to end life naturally. Shirley’s decision was an insightful and selfless act, in my opinion, but other readers might argue he was too young to make the decision himself or that she gave up hope. Shirley was self-assured and proud of how she handled matters. Since people have different cultural backgrounds, belief systems and needs to give them direction, I’d hesitate to give this book to a parent of a terminally ill child.

Want to review books for FOF? Apply to be a book guru, here.