Paperback Picks – July


by Erin Morgenstern

4 stars

Erin Moregenstern has created something quite spectacular in this debut novel. Playing with ideas of magic, illusion and perception, she unveils a truly fantastic circus.  More driven by characters and imagery than by plot, Morgenstern nonetheless drew me into a labyrinth of moves and counter moves. I felt the tension, especially in the love story between the players. And, rather than fill her book with peripheral characters, she makes each person three dimensional and important. But alas, the ending lingers on too long. Morgenstern falls trap to that author’s need to explain what we’ve just read — not trusting either her story or her readers enough. Still, I was rapt all the way through and was not disappointed by this book which I have awaited for months. It’s worthy of its buzz.

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”


by Dana Spiotta

4 stars

I’m thinking about past events. I’m interested in recall, exact recall, of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.

So says Denise Kranis, the 40-ish narrator of Dana Spiotta’s brilliant novel, Stone Arabia. Denise is comparing her own story-telling to that of her brother Nik’s, which involves much more elaborately constructed and documented versions of reality. I love this truth-seeking premise, even more so for the way Spiotta juxtaposes the siblings’ styles and temperaments. They are both truth seekers, but who’s to say which is the real truth?

Spiotta smartly tells her story in short chapters from Denise, which move both forward and backward in time. We know she is after some explanation (some truth) to explain where (Nik’s place) and why (upset) she is the moment we meet her.  But to get to that explanation, we have to know Denise and how she thinks, what she longs for. This unveiling is where Spiotta truly shines.

I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me. Inside, beyond my recall of events and dates and talk, there was this hot-wired memory of his body…your experiences, the hard felt ones, don’t fade. They are written forever in your flesh, your nerves, your fingertips.


by Thrity Umrigar

4 stars

I finished it in one day because I never wanted to put it down. I don’t know what it is about books by Indian writers, but they seem more lush and intimate to me than many American or British authors.
Here Umrigar is exploring the bonds forged by 4 women who came of age in the tumultuous India of the 1970s. 30 years later an illness brings them together again. As you would expect, there are lingering dramas, unclaimed passions and misunderstandings. All those issues are handled deftly by the author as she shifts narrators among, not just the four women, but some of their husbands as well.
She explores the cultural differences among these friends, both in light of their idealistic youth, and from the perspective of “middle age.” Muslim, Parsi, atheist, wealthy, American — all these labels come into play without being stereotyped.

So all I’m saying is, everything that seems important–our quarrels, or philosophical differences–in the end, it doesn’t matter much.  You know?  In the end, what matters is what remains.”


by Jenny Wingfield

4 stars

Jenny Wingfield has created something very special in this whirlpool of a novel. She wrote a story that continued to pull me in deeper and deeper, while still surprising me. Despite all the drama and heartache present in the Lake and Moses lives, I never felt emotionally manipulated and the plot never seemed contrived. Those are significant accomplishments, especially for a first-time novelist.

What ultimately unfolds is a story of family, loyalty and faith that I found hard to put down. At times deeply disturbing, I found these characters ultimately inspiring and very real.

Jenny Wingfield is definitely a writer to watch.

And she knew Life well enough to know that if one person in a house gets really miserable for any length of time, the misery spreads like smallpox.”

Monday Quote — Coming Home

“Standing here, in this quiet house where I can hear the birds chirping out back, I think I’m kind of getting the concept of closure. It’s no big dramatic before-after. It’s more like that melancholy feeling you get at the end of a really good vacation. Something special is ending, and you’re sad, but you can’t be that sad because, hey, it was good while it lasted, and there’ll be other vacations, other good times.”
―    Gayle Forman,    Where She Went

Oh how I hope Ms. Forman is correct. I am home from 7 days of complete relaxation and sunshine and I am desperately trying to hold on to that mood. But how do you hold on to the sense of timelessness when the alarm clock sounds, e-mails need to be checked and appointments need to be kept? Life is rushing at me with all its messy requirements — doctors appointments, deadlines, babysitting schedules and laundry included.

So I’m not sad, but, yes, melancholy sounds right.

We have vacationed at the same spot every year (save one) for 8 summers. Beachwalk offers us a short drive to a different world. It’s a world where my kids don’t fight,

we can spend hours each day on the beach,

I have seemingly endless hours to read brilliant books,

and sunsets appear brighter than ever.

I love this world. My husband and my sons and my mom also love this world, which makes Beachwalk even more special.

Meals and snacks are unscheduled. I am more inclined to open a new book than update my news-feed, leaving me disconnected enough to truly recharge. Whether my sons wake up and grab a fishing pole, or take a bike ride around the quiet streets or head to the park with balls and gloves, they are completely at home and entertained.We all know our way around the resort’s streets, providing a sense of security as our boys roam free.

Our Beachwalk world feels simultaneously fresh and familiar.

Now we are home. It’s definitely familiar, and I am refreshed.

I will not be sad. I will be thrilled at how great it was to live in that other world. I will look forward to my eventual return and the good times to come.

Alena’s favorite things

I know I’m no Oprah, but that’s no reason I can’t borrow one of her best known gimmicks. Welcome, everyone, to my first ever, Alena’s Favorite Things — Summer edition.

Here are the products and places I simply cannot live without each summer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

City spot

Milennium Park for evening concerts is my happy place. Whether we go with the boys or make it a date night, this spot offers the best views of downtown Chicago, the greatest music, and fabulous people watching. We pack a picnic, some wine and a couple of chairs. Even with paying for parking (so convenient under the park), it’s an inexpensive, classy night on the town. I always come away feeling lucky to live in such a great city.

Sweet Snack

I’m tempted to go with ice cream given the season, but, honestly, Walkers Shortbread cookies are simply luxurious. We always pack a box to go with our concert picnics. I wisely managed to keep these treats out of my sons’ hands for years (they’re not cheap), but they too have discovered the rich, buttery goodness of Walkers. Then my youngest saw the “red box cookies” shaped like little Scotty dogs and now there’s no turning back. We now have the doggies, snack sized bag of cookies and the traditional shortbread “fingers” at the ready.

Nail Color

I pretty much wear nothing but flip-flops from April 1 – October 1, so I have to keep my toes in looking nice. For years I wore nothing but OPI, partly because I loved the way the company names colors. But recently, I’ve made the switch to essie. I heard from a friend that their colors don’t stain your nails (true). Also, Walgreens started carrying the brand, which makes it super convenient for me. And, the salon I use started carrying more of Essie’s colors. So, good-bye Cajun Shrimp; hello, Olé Caliente! (By the way, I could write a whole post about how much I love my monthly pedi dates with my girlfriend. Everyone should be so lucky.)



Outdoor dining

Nothing beats the outdoor patio at Oak Park‘s Maya del Sol for great food, sinfully delicious cocktails and superb service. I’ve spent many an evening with friends sampling appetizers and enjoying one of their amazing cocktails. (Tequila, muddled grapefruit and a chipotle pepper garnish — man I could go for one of those right now.) My husband and I also love it for a date night. Seriously, if you are anywhere near Oak Park, check this place out.



Let’s call her Kimmy. That’s how this bottle is affectionately known by my sisters-in-law and me. And you can generally find at least one bottle of this particular Sauvignon Blanc at any family gathering. I don’t know any of the correct terminology to talk about wine, but I know it always tastes fresh, with a little bit of citrus. It’s a crisp, clean flavor without feeling heavy. Affordable and readily available. I admit it — there is always a bottle of Kim Crawford chilling in my fridge. Kimmy is my friend.

I wish I could tell you to look under your seat to find a Favorite Things baskets to take home. But I’m no Oprah.

My love-hate relationship with Joe Meno

photo from Goodreads

I have a literary crush on Joe Meno. “Who’s Joe Meno?” you ask. Well, he’s a Chicago author and playwright. My crush began when I read his thought-provoking novel, The Great Perhaps, perhaps one of the finest deconstructions of the modern family I’ve ever read.

Beneath all of her thoughts and worries, beneath the complication of conflicting identities and needs, maybe it’s as simple as loving the way some other person looks when they’re sleeping.”

I couldn’t believe I’d never read any of his work. I mean – he’s a CHICAGOAN for goodness sake. And his books have terrific titles.

I headed to the library to find the wonderfully named, Hairstyles of the Damned. Uh-oh. This slip of a novel was nothing like the American masterpiece I had just read.  Although I enjoyed the familiar references to coming-of-age in Chicago in the late 80s, I couldn’t relate to the whiny protagonist Brian Oswald.

Determined not to be wrong in my first impression, I went back for more Joe Meno. Tender as Hellfire confirmed the crush. How could I not love a book about two trailer park brothers named Pill and Dough? Their world is ugly and damaged and filled with the most bizarre losers, but Meno makes it all beautiful.

After school the very next day, El Rey’s mobile home was gone. I laid in bed and wondered what happens to people when they go, if they become like shadows, if they fade away when they disappear from your life. The only thing I could see was the broken picket fence. The only sound I could hear was the cry of birds being killed in the night.”

I love these boys in all their broken-ness.

So, as if I didn’t like this guy enough, I discover that he used my brother-in-law’s artwork on the cover of his short story collection, Demons in the Spring. Unlike any of the novels I had read by Meno, these are 20 quirky stories filled with magical realism, each accompanied by an original art illustration. How cool is this guy?

Well, based on his latest novel, Office Girl, Joe Meno is seemingly too cool for me.

He is quite obviously outside my reach in the hipster, Wicker Park world of artists and authors. The plot revolves around a hopeless love affair and, once again, incorporates illustrations, but not as effectively as with his short stories.

His characters, Odile and Jack, are members of that certain generation of aimless, hipster, dreamers. I recognize them without knowing them. I’m fairly certain they each have at least one politically significant tattoo. Jack is likely in need of a haircut and they wear deliberately ironic graphic t-shirts. They’re not exactly unlikable, but they are too self-aware to be my friends (even my imaginary fictionalized ones.)

So, apparently, my crush is a little more of a love-hate relationship. I have a few more Meno books to tackle. I think I’ll go with How the Hula Girl Sings, based on title alone.

Teaser Tuesday: The Next Best Thing

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. I actually discovered the idea on one of my favorite blogs, Up All Night Reading.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This week’s teaser is from Jennifer Weiner‘s latest, The Next Best Thing. Even though I’ve only begun reading, I see another familiar Weiner Chick Lit. That’s not a criticism by the way. Reading her books feels like wrapping myself in a fuzzy bathrobe. No challenge, not exactly flattering, but really comfortable.

“The next morning, I woke up with the sun and looked around the wreckage of my room, the piles of unwashed clothes, the streaked mirror, the dusty hardwood floors, the boxes of scripts and memos and printed out e-mails from Rob that I’d hauled from The Girls’ Room‘s office. My cotton nightshirt was stuck to my chest, either with sweat or with tears, and my hair hung in chlorine-smelling clumps against my face. You can do this, I told myself, and swung my legs out of bed, first the right one, then the left, feeling the hooked wool rug beneath my feet, the one my grandmother had worked on in a series of doctors’ offices and hospital waiting rooms during my surgeries when I was a girl. I had survived all of that. I would survive this too.”

Perfect for an easy summer read.

Monday Quote: Resilience

The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle. It really is.”
Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

I’m a worrier. I’ve covered this ground on my blog before, but I’m specifically talking about the way I worry over my sons. I worry about their skin and bones. I worry about the way the “world” forces its way into their minds. But, mostly, I worry about their hearts. I want to prevent that little muscle from breaking more than anything.

When my boys were babies and toddlers, I was repeatedly advised to not worry so much.

“You’d be surprised at how babies bounce.” (Yes, someone said that to me.)

“They don’t break easily.”

“Little boys are tough.”

“He’ll get over it faster than you will.”

I heard all of this and more, but still, I worry about their precious little hearts. Last week I tried to prepare by 10 year-old’s psyche for the sure-to-be-disappointing baseball tournament – our first ever. I had been warned by other parents that our team couldn’t really compete with the other travel teams in the league. Our city had, in fact, lost by a score of 32-3 last year.

But how do you tell a little boy, chosen for this All Star team for the very first time that he wouldn’t emerge victorious? Wouldn’t it be worse to crush his hope than to deal with disappointment? Every night for three weeks, we dropped him off for two hours of practice in the hot sun. He never complained about the heat, or the commitment. He donned all the catching equipment every day and soaked up his coaches’ praise like a sponge. In fact, he blossomed.

We made the 45-minute trip to the tournament site with a supremely confident player. It only took a ½ inning for all that bravado to disintegrate, as his team struggled to keep up. Plays that had come easily during the regular season now appeared impossible. I watched with my heart in my throat as my sweet boy tried to keep tears at bay returning to his dugout. The strong hitting he had shown all summer evaporated in the face of new pitchers.

Although his team rallied in the second inning, they lost via the “mercy” rule, down by 10 runs in the fourth. (By the way – I’m not sure the word “mercy” is any less cruel than “slaughter rule” when it comes to 10 year-old boys.)

As I feared, he took responsibility for the loss upon his own slim shoulders, blaming himself for every missed out and missed swing. His coach called it…telling him that he had the biggest heart of any player. That big heart was broken and there was nothing I could do but reinforce his coach’s message that they win and lose as a team, always.

Night two was more of the same. I secretly hoped that his coach would pull him out and let someone else catch just to relieve that sense of responsibility. But, he played every inning, just as he had practiced. Less than 2 hours later, the umpire invoked the “mercy” rule. His team was finished. Double elimination. Double heartbreak.

Shoulders sagging, tears brimming, he made his way to the car. I tried to stay positive. My husband and I told him we were proud of his play, his attitude, his poise. He stared out the window for about the half the ride and then, visibly, shed his disappointment.

I saw his posture change, his face brighten. “Well, at least I don’t have to go to practice every night anymore. And I get to keep my jersey and my hat. Isn’t that cool Mom?”

Worry not, Mom. Resilience comes naturally to little hearts.

A Tale as Old as Time in a Brand New Production

I was thrilled to return to Chicago Shakespeare Theater last weekend for the press opening of their Family Series production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. My review will be published in the August issue of Chicago Parent as well as

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has built its reputation on excellent quality productions reflecting Shakespeare’s love of storytelling, language and human emotion.

That has carried that through to its Family Series as well. When I learned that CST chose to premiere the 70-minute version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for the summer children’s show, I was unsure how it fit the mission. However, after seeing this beautiful production, I’m more convinced than ever that CST is a best bet for families.

With a cast of only 16 people, they managed to provide the feel of a full-scale Broadway musical. Outstanding voices and swift choreography set the mood. Dynamic costumes and an ever-changing set complete with computer-animated graphics bring the enchanted world of Belle and Beast to life.

In fact, the scenes in the forest with wolves attacking and fog rolling through were so realistic that some young audience members cried out to leave. That’s certainly testament to human emotion.

Emily Rohm is perfect as the inquisitive, feisty and beautiful Belle. She brings something fresh to the well-known character, captivating the young girls in the audience. William Travis Taylor (Beast) and Jake Klinkhammer (Gaston) provide the perfect counterparts in the quest for her love. Klinkhammer makes Gaston’s smarmy and conceited villain the show’s comic relief. Taylor has the challenge of conveying Beast’s emotional journey through an intricate mask and mass of beastly hair. Using his voice and body language, he succeeds.

Once again, director Rachel Rockwell keeps the pace of the show and its ensemble members moving quickly. She milks the comedy, but doesn’t shy away from the romance inherent in the story. My 10-year-old son thought there were “too many slow songs” but, judging by the reaction of the audience, he was in the minority.

Girls and boys alike were lined up in the lobby after the show for their chance to get an autograph from, and picture with, some of the actors.

You can read more of my stories at Chicago Parent.

I need Back-to-School help – a reader challenge/contest

I admit it. I’m a deal shopper.

I have spent many a July Sunday going through sale ads, cutting coupons, seeking penny pencils. I have arrived at a variety of big-box stores bright and early on weekday mornings, avoiding crowds and grabbing deals. I have hunted the elusive 8-pocket divided pocket folder from place to place.

I kind of liked it.

But now I’m a full-time working mom. My habits have to change. I am already predicting the many ways our lives will alter (and fearing the ways I haven’t even thought of.) Here’s what I know.

  • We will have less time to get ready in the mornings.
  • My sons will go to after-care each day, meaning I’ll need to provide additional school snacks.
  • I will no longer be available for, “Mom, I forgot my…”
  • Weekday school supply shopping is not an option.

Since I have three sons with crazy supply lists, less time, and no inclination to fight the evening and weekend crowds, I’ve already been looking for solutions to my school supply challenge. I was so glad when a friend hooked me up with The Write Stuff, a prepackaged school supply company, based right here in Illinois. While my sons’ school doesn’t participate in their school program (Boo-hoo!), I can order almost all of what I need through their website, at a good price and shipped right to my home (hooray!). Since they each have specific items on their lists, building 3 separate “a la carte” kits will just take a little time on the computer.

That’s one challenge down, but what about the rest?

So I turn to you, dear readers. I’m looking for your best back-to-school advice. Please comment on this post with helpful tips for getting and staying organized for the school year.

On Monday, July 16, 2012, I will choose one random winner for a Write Stuff school supply kit, to be shipped in time for this school year. (Tips may also appear on the websites and/or blogs for The Write Stuff as well as Go Girl Communications.)

Thank you friends.

Disclosure: I sometimes receive complimentary products and services in connection to my blog, in this case a school supply kit. I choose to write only about products, destinations and services that I enjoy. All opinions are 100% my own.


The Write Stuff kit ships in a keepsake box.



I was surprised at how much fits in that box. Brand name supplies including dry-erase markers and highlighters.

Monday Quote: Time

 “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

It’s only the start of the week and I’m already worried there won’t be enough time. How does anyone manage to live life and work at the same time? (I’m only in my second full by the way).

Planning my time

Taking a look at the week ahead – work, baseball, work, baseball, work, baseball, work, baseball, wedding shower. My son’s tournament team will finally play its first game, on a weeknight at 7:45 p.m. Did I mention that the games will be played almost an hour from our house? I guess the coaches weren’t kidding when they told us it would be a big commitment from the kids and from the parents.  I’m not looking forward to the late nights, but I see the pride my son carries being part of this particular team and I know this is time well spent.

Bad timing

But the tournament week has bad timing. My brothers and sisters in-law and I are hosting a wedding shower for our niece this weekend. 50 guests and we are not having it catered. I love doing this and I wanted to do this, but now that it’s here – there’s not enough time. The day approaches too quickly. No matter how much we have prepared in advance the final shopping, chopping, assembling and cooking cannot be done until the end. So, in addition to working around several night games this week, I already anticipate Thursday, Friday and Saturday being a flurry of activities to beat the clock. (Did I mention that the tournament team could potentially play at the same time as the shower on Saturday?!?)

Where does time go?

I don’t know how our niece can be getting married anyway? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was decorating for her mom’s baby-shower? I remember the crepe streamers vividly. I also remember Sara, a beautiful and fresh-faced pre-teen, brightening up the dance floor at my wedding. Seems to me she should be in high school, not the guest of honor at a bridal shower. Where did all that time go?

So, yes, this week I am going to surrender to the goon. It’s going to kick my butt.