After the Race, by Pamela Dae

ATR COVER

I am thrilled to announce my debut novel is now available for sale on Amazon! Today is the first day it’s available so if you want to be among the first to read After the Race, order it today! https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578618346/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=after+the+race+dae&qid=1581906554&sr=8-1

Alexandra is the daughter of a true Southern belle, a beauty of the Eisenhower era, who raises Alex with the mantra “First Lady First,” hoping her only daughter can realize the goal of becoming First Lady that she herself never did. At the same time, Alex has the voices of women’s liberation resounding in her ears. During a summer in Washington and her final year in college, Alexandra faces the challenges of her generation of women coming of age in the 1980s: weighing tradition and innovation to find a way forward. At the same time, she finds herself engaged to one man and in love with another.

This novel is about 15 years in the making. As a special gift to subscribers and readers of daeandwrite, here’s the first chapter. In the coming days, I will be posting a playlist, a menu, recipes for Dottie’s Texas Omelette, Aunt Trudy’s baked chicken, and much much more.

Chapter One

April 1983

Bloomington, Indiana

Alexandra watched her reflection in the Clairol make-up mirror as she applied another layer of mascara and glimpsed the Gamma Chi Omega paddle hanging on the wall behind her. “To Alex, Love Your Hoosier Mama.” She offered a silent thank you to God and her daddy for abetting her escape from Vassar in a way preventing her mother’s complaints. It was the end of her junior year at Indiana University and she’d followed all the precepts of the First Lady Plan.

“Jackie Kennedy,” Jane Ann had reiterated one week prior to her daughter’s graduation from Atlanta’s most prestigious private high school as Alex slung her book bag into the backseat of her mother’s new 1982 Jaguar XJ6. “Do not lose sight of the goal.”

They were on the way to another First Lady lesson instead of the Piedmont Driving Club pool, where the Trolls were no doubt already whooping and hollering.  Alex knew the point was beyond arguing, Jane Ann never yielded. Alex hoped this session was equitation or tennis instead of etiquette, or God forbid, sailing. She would prefer dance class but those were on Saturday mornings.

“What is it today?” Alexandra slouched against the door, grateful for the convertible and at least ten minutes of sunshine.

“Alexandra King Alt.” Jane Ann ignored the question, pulling a pair of huge, black Nina Ricci sunglass over her eyes. “One does not reach perfection by accident.” She tossed her mane of untamed red hair and steered the car down West Paces Ferry, humming along with Air Supply on the radio.

The convertible shot past a string of white-pillared mansions toward Northside Parkway. So they were going to the stables. At least Atoka could canter away from Jane Ann. “Did you bring my gear? Anything to eat?”

“Of course.” Jane Ann pointed to the monogrammed duffle and velvet helmet sitting in the back seat. “I packed your pink breeches and a white tank top. You can get some sun on your arms. And I brought carrots and apples for the horse, you can have one of those.” She gave her daughter a sweeping glance, head to toe. “You’re going to have to start watching your weight next year. I won’t have you coming home from college with the freshman ten, you hear me? I still weigh the same as I did the day I married your daddy and it’s not from eating like a hog.”

“Yes, Momma.” Alex shook out her ponytail, letting her hair trail along the wind currents. “What are you going to do while I’m riding? I’ve got homework tonight and I can’t really do it at the barn.”

“Homework? Italian or French? Je t’aime, mon amour.”

“No, trig. I want to get an A on the final.”

“Whatever for? Math is so dreadful and boring and … unladylike.”

“Nevertheless.” Alex rolled her eyes, careful to turn her back on her mother first.

“Since we’re leaving for Sea Island right after you get out of school, I thought I’d run into Davidson’s to see if they have that sweet Lilly dress in coral for you. And some Pappagallo’s to match. Which reminds me, have you packed? Don’t forget your tennis dress and those Courreges shifts we bought at Bergdorf’s over spring break.”

“Yes, Momma. Just don’t be late. I have to write graduation thank you notes too, and if you want me to use that blue Smythson paper, you need to get me more.”

“Check.” Jane Ann signaled her turn into the stables. “Anything else, Madam?”

“Momma, I’m just trying to follow your directions. You are always crystal clear.”

Jane Ann pulled the gearshift into park, blocking the front of the cream and brown low-slung building where the horses lived between visits from their owners. Nickers, whinnies, the deliberate stamping of hooves, and the woody scent of fresh manure wafted toward the convertible. Jane Ann examined her face in the rear view mirror and ran an index finger across the top of her perfect lips. “I’m so glad we agree. Have fun, I’ll be back in two hours.”

Alex’s saddle oxfords crunched the dry gravel. The tartan plaid skirt of her Westminster Prep uniform whipped in the breeze. She grabbed the helmet and kit bag from the back of the car and whirled toward the clapboard barn where Atoka waiting.

“First lady first.” Jane Ann’s words, both promise and threat, streamed behind the car’s exhaust on a jet of Joy-perfumed air.

Three years from that date and 500 miles away from her mother, Alexandra stared into the lighted mirror considering Jane Ann’s educational objectives. Other than mascara, I don’t think I’ll need any of the First Lady training today. I’m about as far away from the White House as possible. The opening bars of Jack & Diane boomed from a radio down the hall, “Two American kids growing up in the heartland.” With that, all thoughts of her mother slid right out of Alex’s head.

Slathering her upturned nose with zinc oxide, Meg Swenson turned from her own makeup mirror. “Don’t forget sunscreen,” Meg said. She pulled a blue and white Gamma Chi Omega sorority visor over her short, dark hair to screen her fair skin.

“Meg, I am not going to the social event of the year with a white nose. I tan anyway, I don’t burn. It’s you Yankee girls that have to worry.”

“Jane Ann isn’t opposed to tanning for First Ladies to-be?”

“Men love seeing a healthy glow on a girl.” Alex imitated her mother’s sugary, Southern voice. “It makes them feel virile and virile means nuptial.”

“I really think your mother could rival Phil Donahue with her own daytime talk show. Sort of a Southern etiquette-dating-fashion expert and Dear Abby all in one.”

“She would adore that. You should offer to be her producer.”

“I’m so sure.” Meg laughed.  “What team are you for today?”

“Celts, I guess. You?”

Meg nodded agreement. “The party will be definitely be more fun if the men of Chi Lambda Tau win.”

Alex checked her teeth in the mirror then turned to approve the rear view of her new Girbaud jeans with the white tab on the fly, a GCO t-shirt and Reeboks. Good. She stuffed her college ID, the Little 500 ticket, and a five-dollar bill in her pocket. From outside Becky Boone’s room, they heard John Cougar ending the song and Alex joined in the refrain, “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”

“I never get that line,” Meg said.

“Maybe Cougar himself’ll be at the race and you can ask him to explain it. Becks!”

Becky emerged splashed with a cloud of Jean Nate, her hair falling in luxurious blonde Farrah Fawcett wings and curls. “Ready!” Becky’s voice rose an octave on the last word and the three left in a fit of giggles, hair spray, and perfume.

The day was all blue sky and soft spring air. The only colors brighter than the emerging flowers were the shirts of the riders nervously pacing the track. When the University President instructed the men to “Mount Your Roadmaster Bicycles,” the crowd erupted and thirty-three guys hit their bikes to ride one parade lap around the stadium in formation. On the last turn of the track, the crowd held its breath. Every man on the track started looking for a lane, an edge. The group picked up speed and at the starting line, all hell broke loose. Someone broke out in front, maybe the Phi Delt rider, and the core pack of riders formed behind him.

Only one bike and four guys per team. The CELT’s first rider, Amos, rode the first twenty laps with Coors riding second, Moose third and then Banner, Jake Banwell, their anchor rider. Alex knew Andy Manning, ‘Amos,’ from journalism classes, and Bruce Davis, ‘Moose,’ dated Katie Ketcham. She’d only heard of Coors by reputation. He was famous for drinking two cases of beer during pledge initiation. And of course, Banner was infamous. He’d broken more hearts on campus than Bobby Knight’s Final Four losses.

On lap 51, the CELT’s back tire blew on the far side of the track and Coors rode to the pit on the rim. He leapt off the bike as soon as he hit the margin and the pit crew grabbed the bike, slammed it on the rack. Two guys pulled the blown tire off and another two were ready with a new one. The whole thing took ten seconds, but Alex and Meg exchanged a worried look. Ten seconds was enough to affect the results.

Lap 160-something, Moose whirled around the final turn, cinder track crunching beneath the wheels. Banner stood in the pit, hopping from foot to foot, ready for the exchange but Moose wasn’t slowing. The bike closed, cinders flying up onto Banner’s legs as he took four steps beside the spinning wheels and put his hands on the bars behind Moose’s. Just as Moose shifted his weight to the right, Banner launched airborne, flying into the saddle and catching the bars on his way down to the seat in perfect execution.

His legs pumped and the wheels churned. Thirty-three wheels within inches of each other, the men breathing, pedaling, leaning together. It sounded like a train running loose down a track disintegrating under the wheels. On turns, the pedaling stopped for a whirr of smooth noise for two or three seconds before the pumping restarted.

The next time Alex checked the board, there were ten laps left and the Phi Delt Olympic hopeful and Banner, the CELT, were dueling for the lead. But when the checkered flag waved signaling the last lap, Banner had fallen to finish sixth. As sweat rivered from his face, pooling beneath the wheels of his bike, Alexandra watched Banner’s heart break.

Will he cry? No. Too tough for that in public. He buried his face in a kelly green towel for several seconds. He’s put his game face back on, his jaw tight. Such a ride. “Tough break. He was so close.” Meg’s voice knocked Alex out of her own thoughts. “What a race though. The world’s greatest college weekend, huh?”

“It includes the party. Let’s go change.” The Gamma Chis paired with the CELT’s for the event; Alex wanted to congratulate the team.

But Jake Banwell was nowhere to be found at the CELT’s victory party. Alex danced anyway, infused with the day and the night and the music, she shagged and whirled and sang the classic words along “them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye, and singing this’ll be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die.” Her dance partner looked hopeful as the strains of Foreigner’s “Girl Like You” began, so Alex preemptively said good night and turned to go.

She was interrupted.

“Hey.” Jake Banwell appeared in front of her smiling with a cocky assurance as if she had been waiting for him all night. “Where’ve you been all night?”

At his touch, Alex felt a small jolt of electric current and jumped slightly. She looked into his eyes to see if he noticed. Eyes the color of the Sea Island ocean on a clear summer day gazed at her, giving away nothing. A lopsided grin meant to be irresistible, twin dimples and straight, white teeth.

But Alex was determined to be different. She extracted her hand. “I’ve been here all night.” She glanced at the bike team jacket he wore with the nickname “Banner” embroidered on it. “And you?  Did you go to the race?”

He laughed, removed the jacket with exaggerated care and tossed it onto a chair revealing a white t-shirt. Alex liked the way it looked with his ripped blue jeans and cowboy boots. “Yeah,” he said, “did you?”

A vision of Jake bent double over the bike, his legs rotating so fast you couldn’t separate the movement, and the second of heartbreak on his face at the finish line when he found out he was third. “Yeah,” she admitted. “Nice ride.”

The same disappointed look shimmered across his face before he replaced it with another grin. He put an arm on her waist and held out his hand in the classic slow dance posture. This time, she was less surprised by the frisson of contact. His eyes opened wider though and he peered closely at Alexandra, reexamining her face, more thoughtfully considering her features. He pursed his lips and knitted his eyebrows before putting one booted foot on either side of hers and drawing her closer to his body. “I’ve been waiting for a girl like you, to come into my life.”

His chin rested on the top of her head for several moments but then he whispered, “screw this.” He wrapped both arms around her, connected his hip and legs to hers, molded her body to his. A river of slow, delicious caramel oozed through Alexandra’s veins. The overhead lights seemed to dim and the music grew distant, the smells of beer and perfume fell away. She searched for his eyes and found them: steady, reassuring lights in a dark universe. He pressed the flat of his hand down the length of her spine.

Jake halted the circling of the dance and only his fingers moved to reach her face. His thumbs brushed her cheekbones, his fingers massaged her skull. I know all of him and none of him. He brought his mouth so close she felt a caress of breath escape his mouth to cross her own.

Then someone jostled them and though Foreigner was still wailing about the love that will survive, that dance ended. The smell of beer invaded, the lights brightened, and she moved an inch or two from his body. When the song was over, he said he would get her a drink.

Alex shook her head, clearing it of shiny angel clouds and looked around. I have a journalism paper due on Monday morning. It’s late. Meg is gone. I need to go, not only because Jane Ann would disapprove of this sexy, Midwestern, boot-wearing, blue-jeaned bad-ass who does not appear to ever be in the running for President of the United States.

During her ten-minute walk back to the sorority house, Alex congratulated herself on running as fast as she could from the cool guy and the fire he caused inside her. She didn’t intend to be his next broken-heart, and she had to admit that Jake Banwell would fall well short of every one of Jane Ann’s husband requirements.

But by the time she arrived home, she wasn’t so sure she should have left.

 

 

The Girl He Used to Know, by Tracey Garvis Graves

chess

TORRENT Jose Mongrell (1870 1937) Musketeers Playing Chess.

Annika Rose is a girl with the face of Caroline Bissett Kennedy and a brain that can devour the best chess players. She is, however, unusual. She doesn’t have the instinctive social skills that she sees others around her exercising. She’s just not sure what to say, how to dress, how to interact. So she does what she’s comfortable with: takes care of wounded animals and loses herself in books.

At the instigation of her understanding college roommate, Janice, Annika goes to a meeting of the chess club and there meets Jonathan Hoffman, who becomes her friend, then lover, and finally, the man whose heart she breaks.

When The Girl He Used to Know opens, Annika and Jonathan are bumping into one another for the first time in ten years in the frozen foods section of a grocery store.

[T]hough I often struggle to recognize people out of context, there’s no need for me to question whether or not it’s him. I know it’s him. My body vibrates like the low rumble of a faraway train and I’m grateful for the freezer’s cold air as my core temperature shoots up. I want to bolt, to forget about the strawberries and find the nearest exit. But Tina’s words echo in my head, and I repeat them like a mantra: Don’t run, take responsibility, be yourself.

If the set-up sounds familiar, it’s because it’s inspired by Dan Fogelberg’s song Same Old dfLang Syne according to Ms. Graves. (Here’s the song: https://youtu.be/kmZ2VHSkVYY ) I’m a big fan of that song, so the book and it’s premise of a “second-chance love story” appealed to me. I picked up the paperback during a Target run without knowing anything more about it, though it’s been well-reviewed.

The Girl He Used to Know time-travels between Annika and Jonathan’s undergrad years at the University of Illinois and their second chance time when Jonathan has returned to Chicago from his job on Wall Street. Annika too has her dream job, working as a librarian at the Harold Washington Library. Though initially reluctant to have his heart mangled a second time, Jonathan finds he still cares a great deal about Annika. Annika has worked hard to understand both herself and the reactions other people have toward her, and she wants to please Jonathan with these changes.

hwlc-about

Harold Washington Library, Chicago

“All I wanted was to show you that I’ve changed. That I’m not the same person I was in college.” She sounds defeated.

“Well, guess what? You haven’t changed all that much. You’re still the same girl I fell in love with at twenty-two. And here’s a newsflash: I like that girl and always have, and I never once said I wanted her to change.”

. . . “I try so hard to fit in. I spend hours studying appropriate behaviors.” She makes little air quotes around the last two words. “I will never get it right! Do you know what that’s like? It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.”

Falling in love, second chance love, challenging love. The Girl He Used to Know guides the reader on these challenging journeys. The last fifty pages of the novel take a turn I completely did not anticipate, though there were hints. During these pages, Annika must undertake a journey to prove to herself how she’s changed and to prove to Jonathan that she is willing to fight for their love.

It’s a great choice for a Valentine read.

the-girl-he-used-to-know_0

MENU

Stuffed Shells, Cheesecake and Italian Cherry Soda – Annika’s favorite dinner at Trattoria #10 — a real place at 10 N. Dearborn in Chicago. http://www.trattoriaten.com/about

Pizza & Beer, being parts of this novel occur in college, the beer and pizza are unavoidable. Jonathan takes Annika on a picnic with sandwiches and chips and lemonade. There’s a Christmas dinner with baked chicken and Annika’s brother enjoys eating Christmas cookies with a beer.

Stuffed Shells. This is one of my favorite dishes from my mother (Irish-American with not an Italian gene in sight, but it’s very good!)

Boil 4-6 quarts of water. When boiling add a teaspoon of salt and then one box of pasta shells. Boil in water for 9-10 minutes.

Drain 1/13 cups ricotta cheese in a strainer for a few minutes. After it’s drained, add it to a bowl with 1 eg, 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1 cup cooked fresh spinach (squeezed dry and chopped), 1 teaspoon of minced garlic. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

When shells are al dente, strain and rinse with cold water.

Prepare a baking pan or two by putting tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan to cover.

Then take a spoon and stuff each shell with the ricotta mixture, please in a baking pan (stuffed side up), until pan is full. Cover in tomato sauce — we do this in drizzle pattern,  not a drowning. Sprinkle with grated mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes, until bubbly. YUM.

PLAYLIST.

I thought I’d put together a playlist of second chance at love songs. There’s some golden oldies here!

Same Old Lang Syne, Dan Fogelberg

Working My Way Back to You Girl, The Spinners

If You Leave Me Now, Chicago

Against All Odds, Phil Collins

Reunited, Peaches & Herb

I want You Back, Jackson 5

Baby Come Back, Player

Back in My Arms Again, The Supremes

MOVIE CAST

Annika       Margot Robbie/Cara Delavigne

Jonathan    Liam Hemsworth

Happy reading!!

 

 

 

Circe, by Madeline Miller

circe brewing

Circe by John William Waterhouse

In the sixth grade, my beloved teacher Joan Davis assigned us our first research paper, long before the days of Google, the Internet, or Amazon.com. We ventured forth carrying index cards, different colors of ink, and stacks of books (well, three or four), from which to glean knowledge to distill in the prescribed format. I chose Greek Mythology and after quickly falling in rapture with the tales, created the I.II.III. a.b.c. etc outline and thereafter the research paper required. The paper was completed but my fascination for the subject is not.

Madeline Miller, author of the Orange Prize-winning novel The Song of Achilles and more recently Circe, developed a fascination around the same time in her life by visiting the

madeline-miller

Madeline Miller

Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ Ancient Greek Exhibit. “This absolutely helped to further my love of the ancient world, particularly its mythology. I used to love looking at the statues and trying to guess who they were. However, I think I would need to cite as a personal inspiration Vergil’s Aeneid. Homer’s work influenced me also, but there is something about Vergil—his care with language and imagery, his beautiful characterizations, and his passionate pleas for mercy and forgiveness.” https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2011/07/20/madeline-miller-author-of-the-song-of-achilles-answers-ten-terrifying-questions/”””

Likely against all practical advice, young Madeline went to Brown University and studied  Classics and Theatre. Despite that, she has become a teacher and wildly successful novelist.

Circe binds a spell woven of the well-known mythology and the unknown character of a woman. Circe has come through time as a witch, transformer of men into pigs, aunt of Medea, entwiner of Odysseus. Miller transforms the mythology by giving us the history of the little girl, most reviled daughter of Helios, the sun god, and his wife Perse; ignored by her parents and mocked by her siblings.

“The two of them were very clever and quickly saw how things stood. They loved to sneer at me behind their ermine paws. Her eyes are yellow as piss. Her voice is screechy as an owl. She is called Hawk, but she should be called Goat for her ugliness.”

In Miller’s novel, Circe’s life changes when her uncle Prometheus (he who gave fire to man) is brought to Helios’ hall for punishment. Alone of the witnesses, Circe feels compassion toward Prometheus and offers him a cup of nectar. After he drinks, Circe questions him as to why he would go to such effort for humans and then freely confess to Zeus what he had done. Prometheus answers: “Not every god need be the same.” In this, Circe finds her life’s ambition.

Many of the reviews of Circe dwell on Miller’s feminist re-characterizing of the Greek witch. Others have spent a great deal of time commenting on that aspect, so I will not, other than to say I read Circe as a female author’s take on a female character.

circe cup

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysses, J.W. Waterhouse

The central event of the novel is Odysseus’ year-long visit to Aiaia, the island to which Circe was banished for using witchcraft to turn a mortal into a god. She has been alone for centuries, defending herself against hostile men by turning them into pigs, when Odysseus and his crew land and seek shelter. After Circe almost automatically turns the crew into a herd of swine, Odysseus arrives.

“‘I think you are Odysseus,” I said. “Born from that same Trickster’s blood.’

“He did not start at the uncanny knowledge. He was a man used to gods. ‘And you are the goddess Circe, daughter of the sun.’

“My name in his mouth. It sparked a feeling in me, sharp and eager. He was like ocean tides indeed, I thought. You could look up, and the shore would be gone.”

What follows are encounters with gods, Hermes and Helios, goddesses, Athena, and monsters; travels to the underworld and the depths of earth; and the birth of Circe and Odysseus’ son, Telegonus.

Topics for book club discussion are rich. The nature of divinity, the Fates, choice, marriage, war. Circe may be nominally about a goddess, but we mortals will certainly enjoy reading and discussing her life.

FOOD

Well . . . Circe gives Prometheus nectar but I have no idea what kind or how to generate that. My menu will focus instead on more mundane dishes, and definitely no pork!

Red wine

Cheeses and berries (pomegranate if in season)

At one point, Circe makes a favorite dish of fish stuffed with herbs and cheese. Try this recipe:

6 (6 ounce) salmon fillets, skinless

1 lemon

5  ounces spreadable cheese with garlic and herbs

sea salt

1 cup soft breadcrumbs

1/3 cup parmesan cheese, freshly shredded

1/2  cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Preheat oven to 425.

Finely shred enough peel from lemon to make 2 teaspoons; cut lemon in wedges and set aside. In small bowl combine semisoft cheese and lemon peel. In top of each fillet, from about 1/2 inch from one end, cut a pocket, taking care not to cut all the way through the fish. (If the fish is thin, cut into the fish at an angle). Spoon cheese mixture into pockets. Season fish with salt Place in baking pan and set aside.

In small bowl combine bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, butter and pine nuts; sprinkle over fillets, pressing lightly.

Bake, uncovered, about 14 minutes or until salmon flakes when tested with a fork. Serve with lemon wedges.

PLAYLIST

Monteverdi’s Opera The Return of Ulysses 

Josef Mysliveček’s opera La Circe

If you’re in the mood for something more modern, The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love sounds divine to me.

CASTING

According to Madeline Miller’s website, HBO is adapting Circe for a televised experience. I would anticipate a miniseries rather than a movie; there’s just too much here for a two hour event.circe book

Sean Bean (aka Ned Stark) played Odysseus in the film Troy. Joseph Mawle (aka Benjen Stark) played Odysseus in the 2018 miniseries Troy: Fall of a City. Let’s stick with Game of Thrones and give my favorite non-Stark the role. Arguably, you could easily cast the whole thing with GOT alums. Lena Headey as Circe, Gwendoline Christie as Athena, Aiden Gillen as Hermes? For fun, I’ll get out of the GOT box after casting Jamie.

Odysseus            Nicolaj Coster-Waldau

Circe                   Margot Robbie

Athena                Charlize Theron

Penelope            Rosamund Pike

Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger

ladybird

An image from ‘Going to School’ (Ladybird books series 563) by M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield; First Published 1959

Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School reads like a how to book on bad parenting. Four women bond in mommy-and-me swimming lessons with infants, growing in friendship as their children age. But when this set of kids hits fifth grade, a new public school is announced. A public school only for the especially gifted and talented. With that, the BFFs (who celebrate each anniversary by gifting coffee mugs with friendship quotations on each other) are off and spinning to help their kids achieve recognition as the gifted and talented special kids the moms know they must be.

Rose Holland-Quinn is a pediatric neurologist married to a failing author she loathes. Samantha Zeller, formerly a personal trainer, married rich and politically influential Kevin and now lives atop the social ladder. Rose and Samantha each have a daughter named Emma. Annoyingly, one is referred to as Emma Z. and one is referred to as Emma Q.

Lauren, a widow, has what she considers the world’s brightest fifth grader, the creepy Xander, and Tessa, a 17-year-old daughter who is just out of rehab and who loves to vlog her life. Finally, the saintly Azra, mother of twins Charlie and Aiden, is divorced from their defiantly unsaintly father, Beck who is remarried to teutonic stoic Sonya.

In addition to these four families, there is the family of Samantha and Rose’s housekeeper (names I’m not even going to attempt to spell). This family, — a mother, grandmother and son the same age as “the Emmas,” Xander, and Charlie and Aiden, who is also applying to the gifted school, — is really the only other likable group.

The narration switches between about six characters.

Incidentally, if I’m misspelling names, I apologize, I listened to this book on audible.

There were phrases that clung to my ears like the shriek of a heavy metal guitar as I listened to this book: Emma Z., Emma Q., “the Emmas (truly, revoltingly privileged),” the CogPro, the Emerald Mall. Like those repetitive phrases, the irritating traits of the characters emerge repeatedly, and to such a deleterious level that it’s hard to envision this could actually happen. But perhaps that’s Mr. Holsinger’s point with The Gifted School.

The word gifted slashed like a guillotine through other topics. Around the table the talk ceased.

“It’s called Crystal Academy, Dad,” Samantha said into the silence.

“A private?” Azra asked, apparently as clueless as Rose.

“No actually.” Lauren leaned in, turtling out her short neck. “It’s a public magnet school for the profoundly gifted.”

“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” said Kev grandly.

“A high school?” Rose’s question.

“Grades six through eight in the lower school, and the upper school is nine through twelve.”

“Oh,” said Rose. Profoundly gifted. Words to make the bones sing. This must be the mysterious “other option” Samantha had been hedging about at RockSalt last week. “What, a city school, just for Crystal kids?”

“Oh no,” said Kev. “It’s a joint venture between the City of Crystal and the Four Counties.”

“All five school districts?” Gareth asked. “But that’s a huge pool of eligible students.”

“No kidding,” said Samantha. “Over a hundred thousand kids for just a thousand spots.”

“The one percent,” Blakey observed snidely. Everyone laughed but she was right: one in a hundred. Kev’s acerbic sister was enjoying the conversation, Rose could tell, watching the reactions among her sister-in-law’s friends as they took in the news about the school.

“How does admissions work?” Azra asked.

“They’re doing it as a test-in.” Lauren, happily in the know. “A first round of CogPROs in the districts starting in March, then more individualized assessments in a second round.”

“CogPROs?” someone asked.

“Cognitive Proficiency Test,” said Lauren. “It’s a standard IQ battery.”

Over her wine glass Rose looked a question at Gareth and he shrugged it right back. Neither of them had heard a word about this school.

“Where are they building it?” Gareth asked.

“The upper school will be out in Kendall County,” Kev answered. “But the lower school is going in the old Maple Hill site.”

“Six or seven blocks from here.” Samantha nodded vaguely west, in the direction of her back deck.

“It’s a done deal,” said Kev. “The contractor’s an old buddy of mine and they finalized the building permits last week. The refurbish kicks off in January. They’ll be up and running by July, hiring staff this spring for a fall opening. These guys are moving fast.”

How do you know all this?The question never reached Rose’s lips, because the Zellars always knew, and besides, Kev had been on City Council the last three years. Any big building project in town, let alone one as visible as a new magnet school, would already be on his radar.

pikes peak

“So, Rose, will you apply for Emma Q?” said Edgar, still pressing for an answer.

“Who knows.” Rose was already seeing years of small classes, innovative pedagogy, Barnard admissions staff cooing in approval. “We might check it out.”

I should add as a disclaimer that as an aunt of four, I have never been intimately involved in the competitive nature of g.p.a.s, SATs, ACTs, magnet schools, and/or whatever the local name for the “cog/pro” is. Thank Goodness.

On a national level, though, it’s no secret that celebrity parents have recently been stung in similar FBI investigations. What a serendipitous time for The Gifted School to be published. As NPR put it: “The impulse behind the transgressions, though, is the same. Holsinger’s characters are privilege-hoarders, wedded to the conviction that their children deserve to go to the “gifted school” not by virtue of intelligence or achievements, but by virtue of being their children.” https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/737125569/in-the-gifted-school-ripped-from-the-headlines-parental-scheming

The New Yorker said: “Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror…There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas…And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride…helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions.”

As the novel advances, the tension of what will these people do next to give their childrengifted an advantage, devolves into: ok, which ones get into the gifted school. And, for me: is anyone ever going to address the fact that Xander (and his sister Tessa to a lesser degree) is a total sociopath?

It’s a novel rife with fodder for a great book club discussion and it’s a quick read. Yes, there are annoying elements, and other than housekeeper and her family and the saintly Azra who is unfortunately not as present on the page as one would like her to be, there are no sympathetic characters. “Hate-reading,” is accurately funny.

I bet you can’t wait to read it to see if you recognize anyone from the halls of your children’s own magnet school.

MENU

During the Crystal Academy Open House, a buffet was set out for all attendees that included fun little tidbits like “grilled tofu” on a grill that proclaimed “NO MEAT ON THIS GRILL” and gluten-free and peanut-free options.

In addition, there were grilled hamburgers, grilled vegetables, and hot dogs. Lemonade. And an ice cream sundae bar, complete with chocolate sprinkles.

That’s what I’d serve.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

Be True to Your School, Beach Boys

Beauty School Dropout, Frankie Avalon

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana

Smokin’ in the Boys Room, Motley Crue

MOVIE CASTING for The Gifted School

First, I would be shocked if this hasn’t already sold for production.

Second, I stalked Bruce Holsinger’s Facebook page (we have one mutual friend in common) and he had a photo of Zach Gallifinakis up with the caption “dream casting for Beck.” It made me laugh out loud. YEP.

Rose                            Laura Linney

Samantha                  Sarah Jessica Parker

Lauren                       Amy Poehler

Azra                            Indira Varma

Beck                            Zach Gallifinakis

Kev                             Paul Sparks

Gareth                       Luke Wilson

Betsy Layton              Maya Rudolph

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

daisy

With the first spoken words of the author’s note in the audible version of Daisy Jones and The Six, I wondered if I’d somehow never heard of this quintessential California band of the 1970s. But then Daisy herself began speaking, I recognized the actual voice of Jennifer Beals, and I congratulated the author on a job well-done. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been fooled into thinking it might have been the real thing.

There are times when I love listening to a book and times when I loathe it: this was one of the times I loved it. Jennifer Beals, Pablo Schreiber, Ari Fliakos, Benjamin Bratt, Judy Greer. It’s a great cast and they do a wonderful job infusing the multiple point of view story with emotion, personality and pathos.

The book begins as a portrait of Daisy Jones, someone the reader is presumed to know.

You’ve got a rich white girl, growing up in L.A. She’s gorgeous—­even as a child. She has these stunning big blue eyes—­dark, cobalt blue. One of my favorite anecdotes about her is that in the eighties a colored-­contact company actually created a shade called Daisy Blue. She’s got copper-­red hair that is thick and wavy and . . . takes up so much space. And then her cheekbones almost seem swollen, that’s how defined they are. And she’s got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson. She’s born with all the money in the world, access to whatever she wants—­artists, drugs, clubs—­anything and everything at her disposal.

But she has no one. No siblings, no extended family in Los Angeles. Two parents who are so into their own world that they are all but indifferent to her existence. Although, they never shy away from making her pose for their artist friends. That’s why there are so many paintings and photos of Daisy as a child—­the artists that came into that home saw Daisy Jones, saw how gorgeous she was, and wanted to capture her. It’s telling that there is no Frank Jones piece of Daisy. Her father is too busy with his male nudes to pay much attention to his daughter. And in general, Daisy spends her childhood rather alone. . . .

Whiskey A Go GO

We love broken, beautiful people. And it doesn’t get much more obviously broken and more classically beautiful than Daisy Jones.

 

So it makes sense that Daisy starts to find herself on the Sunset Strip. This glamorous, seedy place.

Then we meet a band called The Six: brothers Billy and Graham Dunne, brothers Pete and Eddie Loving, Karen Karen the keyboardist, and drummer Warren Rhodes. Billy Dunne has found his love of a lifetime, Camilla, and spends most of his days trying to make up for his alcoholic past by writing her love songs. Graham spends most of his time trying to convince Karen to live with him happily ever after. Pete has a long-distance girlfriend, Eddie hates Billy, and Warren just wants to meet chicks. I am a huge fan of Ari Fliakos and he reads Warren to hilarious perfection here.

After lots of backstory about poor little rich girl Daisy, and her drug-infused life at the Chateau Marmont; about Billy’s descent into and out of drugs, alcohol and women following his wife’s pronouncement that she’s pregnant; after Eddie throws a fit a day over Billy’s control of the band — the band and Daisy come together, as these things happen.

Billy and Daisy don’t like each other much. She’s wasting her talent; he’s limiting his to love songs for his wife. But Daisy is invited to open on tour for The Six. When circumstances offer Billy and Daisy an opening to sing together, the dynamic explodes. They are suddenly the most popular band in the world: top of the charts, sold out concerts, groupies, roadies, Rolling Stone covers, cocaine, bennies, champagne, girls-girls-girls.

Daisy-Jones-1-e1555085250551At the urging of no less than Rolling Stones’ cover, Daisy joins The Six as an official member of the band. And as writing partner of Billy Dunne.

Daisy Jones and The Six paints a livid scene of the music industry in the 1970s. As I listened, I felt this must have been based on someone — Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles maybe? — but in retrospect, I think it’s more likely based on everyone who ever had talent and tried to take it further. About every woman who ever faced the fact that “men often think they deserve a sticker for treating women like people.”

Reid says she was inspired to write the book by songwriting teams.

First, I was really taken with how often in culture there are these men and women who write incredible songs together, but also have somewhat complicated personal relationships. The most obvious example is Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac, but there’s a lot of them—The Civil Wars, who broke up in 2014, and other group bands who have had difficulty in their relationships and broke up very abruptly. Take Beyoncé and Jay-Z for example (even though it’s hip-hop and not rock), who have this incredible relationship. They take their personal life and make art from it. I’m fascinated by it, so I wanted to create a band to explore that further.

There are moments particularly striking in light of the Bradley Cooper-Lady GaGa are they-aren’t they discussions as well.

Reese Witherspoon liked the book enough to choose it for her book club and optioned the TV rights before publication, and Amazon has ordered a 13-episode run of the adaptation of the book, with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Fault In Our Stars) penning the scripts. Plus, there’s a team crafting the original music for the show.

In the end, Daisy tells her own story, unvarnished and without remorse. Is it a cautionary tale? Is it a love story? Or is it all about the music? You decide. I think there’s lots and lots of fodder for your next book club discussion. And if you want to read what Rolling Stone itself has to say about Daisy Jones and The Six: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/daisy-jones-the-six-book-taylor-jenkins-reid-women-music-803045/

music“It is what I have always loved about music. Not the sounds of the crowds or the good times as much as the words – the emotions, and the stories, the truth- that you can let flow right out of your mouth. Music can dig, you know? It can take a shovel to your chest and just start digging until it hits something.”

MENU

As you might imagine, there was not a lot of food being consumed in this book. But Daisy did specifically request a hamburger for her one meal a day and there were copious amounts of champagne.

My menu would be California-inspired.

Guacamole with chips

California burgers: hamburgers wrapped in Bibb lettuce leaves instead of buns (no carbs!)

Sweet potato fries

Champagne

MUSIC

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

The Eagles’ Hotel California

America

CASTING

Sounds like Amazon is already working on this but just in case they need some help.

Daisy —  Emma Stone certainly fits the bill.

Billy — I can’t see anybody but a young Johnny Depp

Camilla — Selena Gomez (give Camilla some songs)

Graham — James Marsden

Karen Karen — Miley Cyrus

Eddie Loving — Ben Foster

Pete Loving — Jon Foster

Warren — I really want John Krasinski to play this part. He would be hilarious.

Happy Reading!

 

 

Southernmost, by Silas House

key west

In Southernmost, Kentucky author (and treasure) Silas House creates a road trip, family drama, and mediation on the disparity between modern Christianity and its most rigid adherents. He begins with a flood in Tennessee, and a family on the brink.

Asher is the pastor of a small church in a small community. At the height of the flood, his son Justin disappears in search of his dog and Asher, Justin, and two other men help rescue a father and daughter. When Asher invites the men into his home, Asher’s wife Lydia objects.

“Did those men leave?”

“No,” Asher said. “They’re putting on some dry clothes.”

“We can’t have them in here, Asher,” she said quietly.

“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Asher whispered. “We’re the lucky ones.”

“What would the congregation say? It’s not right — “

“Not right to help people in trouble?”

“I know who they are,” she said. “They’re — you know what they are, Asher. We can’t have them in here around Justin.”

Asher has dealt with this dilemma before: his brotherLuke  left Asher’s own birth family years earlier, unwelcome due to his own sexuality. For years, Asher has missed his brother but accepted his absence as the way things ought to be, never divulging that he occasionally receives an unsigned postcard from Key West, Florida.

gator

Ten years without his brother. He thought of their mother sitting at the yellow kitchen table while Luke danced across the red linoleum. Asher was laughing and clapping — only twelve, Luke four years older. Their mother’s mouth clenched into a wrinkled line, like a pink drawstring purse. . . . .

Their mother darted up quick as a spider, snapped off the radio in one sharp click of her wrist.

The word she had said to Luke then.

(faggot)

Luke ran from the room, from the house, down to the willow-shadowy banks of the Cumberland, where Asher found him later, watching the river.

Near the beginning of the novel (just so you know I’m not giving away the ending), Asher undergoes a Road to Damascus change. He welcomes the gay couple to his church and then his position there is terminated, his wife Lydia throws him out, sues for divorce, and tries to take all visits with Justin away. Asher feels he has no option but to take the boy and run.

The descriptions of Silas House’s work tend to include words like “masterful,” “redolent and rich,” “poetic,” and “haunting.” In an interview with novelist Jeff Zentner for the Parnassus’ book store blog, musings, House discussed how he came to this particular topic at this time:

When I was little, our home was quickly overtaken by a flood and we barely escaped. So I had personal experience, and I knew the way an event like that can impact you spiritually and physically. When the 2010 flood hit, I heard a preacher on the radio saying it was the wrath of God because of “accepting gays.” I had already created this character who I knew was going to make a principled stand for equality and as soon as I heard that, I knew I had the impetus for the entire novel. So mine is a fictionalized version of that flood that I’ve moved to 2015 to coincide with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. I loved working against such a dramatic backdrop to begin the novel.

https://parnassusmusing.net/2018/06/07/silas-house/

southernmostSouthernmost is a powerful work that offers chewy discussion on themes of family, redemption, morality, choice, love. If your book club has a diversity of political viewpoints, it may be a volatile fuse. I personally think that’s a good thing, and that’s what discussion is for.

 

 

Food

In the interview with Parnassus, House discusses the use of food in his work: “I always strive to make my writing as sensory as I can and few things do that as well as food. And we have such a strong cultural attachment to food — I mean, I’ve seen arguments bordering on violence about whether or not cornbread should or should not have sugar in it. (For the record, I say no.)” Interestingly, the Parnassus blog spells cornbread as one word; in the novel, Silas House spells it as two.

Some of the meals described:

fried green tomatoes, corn bread, cucumbers, green onions, and sweet tea

chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, a slice of tomato

red beans and rice, corn bread, chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in vinegar, avocados sliced and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and blackberry pie for dessert

Asher fixes grilled cheese, fried bologna, and peanut butter and jelly (with a Nehi) sandwiches for Justin and packs a bag with chips, granola bars, oranges, bananas, Nabs, peanuts, cashews all of which Justin eschews and asks for a honey bun.

If you need a cornbread recipe, here’s Southern Living’s official one. No sugar, Mr. House: https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/ben-mims-perfect-cornbread

Music

Silas House talked about the music of Southernmost in his Parnassus interview as well (it’s like Jeff Zentner was reading my mind!) and said:

Once I knew that Asher was moved and changed by the music of Patty Griffin, I knew more about him. Once I figured out that Justin is obsessed with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, I had him pegged. Then there’s Bell, who has named her cottage after a Joni Mitchell song. For me, music is such an integral part of everyday life that I can’t imagine characters who don’t care as deeply about it as I do. This book had a soundtrack of about 75 songs that I listened to over and over again over the course of many years and that hugely informed the theme and mood of the novel.

Here are some of the songs I found as I read:

I Don’t Want to Know, Fleetwood Mac

Wonderful, My Morning Jacket

house-silas2-c-tasha-thomasTom Petty

The Mamas and the Papas

Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell

My Sweet Lord, George Harrison

My Dixie Darling, Carlene Carter

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, traditional Scottish song

 

 

Read Southernmost. Discuss it. Enjoy it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

TescoFriday night is Eleanor Oliphant’s favorite night of the week. She  takes the bus home from her low-paying office job in a Glasgow ad agency, buys a Tesco pizza and two bottles of Vodka and then settles in at her apartment for a long weekend of public television, nature documentaries, and mental fuzziness.

And Eleanor is fine with that. Really fine. Really, she is.

“Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.”

Since she moved into her solo apartment nearly a decade ago, Eleanor has had few guests. A total of two in fact. The meter reader and a social worker who checks on her about once a month. That is fine with Eleanor as well . . . until the night she encounters rock star-wannabe Johnnie Lomond who immediately impresses her as the type of man her mother would find acceptable because he buttons the lower button of his vest while performing in a local music venue.2016-05-24-1464091272-8813709-bookbinderrockstar

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what l’ve always told myself, at any rate. But last night I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk on stage, I just knew…here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as “husband material”.

I listened to the audible.com version of this book and enjoyed it immensely. Cathleen McCarron’s narration spooned the words and voice of author Gail Honeyman’s character. Hearing Honeyman’s words in McCarron’s voice I felt I knew Eleanor, even as she said once again exactly what she thought, leaving her colleagues speechless or collapsing in laughter,

Once Eleanor spies Johnnie Lomond she embarks on a no-holds barred makeover attempt. New haircut, new wardrobe, adding some make-up, and making a new friend: Raymond, from the ad company’s IT department. She found — to her surprise — these small changes reaped some rewards that she actually enjoyed.

“It turned out that if you saw the same person with some degree of regularity, then the conversation was immediately pleasant and comfortable—you could pick up where you left off, as it were, rather than having to start afresh each time. . . . Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear?”

When Raymond and Eleanor encounter an older gentlemen in medical distress after one of their lunches, Raymond begins introducing Eleanor to lunches outside the office. Parties. Tea with his own mother. The internet becomes Eleanor’s tool to spy on Johnnie Lomond, read his tweets (hilariously narcissistic), see his Instagram posts all while plotting the first meeting that will lead inevitably to the couple’s long-term wedded bliss. It doesn’t, of course, work out that way which leads to Eleanor’s finding out she’s in fact not fine, not fine at all. Which is exactly when things become really interesting.

Gail HoneymanEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a debut novel by a post-40 year old author. Gail Honeyman worked in the British Civil Service and as a university administrator writing her debut novel during lunch and after work. She entered Eleanor in a fiction competition, didn’t win, but an agent signed her and the novel became the subject of a bidding war,  was named 2017 Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and the film rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon.  Talk about a Cinderella story.Oliphant

 

So deserving.

Your book club will adore it.

MENU

Eleanor’s preferred weekend meals are Tesco frozen pizzas and vodka. She prepares pesto pasta for dinner each night because it tastes good, it’s easy and it fulfills her nutritional requirements. At the pub she frequents with Raymond she becomes enamored of frothy coffee and cheese scones. She orders “Magner’s” frequently when she becomes more a part of social events, at the suggestion of a bartender. I’d never heard of Magner’s but it is an Irish hard cider. It looks to be available in the US so I would serve Magner’s with cheese scones.

Here’s a recipe for classic British cheese scones: https://www.thespruceeats.com/easy-classic-british-cheese-scone-recipe-434867

I would also serve pizza. One of my favorite things to do with pizza is to buy pre-made pizza crusts, then place an array of toppings out for people to make their own favorite. Pepperoni, turkey pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh basil, shrimp, parmesan, artichokes, spinach, baked chicken, a jar of roasted red peppers. Your guests get to have exactly what they like and have fun making them together.

MUSIC

Definitely some Scottish bands. The Proclaimers, Simple Minds, Big Country.

The standard which our Johnnie Lomond will never meet. Alas.

MOVIE CASTING

Dear Reese: I really hope you don’t transfer this story to Rupert Grintthe U.S. The Glaswegian character of the novel should be preserved.

That being said, please cast British actors! My suggestions:

Eleanor: Sophie McShera, a Scottish

Sophie_McShera_May_2014_(cropped)actress, and fan favorite Daisy from Downton Abbey

Raymond: Rupert Grint, our man Ron Weasley of Harry Potter fame

Happy Reading!