Thursday, May 3, 2018

Sass, Smarts and Stilettos

"We don't accept the ordinary. We dig in and do what we've always done. We get creative, and we transform it."
~ Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos, Gabriella Contestabile


Published in 2017, Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos: How Italian Women Make the Ordinary, Extraordinary by Gabriella Contestabile is a book that focuses on Italian women. The author was born in Italy, and raised in Ottawa and NYC. In 1953, when she was four years old, her family traveled on the Andrea Doria, "a floating museum of art, technology, and timeless Italian good taste" from the port of Genova to North America, because her father has been transferred from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome to the Italian embassy in Ottawa.  Three years later, the Andrea Doria sank after being hit by the SS Stockholm near Nantucket, and this floating museum of Italian art and history was lost forever. This loss contributed to the author's decision to live fully and to savor life's joyful but fleeting moments. In 1959, she emigrated with her family to New York, when her father was transferred from the Italian Embassy in Ottawa to the Italian Consulate in New York City, and begin a new life in Astoria, Queens.

Written in a warm and friendly manner, this book is a personal story that's quite entertaining and informative. Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos is filled with practical tips and wisdom. As the title promises, it discusses what makes Italians, and especially Italian women, extraordinary. There are many anecdotes and glorious details in this inspiring book that reveal the secrets of Italian women. The basic idea is that Italian women make the ordinary extraordinary due to their innate appreciation for beauty and their deep connection with art.  They use the passion, focus, and purpose that are part of their cultural identity.

Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos is a short, charming book that may well entice you to visit Italy.  (I haven't been to Italy yet, but coincidentally, one of my sister-in-laws traveled to Italy last month, and my son is going next month.) The cover by Katerina Miras is lovely.  There are thirty-two chapters in this book, plus a helpful Italian Glossary in the back.  Each chapter is titled and begins with a quotation (or two) that relates to the subject matter. Chapter titles describe the contents in a tempting and down-to-earth manner, and reveal the author's ideas and philosophy. These titles say a lot.  Here are some examples: Chapter Two - The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, Chapter Nine - Food, the Talisman of Happiness, Chapter Eleven - Joy in Simple Things,  Chapter Eighteen - Style is Ageless,  Chapter Twenty-Four - Your Life is Your Biggest Work of Art, Chapter Twenty-Nine - Secrets of an Italian Woman's Skin. They're fun to read (and may be read out of order, I think, especially during a second reading).  I should also mention a chapter that features numerous fashion, style tips, and some guide books, Chapter Twenty-Seven - She Who Spends More, Spends Less. The important idea of this chapter is to choose wisely. Choose homemade, healthy food, and well-made clothing and furnishings.  Compre meno, compra meglio--buy less, buy better.  This means buying less things, but buying the best things, and appreciating and taking care of them.  This is something that Italians are good at. Quality is of the utmost importance.

Mamma mia, did this book resonate with me!  This is how I was brought up, too, to appreciate quality, rather than quantity.  I'm part Italian so this makes sense. This book talks a lot about clothing.  My mother, who was half Italian, had a wonderful fashion sense. She was a sharp dresser, and her clothing was gorgeous.  When I was in high school, I used to borrow her beautiful work blouses and wear them with jeans (I wanted to look elegant but cool). Today, my work wardrobe is simple and (hopefully) classic. I bring various tailoring projects to the dry cleaning shop nearby, and have been pleased with the results. The food in this book will make you crave savory (or sweet) Italian food.  My Italian grandfather appreciated fine food and drink, and during my childhood he would bring my family freshly-baked, crusty bread, and special cheese from Italian markets in NYC (I've mentioned this before in a previous post). I still think about how delicious these treats were. This book brought back delightful memories, and I learned many things about Italy.

Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos is a beautiful memoir, a travel guide with style and substance, and a wonderful reference book, for all things Italiano, or perhaps Italiana, given the focus of this book. I enjoyed reading it very much.

Gabriella Contestabile

Connect with the Author: Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Instagram ~ LinkedIn

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Many thanks to Laura from Italy Book Tours for inviting me to be a part of this tour and for sending me a copy of this book free of charge.  For more reviews of this book, giveaways, and other features, please visit Italy Book Tours' other stops for Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos.

Thanks for reading! Your comments are appreciated.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Louisiana Catch

Readers of this blog know that I'm a huge fan of award-winning poet and novelist Sweta Srivastava Vikram. I've read and reviewed many of her books, including Saris and a Single Malt (2016), Wet Silence: Poems about Hindu Widows (2015), No Ocean Here (2013) Perfectly Untraditional (2011), and others.  I was overjoyed to receive an advanced reading copy of her newest novel, published in 2018, Louisiana Catch, from Modern History Press.

As I started to read Louisiana Catch, I was immediately drawn into the fascinating world of Ahana Chopra, a wealthy, thirty-three year-old New Delhi woman.  Recently divorced from her college sweetheart, Dev Khana, her outwardly charming but emotionally and sexually abusive ex-husband, she's trying to rebuild her life after her marriage ends. Yoga and running help her to feel better and more optimistic, to an extent.  Because of the culture she lives in, she doesn't share the painful aspects of her marriage with others, created by a bullying husband who forced her to have sex, who in fact raped her.  To make matters worse,  her mother dies suddenly, and Ahana is completely devastated and heartbroken.

Although her loss is tremendous and it's hard for her to get through each day, Ahana immerses herself in her work as a women's rights advocate, and even takes on the responsibility of spearheading the upcoming international women's conference in New Orleans, called No Excuse, which is turning into a major event.

"I still wonder how the universe caught two men from Louisiana and sent them into my life around the same time."
~ Louisiana Catch, Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Ahana soon meets two men related to her online activities, Rohan Brady, a handsome colleague who helps her to develop an online presence, and Jay Dubois, who's in her online support group, and is grieving the loss of his own mother.  Ahana and Jay share their grief, bond over lines from The Catcher in the Rye, and become online friends, although they haven't met in person yet.  As time passes, though, Ahana is not sure who she can trust, or if she can even trust her own feelings and instincts.

What a riveting story!  Every page of this novel held my attention. Written in the first person from the point of view of Ahana, the protagonist, the book reveals her thoughts, and she shares with readers the private things that she doesn't share with her family or friends (because they are too painful to reveal). As a wealthy Indian woman, Ahana's blessed with material comforts, but she's not emotionally comfortable.  The author is a very skilled writer, and Ahana, Naina, Lakshmi, and the other characters in this book come to life. Vikram tackles difficult and complex matters, such as the sudden death of Ahana's mother, Mumma, online relationships and "catfishing", and an especially taboo topic, marital rape.  In this book, we learn about Ahana's marriage, and the physical and emotional abuse she quietly endured for years (too many women suffer in this same manner). 

Gradually, with some help from friends and family, Ahana discovers and demonstrates her own remarkable strength and resilience in this touching story of success.  Despite abuse, loss, and various cultural obstacles, the telling of Ahana's story will provide help and healing to herself and other women.  This book is exceptionally compelling, and it's remarkably timely, too.  I read Louisiana Catch at the onset of the #MeToo movement, in October of 2017.  The author is also a certified yoga teacher and the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, and teaches yoga and mindfulness to female survivors of rape and domestic violence.  I'm thrilled that this book is garnering a lot of attention now, on Amazon and elsewhere.  It's an important and powerful book.

Here are a couple of lovely, joyful photos from the author's Louisiana Catch Book Launch at Lululemon.  



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Many thanks to Victor from Modern History Press for sending me an advance reading copy of  Louisiana Catch free of charge, and to Serena from Poetic Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour.  I'm honored to have read another incredible book by this talented and prolific author.  For other reviews and features, please visit Poetic Book Tours' tour for Louisiana Catch.

Thank you for reading! Your comments are appreciated.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How to Love the Empty Air

How will you celebrate?  April is National Poetry Month, a time to explore and experience the world of poetry.  In honor of National Poetry Month, I read a new collection of poetry by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, the poet's seventh, How to Love the Empty Air, published in 2018.

This book is an intimate, autobiographical collection of poems that depict the author's successes in her work and relationships, as well as the great loss that she experiences when her mother--her "narrator"--dies suddenly.  In these poems, we learn about the poet's life, about her writing career and move to Texas, and about her relationships, especially her relationship with her mother.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised by this book, because it's contemporary--it includes email and texts--it's down-to-earth, and also, most importantly, it illustrates the poet's beautiful, close relationship with her mother, who has died. Each of these poems is like a short story (or more accurately, a mini story) packed with creativity, thought, and feeling.  Although Aptowicz is deeply grieving the loss of her mother, she's able to find some comfort, which she shares with her readers, by remembering and honoring her mother in this collection, in a way that's both personal and universal.  The titles of poems, such as for the opening poem, My Mother Does Not Give Advice, and Moving Means that You Have to Touch Everything You Own Once (never thought of it that way!), and the final poem, Sleeping in Late with My Mother (which ends the collection in a funny and positive, remarkable manner), set the stage for the unique humor found in this collection.  Her mother's voice comes through clearly in these poems, sometimes quite literally, "That's not the picture I want you to see/Use the other one/You know that one, from our weekend together?"  (from the poem, Portraits of My Mother, Far Away from Texas).  The poet and her mother share a special sense of humor. These poems are funny, they are touching, and very "relatable".  I don't know how Aptowicz manages to create poems out of emails, texts, and references to emojis, but she does!  On a personal, related note, having lost my own mother in 2011, I cherish the letters and emails I have from her, and reread them when I crave connection to her.  My mother's words, like Aptowicz's mother's words, contain her humor and her support, and so remain helpful, and present. 

If I were a high school English teacher, I'd choose to read and discuss How to Love the Empty Air with my students, because I think my students would then fall in love with poetry.  But many people, of all ages, are reluctant to read poetry. They worry perhaps that they will not understand it, that it'll be written in formal, difficult-to-decipher language, replete with odd metaphors and similes, bygones from another era. These poems are easy to read and yet full of depth and meaning. I really can't say enough about them!  If you're at all intimidated by the idea of poetry, pick up this book. You might change your mind completely.


Many thanks to Serena from Poetic Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this tour, and for providing a complimentary copy of this brilliant book.  To read other reviews of this collection, please visit Poetic Book Tours' tour for How to Love the Empty Air.
 
Thank you very much for reading! Your comments are appreciated.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why Do I Write?: A Guest Post by Rajiv Mittal

Last month, I read a terrific, concise review on Tracy's book blog, Pen and Paper, about a novel with "simple yet powerful language" that's "incredibly rich in human emotions", Brahmahatya by Rajiv Mittal, published in 2017.  Like Tracy, I'm not familiar with Hindu scripture or mythology (I studied Hinduism only briefly in high school), but the book sounds fascinating to me.  Author Rajiv Mittal graciously sent me a copy of his novel, which I hope to read and review before too long.  The author also wrote an exclusive guest post for this blog.  Like me, I think you'll find it strong and compelling.

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Why Do I Write?
A Guest Post by Rajiv Mittal

 
You asked me if I would like to write a guest post.

The first thought that came to my mind is, ‘Why do I write?’

So why do I write?

First of all, a random rant …

Because there are six billion humans in this planet. I cannot handle that number. A novel is a universe which usually contains a manageable population and the main ones are generally interesting.

If I switch on the TV or surf the internet, I read about how mankind is destroying the planet. And the more dramatic of such portrayals show heart-rending photographs of children in great distress. Where on earth are the parents of these children? What made them produce children if they could not offer them lives better than their own? When I write, I feel happy that I am not under pressure to feel outraged at everyone other than the real criminals.

And they are?

‘Produce more children for our vote banks,’ continue to exhort our political people. ‘Consume more,’ continue to exhort our corporate people. The real world now seems to be held to ransom by people with maniacal eyes hysterically expostulating the beauty of their religions. It seems most of these people have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to look ugly. They have succeeded spectacularly. I don’t want to see them, hear them or argue with them. I smell decay and their touch is not healing. What do they do to earn a living? What were their grades in school and college? What qualifies them to be the prophets? Just ugliness, it seems.

What makes for a good story? I am told it is the following:

Theme. A theme is something important the story tries to tell us—something that might help us in our own lives. ...

Plot. Plot is most often about a conflict or struggle that the main character goes through. ...

Story Structure. ...

Characters. ...

Setting. ...

Style and Tone.

The real life story is the worship of fecund reproductive organs and its ending worries me, it is not something that interests me.  Books are the triumphant outcome of the uncontrolled mind.

That is why I prefer to write. I am in control of my universe.

•~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~•

How Brahmahatya happened:

I would visit my father in his retirement home during his final days. Seeing all the residents, I would wonder – what are their stories? And are they all really who they say they are. Also, spending time at a retirement home made me question a lot of things about life. And the story evolved.

Strange to say, but once I started writing it, the book took on a life of its own. It sounds clichéd but it is a fact. It was almost as if the book got its own aatma (soul) and I became another character in its life journey – the character of the author.

A personal experience related to the book: 



There was time to spare and the tuktuk was chugging past the Theosophical Society en-route to Phoenix Mall in Chennai. I had a suspicion it had no business being there but the tuktuk driver was canny and I was clueless. On an impulse, I asked him to stop near the gate and paid him off.

I had last gone inside the Society gate with my dad. He had wanted to show me some banyan tree - one of the largest in Asia. I was seven years old and I was very happy to be alone with him even though it was only to see some stupid tree. I remember I had then been very scared of it (it was a huge presence with strange limbs). I wanted to see it again now, no... I wanted to relive the memories. I recall (now as an adult) that it was massive, majestic in its silence and even the forces of nature (the waning twilight rays, the gentle sea-breeze and the noisy birds) had fluttered nervously around it, as if seeking permission.

My steps quickened as I reached it. The signboard said, ‘The Great Banyan Tree.’ I looked around, puzzled. A lone security guard walked up to me and said, ‘Sir, the tree fell down in a cyclone many years ago.’ I stared at the vast green space in the center where it had stood, quite uncomprehendingly. I felt very angry. This was very wrong. The tree had no right to die. It was meant to be eternal.

I again looked at the emptiness where the tree had lived. The younger trees, its descendants, stand proud and tall, seeming to preserve and protect the bare space.

When I walked away, I again felt the presence of my dad, very frail in his final days but very strong in my memories.

Some words that echo the philosophy of the book:

        •   Whomsoever you encounter is the right one.
        •   Whatever happened is the only thing that could have happened.
        •   Each moment in which something begins is the right moment.
        •   What is over is over.

                      Author – Unknown


The quiet, unhindered steady chant that treads through the book:

Brahmanda bhramite kona bhagyavan jiva. According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe…”

 I hope Brahmahatya will form part of your life journey, however small. Thathasthu. (It will be so).

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"Books are the triumphant outcome of the uncontrolled mind"!  I relish the idea of making order and art out of disorder and chaos.  Your personal story about the Great Banyan tree is very powerful and touching.  Thank you, Rajiv, for sharing your thoughts about writing, and more, in this outstanding guest post.  I am truly looking forward to reading your book.

Your comments are welcomed, as usual. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Switching from Mysteries to Historical Fiction: A Guest Post by Glen Ebisch, and a Giveaway

Emerson and Thoreau! I studied their work in school, did you? When I think about Ralph Waldo Emerson and  Henry David Thoreau, I think about nature, about truth, about freedom.  I looked at one of my bookshelves and quickly spotted the Emerson and Thoreau books from my college days, next to each other.  I'm glad I still have these books.

"The sky is the daily bread of the eyes."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The world is but a canvas to our imagination."
~ Henry David Thoreau

The premise of the new historical novel, Dearest David, by author Glen Ebisch, published in 2018, is fascinating to me.  It's the story of a young woman, Abigail Taylor, who leaves her family farm outside of Concord, Massachusetts, to work as a servant in the home of lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, philosopher, poet, and leader of the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.  Abigail also meets Henry David Thoreau, who was also an essayist, philosopher, poet, and leading transcendentalist.  Since I haven't read the book yet, more details are in the synopsis from the publisher, Solstice, below.

Seventeen-year-old Abigail only spends a few months during the year 1841 as a kitchen maid and part-time nanny to the Emerson children, but she experiences life in the Emerson household at the peak of both its intellectual and emotional intensity.  She falls in love with the free-spirited but emotionally ambivalent Henry David Thoreau and learns that she must share her fascination with him with both Emerson’s wife, the prophetic and frightening Lidian, and the children’s governess, Ms. Ford. She also meets the charismatic radical journalist, Margaret Fuller. And she learns to respect but also to recognize the limitations of Emerson himself. Eventually, Abigail is forced to leave her employment in the Emerson household, but only after realizing the magical nature of her time in this special place, where discussions about the principles of self-reliance, feminism, and abolitionism flourished.

In this exclusive guest post, New England mystery author Glen Ebisch talks about why he chose to write historical fiction about Emerson and Thoreau.  I think you'll find his pithy post intriguing!

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Switching from Mysteries to Historical Fiction
 A Guest Post by Glen Ebisch, and a Giveaway
                                      

What motivates someone to switch from writing mysteries to deciding to write a work of historical fiction? In my case it came about because, as a philosopher in my day job, I became interested in the philosophical ideas of Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May. This led me to do research on that period in Concord, Massachusetts, which was an interesting one, with Emerson, Thoreau, and at times Hawthorne, living in the area and frequently socializing. It seemed to me to be an historical period just ripe for a story.

By whatever means these things happen, I came up with the idea of placing a young woman of humble means but with a good basic education in the Emerson household as a servant. I thought it would be valuable to have a young woman’s insight into what was largely a man’s world, while at the same time contrasting her with the very different figures of Lidian Emerson and Margaret Fuller. It also gave me the opportunity to discuss the early growth of the feminist movement, which was developing at that time in the Northeast.

In order to increase the emotional intensity of the story I had this young woman, named Abigail Taylor, fall in love with Henry David Thoreau. Her passion is partly for him as a man, and partly for him as a representative of an intellectual life that she finds exciting but beyond her reach. This is in many ways a coming of age novel, because Abigail learns from her relationship with Thoreau the extremes to which her passion can drive her, while from Emerson she learns the importance of self-reliance in a challenging world. As the end of the story suggests, these contrasting lessons lead her to live an exciting life after she leaves the Emerson household.

To go back to my first question as to why I deviated from mystery writing to try my hand at historical fiction, I think all writing in a sense is delving into the mystery of what motivates people. Not all mysteries, and, perhaps not the most interesting ones, involve a crime, but they all involve an examination of the human heart.

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Thank you, Glen, for your wonderful guest post.  I'm so pleased to learn that Margaret Fuller is also a character in your book. (In 2013, I read and reviewed a brilliant biography about her, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall.)   Thanks as well for graciously offering a copy of Dearest David as a giveaway (U.S./Canada only).

  • To enter this giveaway, simply leave a comment. 
  • For another chance at winning, become a follower of this blog, or let me know that you're already a follower.
  • For an additional chance, post about this giveaway on your blog, Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. 
  • If you've read work by or about Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, or another transcendentalist, mention that for an extra entry.

Enter by 5 PM PDT on Tuesday, March 20 (the first day of spring). One winner will be selected randomly and contacted on Wednesday, March 21.  Good luck to my readers, and as always, thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Daisy by Canvas Press

Canvas Press, Inc., a company that specializes in creating custom canvas prints for homes and offices, offered me a canvas print in exchange for a review on my blog.  While I looked around the website, the pet photos especially caught my eye.  I love to decorate my home and thought it would be wonderful to have a large photo of our little dog, Daisy, a Chihuahua and terrier mix, in the den, where she spends a great deal of time. My idea was to order a canvas print of Daisy, but it was hard to find a really good picture of her. (I almost decided to submit a photo of a bowl of ramen, that I'd posted on Instagram; as many of you know, I post a lot of food pics on Instagram.)  Luckily, my husband found a sharp picture that my daughter, Angela, had taken with her iPhone, a photo that captures Daisy's charm.


16" x 20" Canvas Press canvas print of Daisy


Close-up of Canvas Press canvas print

It was easy to submit the photo to Canvas Press online, but I wanted to make sure that I'd cropped the photo properly, so after my order was confirmed I contacted customer service via email.  I was quickly assured that the print would look great, but that I could make changes if I wanted to.  I took their word for it, and in less than a week, my beautifully packaged, gorgeous 16" x 20" canvas print arrived.  Once removed from the package, it was ready to hang on the wall. The colors are rich and vibrant, and this canvas print of Daisy is a wonderful addition to our den.  It's truly a terrific, larger than life photo of her, made with great care and craftsmanship. The sides and edges are beautiful, as shown below.

Beautifully handcrafted

Many thanks to Canvas Press!  I'm thrilled with my canvas print of Daisy, and will cherish it.  Canvas Press offers canvas prints of various sizes, as well as photo paper prints, wall murals, and wallpaper.  What would you order from Canvas Press?  As always, your comments are welcomed and appreciated.  Thanks for reading!

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