Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – The Dinner List

9781250295187   What five people, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner and conversation? Often asked of authors interviewed for the New York Times Book Review, I agree with Kate Atkinson – no writers. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand…and she shows up as one of the guests at a birthday dinner in Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List.  

Although I expected a fluffy and perhaps happy piece of fiction (maybe it was the bright yellow cover), Sabrina’s love story is bittersweet and introspective.   Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s first person narrative of her relationship with Tobias and the dinner party with her wish list attendees.  Her father, Robert, is among them, as is her best friend Jessica, who periodically excuses herself to pump her leaking breasts.  Sabrina’s college philosophy professor, Conrad, offers literary allusions to the conversation.  Of course, Tobias, the boyfriend, is there, but the star of the evening is Audrey Hepburn.  Sabrina’s name is no accident; her parents were engaged after watching the movie, and Roman Holiday is Sabrina’s favorite film.

I usually prefer to create my own images of characters in a book, and the movie versions usually disappoint me with their choices of actors playing the roles, but the presence of Audrey Hepburn (coincidentally one of my favorites too) lent an exotic note to the narrative.  It was easy to hear her whispery notes when she sang Moon River to the group, and her graceful lithe movements as she lit a cigarette or motioned for more wine were easy to imagine. Serle is careful to include background notes of Hepburn’s childhood during the war and her post-acting humanitarian work with UNESCO, humanizing Hepburn as more than the actress who played Eliza Doolittle.  She becomes the voice of reason and a much needed maternal force for the overwrought Sabby.

The chapters describing the messy relationship between Sabby and Tobias, the conscientious girl with the wild artistic boy, seem to follow a formula, but as the dinner party conversation escalates into the reasons behind why the guests have been chosen, the story shifts and offers some surprises, including who is alive or dead.  Serle offers unlikely hope at times for a change in the universe, but the reader cannot suspend belief that far, and Audrey pulls us back to reality.  In the end, peace and love prevail, and the dinner ends with the guests leaving and Sabrina facing her life as it is.

The story reminded me of a movie spun out of romance and denial, but the premise of the dinner party gave it just the right twist to keep me wanting to find out how it would end at midnight.   I was sorry when it was over.

Who would I invite to a dinner party?  I have no idea, but I like Sabrina’s idea of going to a fancy restaurant instead of cooking, and like Sabrina, maybe I’d learn something more about those who attended.  How about you?

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

9781616203214_p0_v2_s260x420Gabriells Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry vicariously fulfills the dream of many readers to own a bookstore in a small town, where being able to read all day and talk about books, trumps profits.  With clever references to familiar books and pithy quotes from favorite authors, Zevin offers a handy resource of good reads along with a quirky love story that will charm you as she follows a recognizable formula for second chances.

Both A.J. and his wife, Nic, are literary beings who have forsaken the grueling years they could have dedicated to writing their dissertations to open a bookstore in a small town off the coast of Massachusetts, accessible only by ferry. After Nic dies in a car accident, A. J.’s life follows the usual pattern of despair – until two seemingly unrelated occurrences change his life forever: his valuable first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in the stacks of the store’s children’s books.  Zevin follows up with a slow-moving romance connecting A. J. to a publisher’s rep, a plot twist involving his dead wife’s sister, and humorous episodes as A.J. revels in his new role as father to the precocious young girl left in his store.

The story has the pace and flavor of a “Major Pettigrew” or Beginner’s Greek, with characters who don’t fit the mold and a story line that easily moves from slight mystery to poignant moments and satisfying resolution, with lots of bumps along the way.  The ending is contrived and not as happily-ever-after as you are led to expect, but I enjoyed this fast read about redemption through books – a good one for book lovers.

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My Father’s Daughter by Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook, celebrating her father, has the actress on the cover looking healthy, beautiful, bright-eyed – just gorgeous.  Will I look like her if I cook and eat her recipes?

I remembered Paltrow as a vegan, so it was surprising to find that she’s abandoned her bedside conversion to macrobiotics, and found her level with food that is healthy, comforting, and, most of all, enjoyable.  She still avoids meats, especially red, and rationalizes that chicken is fine in moderation, as long as it is free range and organic.  She reminisces about her hot-dog eating father, and includes his famous pancakes, but her famous mother is not ignored.  The recipe for Blythe Danner’s blueberry muffins is included, as well as Paltrow’s “healthier” version – substituting spelt, Grade B maple syrup, and soy milk.  Blythe’s sounded better to me.

Meant as a tribute to her father and film director, Bruce, who died in 2002, Paltrow includes pictures of them together, and one particularly moving shot of them at dinner while on a trip through Italy; he died three days later.  Other pictures frame her cooking with her children, but most of the pictures are what you’d expect in a cookbook – luscious shots of the cooked dishes, tantalizingly ready to eat.  The homemade rotisserie chicken is almost dripping off the page.

On one page, Paltrow creates a chart titled – “If You Haven’t Had Time to Go To the Health Food or Specialty Store” – listing substitutes for the healthier fare, with a column indicating “why {you should} bother” to find the vegenaise instead of Hellman’s mayonnaise, or why turkey bacon is better than pork.  But, she doesn’t have the proselytizing fervor of Alicia Silverstone in The Kind Diet.  Paltrow allows that we all need a hot fudge sundae (with maple nut ice cream?), every now and then.  She even includes a recipe for homemade hot fudge made with heavy cream.

I plan to buy this book; it has a lot to offer: great pictures, comfort foods, easy recipes.  I tried Blythe Danner’s favorite salad dressing, and was happy to find she loves anchovies just like me.

Blend 6 olive-oil packed Spanish anchovies with 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar until anchovies are completely pureed.  With the motor on, slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup olive oil.  Season with pepper.  Yum!

Chef Mario Batali, Paltrow’s famous road trip partner through Spain, noted in the introduction “that GP can effortlessly down a whole pan of perfect paella…or eat an entire plate of marinated anchovies…”  My only question is – how can she eat all that and still be wafer thin?

Perfect Reader

Surprises are unwelcome legacies.

In Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader, Flora returns to the small college town of Darwin, a place with mixed childhood memories, after her father’s sudden death.  As the former president of Darwin College, Lewis Dempsey was a scholar and a well-known literary critic.  He left his papers and his unpublished poetry to Flora, as his literary executor.  As she tries to manage her feelings on her father’s death, and wonders how she can live up to his expectations – even after death – Flora discovers a surprise – Cynthia, her father’s lover, with a claim to his works.

As the story flips back and forth from Flora’s shaky childhood after her parents divorce,  to reconciling her relationship as an adult with her dead father, Cynthia’s character is suspect.  Is she trying to befriend Flora because she wants to know her better – or does she just want to get her hands on the rights to the unpublished manuscript?

“You want the Odes to Cynthia Reynolds to get the attention they deserve.  You want the world to finally meet the muse.”

Although Pouncey includes detailed scenes of academic rivalries and the family life that is deconstructing, this novel is not plot-driven; it’s about character development. Flora’s mother provides sad comic relief in her failed attempts to assert her will as the marriage flounders: changing to purple hair, stealing her husband’s license plates; Lewis, the dead father,  reappears in scenes from the past as the brilliant yet clumsy academic; Georgia, Flora’s childhood friend and rival, lurks in the background after a cruel accident; assorted housekeepers, townfolk, and academics make up the cast.

But Flora is the focus of this novel.  Now in her late twenties, she has left a job she didn’t like at a magazine, met and had steamy sex with Paul, her father’s attorney, but she seems stuck back in the small college town where she grew up – unable to decide how to continue her life.  Her father’s death has become a catharsis.

Pouncey includes so many pithy phrases, I had to stop bending back pages to mark them and start writing them down.  These are only a few:

“It was exciting when people misbehaved…

Where was the line exactly between loneliness and insanity?…

The dead left you alone; it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“People think differently, but it doesn’t make them idiots.”

“…the way intelligent people fool themselves into thinking their transparency is opaque to others less savvy…”

Pouncey constantly refers to the poetry that Flora’s father left as his legacy, with only one excerpt from “Wizard” that directly relates to Flora – leaving the rest to the imagination of the reader.

Although Pouncey writes: “The ‘What in your own life does this remind you of?’ approach to books {is appalling}…” – I did just that – found pieces in the book that I could relate to – don’t we all?   And I enjoyed her detailed descriptions that were vivid enough to see.   Perfect Reader is a thoughtful, gentle read – not for those who like their books action-packed – but for one who enjoys introspection – and maybe a reconciliation with the past.

Flora’s mother rants that she would remove the word “closure” from the English language, but Flora finally does find closure in the end, and goes on with her life.  As for me, I became what Lewis Dempsey defined as an “understander,” savoring all the words.