My 3000th Blog Post = My 21st Annual Recommended Reading List!

Every year since 1993, I’ve compiled a list of favorite books read during the year. What started as an insert to my holiday cards evolved into this blog, and over two decades later, the tradition continues.

In putting together this year’s list, I’ve noticed that it’s very heavy in very recent releases (five titles from 2012 alone) and marks the first time I’ve had husband and wife writers make the list (Geraldine Brooks and one of my favorite authors, Tony Horwitz.)

So here, in no particular order, I am pleased to present my twenty-first annual recommended reading list. Happy reading!

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Review: Life After Life | My Favorite Book of 2013

Easily my favorite book of the year. Author Kate Atkinson applies her masterful command of the written word to a twisting and turning narrative that’s riveting right from the start, captivating in concept, devastating at points, and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. In 1910, on a treacherous night during a snowstorm in England, Ursula Todd is born, her life quickly snuffed out before it begins. Throughout the rest of the nearly 500 pages, Ursula’s story goes back to that night and begins again, and with each do-over, her life takes a slightly different path, extending to a new turning point, before once again, “darkness falls.”

With this clever conceit, Atkinson constructs a narrative puzzle that’s as entertaining as it is intriguing. The setting, the period, the memorable characters, the humor, the anguish, and the complex, intertwining stories of the lives of Ursula–I loved it all and couldn’t put the book down until the end. Or, should I say, another beginning. Thought provoking and demanding of a good discussion.

Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union | A Disappointing Trek to Alaska


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) by Michael Chabon

My rating: 2 out of 5

Reading this book was a struggle and I nearly gave up on it twice. Both times, I was pulled back in with a brisk bit of plotting or crackling dialog characteristic of a snappy noir mystery. Unfortunately, this roller coaster ride of a read–I love it, I hate it, I’m board–came to a very unsatisfactory ending.

Author Michael Chabon (author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I loved) imagines a world where the nation-state of Isreal has failed shortly after its founding; since then, Jews have taken refuge in Sitka, Alaska. Now, after 60 years, the Federal District of Sitka is set to revert back to Alaskan control and “the frozen chosen” refugees and their descendants, some of whom have never known any other life, are on the precipice of a great unknown.

Set against this backdrop is a murder mystery, presided over by Meyer Landsman, a washed-up homicide detective whose personal and professional life is a wreck. His new superior is his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish and in just a few months time, come the Reversion, his tremendous case load of unsolved murders will be closed for good.

Landsman lives in a rundown apartment building and it’s there that his neighbor, a heroin-addicted former chess prodigy, is found murdered in his bed. As Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner investigate, they come to the attention of a powerful Jewish mob boss. Defying orders to drop the case, things take an unexpected personal turn.

I loved the writing, but as good as it was, the story failed to engage me for any stretch at a time. The plot was unnecessarily complicated and drawn out. Frequently, I was lost and increasingly found that I didn’t much care. Plot developments were slow to materialize and some characters fell flat. Scenes between Landsman and Bina were the exception, they really hummed, and there was a clever thread of humor running throughout, but the action was just too plodding and the conclusion a real letdown.

Review: Caleb’s Crossing | Giving Thanks for Good Books

Caleb’s Crossing (2011) by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 5 out of 5

I picked this up on a whim over the Thanksgiving holiday and could not put it down. I was transported to Martha’s Vineyard in 1655, the island home of a young man who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Caleb’s story (rooted in fact) is narrated from the point of view of Bethia, a Puritan minister’s daughter. Though of quick mind and ability, as a girl, Bethia is prevented from attaining the education she so desperately craves. Instead, she must stand by as her father tutors Caleb and her brother. When the boys are sent to a private school in Boston, the final step in their preparation for Harvard, Bethia finds herself indentured to the school as a means to pay for their room and board.

Geraldine Brooks has crafted a wonderful story, rich with beautiful prose, a vivid setting, and a captivating narrator. The lives she imagines for Bethia and Caleb make for a rewarding tale about the triumphs and misfortunes of following your destiny. Anyone who enjoys a good island tale, like me, should add this to their reading list. (I would similarly recommend San Miguel by T.C. Boyle.)

Review: American Boy | Be Careful What You Wish For

American Boy (2011) by Larry Watson

My rating: 4 out of 5

Yet another time capsule, coming-of-age story by the masterful Larry Watson. (See my reviews of Montana 1948 and Justice.) Seventeen-year-old Matt Garth has found security and aspiration with the family of his best friend. By all appearances, the Dunbars are the happiest and most successful in Matt’s small town. Dr. Dunbar cultivates in Matt a passion for medicine and an appreciation for the respect and affluence that it garners.

A Thanksgiving Day shooting calls the doctor away and when the patient, a young woman named Louisa, is brought to the Dunbar home to recuperate, the lives of all involved are forever changed. The story centers on Matt, whose obsession with Louisa delivers him to an unexpected conflict that peels back the facade of his comfortable existence with the Dunbars, shattering his world.

Author Larry Watson transports the reader to another time and place with his usual graceful style and economy of pages, populating Willow Falls, Minnesota, circa 1962, with characters that are heartbreaking, complex, and genuine.

There’s a Pie Shop in My Neighborhood!

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There are two types of people, cake lovers and pie lovers and I am firmly in the pie camp. Have been since I was a kid and tasted my first lemon meringue pie. For me, all cake pales in comparison to a fine pie. Sweet or savory, I love pie.

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Apple rose raspberry pie.
As pretty to look at as it is tasty to eat.

So, when I learned that my favorite pie maker in Chicago (Hoosier Mama Pies) was opening a shop just blocks away from me, and that it would be in conjunction with one of my favorite coffee roasters (Dollop Cafe serving Metropolis coffee), I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The shop opened today and it’s confirmed: there’s a little slice of heaven in my neighborhood.

The space is big, filled with light from all the windows in the corner location. There’s plenty of seating, including a long counter where you can sit and watch the pie makers at work. There were a lot of people bustling around in the kitchen, and one look at the big menu board will tell you why. This morning there were a dozen different sweet and five savory pies to try. On top of that are scones, muffins, biscuits, and come lunch time, sandwiches, quiche, and more. The coffee menu is extensive as well, with interesting twists like a honey cinnamon latte added to the standard cafe offerings.

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Watch the bakers at work while you sample their wares.

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Long lines in front of the big, big menu board.

For my inaugural slice of pie, I tried something I hadn’t had before, apple rose raspberry pie. It was deliciously tart with a hint of rose that gave the pie a lovely flavor without being too much. It tasted like a sentimental favorite.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner with a couple of slabs of pie in between, this place has got it all covered. As if having my favorite shop so close to where I live wasn’t dangerous enough, they’re open seven days a week, and open early in the morning and stay open late at night. Oh no.

Hoosier Mama Pie Company / Dollop Coffee is at 749 Chicago Avenue, in Evanston. It’s at the corner of Kedzie and Chicago, or as they like to say, “the corner of pie and coffee.”

Open House Chicago is This Week!

Agudas Achim SynagogueI’m very excited that this weekend is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, a unique opportunity to see architectural wonders in the city that are often off-limits to the public. I went last year and was so awed and impressed by what I saw. (You can read about my visit to the Bridgeview Bank and Aragon Ballroom, and the rarely open Agudas Achim Synagogue in Uptown last year.)

Whether you are an architecture buff, have an interest in Chicago history, or just want to explore the city in an unusual way, you’re bound to find something of interest out of the 150 sites open over the weekend.

A Dangerous Recipe

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So, I made the Blueberry Boy Bait recipe recommended to me from the Smitten Kitchen website and wow, oh, wow. I’m not crazy about the name of the recipe, so here on out I’m referring to it as the Evil Blueberry Cake Squares recipe. Squares, because of the shape; Cake because they’re a lovely, light spongy cake texture; Blueberry, because they are chock-full of blueberry flavor (I added more than the recipe called for); and Evil, because after one bite, you want to eat the entire pan. Seriously. Evil.

I’m not sure if it was the frozen blueberries I got fresh from my blueberry CSA this summer (flash frozen in my fridge and just waiting for this awesome concoction) that made them taste so good. I have a sneaking suspicion it had just as much to do with the two sticks of butter.

I will definitely be making this again and often. So, if you invite me to a potluck, this is what I will bring. And if you invite me to brunch, this is what I will bring. And if you invite me over for coffee, this is what I will bring. And you’ll thank me for it. That is, if it gets there before I eat them all.

Joan Allen Anchors a Thrilling Production at Steppenwolf

thewheelprodsplashsm-14I started off my Steppenwolf Theatre season with a star-powered production featuring ensemble member Joan Allen in her first appearance here in over two decades. The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris, is the slightly surreal tale of a peasant woman caught up in war as she attempts to reunite an abandoned girl with her exiled father. The story begins during the Spanish Civil War and over the course of nearly two hours, morphs from one conflict to another, taking Allen’s Beatriz (now saddled with three children to protect) from the trenches to WWI through to the Iraq War.

thewheelprodsplashsm-5While it would be difficult for me to explain exactly what the play is about (other than to say, living through war is hell), any frustration I might have felt about the ambiguous narrative was kept at bay by Allen’s riveting performance. (She’s on stage nearly the entire time.) Acting across the board is top-notch, combined with a set and staging that is nothing short of incredible. Set pieces come in from every direction, and sound and lighting create eerie and arresting images of war. By the end, the stage has been transformed from a relatively simple and bright Spanish countryside, to the murky chaos of war. The stage crew certainly has its work cut out of it every night, having to clean up the mess and reset for the next show.

I’d recommend The Wheel as a thrilling evening of theater that will give you lots to discuss over drinks after the show. Performances continue at Steppenwolf through November 10.