Thursday, April 30, 2009

Teacher Unappreciation

In the type of story you can not believe even when reading, the school systems are just chock full of news. CNN ran a feature of the following:

Apple Valley Elementary has in their employ a kindergarten teacher named Mrs. Graham. Mrs. Graham, apparently fed up with young kids having "accidents" decides that April 22 is simply the last straw. Believing a 5 year old decided to potty on the floor, she picked up the damage, wrapped it in a paper towel, and put it in his backpack. Then sent him tottering on home.

How very Joan Crawford of you, Mrs. Graham.

She also called the child's mother. After indicating she believed her class was "stinky" and pinpointing her son as the source, she asked the mother's opinion if her son was the culprit.

Aren't you in the classroom Mrs. Graham? Did you see the boy have an accident or not? Can the mom tell by telepathy? If you didn't actually see it, are there no other 5 years olds capable of having accidents? Potty training aside, they aren't camels. And I am sure no 5 year old is delighted to have an accident on the floor. Obviously, something is amiss.

And did you actually pick up some #2 and package it up like a birthday surprise? With a note that read only "I found this turd in my classroom."

Please, never pick up #2 and put it in some one's backpack, Mrs. Graham. Let alone a backpack belonging to a FIVE YEAR OLD. And if you simply must Mrs. Graham, please call it something other than "turd." Ugh. I have to wash my hands just writing that word.

The West Valley Superintendent said the district's Human Resources Department spoke with the teacher, Mrs. Graham, as well as the Apple Valley principal.

Other than asking, "Are you out of your !)(&)*#&#&&!&!!!!! mind, Mrs. Graham?" I can't imagine how that conversation began. Or that too much comfortable or polite chit chat ensued.

Teachers have advanced degrees and certification do they not? Does the State of Florida Board of Education need to include a section on the exam entitled Disgusting and abhorrent behavior of which teachers should not engage? Perhaps there were existing alternatives Mrs. Graham.

I hope you are fired Mrs. Graham because it probably should have occurred to you that a parent, unloading a back pack filled with feces was going to warrant a few phone calls in your direction.

And hopefully you will have that same backpack and contents waiting on your doorstep on Teacher Appreciation Day. Of course, you won't be a teacher by then.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Little ditty

I recently reread my post about introducing our son to music and musical legends. I am reminded of the importance music has played in my own life. And likely, my introduction began when I was his age. I grew up listening to the Beatles with my Dad, and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson with my Mom. As I think of the music our munchkin is exposed to now from Billy Joel and Blondie to Junior Gong Marley and Death Cab for Cutie, it gave me the opportunity to view my personal history in vignettes.

We all have a soundtrack to our lives and most of us have a gargantuan playlist of our lives most memorable moments. And this playlist inevitably includes not just the marquis songs we sang and danced to but also the moments when we won. And inevitably, our life's playlist includes the songs we played for the breakup, the revenge, the "I wish I would have said this" moments.

Music for many people is a creative outlet, an uplift, and a memory marker. And it often conflates the past and present as you hear a song you haven't thought of in years and it immediately takes you back to that day, that game, that night, or that person. And it isn't simply that you remember a particular song, it is what that actual song invokes in your memory bank. These songs are the passageway to significant moments. This is all succinctly true for me, and oh what a playlist I have.

Let's overlook all the smarmy songs I slow danced to as well as the songs I attached to boys to whom I developed crushes. Although, I will confess I remember spending a disproportionate allotment of time listening to Richard Marx sing about Endless Summer nights when I was leaving for college and leaving a boy behind.

Although, during one of those summer nights as he and I had teenage make out party and talked about our feelings, Duran Duran, and who else knows what, I opted out of my established curfew and decided to come home in the wee hours of the morning. I can now attest that those summer nights were certainly not "endless" as I faced being grounded weeks before I moved away to start college. I don't recall any lyrics about "you still have to come home by midnight."

There were so many great songs attached to my cinematic moments then and nothing has changed. I was in early highs school when Salt and Pepa released "Push it" and we were thrilled with the scandalous lyrics. That song, at that time, was the most sassy and risque of songs to come out and we girls sang it with our whole hearts. Oh, such innocence. And I recall baying and wailing at other songs over that time frame like Steve Miller's Jet Airliner, You've Gotta Fight by the Beastie Boys, and Sweet Child O' Mine by G'nR. And didn't everyone want to Wang Chung that night? We had the Fast Car, the Pink Cadillac, and the Loco-Motion redux.

And college improved the medley thousand fold. I remember 50 pledges jammed in a room at the Lambda Chi house singing along with Rob Base about "Joy and Pain" as we all jumped in unison, and no, we actually could NOT be any louder when "Love Shack" came on.

And years later when Baby Got Back was released, I would be unconvinced that less than 80% of the 20 year olds in the US didn't know that song verbatim. I was at a bar five years ago and they were doing a 80s/90s throwback party. When Sir Mix A Lot teed up Baby Got Back, 500+ bar patrons sang that song word for word. What a great bass line beat back down memory lane.

And graduate school carried its own cache of soundtrack moments accompanied by Pour Some Sugar on Me, Santa Monica, Right Hand Man, Let Me Clear My Throat, Come on Ride the Train, Closer I am to Fine, and Where Its At. (And only because MarciaGarcia forced us, we do have a special place for a song like "Lump".)

I have a litany of songs that remind me of my brothers, road trips with my Mom, and the song I heard in a movie soundtrack when I was dating JohnnyMac and knew I wanted to marry him. (And by the way, it was Count on Me from The Family Stone. He also looks like Dermot Mulroney, and it was the very song that serenaded us as we first tripped the light fantastic as Mr. and Mrs.) And of course, the songs I share with our son have etched a permanent place on my dial. Although, I will note that Johnny Cash does need a bit of filtering with his songs about robbing men in Reno and bringing guns to town.

And some of the best songs on my life's playlist are those songs to which I will always get up and dance. I am that girl that will roll through the radio often exclaiming, "I love that song!" Which is also why my iPod has about 1600 songs I just had to have.

I am so thankful for the depth music is intertwined throughout my life, and I am so glad my mom and dad had those 8 tracks and LPs. This initial exposure to music is what laid an everlasting foundation for me. And I am so glad to be passing it along.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fully equipped kitch

The kitchen is one of my favorite places. Short of having a Viking stove, my kitchen is highly outfitted. I have all the gadgets I need to make melon balls, ice cream, chimichurra, lemon zest, or grilled paninis. Are all of these items necessary? They are if you like to cook. Since I like sharing product information, the kitchen shall not be overlooked. I won't go heavy on things like a KitchenAid mixer (that everyone who loves to bake should have) or a Cuisinart 14 Cup Food Processor (for anyone who loves to cook. Period.) But rather, I shall highlight some not so obvious choices. (For my friend S., the kitchen is that room with the fridge.)

Beater Blade (for KitchenAid mixer): For people who love to bake, the counter top KitchenAid mixer is the zenith. This windshield wiper style beater is just what Dr. CooksaLot ordered.

Flexible chopping mats: Toss out that old wooden relic (that is full of germs by the way). Put one of these superflex mats down: Chop, bend, and all your mushrooms, rosemary, et al go sliding nicely into your pot. Plus, they are easily thrown in dishwasher. Since you get two for about $6.00, you can discard when you have overly abused them. I found mine at Bed Bath and Beyond.

Silpat Cookie Sheet Liner: Hey friends who bake, get this. I got two from Williams Sonoma. NOTHING will stick to this liner. Even my high tech cookie sheets have given me hiccups here and there when my perfect cookies needed encouragement to disengage. These mats are worth every penny. I use my large one on the counter too for rolling out dough for pizza, cinnamon rolls etc.

Shark 2 in 1 hand stick/vac: When you see this thing, you might snicker. It looks like it might dismantle should it be too close to a butterfly's wings. It is also 9.99 at Target. However, put all your dismay aside. This bagless wonder will shock you and become your favorite took in the kitchen. Face it, your floor is gross. I don't care who you are. If Martha Stewart used the Shark in her kitchen, she would be appalled at what she found. Piles of dirt, cracker crumbs, and for me, hair. For even the pickiest of kitchen cleaners. And even with a little helper spreading crumbs, the Shark can not be outdone.

Cuisinart Smart Stick Hand Blender (also called immersion blender): This fabulous handy device whips, blends, or purees your small jobs right in the bowl, pot, or dish. Love it. And I use it daily to make protein shakes. And it is perfect for making "Cream of" soups.

Vinturi Wine Aerator: this device aerates your wine in seconds. We tried it first hand in Napa, and were believers. Great for those who love big red wines (like we do). Your Cabernets and Zins will thank you.

Microplane Grater: Originally used for smoothing wood, who knew how great they would contribute in la cucina? Super handy for parmigiano, chocolate, lemons, limes, even fresh nutmeg. Super easy to clean. Nothing tops pasta like a few shivers of fresh parmigiano over the microplane. Its hand held and very long and then so your tender digits need get no where near the razor sharp planes. And it is great for zesting chocolate over desserts. Trust me.

Orka oven mitt: Made of silicone and able to withstand up to 500 degrees, this is the hand protector of all hand protectors. And, can be handily thrown in the dishwasher. Your old ratty oven mitts stained with red sauce and burnt on the edge from touching a burner can't make those claims, can they? I have two and can't live without them.

LiveStrong by Chantal Travel Mug: Because I am not a coffee drinker, Ive never been big on the travel mug. That didnt keep me from collecting dozens when I worked at PeopleSoft but its not a handy device for me. Even when I used them for tea, lots of little sloshing and spilling, no matter how "airtight" they claimed to be. And then the Live Strong version graced me with its presence and now, I am hooked. (And actually, our friend MA gave it to John but it looks so much better with me.) This is the absolute best travel mug. Period. I used it in Vegas and hot water poured in at 8 am was accidentally forgotten about until almost lunch time. The water was still hot. Not lukewarm and tolerable. HOT. Beautiful and now I use it for tea multiple times a week.

Let's talk about a couple of delicious vittles too. I will save wine recs for another day, but, if you want a tasty piece of chocolate, look no further.

Vosges Haut Chocolat: They have red-fire toffee with cayenne. Milk chocolate with goji berries and pink Himalayan sea salt. Dark chocolate with Wasabi. Need I elaborate? Their exotic candy bars are out of this world. Go to their site and see for yourself.

Aveda Comforting Tea (Bag): If you like tea, buy this. If you don't like tea, buy this. Many have been converted. With this warm elixir, no need to have all that caffeine is there?
Now, for the products:

SeaSalt: Oh, its a big rage right now for the average cook. Sea Salts and their benefits have been known and used by chefs for decades. The difference between Sea Salt and your blue cylinder of Morton's is vast. Try a little sprinkle. I use it on the base of my pizza crust before adding my other accouterments. Gives it a little edge. Delicious.

Whole Foods Italian Olive Oil: I needed an education on olive oil and I went high and low to find it. I found out many olive oils sold have very little olive oil actually in the bottle. There are incredibly expensive olive oils which are great for dipping bread or making vinaigrette. But I wanted a great tasting olive oil to cook with also. Finally, I have found an excellent choice. This olive oil from Whole Foods is light but flavorful. Fantastic to cook with but also, a great flavor on top of hummus or bruschetta. Don't be fooled by the price. It is a low cost secret in a bottle. The Spanish version is just as good.

Monday, April 27, 2009

JA of the Day

Here is what I want to happen when you spend your five minutes reading my blog, I want you to laugh. And not necessarily at the expense of others. But periodically, each of us lays witness to a little something and think, I am just going to have to make a comment about this. And we are not talking about laying witness to random acts of kindness or coming upon a pantheon.

So now, I am will unveil my new post called JA of the Day.

At one of my former (and most fondly remembered) workplaces, we used acronyms constantly. Hey, it was the software industry, its required. But, we also created our own list of acronyms to make our point without being surly. We worked with a sales force that was the cream of the crop in my book, but a few infiltrators crossed our bridge during my tenure there. Hence, a variety of handy acronyms for such persons was necessary, and kept me out of HR for using profanity at the workplace. Profanity? Me? I know. You are suprised.

JA was one of the acronyms and it means Jackass. This is no novel idea, but came in quite handy for us. As in

"Did you know Jared F. did ......."
"Yes, because he is a JA".

I think you can put it all together.

Well, JAs abound and I must give my first award of JA of the Day to the one I have in mind.

We went to a kid friendly event recently. It had a bar, but tickets were 20.00 per person (including munchkins) so it wasn't like we took our little man to the bus terminal after hours.

I was at the bar requesting an ice water and a juice box while the man next to me ordered a bourbon and coke and a shot of jagermeister. He is holding his wobbly little boy on the bar who appears to be about 12 months or so. Ummm, its noon. That thirsty? Can't take the kid friendly event without liquid painkiller? Is that your baby you are holding? Nice work. I cant wait to see your wife come over here and go to town on you.

The bartender jokingly asks the baby if he too would like a shot of jagermeister. I know he was joking because the bartender is not an imbecile and in addition to the litany of legalities involved in serving alcohol to minors, no bartender in metro Atlanta would give a baby a shot of jagermeister. The Dad, laughing, says, "Oh, not yet, but he sure likes the taste of beer."

You don't give babies beer. Not a sip, not a lick, not a drip. Oh, I know some people think it is all a comedy act to give little wobbling beings alcohol, be they babies or puppies. And then they smile at their cleverness while they tell all their friends about it. Oh, you know what you forgot to tell your friends? That you are an idiot. Your son will be knee deep in beer funnels in a blink of an eye. Must you dabble in the libations with him when he is one year old? Stop it.

I had a wanton wish for Medusa's power so I could turn him into stone. My countenance smeared with scowl might have conveyed that message. (You all know I don't have a Poker Face by now.) But, I said nothing and moved along as he tried to catch my eye with his knowing smile and ridiculous wink as if we were all in this boat together.

Congratulations: You sir are the JA of the Day.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Take A Bite Of: Baked Doughnuts

Some puffy goodness. There is a really good website called 101 cookbooks just packed with great recipes. I am thankful to have sauntered across a healthier alternative to the fried doughnut but still as good.

Listen, I live in the state that birthed Krispy Kreme, which I do not consume. You almost get invited to move out of state if you speak against the Krispy Kreme. And while they are so very popular, and JohnnyMac, when asked if he likes Krispy Kreme, makes a moan of endorsement rather than just simply saying yes, I just can't cross that bridge. So take a bite of this, and in addition to the just-baked goodness, just think of what a bad ass mom/wife/offspring/ friend or brunch hostess you will be after you produce a platter of these gems. Buon Appetito.
From 101 Cookbooks posted in February 2007.

Baked Doughnuts
Don't over bake these, if anything, under bake them a bit - they will continue baking outside the oven for a few minutes. You want an interior that is moist and tender - not dry.

Also, be sure to cut big enough holes in the center of your doughnuts - too small and they will bake entirely shut. Remember they rise, and they rise even more when they are baking. These really need to be made-to-order, but you can make and shape the dough the night before if you want to serve them for brunch.

Instructions: After shaping, place doughnuts on baking sheet, cover and place in the refrigerator overnight. Pull them out an hour before baking, and let rise in a warm place before baking.

1 1/3 cups warm milk, 95 to 105 degrees (divided)
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
5 cups all-purpose flour
A pinch or two of nutmeg, freshly grated
1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups sugar1 tablespoon cinnamon

Place 1/3 cup of the warm milk in the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in the yeast and set aside for five minutes or so. Be sure your milk isn't too hot or it will kill the yeast. Stir the butter and sugar into the remaining cup of warm milk and add it to the yeast mixture. With a fork, stir in the eggs, flour, nutmeg, and salt - just until the flour is incorporated.

With the dough hook attachment of your mixer beat the dough for a few minutes at medium speed. This is where you are going to need to make adjustments - if your dough is overly sticky, add flour a few tablespoons at a time. Too dry? Add more milk a bit at a time.

You want the dough to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl and eventually become supple and smooth. Turn it out onto a floured counter-top, knead a few times (the dough should be barely sticky), and shape into a ball.

Transfer the dough to a buttered (or oiled) bowl, cover, put in a warm place (I turn on the oven at this point and set the bowl on top), and let rise for an hour or until the dough has roughly doubled in size.

Punch down the dough and roll it out 1/2-inch thick on your floured counter top. Most people (like myself) don't have a doughnut cutter, instead I use a 2-3 inch cookie cutter to stamp out circles. Transfer the circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet and stamp out the smaller inner circles using a smaller cutter.

If you cut the inner holes out any earlier, they become distorted when you attempt to move them. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise for another 45 minutes.
Bake in a 375 degree oven until the bottoms are just golden, 8 to 10 minutes - start checking around 8. While the doughnuts are baking, place the butter in a medium bowl. Place the sugar and cinnamon in a separate bowl.

Remove the doughnuts from the oven and let cool for just a minute or two. Dip each one in the melted butter and a quick toss in the sugar bowl. Eat immediately if not sooner.

Makes 1 1/2 - 2 dozen medium doughnuts.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Red red wine

I like the vino tinto. In our house, we are both big fans of red wine and have spent a good portion of the last few years trying to learn more about this elixir. There is something perfectly warm and inviting about a good red wine at the end of a busy day; when I can disengage from the blackberry and our munchkin is tucked into bed.
Prior to my first Napa visit I accepted my deep lack of knowledge about wine, and I thought it best to get wise in a hurry. I have had a long term interest in wine, but I also started off drinking white zinfandel AND thought I was a classy lassy all the while sipping that pink nectar so believe me, there is room for education.

Since I have already scheduled time tonight to enjoy a sip with friends, why not give an ode to wine today?

As my preferences for certain varietals and vineyards become better defined, I still have much to learn. I have read Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and there is an overload of info. Years ago, as a gift, I bought a book called Sommeliers Guide to Wine and it looked so succinct and smart, I bought one for myself. And then, because I was just so busy, I promptly tucked it into a shelf not to be looked at again. Until two months prior to my inaugural trip to Napa. I dusted it off and read it cover to cover. Hmmm, I am only just beginning to understand the nuances of the world of fermented grapes.

While in Napa I received two other book recs: Karen McNeil's Wine Bible and Windows on the World which breaks the learning into courses on varietals and geography. I even read Wine for Dummies and I'm not too proud to say it. They write these books for a reason, and its a great starting point for people wanting to advance a few steps beyond "I like the red kind."

How to keep up with all of the info? Its a chore. The best tip I heard early on is once you try the wine, if you like it, write down the name and details of the wine. If you don't, don't write it down. That sounds simple enough. However, as your likes and dislikes grow you will forget the details of what you don't like and buy it again. Oh, it can happen. Have fun pouring that one down the drain.

There is a science to wine making, and to some its an art. I recently hosted a wine tasting and was pleased to discover, hey, the wine books actually help. I actually knew a thing or two beyond "wine tastes so good". And trust me, I am already well versed there.

But there is so much more to learn. And the infinitesimal fraction I know, I would love to pass on. Go forth, and sip with delight.

Here is a link to the ten best wine websites. These sites cover everything from sites to help educate to online wine retailers:

And here is a great link to a wine lexicon with definitions and pronunciations, especially for all of those French and Italian wines you want to know more about:

And here is a link to the top 100 wine blogs and you can sort through at your will. I have looked at (too) many of these and some of them are great. And no, I don't think all merit that status but perhaps one will be a treasure hold of information for you.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ho Ho Ho Green Giant

What makes a healthy eater? Pose the question in our house and you will not get a unified response. JohnnyMac, with all his muscles and high metabolism, can and does eat whatever he wants. He certainly does not claim to be a healthy eater but he does claim that he is no unhealthier an eater than I am.

Ahem. I am sorry, my ear hurts when you say such things. I asserted I am, and have been for majority of life, a very healthy eater. I am all about working on my fitness and I don't eat certain things because I think we can cook something better ourselves. And I don't want unknown ingredients made of tar and glue resin in my body. So we decided to compare apples to apples. And, I admit he proffered some valid points.

Let's start at the beginning. JohnnyMac likes meat and cares not where it came from or how it was treated while it was still walking around and breathing. He also loves processed food: Pringles and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups amongst his faves. He also likes things that are frozen and when heated, make an entire meal. I shudder as I write these words. He works out frequently and the combination of his fitness regime and his blessed genetic code explains why he doesn't look like a man who would subsist an entire week on frozen pizzas and steaks as big as my torso. He also skips the vegetables but for his daily glass of Odwalla SuperFood. (Which both Odwalla AND he claim one glass equals five spinach salads).

I like fresh fruits and vegetables. I not only know all of the superfoods, I buy many and eat them. Blueberries? Check. Herbal tea? Check. Yogurt? Check. Acai? Check. And I don't eat healthy foods because Shape Magazine told me to but because it shouldn't require Shape Magazine to tell you that real blueberries are better for you than blueberry PopTarts. But I confess, I am late to stock quinoa, kimchi, or blue green algae. And I don't feel remiss about it either.

And while I make our son's applesauce, french fries, sweet potato chips, and pudding from scratch. And I prefer local organic over just organic, over neither. I admit I read "Skinny Bitch" and to be candid, those skinny bitches scared me. But, they had some interesting insight and if half of what they wrote is true, my insides need a deep clean. But let's be honest, its not all raw foods and grass fed animal products at our house.

JohnnyMac's first point was my chemical choices. First up: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray. Then my Morningstar Grillers (faux meat burgers) followed by MorningStar Ginger Teriyaki Veggie Cakes. All of these items include chemicals, all of them processed, one of them not even a gram of actual real food included. Ugh. Careful what you start.

But I rallied, and lobbed back with his repulsive Croiss'andwiches parked in the freezer comprised of unidentifiable meat and a list of ingredients longer than the Gettysburg Address. One Croiss'andwich does equal three of my above mentioned choices. But the chemical butter spray....well, I will face it....its an total mystery substance in a bright yellow bottle. And the faux meat burgers? Yum. But, probably not exactly made from scratch.

He pulled out my canned vegetables. Yes, I have cans. Its just now spring and the farmer's markets don't start until next month! The carbon footprint on one can alone is negligible but I pointed out the ingredients are simple: CORN and WATER. Of course, that is what the label indicates, but who is really monitoring? Can I prove there are no other chemical enhancements? Not unless I build a CSI lab in our attic.

He also pulled out my Light and Lively whole-grain crackers and looked at the ingredients. Several ending with -sose, -dose, and -tose. I get the point. My processed cracker is not really different than his processed Pringle, although, I like to think so.

We have a friend who claims she eats no processed foods and does n0t allow her child to eat any either. Ummm, unless you are making those Cheerios from scratch, I beg to disagree.

And a good rule of thumb? If there are more than five ingredients, don't eat it. I may have ignored this a time or two.

I read a fantastic book by Barbara Kingsolver called "Animal Vegetable Miracle" in which her family spent one year eating only what they could grow or trade locally. For the record, I read the book after JohnnyMac and I had the "he who is the healthiest eater" chat or I might not have piped my horn quite so loud.

From an article in New York Times on 3.23.09, famous chef and food writer Mark Bittman wrote about healthy eating:

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.) From these changes, Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production. All without legislation.

As I continue to say, its a work in progress. But, I do pay more attention to content on labels, and how food makes me feel because I want a long and energetic life. I prefer fresh over canned over fake. And if we went pound for pound, I might actually take JohnnyMac in this contest. I say this as I enjoy my spinach salad with local goat cheese and organic cranberries. But oops, I did eat a handful of the Easter Whopper Eggs so I tread lightly. But I haven't purchased fake butter spray in months!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A contest no one should win

This morning, my stomach churned when I accidentally ran over a little animal that had already been hit in the road. I would gladly revisit that scene again in lieu of opening a weekly rag in Atlanta called 'Creative Loafing' and having my eyes fall prey to this photo.

After calming my gag reflex, I simply had to know what in the world this photo reflected. And let me just note, bless it if you have great confidence. I love people who work with what their momma gave them. However, this photo has just too much pale skin and derrieres for an unsuspecting girl who is just trying to drink her herbal tea and catch up on some local news.

Recently, Altanta was home to a convention called Frolicon. And these unabashed women were contestants in the "Most Spankable Arse" contest.

And no, I wouldn't make this up because if I would make this up, I certainly would include a better photo. And according to the paper, this photo captures the contestants "warming up". And by all means, you probably would need to warm up as you pursue first place in this crowning ceremony.

And Frolicon is apparently billed as a SciFi convention. Because nothing pays tribute to Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock better than a palm to the ass.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Say it right

And finally, a much needed break from the typical coverage of AIG and more struggling corporations. But I would never guess the Wall Street Journal would be the host of such an digression from their usual style. I love it.

When I was a young college student, I popped over to the jewelry counter at Nordstrom to have a necklace fixed. The woman behind the counter asked how she could help and I replied "The clasp on this Givenchy necklace broke, and would love to have it fixed." I, unknowing, committed a major faux pas. Not in asking for service but in my pronunciation. I had pronounced it gi-ven-chee.

Her reply, You mean Zhee ven Sheeeeeee?"
I said, "I am sorry, what?"
Her response, "You mean, you would like your Zhee Ven Sheeeee necklaced fixed?"
Her with a blank stare. Me, with I promise you, was not a poker face.
Yes, precious lamb, I do mean Zheeeeeeeee Ven Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

But, she did me a favor, because pronouncing things correctly, well, its necessary. We should want to be educated if we are mispronouncing words, fashion designers, or otherwise.

And apparently, I was not an isolated incident. And who weighs in to help? The Wall Street Journal. I would never anticipate such a topic would merit their attention but kudos. We can all learn a little something beyond continuing bail outs.

How to Pronounce Fashion Names

Q: I felt pretty out of it when I asked a saleswoman about the handbags of "Bottega Veneta" -- and she promptly corrected my pronunciation -- to VEN-e-ta instead of ven-ETT-a. Can you give us a little glossary on how to say foreign fashion names like Nicolas Ghesquière? And how about Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan -- are their surnames stressed on the first or last syllable?—W.D., New York

Say What?
Click on each link to hear the correct pronunciations of some fashion designers, as recorded by Journal fashion reporter Christina Passariello.
Alber Elbaz for Lanvin
Jean Paul Gaultier
Louis Vuitton
Nicolas Ghesquière
Vacheron Constantin
Yves Saint Laurent

A: I remember when American consumers in the 1970s routinely butchered the names of their imported cars -- blithely unaware of the correct pronunciation of Renault (ruh-NO) and Peugeot (puh-ZHO). We've come a long way since then, saying foreign car names like Hyundai with ease. But these days, there are a host of new designer names tripping us up, as globalization and the democratization of fashion bring brands from all over the world -- once limited to the couture cognoscenti -- to regular folk.

Most of the first French names to appear in the U.S. were a cinch, like Dior and Chanel. But a lot of the names in play today need to be spoken with a real lilt , like Jean Paul Gaultier (zhan paul GO-tee-AY), Alber Elbaz for Lanvin (al-BEAR el-BAHZ for lon-VAN), and Nicolas Ghesquière (NEE-ko-la guess-KYAIR).

Mamma mia! The Italian names can play tricks on you, too -- such as Bulgari (BOOL-ga-ree), Ungaro (OON-ga-ro), Versace (ver-SAH-chay) and Zegna (ZANE-ya). And from Spain comes the tricky Loewe (LO-ee-VAY). (To hear every last nuance of pronunciation, check out the audio tutorial at

Even some American designers can leave you tongue-tied. Last year, Target shoppers were faced with the challenge of pronouncing Proenza Schouler (pro-EN-za SCHOOL-er), when the American duo sold a collection that included $49 bustier tops there.

Don't worry that you'll sound affected. Why not try to get it right? The more syllables, the more delicious it sounds: I just love to say the name of Swiss watch maker Vacheron Constantin (va-sha-RON con-ston-TAN).

But don't force a fashion-y flourish on American designers whose names sound just like they look: It's Ralph Lauren (rhymes with "foreign") and Donna Karan (sounds like "Karen").
Email questions to

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D10

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Take A Bite Of: Strawberry Mascarpone Granita

How about a little refresher for your mouth? And not the alcoholic kind. It is spring. And when it is spring in Georgia, it is hot-hot-hot. (To match the summer, when it is hot. And the fall, when it is hot.) And since you are all preparing to head into the warmer months as well, what better means to cool off than this incredibly quick and delicious cooler. Thanks Giada. And it couldn't be easier. Bon Appetit.

Strawberry Mascarpone Granita

Ingredients (for 4 - 6 servings)

1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
2 cups chopped strawberries, plus 1 cup finely chopped
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Pinch salt

Place the water, 1/2 sugar, and mint in a small pan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to help dissolve the sugar. Let simmer over low heat to steep the mint. Then strain the mint from the simple syrup. Discard the mint.

In a food processor combine 2 cups of strawberries with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar. Run the machine to puree the strawberries. Add the mascarpone cheese, lemon juice, and salt. Run the machine until the mascarpone cheese is fully incorporated.

Add the mint simple syrup and run the machine to combine. Place the strawberry mixture in an 8 by 8-inch glass dish and place the dish in the freezer. The mixture will take about 4 hours to freeze.

To serve, use a fork to scrape the granita. Spoon the mixture into chilled bowls. Top with the finely chopped strawberries. Serve immediately.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Oh my...

There is a quote by Robert F. Kennedy that begins "Some men see things as they are and ask why...."

I think you see some things as they are and ask why alright, as in why in the #(*&^(@ would you do that? And since, in this circumstance, I fail to produce a sound reason on my own accord, perhaps you have some insight to share....

Next time I think I have produced a less than stellar idea, I will simply look at this photo and think WHAT A GENIUS I am. Why? Because virtually any idea I concoct will go on a roster of greatness compared to the person who thought it wise to dip their animal in a vat of chemical coloring in order to create this work of "art".

The Vineyard Poodle? You are kidding me? Outre canine culture is an understatement. I now see that there is a contest for hideousness.

For fun, I tried to imagine the persona of an owner that would get this light bulb above the head. Would we have a lot to talk about over cocktails? Maybe not. Not only did you get the idea to do this, but were also steadfast enough that no sensible person could talk discourage you? Where was anyone with common sense? Did friends offer to hold the pooch so someone could use their shears with delicate precision to make the fur into tufts resembling grapes? What rotten friends you have.

I hope this poor puppy dog lifts a leg on all of your heirlooms.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

UnHappy Hour

Not everyone enjoys the cocktails, but I know multitudinous people that do. And that statement is not criticism, its fact. I am not talking benders, I am referring to a beer, some vino, maybe a G&T. Social drinking, its not a demerit. Nor does it require admission to a 12 step as most of these people can handle their business. Its the over-zealous drinkers that are hapless.

There is a world of difference between the "Good Time Charlie" and the wanton GlenFiddich tornado. I am sure many of you can nod in agreement. And I also think there is a permanent list of situations or occasions you should not overly imbibe. Let's start at the top of the list. Wouldn't work functions be number one? I do believe so. Too much consumption with coworkers equals unhappy hour. Let's review.

Have I been overserved? Undoubtedly. I like to think those episodes have long since tapered off since I am not 25 anymore. And now with a little one who crows like a rooster every morning at 7 am, I am very careful. JohnnyMac learned early on, babies don't care what time you go to bed because they wake up at the same time every day, and they had a full night of sleep. I might of lost my bearings one night at the Bruce Springsteen concert, and my liver being so unaccustom to martinis at that time gave strong pushback when I downed the third one. I paid for it. Trust me.

But there is still that slight margin of people who must think if they attend an event where alcohol is served, that is all the persuasion they need to consume the alcohol. Work function? Who cares! There is alcohol isn't there?

I am no angel but I do think if you can not refrain from quenching all your thirst at football games, world series, poker tournaments, and boys or girls night out, then at the minimum, easy does it at your work function where I assure you, all of your co-workers are not swilling them down like Frank the Tank.

For me, spring ushers in a new round of work-related charity galas, and summer will soon be here accompanied by numerous fun summer time work functions. I know the wave of holiday parties have come and gone, but these tips will help all year long. I worked with someone once who literally ordered cocktails at lunch meetings. Ummm, isnt that your boss sitting three chairs down? Easy John Goodman. He didnt last long but boy, we had some funny stories with him as the star. I also worked with a woman who was guar-an-teed to go on a bender at any work function that rolled past eight p.m. Once, she knocked an entire tray of cocktails from a server's arms as she slurred and slobbered on one of our executives. Produce big results during the day must allot some shenanigans at night but for the average bear, sloppy times with people you work with are never a great investment. So in honor of those characters, I am going to share an old but treasured list of suggestions, that I have updated a bit. And you can share as needed.

Tips for the Moderation Challenged: Avoiding Unhappy Hour

10. Once your hose or tights have a big "Easy Access" hole in the upper thigh, or a tear of any kind, just take them off already. You're not fooling anyone there, classy. And for the sake of Baby Jesus, if your take off your shoes because your feet hurt too much for you to properly dance the Macarena. Take your self home. First, barefoot is not nice unless your company function is literally on a beach. And honey, we stopped doing the Macarena years ago.

9. The CEO of your company does NOT want to know how YOU think things are REALLY going. Guess what? If anyone really cared,YOU would be CEO. So just move along.

8. Eat all of the food you are offered throughout the evening. It works. I don't know why, but it does. Choose not to look that particular gift horse in the mouth. Just stick to the nibbles and be grateful. One plate at a time, you aren't going into hibernation for the Winter. And maybe dab up some of that cocktail bonanza with a piece or two of bread. I know you are carb conscious but this is a good time to advise, unless that is seared tuna in that martini glass, you are not consuming pure protein anyway. Oh, and while you negate their caloric value because they are "empty calories", umm, all that "emptiness" will be filled by the double cheeseburger you will demand on the way home.

7. Arrive at the party assuming you are going to be put in a cab and sent home. Translation, know your address, or at least have it written down somewhere on your person. And by all means, hang on to some cab fare. Oh, and try not to remove any flowers or decor to take home to give your living room a spruce as you exit.

6. Nothing says class like a woman double fisting Bud from the bottle. Use a cup, and try an import just this once. And please, do not order white zinfandel. You don't want to wake up to that again tomorrow.

5. If your party is open bar all evening long, and you feel you've hit "BONANZA", pace yourself, or you'll be pissed in the morning when you realize you were sent home in time to watch an old rerun of That 70's Show. If your party is open bar only for an hour, offer to help "organize" so you can get there early and have "samples". If your party is cash bar only, consider quitting now. It's early Spring. You can get a new job at a company that will at least pickup the bar tab for a few hours.

4. Just because you can't see others while you're hooking up with your intern on the dance floor doesn't mean others can not see YOU. Hands to self, sugar plum. And by all mean, if any part of your anatomy that is covered by a bathing suit presents itself, turn in that resignation on Monday. You will never live it down.

3. If you've fallen down more than once, and you still want to maintain gainful employment, thanks for playing, we have some nice parting gifts for you. Au revoir. Remove yourself before someone has to check you in to the emergency room. If you are gracious enough to merely stumble, quickly look at the floor and warn everyone of the "water spill."

2. Your body, especially your hands, do not belong anywhere within 6 inches of your boss's body. Not for any reason, period. If you find your idle hands in need of something to do, fill them with a cocktail. I realize this might be your first time at the school dance, but most companies have a nonconsensual relationship for a reason.

and finally...

1. Stay a drink or two behind anyone you really don't like. Better yet, give them shots. Think of the hours of fun and excitement you will have discussing what a drunken fool they were at the party the next day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

JennyMac's Restaurant Retrospect: Serpas True Food

I love it when I find a pot of gold in this city, and thanks to my husband's navigation, Friday night was a treasure hunt that did not fall short.  

Pre-baby, JohnnyMac and I dined out four or more times per week. Atlanta is a great city offering a vast sampling of culinary delights and cultural cuisine. We like great food experiences. Our preference would be "solid" over merely "new and hip" and we are adverse to simple passing trends. 

Since our schedule has changed magnificently since we had a baby, all the more reason to make it count when we do dine out. Overall, we like the total dining package of great food, interesting presentation (and some eclectic food pairings), great wine list, great service, and a stylish place to sit and take it all in. Verbal buzz in this city can be as influential in this town as the most well crafted marketing campaign. I love it when I can share great information, and after dining at Serpas on Friday night, I have great news to share. 
Serpas True Food, the eponymous effort of Scott Serpas, a Louisiana native, sits in the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta. I neglected to read a single review prior to our initial visit. Good for me. I wanted to take it all in and decide for myself.  

We met Scott Serpas years ago when he was the head chef at Two Urban Licks, another well known and popular Atlanta restaurant. We met him because he was walking throughout the tables greeting patrons and engaging them in discussions relevant to the restaurant. Other chefs do this, I know. But Scott Serpas was natural, outgoing and totally in his element. We had a great conversation with him about that evening's specials and his cultural Louisiana influence on the food.. He still visits patrons and tables as we witnessed Friday night, and it is a nice reflection of his new place.

Housed in an old cotton storage factory, the restaurant is less about surface impression and more about making you feel right at home. Exposed brick, filled with cool decor including a huge wall covering of cotton blossoms, creates a very relaxed vibe which you may not always perceive when a new restaurant opens. Atlanta can tend to be heavy on trends and some new joints focus on glitz rather than staying power. Hence why certain addresses have housed more than four or five restaurants in the past ten years.

As you enter the restaurant, a cozy bar sits to the right. Excellent choices for cocktails including one that will be my new summer love affair. Our bartender, Johnny, is both a culinary school graduate and certified mixologist. I asked him how to make Margarita mixer from scratch and he gave me a quick science experiment. He has multiple "recipes" on the bar menu and was happy to share knowledge about composition and chemistry..

Once seated, the first order of business was the Tuna Tartare. We are big fans of Tuna Tartare and order in often, comparing and contrasting our choices. This version, served with chile sesame dressing, brunoise cut green apples, with an accompaniment of house potato chips (with what I believe is a sprinkling of cayenne) is excellent. The house chips were a unique way of serving the dish and it worked seamlessly. We ordered the Pasta Jambalaya with a huge pile of duck, andouille, chicken and shrimp. It required some heavy lifting, and my husband rose to the job. I ordered chicken stuffed with spinach and goat cheese with basil whipped potatoes on the side.. Beautiful and I loved the side dish enough to try to replicate at home.

And the service is top notch. I have now read a few reviews about the restaurant and one recurring theme is the servers are all "very young" and "eager". Those comments made me think of girl scout troops earning their service industry badge. Our server, Barrett, was totally versed on the menu, laid back but attentive and totally comfortable steering us when we needed it as we asked for recommendations. We appreciate servers who actually know the food and give honest recommendations. It earns respect and the patrons always know when fabricated answers are provided. Every other server we saw or interacted with were friendly, professional and seemed to radiate that at ease but put-together atmosphere. This experience proved "True Food" does not have to be pretentious.And this version of "True Food" is a great choice to add to your list whether you are an Atlanta native or just visiting.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Take A Bite Of: Souffled Pumpkin Pancake

Some real southern comfort. I went to a lunch honoring Paula Deen yesterday, and got to meet and chat with this Food Network star. To be candid, I have just not gotten cozy with Southern Cooking during my tenure in the south. But I recently finished Paula Deen's memoir, "It Ain't all about the Cookin' " and she has overcome a great deal to be sitting where she is today. And at 60+, she is a pistol with a very sassy wit (and vocab). Love it!

That same day, a friend emailed me requesting recipes for brunch this weekend. For everyone celebrating, Easter or otherwise, if you want something special, put this on your table. Katie Lee Joel did a guest spot on one of Paula's shows and this was the recipe du jour. It is the first recipe from the show I have ever made, and I loved it. (Plus, it didnt have the typical 1 stick of butter requisite!)

A light and airy bite of delicious. You may think pumpkin is merely an end of the year holiday staple, but this blend is just right for a springtime brunch. I served it a brunch recently and it was a hit. I skipped the pecans and it didn't reduce the effect at all. Buon Appetito.

Souffled Pumpkin Pancake

5 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup pecan halves
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup pumpkin puree
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Maple syrup, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the brown sugar and stir until the sugar begins to melt. Add the pecans and cook for 2 more minutes. Transfer the pecan mixture to a small dish and set aside. Reserve the skillet for the pancake.

In a small bowl mix together the flour, pumpkin pie spice, sugar and salt. Set aside.

Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter. In a large bowl, add egg yolks, buttermilk, vanilla and melted butter and whisk until blended. Gradually whisk in flour mixture. Stir in the pumpkin puree.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and gently fold into the pumpkin mixture.

Gently spoon the batter into the reserved skillet. Sprinkle the top of the pancake mixture with the reserved pecan mixture. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Dust the pancake with confectioners' sugar. Cut into wedges and serve with maple syrup.

Monday, April 6, 2009

If you like pina coladas

My favorite line of that song is actually "come with me and escape" not just because its the best line but because it has been a long long time since I even had a pina colada, and I'm going to pass on getting busy in any dunes in the Cape. Come with me and escape, well, that line conjures up pretty thoughts and great memories of vacations gone by.

Oh, the art of vacation.

This picture is taken from our shoreline patio in Anguilla. I had never been to Anguilla but leave it to JohnnyMac to show me the ways of the world. Early in our courtship, JohnnyMac wanted to go on vacation together. Vacation? I am in. The year prior to meeting him I took eight weeks of vacation. Oh....times were different then. He said he wanted to go to St. Maarten, where he has a rental. Great. What will we do I ask. "Nothing," he replied with a look of delight. And for the most part, he meant it. His dream vacation involves beach time, pool time, nap time, light lunch time while enjoying pool time, sipping on beverage time, dinner time, and more sipping on beverage time. No sights to see, no hustle, no shopping. This does sound like a great vacation. For part of the time.

At that time, I was a New Year's in NYC, weekends in Chicago, Mardi Gras, Bastille Day in France, World Cup finals in Prague type of vacationer. I have been to Hawaii but spent less than 50% of my time on the beach. I wanted to drive a jeep up a mountain, dive into seven pools, swim under waterfalls. The beach? Well, who doesn't love the beach but there must be things to do.

Vacations are interesting because the word means something different to everyone. Think about your favorite vacation. What components give it the sacred status as "Best"? Sometimes its location, parties involved, or uniqueness of experience. Or maybe a combination of all of those elements.

And when JohnnyMac told me we did not even need to take our cell phones because there is no international service, I think I got agida on the spot. I took a deep breath and pondered, do I tell him now or let him discover in time I might actually lack the chemical make up for sitting on a beach for seven days with no tasks at hand except eating, drinking, and reading. For our impending "relaxing" vacation, I did gently broach the subject that I might need a little more to do. JohnnyMac laughed and said there would be plenty to do.

As it turned out, there was plenty to do. Plenty that involved eating, drinking, and reading. And plenty of activities that included lounging, relaxing, and resting. We did zip over to St. Bart's one day and did some great shopping but a miracle of all things occurred. I actually enjoyed it. The art of vacation...who knew? JohnnyMac's preference is to be on vacation and have zero cell phone service and no one needing to call or be called. I can't say I am ready to cut that cord yet but after several days in Anguilla, I barely wanted to traipse down the beach to the incredible restaurant on property. Since we had already been to NYC together, I realized quickly that NYC and all its glorious chaos was not exactly JohnnyMac's dream vacation but ahh, compromise. It applies to vacations too. And since these locations are so different, you can't really compare NYC to Anguilla, but if you did, sorry NYC.

And our next round of vacations grew to take on a pattern. Weekends in busy cities, weeks in sandy beach areas. And now, many many vacations together later, I look forward to the low key wind down time. Maybe I just didn't need it before the same way I need it now. We are going back to Cabo in May and I can hardly do nothing. Although last time I was there, there may have been an incident involving dancing on a catwalk while the house band played "You Really Got Me". When one hears one of their favorite songs, what is one to do but get up on a catwalk and dance?

Cabo is a fantastic trip. This is the view from the restaurant at Esperanza in Cabo. The picture alone invokes deep, peaceful breathing.

But I am also planning a girls weekend in NYC so I haven't completely lost the edge. And with my recent post on Weekend Wanderlust in NYC with all of Jamie's great suggestions, how can I not.

Friday, April 3, 2009

One for every day of the week: Books

I love to read. And I have loved it since way back in the day at Machias Elementary when I won a little ribbon for reading the most books in fourth grade. Oh, I sense you are tempted to make some nerd comments. Watch it, there is no nerd about it.

I come from a family of avid readers. And before I get all preachy about the enormous scholastic benefits on your life gained from reading, lets just say, its a habit I am glad I have.

And because I am an avid reader, I have come across some really, really great books. These books range from stories about love to stories about choices. Some are gritty, some are emotionally provocative, but all will engage you. Here are some titles (and reviews from I want to share. One for every day of the week.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marques
While delivering a message to her father, Florentino Ariza spots the barely pubescent Fermina Daza and immediately falls in love. What follows is the story of a passion that extends over 50 years, as Fermina is courted solely by letter, decisively rejects her suitor when he first speaks, and then joins the urbane Dr. Juvenal Urbino, much above her station, in a marriage initially loveless but ultimately remarkable in its strength. Florentino remains faithful in his fashion; paralleling the tale of the marriage is that of his numerous liaisons, all ultimately without the depth of love he again declares at Urbino's death. In substance and style not as fantastical, as mythologizing, as the previous works, this is a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love.

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Set in the rural South, this tale centers around the Boatwright family, a proud and closeknit clan known for their drinking, fighting, and womanizing. Nicknamed Bone by her Uncle Earle, Ruth Anne is the bastard child of Anney Boatwright, who has fought tirelessly to legitimize her child. When she marries Glen, a man from a good family, it appears that her prayers have been answered. However, Anney suffers a miscarriage and Glen begins drifting. He develops a contentious relationship with Bone and then begins taking sexual liberties with her. Embarrassed and unwilling to report these unwanted advances, Bone bottles them up and acts out her confusion and shame. Unaware of her husband's abusive behavior, Anney stands by her man. Eventually, a violent encounter wrests Bone away from her stepfather. In this first novel, Allison creates a rich sense of family and portrays the psychology of a sexually abused child with sensitivity and insight.

Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer
Carrie Bell is the worst person in the world. Or so she would have you think. In the gripping, carefully paced debut novel of personal epiphany, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, by O. Henry Award winner Ann Packer, Carrie's very survival is dependent upon her leaving her fiancé, even after he dives into shallow water at a Memorial Day picnic and becomes paralyzed. Things hadn't been going so well for the Madison, Wisconsin, high school and college sweethearts. Carrie knew, deep down, that she wasn't going to become Mrs. Michael Mayer. But expectations and pressure from all sides--his family, her mother, her best friend Jamie, Mike's best friend Rooster--force Carrie to shut herself up in her room and sew outfits of her own design as if in a trance. Then one night she slips out of the only universe she's ever known. Many hours later she finds herself on the doorstep of a high school classmate living in Manhattan. Carrie's adventures in the city--quirky roommates and a new romance with an older, emotionally impenetrable man--confuse her in her quest both to forgive herself and to embark on a career in fashion design. Packer writes in a convincing voice and packs a lot into this novel; she infuses Carrie with enough humanity and smarts to choose her own version of "happily ever after."

The Painted House by John Grisham
Ever since he published The Firm in 1991, John Grisham has remained the undisputed champ of the legal thriller. With A Painted House, however, he strikes out in a new direction. As the author is quick to note, this novel includes "not a single lawyer, dead or alive," and readers will search in vain for the kind of lowlife machinations that have been his stock-in-trade. Instead, Grisham has delivered a quieter, more contemplative story, set in rural Arkansas in 1952. It's harvest time on the Chandler farm, and the family has hired a crew of migrant Mexicans and "hill people" to pick 80 acres of cotton. A certain camaraderie pervades this bucolic dream team. But it's backbreaking work, particularly for the 7-year-old narrator, Luke: "I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice."

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
It's a rare treasure to find a historically imagined novel that is at once fully versed in the facts and unafraid of weaving those truths into a story that dares to explore the unanswered questions. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney's love story is--as many early reviews of Loving Frank have noted--little-known and often dismissed as scandal. In Nancy Horan's skillful hands, however, what you get is two fully realized people, entirely, irrepressibly, in love. Together, Frank and Mamah are a wholly modern portrait, and while you can easily imagine them in the here and now, it's their presence in the world of early 20th century America that shades how authentic and, ultimately, tragic their story is. Mamah's bright, earnest spirit is particularly tender in the context of her time and place, which afforded her little opportunity to realize the intellectual life for which she yearned. Loving Frank is a remarkable literary achievement, tenderly acute and even-handed in even the most heartbreaking moments, and an auspicious debut from a writer to watch.

Charms for an Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
This novel depicts three generations of Southern women living together during World War II. Unworthy men marry into this formidable tribe, but they cannot break the women's circle of strength and grace. Margaret, the narrator, gently and humorously regales readers with the adventures of her grandmother, Charlie Kate, as a respectable yet unlicensed physician.

The Liars Club by Mary Karr
In this razor-edged memoir, Mary Karr, a prize-winning poet and critic, looks back at her upbringing in a swampy East Texas refinery town with a volatile, defiantly loving family. She recalls her painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip into psychosis; a fist-swinging father who spun tales with his cronies--dubbed the Liars' Club. An inheritance was squandered, endless bottles emptied, and guns leveled at the deserving and undeserving. With a raw authenticity stripped of self-pity and a poet's eye for the lyrical detail, Karr shows us a "interesting family of liars and drunks ... redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth."