Tag Archives: New York City

Book Buzz: The Luster of Lost Things

Book Buzz: The Luster of Lost Things

It took no time to be swept up in the magic in The Luster of Lost Things, Sophie Chen Keller’s new novel set in a tiny bakery in New York City. Tantalized by Keller’s mouthwatering descriptions of flaky croissants fresh from the oven, sweet vanilla wafers with sea-salted caramel filling, and double butterscotch pops, I was practically swooning with desire for one of the sugary concoctions created by Lucy at her bakery,The Lavenders.

Book Buzz: The Luster of Lost Things

Lucy, a talented pastry chef, pours her energies into running The Lavenders while faced with the sadness of being a single mom. Her pilot husband disappeared when his plane crashed in the ocean while she is pregnant with their only child. Now she is devoted to making a life for herself and her son.

One cold wintry night, she invites a homeless woman into the warmth and comfort of her bakery, and in return the woman gives her a book of drawings that Lucy displays in the shop. This book, known as the Book, becomes pivotal to the story.

Twelve year-old Walter Lavender Jr. might remind you of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. He is bright and good-hearted with a communications disorder that renders his speech difficult. Taunted in the school yard, his refuge is the bakery where he pitches in before and after school, and every day places a lighted candle in the shop’s window, hoping it will bring his father home.

Plaintively, he wonders,

“Couldn’t Walter Lavender Sr. try a little bit harder to come back or send a sign? I am the one doing all the looking even though he is the one who is supposed to be here, to teach me the things I do not know.”

Walter Jr. has a super power of sorts: he can help people find lost things. He finds a missing cockatiel, a bassoon, and even a lost dog that ends up becoming his own, Milton.

But when the beloved Book goes missing and business in the bakery flounders, he sets out to find it and realign the stars. This takes him on an astounding search through New York City, in the dingy tunnels of the subway system, in Chinatown, across Central Park and so many other landmarks. In his quest, he learns about what it means to lose and find something precious, and also what it means to be him.

Oh, does Sophie Chen Keller have a way with words. Describing the end of a school day, she writes,

“… when the afternoon bell rings, the cherry red doors fling open and the kids pour out like spilled birdseed.”

Walter Jr. says,

“… I step behind the counter and search for the squeaking mice, nudging away a ring of passion fruit marshmallows engaged in a sumo match. I wait, looking into the display case as a jelly frog studded with chopped dates and hazelnuts hops across the second level.”

And when Lucy and Walter Jr. bake together:

“I tilt my bowl over the mixer and we alternate adding our wet and dry ingredients so the bubbles of air in the batter don’t pop and the cake emerges tender and fluffy from the oven. Lucy pours out the batter and it cascades across the first baking pan in a butter-silk curtain.

‘Masterful,’ she pronounces.”


Yes, it is.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The Luster of Lost Things. Please leave a comment below, and a winner will be randomly selected. US addresses only, please.


I received a copy of The Luster of Lost Things from Putnam for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Land of Enchantment

Book Buzz: Land of Enchantment

If you have ever been in an unhealthy relationship, one that you knew in your bones was wrong but couldn’t get out of, Leigh Stein’s unflinchingly honest memoir about obsessive love, Land of Enchantment, will take you right back to that dark place.

And if you’ve never been there, this will be an eye opener for you.

Land of Enchantment

The story begins with a jolt. Leigh gets a call that her ex-boyfriend Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. He was 23.

While preparing to fly across the country for the funeral, she flashes back to the course of their torrid and toxic love affair, and from there the narrative alternates between the younger, inexperienced Leigh and the older one with the perspective that time and distance affords.

Leigh was in her early twenties when she met Jason, several years her junior. With the rugged looks and bad boy rough edges of James Dean, he instantly cast a spell over her. Smitten, she accepted his offer to take off for New Mexico on a romantic adventure, and in doing so leave the safety of her parents’ Chicago home. They agreed to stay six months. He would get a job and earn some money and she would devote the time to finishing her novel. Then they would move to LA where he would get an acting job.

That was the plan.

From the beginning, though, the signs of impending doom were there. Jason was magnetic, yes, but also critical and manipulative.

In beautiful, bleak New Mexico, the land of enchantment, Jason’s behavior became cruel and disturbingly erratic. Leigh was unhappy, isolated with no friends and no car. Jason seemed to care little about her feelings. Stung when he announced he was going to a party without her, Leigh decided that was the final straw. She scraped together the cash to fly back to Chicago.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, or the end of her relationship with Jason. She flew back to New Mexico to be with him the next day.

The cycle of fighting and breaking up and getting back together, a textbook case of an addictive relationship, continued when they were both back in Chicago. Leigh, in denial, made excuses for Jason’s bad behavior, even the instances of violence. Drugs and alcohol provided a means of self-medicating to get through the depression.

And then …

A friend in New York shared a tip about a job opening in New York. Leigh was terrified at the thought of applying. There were days when she couldn’t even get out of bed.

Did she leave? Could she leave? Did she go back?

You’ll have to read the book to find out.

My hope is that this deeply affecting, coming of age story will have a wide reach, especially to girls and young women in troubled relationships whose sense of worth is in the hands of an abuser. Whether physical or psychological, abuse will erode your self-esteem and steal your life. It never ends well.

And I wish I could reach back in time and share this book with 20 year-old me.


One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Land of Enchantment. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of Land of Enchantment from Plume for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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The Homeless Woman in Bryant Park

Dear Homeless Woman in Bryant Park,

Our paths crossed by happenstance on Wednesday morning, two people among hundreds enjoying perfect April weather in New York.

It was around noon. Curbside vendors were selling cold drinks and sizzling ethnic food to office workers and moms with strollers and runners taking a break. The park looked so enticing, dotted with chairs and tables that were filling quickly. I paused on my way to Penn Station. I had about half an hour to kill.

The Homeless Woman in Bryant Park

It took me a few minutes to find an empty chair, and gratefully I set down my heavy bags and looked around.

My chair faced an open patch of grass with signs warning people to keep off. However, a film crew was ignoring that. A man in a gray shirt and jeans was directing an actor dressed as a sanitation worker. The actor carried a receptacle shaped like a drum and pretended to pull up weeds and throw them in. After a few minutes he would pound on his makeshift drum for several beats, until the director pointed at him to stop.

I watched this with mild interest as I kicked my shoes off and wiggled my toes.

Someone asked, “Is this chair taken?” in a Southern drawl. I squinted into the sun. Shielding my eyes, I saw you, an attractive woman, maybe 50-sh. Your long brown hair was in a ponytail and your eyes were dazzlingly blue. You had a smooth complexion and friendly smile.

I would never have guessed you were homeless.

I motioned that the chair was free, and you sat down.

A large, bulky backpack rested on your lap and you wore a puffy winter jacket and scarf, surprising because of the warm temperature. Together we watched the camera crew, three of them, position themselves in front of the actor. “What do you think they’re filming?” you whispered to me.

Before I could answer, you asked me if I lived here. “No, I’m from Philadelphia,” I said, and when you looked at me quizzically, I added “Pennsylvania. And you?”

“Alabama,” you said. “I’m trying to get home. I’m stuck here.”

I must have looked sympathetic, because you leaned closer and said, “I just got back from a month backpacking in Israel. I went by myself but I met some people. They wanted me to travel with them, but I, I …” your voice trailed off.

The director had moved closer, just a few steps away, his gaze focused on the actor. You tried to get his attention, but he didn’t hear you. Or pretended not to.

You pulled a tube of bright red lipstick from your bag and applied it to your lips without a mirror. You smiled at me.

“Are you Jewish?” you asked.

Somewhat taken aback, I said that I was.

“Have you been to Israel?”

I said that I had.

“Oh, then you must know Kibbutz … “ you mentioned a name that was unfamiliar to me. “That’s where I stayed until Monday. Then I flew to JFK. I wanted to stop in New York and see the sights. The first night here my purse was stolen. Five hundred bucks and three credit cards, gone.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “Did you report it?”

You didn’t respond to that. “I slept outside the last two nights,” you said. “I met a young guy on meth. You know what meth is, right? We slept head to head. On the street. I’ve been looking around for him today.”

You smiled ruefully. “I’m homeless.”

“What about family or friends?” I asked.  “Isn’t there anyone you can call?”

You shook your head. “I took care of my parents for a long time. When they died, my siblings stopped talking to me. There’s no one else.”

What do I do now, I wondered. Buy you food? Give you money? Are you on drugs? Should I take you to the police?

I did none of that.

“I am really sorry for your troubles, but I have a train to catch,” I told you as I stood up and gathered my bags. “You shouldn’t sleep on the street again. Please notify the police. I hope you get back home.”

As I turned to leave, you tapped my arm and our eyes met.

“Bless you,” you said.

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Book Buzz: Small Mercies

I’ve written before about my lifelong love affair with New York City.

New York City, the Big Apple, the city that never fails to delight and entrance  me, is just a train ride away and I visit as often as I can. Which is never often enough.

So what is the next best thing if I need a bite of The Big Apple from afar? I dive into a book that will sweep me into a New York state of mind.

Many writers have captured the essence of New York City in all its iterations. Off the top of my head, I can name Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and three of my favorites: Call it Sleep by Henry Roth, The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Time and Again by Jack Finney.

Make room for one more.

Small Mercies

The writer’s name is Eddie Joyce, and you may not have heard of him. Yet.

But with Small Mercies, his genius debut novel, I have no doubt that his name will be added to the list of New York writers who, well, get New York.

Small Mercies

It is the story of a working class Italian Irish family, the Amendolas from Staten Island. The fifth and “forgotten borough” of New York.

This “everyfamily” – fierce, flawed, and loving – lost one of their own in the 9/11 attacks. Now, nine years later, they prepare for a family birthday party and over the course of one week we watch them, each one still struggling in the aftermath of that tragedy in a different way.

The nuclear Amendola family consists of Gail, is a retired teacher, Michael, her husband and former firefighter, and two adult sons. There are also in-laws, grandchildren, neighbors, childhood friends, each character orbiting through the spheres of Gail and Michael.

We hurt for this family. Just as the rest of the world felt after 9/11, we who witnessed this tragedy are part of the universal grief.

I found this story to be gripping and real and, most importantly, passes my litmus test for authentic dialogue. You know these people. You have seen them at high school basketball games, at a neighborhood bar downing a few beers, in church, at potlucks.`

Joyce tells it like it was, and a few phrases jumped out at me. For starters, isn’t this one of the best opening lines in a novel ever?

“Gail wakes with a pierced heart, same as every day.”

And I love, love, love this :

“Across the street, one of their new neighbors, Dmitri, runs out from the old Grasso house to his car  … They have two young kids, a boy and a girl, with dirty-blond hair and the pinched faces of the frequently disciplined.”

And this, describing marital sex:

“They’d gone through the bumping frenzy of early love, the safe experimentations of settled monogamy, the clinical coitus of attempted procreation, the semi-abstinence of two pregnancies, the sleep-deprived sparsity of two infancies, the temporary revitalization afforded by procedural infertility.”

Joyce has a flair with language, and the gift of storytelling. Small Mercies will stay with me as a poignant, heart-wrenching story of loss, but also a lesson in how you go on.

Eddie Joyce, I have this to say to you: wow.

I am delighted to give away a free copy of Small Mercies to one of my readers. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. USA addresses only, please.

I received  a free copy of Small Mercies from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Eating Wildly

Nature and nurture intertwine enticingly in Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a bittersweet and sensory-rich memoir by urban forager Ava Chin.

Eating Wildly The former “Wild Edibles” columnist in The New York Times, Chin writes tenderly of her search for sustenance as she navigates life’s unpredictable paths.

Throughout much of her life, Chin struggled with feelings of abandonment. Her father, whom she didn’t meet until she was 26 years old, had left when her mother became pregnant with her. And her mother, a former “Miss Chinatown,” was beautiful but remote, focused more on her endless list of suitors than on her attention-starved daughter.

Chin was often lonely and frightened. Had it not been for her doting grandparents, with whom she spent a great deal of time, she may never have found the love and guidance she needed to thrive.

Her grandparents’ home was filled with comfort and good food. She credits her grandfather, a restaurant worker, with developing her palate for unusual and exotic foods. Her grandmother was everything Chin yearned for from her mother: loving, supportive, proud of her.

Nonetheless, Chin had to entertain herself much of the time. She found solace in scuttling about in the dirt outside her mother’s Queens apartment building, digging for treasures in the cracks between the concrete. As an adult, she discovered the pleasure of tromping through uncultivated open areas in New York’s five boroughs, searching for edible plants and weeds.

In this quest, she developed a deep appreciation of the bounty of nature and the beauty in the improbable. Her prose is embellished with reverence for all that grows.

Any book with recipes in it gets brownie points from me, and each chapter in Eating Wildly concludes with a recipe that Chin has created using foraged ingredients such as lambs quarters, mulberries and wild honey. They sound mouthwatering, even her variation on Grass Pie. Chin’s prize winning recipe for Wild Oyster Mushroom, Fig, and Goat Cheese Tart with Caramelized Onions is one that is definitely going to appear on my dinner table soon.

Chin realized through foraging that life’s timetable is not always something we can control. “I’ve learned that nature has a way of revealing things in its own time, providing discoveries along the way – from morel mushrooms bursting through the soil to a swarm of on-the-move bees scouting out a new home,” she writes.

eating wildly She rapturously describes plants that until now were unfamiliar to me. Wood sorrel, for instance. “It has folded, heart-shaped leaves, which flutter open and closed depending on the time of day, rather like slow-moving butterflies … taking a bite was a birth and lemony relief.”

And mulberries: “The ripest berry – a dark one hanging on a short stem that resembled a comma … resembling a cluster of deeply colored prunes, about the size of a cocoon.” Asiatic dayflower: “… with an edible blossom so transient that it could be a Buddhist lesson in impermanence.”

An Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction and Journalism at City University of New York, Chin’s affinity for nature is perhaps only exceeded by her fluidity with language. Her beautiful words captivated me.

I was curious to see what the plants she referenced looked like, and she has posted lovely photos of them on The Plants (and Mushrooms) of Eating Wildly.

Visit Ava Chin’s website to learn more about her life or to order her book — a perfect gift, by the way. Or go to Amazon.

Eating WildlyI am anticipating the sequel to this memoir. And I am so taken with Chin’s story that I am putting urban foraging (with a guide) on my bucket list.

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When in New York, Visit Eataly

I hesitate to say it. I don’t want to jinx things. But (whispering) I think spring is here.

No matter that sludgy clumps of snow still adorn our front yard. According to the calendar, spring has sprung. And I’m ready for a weekend getaway to celebrate.

I’m lucky to live in proximity of the fabulous New York City, always a desirable destination, but especially lovely in springtime.

New York, New York

You’ve heard ofi love new york April in Paris, yes? Well, April in New York is just as jolie. The days are longer and warmer and tourist season is not yet underway, so the hustle and bustle hovers at a moderate level, at least per New York standards.

Traipsing the streets is so much more fun when you don’t have to dodge mountains of snow and ice. Central Park, resplendent in daffodils and dogwood blossoms, is filled with young families pushing strollers and couples walking hand in hand.. daffodils New York eataly

With so much going on in the Big Apple, it is best to make plans in advance but save some wiggle room for last minute spontaneity. Whether your interests lie in sightseeing, shopping, theater, sports or a combination thereof, planning your visit is key. To get you started, here are some ideas. On a budget? Did you know all the things there are to do in New York that are free?

Which brings me to one of them that is a favorite of mine.


Eataly is a dazzling food emporium in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood. It has the feel of a bustling, open-air Italian market; it just  happens to be inside. Take a walk through this huge hall where purveyors display the most delectable pastas, cheeses, fish, meats, produce, breads, desserts and more. Be prepared for sensory overload.

You could drop a chunk of change here, don’t get my wrong. The seductive aromas of so much deliciousness could just lure that wallet right out of your pocket or purse. Plus, if you want to spend money on a meal, there are several restaurants to choose from.

eataly restaurant

But walking and gawking? Totally free. Amble up and down the aisles and marvel over the stunningly arranged items the purveyors have on display. If you’re lucky, there could be a freebie or two to nibble on.

As renowned food cognoscenti, Eataly partners and gastronomes Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali have among them dozens of beloved restaurants, cooking shows and cookbooks. Their unbridled passion for good eating, good drinking and savoring life is reflected in every aisle, every corner of Eataly.

As they say on Eataly’s website,

The Secret to Quality of Life?  Quality Products.

By creating and offering the best products, we improve our own lives, and bring added value to yours. Enter a world dedicated to quality: that means quality food, quality drink and ultimately quality time.

Feast your eyes on this visual extravaganza, artistic in its panoply of colors and textures, a celebration of all that’s good about eating and enjoying the best that life has to offer.

Located just off Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Street in the Flatiron neighborhood, Eataly is a foodie’s mecca but a fun destination for anyone.

I was not hired to write this review and was not compensated for it. It is my personal opinion.

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That’s a Great Question!

It was because we were staggering under the weight of our purses, carry bags, winter coats and Starbucks items that my friend Lois and I sought out a temporary refuge in the mammoth Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City.

Saturday, Day 2 of The New York Times Travel Show, a trade show for the travel industry. We were there as lifestyle bloggers who write about travel. question about coffee

We needed to get caffeinated regroup before heading into the cavernous expo hall. Walking and talking and eating and schlepping simultaneously, with a hot flash or two thrown in making us either fan ourselves or shiver, was a little bit too much multi-tasking for us.

We spied a table and several unoccupied chairs and made a dash for it as adroitly as two middle-aged perspiring women can manage, and sat down,  congratulating ourselves on finding this oasis.

Seconds later, a young woman approached us, and asked us where the blah blah exhibit was.

Lois and I exchanged glances, and we both shrugged. “I’m sorry, we don’t work here,” Lois said politely. The woman, disappointed, turned away.

Back to our drinks, and it happened again. Once more, we explained apologetically that we were mere conference attendees ourselves.

Why were people asking us these questions, we wondered.

After the third person approached us and was turned away, she pointed to the front of our table. “It says ‘Questions?’” she told us. “So I figured …”

question at Javits Center

Before she left to find someone more knowledgeable, and between gales of laughter, we begged her to take our photo.

But here’s the thing.

The next person who approached us was looking for the bathroom. Well, we could help with that.

“You see the Starbucks over there?” Lois gestured. “It’s one floor down, just below the Starbucks.”

This was fun. It was pretty cool being the source of information. So what if we weren’t always right? We liked being sought after, appreciated, needed. Admired for this unique information-dispensing quality.

“Where can I get a program book?” someone inquired.

We almost jumped over each other to answer.

“Can I get a plastic cover for my badge in the expo hall?” another asked.

“Yes, you can!” Lois said brightly.

“Anyplace I can get coffee without standing in line for an hour?” a woman asked, as she glanced doubtfully at the Starbucks line snaking like a Disneyland formation.

“Indeed,” I replied. “I got mine at that kiosk over there (pointing) and it was fine.”

“Is the coffee strong enough?” she asked. I nodded and smilingly sent her on her way.

Lois and I high fived each other, and pondered a future in this line of work. Maybe, with time and experience, we could respond to questions of a somewhat more complex nature. Like:

“Excuse me, is Aristotle’s empirical approach to studying nature still relevant today?”


“Hi, I wondered if you could explain the migration habits of hummingbirds to me?”


“Hey, this may be a dumb question, but you gals look like you know.  Einstein’s static universe theory: yay or nay?”

Who knowquestion lois and helenes? Maybe there is a www.askloisandhelene.com in our future, a kinder and gentler Google. A search engine with heart. Slower to respond, yes, but quick with a virtual hug. Does Google ask about your father’s health and tell you you’ve got a smudge of something on your cheek?

Lois and I need the practice. So go ahead. You ask, we answer! Keep it (mostly) clean and we will respond. Leave me a comment here or on Lois’ post or tweet us using the hashtag #askloisandhelene.

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Are You in Touch With Your High School Friends?

high school

Ask your current friends, “What was your high school like?” and I bet you’ll get this.

“Hated it. Couldn’t wait to get out.”

“Worst time of my life.”

“Couldn’t stand those (choose one or more) jocks/nerds/drama queens/suck-ups/deadbeats who were (choose again) boring/weird/deranged/back-stabbing/shallow/ gossipy.”

Ask them if they attend class reunions. They might say:

“Why in the world would I want to do that?”

“I didn’t care about them then and I don’t care about them now.”

“I haven’t kept in touch with any of them, so, no.”

In my own utterly unscientific random sampling of my generation, I have concluded that high school was pretty much a bust; if not a total disaster, then potentially the most annoying time ever, with angst and insecurity as much of the daily routine as was the cafeteria food served on plastic trays.

I can’t argue with the angst and insecurity; I felt that, too. I can’t deny that I was often impatient to start the next chapter in college. My classmates surely felt the same.

But our friendships were so strong that they superseded the agony that is high school and have lasted all these years since.

My high school was nicknamed “The Castle on the Hill” for its architecture. But let me tell you, this place was no fairy tale. It was an overcrowded inner city school, a hard scrabble, sometimes unstable hotbed of occasional learning and sporadic unrest. My class consisted of almost 900 students.

high school

We learned how to be street smart real fast. You had to. Yet many of us were avid students who also enjoyed after-school activities — clubs, sports, student government and committees — even before you had to be active if you wanted college admissions directors to notice you.

We loved showing our school spirit. We loved being together.

Outside of school? Same thing. I remember chilly Friday night home football games, forming caravans to travel to away games, school dances, hanging out in the Evans’ basement. On Sunday afternoons the guys would play touch football on a local field and that’s where we would gather with our transistor radios blasting top 40 tunes. There wasn’t a lot to do in our town, but just being together made a whole lot of nothing a whole lot of fun.

We said our goodbyes on a sunny day in June after tossing our mortarboards in the air. The anticipation for  summer and college was tinged with melancholy because we knew that we were losing something that mattered a lot: our community.


This bittersweetness turned out to be the cement that has kept us in touch ever since. And since we are turning 60 this year, we wanted to celebrate this milestone together.

Twenty of us traveled to New York City last weekend. Friday night we saw “Motown, the Musical” and knew every word of the memorable songs that were the playlist of our adolescence.

Even better, we  celebrated one of our very own on Saturday night, at “Love in the Middle Ages,” a clever, witty and laugh-a-minute musical written by our very talented classmate and friend, Eric Kornfeld. It is sold out for the rest of its run, but if you’re lucky you might be able to catch it when it returns in January.


Turning 60 isn’t all that bad when you’ve got friends who have known you forever and still love you with all your imperfections. As we grow older and perhaps more nostalgic, we recognize that our high school experience was not typical. But we are grateful that it was what it was.

“We turned out OK,” is usually said by at least one of us.

To which everyone else nods in agreement.

high school friends

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