THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

July 10, 2018

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A Memoir

Jonathan Santlofer is an artist and a writer and someone I consider a friend. In 2013, he lost his wife, Joy, quite suddenly, and his way of coping was to draw and write. This book is the culmination of that endeavor.

There are many books written about grief and many about losing a spouse, but most are written by women about losing their husbands. I hate to generalize but I’m going to. Men tend to be more stoic about loss, less likely to talk about it, much less write about it. But Jonathan is not your average man.

I’ve known Jonathan a long time but didn’t hear about Joy’s passing until a year or so after the fact. At the time, he couldn’t really talk about it and I understood that. When he told me about this book many months ago, I got a digital galley and put it aside. Even though he told me about it and I knew he wanted me to read it, I had to come to grips with reading about his pain. It’s a difficult thing to do when you know and care about the person who is in pain. But with publication looming, I put aside my usual escapist fare and sat down to read it.

Jonathan’s voice was immediately recognizable. This isn’t some new-agey, self-help guide but rather a journey through loss and devastation, grief and pain, and ultimately hope and love. There are many drawings as well, drawing was one of his coping mechanisms and he explains how it helped him. The drawings are simple and beautiful and so expressive of a life well lived.

Joy had been working on her own book called Food City when she passed. A food historian who taught at NYU, she had worked for six years on this book about the food history of New York City and it was truly a labor of love. When she died, she left a manuscript that was twice as long as was contracted for and in need of serious editing. Jonathan and their daughter raised money to pay for an independent editor and along with her publisher, and both of them, they were able to get the book completed. (See my review here.) It was the culmination of an exhaustive project, yet bittersweet that Joy never got to see her finished book. But what a way to honor her.

Lest you think this book is a maudlin meandering of thought, it most certainly is not. Jonathan has a terrific sense of humor and understands the absurdity of life and loss.. He is self deprecating and self aware, and even through some of the most difficult parts of the book, his humor shines through. Don’t get me wrong, I cried through much of this but I also laughed.

Stories about how friends tried to help, or didn’t, were mostly encouraging, occasionally discouraging, and often funny. The set ups, (single men are always a target) not to mention a friend who tried to get him to hire hookers from a website, and poignantly, the realization that widowers are treated differently (better) than widows. I especially loved the chapter, “Stupid Things Said by Smart People,” which was so honest and pointed to something many people struggle with.

A couple of quotes that I thought were simple, eloquent and elucidating:

The fact is, losing one’s partner is an unsolicited litmus test. Some friends pass the test beautifully and others fail.

And this:

Grief is two-pronged: to get past it is to move on, a good thing; to get over it, to forget your grief and your former life and all that is attached to it, impossibly sad.

Comparisons to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking are inevitable, and Jonathan is the yin to her yang. This is a beautifully written, haunting and emotional memoir about loss, grief, love, and moving on. It is thought provoking, intelligent, important and ultimately inspirational. This is a book worth reading and sharing.

I’m very glad Jonathan decided to share his Widower’s Notebook.

7/18 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer. Penguin Books (July 10, 2018). ISBN 978-0143132493. 272p.


THEFT BY FINDING by David Sedaris

June 13, 2017

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Diaries (1977-2002)

A few years ago, David Sedaris was the closing speaker at the Public Library Association Annual Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was lucky enough to attend, and got to briefly meet one of my favorite authors. But even better than just shaking his hand was listening to him speak. He is one of a very few authors that when they go on book tour, you have to purchase tickets to see him and let me tell you, totally worth it!

He read a bit from his book that was out then, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, which I had read and enjoyed. He spoke for a bit but then the rest of his talk, at least what I recall, was him reading from his diaries. He had a few thousand librarians laughing so hard they were crying, and I was one of them.

So when I heard this book was coming out, I was overjoyed. And this is only part 1.

Sedaris is a prodigious journaler. He has been keeping journals for most of his life and when I say keeping them, I mean not just writing but storing them so he has plenty to draw from. In fact, maybe too many. He has over 150 diaries, filled on both sides of the page with his tiny writing. He had to go through all of them to hone it down to these books. And, I’m sorry to say, some things get lost along the way.

If you’re a long time fan you won’t miss the stuff that’s missing because you’ve probably heard it before. If you are new to Sedaris, you may want to start elsewhere. Holidays on Ice is a particular favorite of mine (especially with the Santa cover if you can find it.) I especially love his audio books and if you can afford it, get the The Ultimate David Sedaris Box Set. Many an airline ride has pleasantly passed quickly listening to him read his own work.

Sedaris is an observer of life. He spent his early adulthood wandering the country, working odd jobs and dining at an IHOP nightly. He meets a lot of quirky people along the way and it is these observations, usually completely on the mark, that are the hallmark of his humor. Pay close attention or the punchlines will go rushing past you – I had to stop several times and reread a line or two. Push on through early adulthood to read about his first stint on NPR talking about being a Macy’s elf at Christmas (which is replayed annually) some jokes, recipes, and lots more. A sure bet for fans.

6/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THEFT BY FINDING by David Sedaris. Little, Brown and Company (May 30, 2017). ISBN 978-0316154727. 528p.




February 2, 2017
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Co-author Andrew Aydin
Illustrator Nate Powell

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels – in fact, it feels like I start every one of my reviews this way!

This book is part of a series of biographical graphic novels written by John Lewis about his life and career. Book Three starts in the early 1960’s.

What brought this book to my attention was the awards. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Then at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference last month, the following awards were announced:

The Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award, which recognizes an African American author of a book for kids

The Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young-adult literature

The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award

The YALSA Award for excellence in young-adult nonfiction

This was record setting – no other book has ever won 4 awards from ALA. So I wanted to read it. Luckily, my library had a copy on the shelf.

From the publisher:

Welcome to the stunning conclusion of the award-winning and best-selling MARCH trilogy. Congressman John Lewis, an American icon and one ofthe key figures of the civil rights movement, joins co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to bring the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world.
By the fall of 1963, the Civil Rights Movement has penetrated deep into the American consciousness, and as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis is guiding the tip of the spear. Through relentless direct action, SNCC continues to force the nation to confront its own blatant injustice, but for every step forward, the danger grows more intense: Jim Crow strikes back through legal tricks, intimidation, violence, and death. The only hope for lasting change is to give voice to the millions of Americans silenced by voter suppression: “One Man, One Vote.”
To carry out their nonviolent revolution, Lewis and an army of young activists launch a series of innovative campaigns, including the Freedom Vote, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and an all-out battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged live on national television. With these new struggles come new allies, new opponents, and an unpredictable new president who might be both at once. But fractures within the movement are deepening … even as 25-year-old John Lewis prepares to risk everything in a historic showdown high above the Alabama river, in a town called Selma.

I loved this book. I must admit I pretty much cried my way through it, it is not an easy read. But what a story! Congressman Lewis has has lived an amazing life, and continues his work for civil rights to this day.

The illustrations by Nate Powell are all in black & white, and are viscerally stunning. Bombings, speeches, and arrests are somehow brought to life but the violence is never over the top or gratuitous. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement, not to mention President Johnson and Robert Kennedy, are easily recognized.

This book is a testament to what civil disobedience can accomplish, and feels very timely right now. This is a truly inspirational read, and I highly recommend it.

2/17 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

MARCH: BOOK THREE by John Lewis. Top Shelf Productions; First Edition edition (August 2, 2016).  ISBN 978-1501115677. 320p.

BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

December 8, 2016
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Stories from a South African Childhood

When it was announced that Jon Stewart was leaving The Daily Show and all but unknown (to us) correspondent Trevor Noah had been tapped to take over, the news came with an understandable amount of trepidation. Noah had appeared just a few times on the show before the announcement and basically vanished until the transition, which meant viewers didn’t really have a chance to get to know him. Unless, of course, you’d sought out his stand up. Because Trevor Noah, while new to most of the US audience, had already made a name for himself elsewhere.

Noah is charming, smart, and funny, each of which holds equal weight in The Daily Show. But again, most of us knew little about him. And though personal stories have made their way into the show’s dialogue, this debut collection of essays offers up much more of a look inside the history and childhood that made him who he is today.

The title, Born a Crime, is true. Trevor Noah was born in South Africa during apartheid when the mixing of races (socially and otherwise) was illegal. Noah intersperses his beginning tales with a basic history of apartheid, explaining not only the law but how it came to evolve as well, offering up an honest look at a truly horrific and recent piece of world history.

Noah’s own reminiscences, while perfectly illustrating the charm and humor he’s known for, are fairly dark. He recounts, for instance, the time his mother threw him from a moving vehicle in order to escape the very possible violence about to occur at the hands of a minibus driver one Sunday. And he talks honestly about how his family handled the very fact that his very existence could have meant jail for them and/or an orphanage for him.

At the heart of the collection, though, is the fact that Noah’s mother, an extraordinary woman, is responsible for the man he is today. At a time when education and opportunity were all but nonexistent for a Xhosa woman, she pursued both. And she taught her son to think, to reason, and to dream.

Born a Crime is an amazing book that is eye-opening and shocking as well as funny. It’s addictingly readable and definitely one I’d recommend not only to fans of Trevor Noah and The Daily Show but to readers interested in an inside, and again honest, look at apartheid and South Africa.

12/16 Becky LeJeune

BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah. Spiegel & Grau (November 15, 2016).  ISBN 978-0399588174. 304p.


THE MAGNOLIA STORY by Chip & Joanna Gaines

November 6, 2016
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with Mark Dagostino

In case you are not familiar, Chip & Jo Gaines are the stars of  HGTV’s Fixer Upper. Set in Waco, Texas, the couple shows a prospective buyer three homes, all fixer uppers. They determine a budget, pick a house and go to town on it. Chip is the contractor and Jo is the designer who has single handedly made shiplap the most sought after design element in any fixer upper.

The couple have four children and live on a farm with dogs and goats and chickens and a pecan orchard. They started off the show by fixing up their farm house, and have never looked back. They have since renovated and opened a B&B that sold out for the year within a few hours. They purchased an old mill with silos and turned it into a shop that sees thousands of customers a day. And they have an online Magnolia Market [] as well that sells all sorts of home decor, accessories and their own line of paint. This book, a memoir, is their latest project. and follwing soon is a design book. They have partnered with the Meredith Corporation to create a new lifestyle magazine, The Magnolia Journal (or subscribe here.) Yet they seem to remain the same down to earth happy family.

This book is the story of their lives, from childhood through dating, marriage, family, the businesses and God. Apparently God talks to Joanna and helps her make all her life decisions. These are people of strong, abiding faith who seek to live a life of good work, and it has rewarded them well.

I do enjoy the show and am constantly shocked at how inexpensive housing is in Waco. And FYI, if you don’t live within a 30 minute commute of Waco, they won’t fix up your house.

Joanna is half Korean, and writes about growing up in Kansas and being the “other”, different, and how that affected her. She considers herself to be an introvert. Chip is a good old Texas boy who apparently is as goofy and fun loving in life as he is on TV.

Their story is sweet and funny and a bit too religious for a heathen like me, but that’s a very personal thing. As of 10/31/16, the book is #2 on Amazon and debuts at #1 on the NY Times bestseller list on Nov. 6. They are doing something right and I couldn’t be happier for them.

11/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE MAGNOLIA STORY by Chip & Joanna Gaines. Thomas Nelson (October 18, 2016). ISBN 978-0718079185. 208p.


RELISH by Lucy Knisley

March 26, 2016
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My Life in the Kitchen

I  haven’t read a graphic novel in quite a while, it’s not something I read regularly. They have to be pretty special to get me to pick one up and this one is.

Lucy Knisley grew up with a caterer mother and a food critic father and this is her story. She both writes and illustrates it, and as you can see from the cover, the illustrations are fun but also somewhat true to life. Starting as a young girl in New York City, she talks about the food she tries, and the food her family cooks and eats. Each chapter ends with an illustrated recipe.

Her parents divorce and she and her mother move to upstate New York to a small farm. There her mother gets involved in the community and starts a green market with local farmers that eventually becomes a mecca for foodies in the area. Lucy falls in love with food, but also with drawing and becomes a cartoonist.

Written with great warmth and humor, this is a graphic novel to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good memoir and foodies everywhere.

3/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

RELISH by Lucy Knsisley. First Second (April 2, 2013). ISBN 978-1596436237. 176p.



January 17, 2016
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This book has been one of the most talked about books of 2015, won the National Book Award and tops many of the best books of the year lists. I’ve put off reading it because I knew it was going to upset me, and it did. But it is, in my humble opinion, one of the most important books of my lifetime. That is a big statement – and it’s true. And it seemed an excellent way to start the new year.

The book is a collection of letters that Coates writes to his 15-year-old son about racism in America. I grew up at the tail end of the 1960’s and into the 70’s with forced busing, free love, and what I sincerely hoped was (and marched for) a significant shift away from the conservative, narrow minded views of middle class America to a brighter, more inclusive future. For a while there, it seemed to be going that way but the past few years America has fallen back – or, maybe, as Coates explains it, it never really went away. Coates insists that racism in America is a permanent fixture, and he is not trying to make it go away, but rather teach his son how to live with it.

American history is explored and explained in a way that is truly eye opening. But it is the use of the body, specifically black bodies, that Coates expounds on that is both terrifying and tremulous, and hopefully continues to provoke much needed conversations.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. The language is lyrical and powerful, the subject matter moving and emotional and important, and the themes all encompassing and worthy of deep discussion.

Buy this book.

For further reading, The Atlantic (where Coates is a regular contributor) has an online book discussion that may be perused. It has ended, but the comments are worth reading.

1/16 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015). ISBN 978-0812993547. 176p.



HEADS IN BEDS by Jacob Tomsky

November 25, 2015
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A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality

Jacob Tomsky works the front desk of high end, luxury hotels. Here he offers up the inside dirt on what really goes on, how to get the most bang for your buck, but really his point is how to beat the system – all told in a most entertaining fashion. Think of it like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for the hotel industry.

Not all of his tips are, how shall I put this…ethical? But he explains why you shouldn’t worry about it. Personally, I have to sleep at night so his tips on how to avoid paying for in room movies and the minibar just didn’t sit right with me. But I will definitely use his tips on how to avoid paying the cancellation fee, how to get upgrades, why and when you need the concierge, and why you should always use and tip the bellman.

I listened to the audiobook, which the author reads, and he does a really good job. I actually had to stop it a few times to take notes! But for the most part, the note taking portion is in the appendix. The book itself is by turns funny, horrifying and always interesting –  at least to anyone who has ever stayed or is planning to stay in a hotel. A fun and informative read.

11/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

HEADS IN BEDS by Jacob Tomsky. Anchor (July 30, 2013). ISBN 978-0307948342. 320p.




MY KITCHEN YEAR by Ruth Reichl

October 3, 2015
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136 Recipes That Saved My Life

For years Ruth Reichl has been recognized and revered for her work. But in 2009 with the folding of Gourmet, the critic/writer/editor was suddenly unmoored. She found solace in her kitchen, though, and that’s the heart of her latest release, My Kitchen Year.

This is no ordinary cookbook. My Kitchen Year is a book to be read as much as it is a book to be used. In fact, it’s something of a conversation between Ruth and her readers. Recipes are loosely built, leaving room for personal tastes and interpretations, and are accompanied by Ruth’s own writings on what was happening at that particular time in the days and months after Gourmet was shut down.

Recipes are arranged by season, featuring ingredients at the height of freshness, and while the dishes themselves run the gamut of food types and flavors – Easy “Bolognese,” Ma Po Tofu, “Tandoori” Chicken, Matzo Brei – , they all have one thing in common: comfort. From the Shirred Eggs with Potato Puree all the way through to the Quick, Easy Do-Ahead Dinner for Two People: A Ten Minute Meal (lamb chops with baked potatoes and shredded Brussels sprouts), Ruth takes readers on a journey through that year all the while sharing the dishes that helped her along the way.

My Kitchen Year is a fabulous cookbook filled with enticing recipes, gorgeous photography, and lots of heart. It’s perfect for Reichl’s fans as well as anyone who has a love for good food.

10/15 Becky LeJeune

MY KITCHEN YEAR by Ruth Reichl. Random House (September 29, 2015).  ISBN 978-1400069989. 352p.

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler

July 30, 2015
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Narrated mostly by Amy Poehler (with help from Carol Burnett, Seth Meyers, Kathleen Turner, Mike Schur, Patrick Stewart et al)

Amy Poehler is funny and nice, and apparently a lot of really funny people like hanging out with her. This is one of the best audiobook memoirs because of all the readers – they really add something to the reading experience.

I was not a “Parks & Recreation” fan. We watched the first season, thought “eh” and stopped watching. Apparently (according to friends and family members who LOVE it) it got a lot better after that initial season. So after listening to this book and my friends and family, it is in my Netflix queue.

Amy talks about her life, her friends and her work. She talks about growing up outside Boston, motherhood, SNL, Parks & Rec and more. She also talks about her family, but sadly, she is divorcing (already divorced?) so that was in the back of my mind as she spoke lovingly about her husband.

I couldn’t help compare it to Bossypants (best of the comedic memoirs) and the Mindy Kaling book and frankly, it didn’t quite measure up. Nonetheless, it was definitely an enjoyable read, probably more so as an audiobook.

7/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler. HarperAudio; Unabridged edition (October 28, 2014).  ISBN 978-0062350886. Listening Length: 7 hours and 31 minutes