Best April Book Picks

It’s a pretty spectacular month for book releases. Some of my favorites of the year are out this month and I’ve been waiting to tell you all about them for ages. In particular, what I love about these books is that almost all of them has the potential to appeal to all kinds of audiences. So now, in alphabetical order…

 Best April Book Picks

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 Best April Book PicksMaggie Shipstead made a splash on the literary scene with her debut novel Seating Arrangements. I loved it against my will, since it was a book about a WASP-y wedding that centered around the bride’s father and his midlife crisis. But Shipstead is just really good and you can’t help but be charmed by her writing and her characters. So everyone is pretty pumped about her second novel, Astonish Me. Just like Seating Arrangements, it’s worth the hype. It’s nice to see her try a totally different genre and style of storytelling. 

Astonish Me is a ballet book, and it’s true I’m a sucker for ballet books (and movies and documentaries, etc.), but because I like them a lot I also get to be pretty picky about them. Astonish Me is about so many different parts of the life of a dancer that it has a particularly rich story to offer. Joan begins the book as a young dancer in a prestigious company, but like so many others, she leaves it to make a regular life and family. Later, as her son grows up and shows signs of being good enough to dance professionally, the story gets vastly more complicated. Moving forward and backward in time, Joan has to grapple with choices she made years ago as her son tries to decide if he wants to take on the perilous life of a dancer. 

 

 Best April Book Picks

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 Best April Book PicksI sometimes find myself reading short story collections in bed because they let you read a whole story from start to finish and get a nice sense of closure before you close your eyes for the night. My favorite in a while is The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Kupersmith is very young, which is rather annoying as you read this collection of versatile, affecting stories that show she’s got real talent. (Yes, I’m jealous.) The Frangipani Hotel‘s stories are connected by theme and character. Set in Vietnam, or with Vietnamese-Americans in the US, the Vietnamese culture and traditions flow through each story. It is about the Vietnam War, of course, without really being about it at all. But it shows us the country, what it is now and what the US is now, and forgotten horrors linger through its pages. What I really love is that the stories are based on and inspired by Vietnamese folk tales and many of them involve surrealism and ghost stories while still feeling smart. They are pageturners without being fluff. I loved reading one or two stories then letting them settle over me. If you’re not getting enough international flavor in your reading, this is a great one to try. 

 

 Best April Book Picks

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 Best April Book PicksHistorical fiction also isn’t necessarily my genre. Noticing a theme? Like I said earlier, all these books are good enough that they should appeal to any reader regardless of what your favorite genre is. Love & Treasure is by Ayelet Waldman, who I’ve followed for years. Partly because she’s married to Michael Chabon and partly because I love her essays on motherhood and partly because her novel Daughter’s Keeper is one of the better ones I’ve read about being a public defender. I’ve read most of her books even though I don’t always connect to them. But I feel pretty confident saying Love & Treasure is the best thing she’s written. She’s upped her game in a big way and her passion for the material is evident without getting maudlin (which is often my main complaint about her books).

Another book that takes place in different time period and one that covers the aftermath of war (wow, it’s amazing the common threads you can find between books), Love & Treasure focuses mainly on Natalie in the present day and her grandfather Jack, who’s stationed in Austria just as WWII is ending. But really the novel is about one big thing: the Hungarian Gold Train. This real tragedy gets a novel that addresses it in all its sadness and complexity. Jews in Hungary had their belongings confiscated by the government with the promise they’d be returned, and Jack–a Jew himself, though many of his fellow soldiers don’t know it–is charged with guarding these treasures and heirlooms while Europe is putting itself back together. Decades later, Natalie finds a necklace among her late grandfather’s possessions and decides to return it to its rightful owner, suspecting it was looted during the war. Neither Natalie nor Jack faces an easy task or one that’s morally simple. But this isn’t a novel that hits you over the head with the ethical dilemmas its characters face. It also follows Jack and Natalie into romantic relationships that may be too difficult to ever work. Rooting those characters in their own search for love grounds the novel in reality and Waldman’s prose is lovely and real.

 

 Best April Book Picks

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 Best April Book PicksHey, we’re finally in my genre! Natchez Burning by Greg Iles is a crime novel, and happily though it’s only the latest book to feature protagonist Penn Cage, you can pick it up without having read any of the others. (I did. This is my first Iles novel, though he’s written several.) Natchez Burning is one of many novels in the 1960′s-racial-crime-cold-case subgenre but it does a pretty nice job of going outside the usual connect-the-dots. The Mayor of a small Southern town, Penn Cage is embroiled in a search for the KKK-shootoff group the Double Eagles, a secret group that was never charged with any crime though they’re suspected of several murders. But in the midst of this dangerous task, his own father, the retired town doctor, is charged with murder for assisting in the suicide of one of his elderly patients. Not nearly as simple a case as it seems, Cage’s father has his own secrets, including a connection to the notorious Double Eagles. This is a long book, for those of you who like a mystery that’ll last you through most of your vacation. It’s also pretty violent, so just a heads up. I’m happy to add Iles to my list, since he has tons of books I’ve never read.

 

 Best April Book Picks

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 Best April Book PicksI’m finishing the list with a genre-mashup the likes of which I’ve never seen before: a thriller for language nerds. The Word Exchange is definitely a thriller. There’s a disappearance, a not-far-in-the-future setting, a secret society, a network of tunnels under New York City, a strange virus that’s spreading through the world, a company that may be plotting the destruction of the world… and yet it’s also a book about a simple and quiet woman named Anana and her father, Douglas, who’s the editor of a Dictionary that is one of the only remaining printed books. Just before the new edition comes out, Douglas disappears and all sorts of strange things are happening. Author Alena Graedon’s vision of the future is uncanny and feels completely and utterly real. A device called a meme has replaced the smartphone and is even more ubiquitous with the ability to work without pushing buttons or saying commands. Not only that, but it’s being replaced by the upgraded Nautilus, which can tap in even more deeply to our brains. Is it these devices that are behind the strange Word Flu that causes people to use nonsensical words in the middle of sentences without realizing it? And what part does Max, Anana’s recent ex-boyfriend whose startup is connected to the company that may be behind it all? The Word Exchange is about technology, about language, about reading, about devices, about how we live in the modern world. And yet it moves at a breathtaking pace and throws you down its rabbit hole with aplomb. I honestly can’t believe it’s a debut novel. Anyone who loves reading will find something to love in this book.

Blue Man Group Boston for Kids

event Blue Man Group Boston for KidsWhen the Blue Man Group in Boston invited us to come to a show, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. I’d never been to a Blue Man Group show before and I didn’t know how Graham would feel about it, but I figured the worst that could happen was we’d leave early and he’d still be happy we got to take the train to the show. (The Charles Playhouse is very close to the Tufts Medical Center stop on the Orange line and a short walk from the Boylston stop on the Green line.)

It turns out it wasn’t hard to get Graham excited. When walking around town we saw a big sign for the Blue Man Group on the back of a tourist trolley and I told Graham we would go to that show. He was pretty pumped after that and spent a good week talking about going to see the “blue guys.”  

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Photo provided by Blue Man Group

I learned pretty quickly that The Blue Man Group is an experience from the moment you walk in the door. The Charles Playhouse has been totally remodeled all around the BMG experience.

Inside there’s a wall of light and sound called the “Lounge-U-Lum” where kids can interact. No more standing around before the show listening to whining for snacks, instead they’re immediately engaged and curious and interested. 

Special School Vacation Week Bonus for April 21-24: there will be face painting before select shows as well. 

Inside the theater there are snacks and drinks for kids and grown-ups. Yes, you can get a beer. And yes, they have bags of goldfish for the kids. Though I’d recommend finishing your snacks before the show, since it’ll get pretty dark.

Once the show started, I admit, I worried a little bit. I knew BMG involved drumming but I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. The first 5 minutes of the show were loud and I started to worry that maybe the noise would be too much for my noise-averse kid. We did get some earplugs from the ushers (who are SUPER nice, the nicest and most helpful ushers I’ve ever encountered anywhere by a long shot) but after those first 5 minutes the noise wasn’t so loud that Graham had any problems.

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Photo provided by Blue Man Group

After those first minutes, my fears abated. The show is great for kids. No intermission (I’ve found intermission is just an opportunity for kids to say, “Can we go home now?”) and not too long. The show is made up of several small pieces so the action is constantly changing and no one part gets boring. There’s interaction with sight and sound and then there’s plenty of audience interaction, too.

It’s a huge relief for me to go to a show with my kid that’s also fun for ME and not just for him. Yes, I love watching him enjoy things, but being able to enjoy myself is a big plus and a reason why I’d take Blue Man Group over a little-kid-geared-live-show  any day. Jokes abounded, the show is really funny, and even if the humor is often over the kids’ heads, they’re still so excited to be a part of it that they don’t notice much. They’re also pretty excited to watch the adults be silly.

I cannot express to you how excited Graham was. This was not a show where people in the audience were expected to watch silently. The relaxed atmosphere made him very comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. He would yell out with glee to the point where I had to shush him a little. At one point, there was a rousing version of “Tequila” on the drums. So of course, at the end, all the adults in the crowd yelled, “Tequila!” The kids looked around in delighted confusion. Then someone in the back yelled, “Free Bird!” The adults laughed, the kids looked around in delighted confusion. Graham thought he had this figured out. We were taking turns yelling out words, so at this point he hollered, “School bus!” It was perhaps one of my proudest moments as a parent. His enthusiasm, his excitement, his willingness to jump in and be a part of it, it was thrilling for me.

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Photo provided by Blue Man Group

If you ask Graham about the show, even though it’s been two weeks, he will happily tell you all about the very end where the giant balls bounced through the crowd. He had never seen anything like it before. I think he would’ve happily watched those giant balls bounce through the audience for hours. 

So what do parents need to know for a family Blue Man Group Boston visit?

  • Pay attention to where you sit. The front rows of the theater require a poncho because you may get… well, not wet exactly but you’ll want that poncho. We sat in Section C which was perfect, right in the middle with a great view but not too close. The theater is nice and small so most seats are good seats, though if you sit in the balcony, you won’t get the full bouncing-giant-balls experience.
  • Kids 5 and up should be just fine at the performance even though it’s officially recommended for 7 and up. They have booster seats for smaller kids so they can see over big people’s heads. 
  • If you have a noise-sensitive kid, consider bringing some headphones for them in case they need them.
  • There are jokes about butts. So, you know, do with that what you will.
  • After the show the guys in blue came out into the lobby for pictures. Don’t be surprised if your kid is a little scared to have a picture with them, even if they loved the show. Most of the littler kiddos kept their distance.
  • There is a garage where you can get discount parking for the show just a few blocks away.
  • School Vacation Week is a great time to visit, with extra shows and extra events. (Oh, and free meals for kids at MJ O’Connor’s Park Plaza.) 

I honestly never would’ve thought to bring a child to Blue Man Group, but it turned out to be one of Graham’s favorite events of all-time, and as the kid of a blogger he gets his fair share of cool stuff to do. 

Blue Man Group only has 5 locations around the country, so if you’re visiting Boston it’s definitely something to put on your to-do list. If you live here and have friends or family visiting, it’s a nice break from your usual Duck Boats and walking tours. Tickets start at $49, but you can also find them at the BosTix booths for same-day sales or advance sales.

 

Brunch at Puritan & Company

restaurant Brunch at Puritan & CompanyWhen people ask me about where to go for brunch, I like to have a lot of good answers. So a meetup with the Boston Brunchers to a place I haven’t been to before is always welcome to see if I can add them to my list. This time it was to Puritan & Company in Inman Square in Cambridge. I know Inman Square is a bit of a hotspot food-wise but this was actually my first trip out there as someone who spends more time on the other end of the city.

 Brunch at Puritan & CompanyI was one of the first of the group to arrive and I had to take a few minutes to appreciate the decor. I’m not one of those people who swoons over pretty restaurants, but I was pretty close to it. A country chic decor that still had a nice youthful feel. I fell in love with the brocade on the benches. It was bright and airy, felt kind of like the kitchen you’d see in a magazine.

Though they have a full cocktail menu, they also have their 3 brunch favorites (mimosa, bloody, and a gin cocktail called the Park Avenue) for under $10, a rarity for menus around the Boston area. 

 Brunch at Puritan & CompanyYou would make a big mistake by skipping out on their housemade pastries to start off your meal. While not a big pastry person myself, it’s a big focus of their brunch. There’s a table in the middle of the restaurant where they all sit out for display. We tried a bunch of different ones. Just as you’d expect, I really loved the savory ham & gruyere pinwheels. 

But I also found myself really really in love with their coconut caramel danish. Hugely tasty without being too sweet, I would die for an entire one all for myself. On the other hand, while I loved the Boston Cream Donut, it was too rich for me to eat alone. 

 Brunch at Puritan & CompanyFor the main dish I ordered the Corned Beef Hash, I’m a sucker for a good hash and when I see one on the menu I’m hard pressed not to order it. It came in a skillet with some bright and beautiful sunny side up eggs.

Definitely not your typical hash, this was cooked so nicely, with big pieces of braised beef  and ribbons of potato. It was a much milder hash than I usually have and I could’ve used a bit more seasoning, but it was a great dish.

The Brunchers were big fans of the Wagyu Steak and Eggs and I had a nice bite of someone’s Coppa Ham Sandwich. 

You’ll probably want to make reservations, or come outside the brunch rush, but that’s true for most brunch places. But you could definitely bring a picky eater here and make them very happy.

Thanks to Puritan & Company for feeding the Brunchers free of charge.

If My OkCupid Profile Was Honest

My self-summary

Once upon a time I was like many of you. I was young, single, full of interesting pursuits and hobbies I cared about. I had opinions and ideas and looked for someone who had a thirst for life and learning. Now I am just living day to day. I can’t list for you the cool places I’ve traveled to. I don’t define myself by strong personal style or taste. I just get by. I care about being honest and connecting to people and being the kind of person other people like having in their lives. I am trying to raise my two young children into competent and confident people with healthy emotional lives. And hopefully I end up sane and alive in the process.

 

What I’m doing with my life

Treading water. There are days with my kids where it is get up! get ready! try to eat! get everyone dressed! cater to fickle tastes of young children who can’t decide what they want for breakfast! get everyone in car! retrieve toys thrown out of reach of carseats when at stop lights! Get to work, breathe, work,

leave and pick up kids! retrieve toys thrown out of reach of carseats when at stop lights! discuss what we’re having for dinner and no we’re not going to a restaurant and no we’re not having dessert and why must we have this conversation every day?! amuse children with television while dinner is prepared! eat own dinner that resembles that of a poor college student! put on pajamas despite protests that children are not tired enough/too tired to go to bed! get children in bed! put them back in bed when they get up! get water and put them back in bed again!

Oh, and then there are the days when I don’t have my children and I tend to binge watch television, zone out, and gather the strength to clean up several days worth of mess before they come back.

 

I’m really good at

Um, I used to be really good at lots of things. Now I can’t even sleep in effectively. Can we talk about the things I used to be really good at instead?

I used to be really good at holding my liquor, staying up all night, reading classical literature, watching movies with subtitles and really enjoying them, having strong opinions on politics, aspiring to be a real published author, cooking slightly impressive meals, and remembering things.

Oh, I can say that I am really good at writing a personal blog. And if things really click with us you might have the privilege of being written about on the internet.

The six things I could never do without

Yeah, the thing about this question is that people tend to answer with something like “good friends” or “coffee,” but I’ve learned there are plenty of things I can do without that I didn’t think I could. So let’s do those:

  1. Sleep
  2. Privacy
  3. Companionship
  4. Friends
  5. Staying close to family
  6. Seeing my kids every day

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about

I love the idea that I think. I feel like I don’t think much anymore. When I have time to think I tend to try to not think instead. Is that bad?

 

On a typical Friday night I am

Friday night A) Getting a terrible animated movie from the Redbox with my kids and trying to find a way not to have to cook dinner.

Friday night B) Going on a date if I have one.

Friday night C) No date, no kids, attempt to stay up and watch a serious movie like I used to but instead end up going to bed early.

 

The most private thing I’m willing to admit

That I don’t really have anything that qualifies. I will admit almost anything to anyone. I have given birth with several people in attendance. I never get to shut doors in my own apartment anymore. My boundaries are basically non-existent.

 

You should message me if

The fact that I have kids doesn’t freak you out too much. It’s totally okay if it freaks you out some. I mean, they’re kids, right? They’re kind of a huge deal. Even if you already have kids, the idea of someone else’s kids is still a huge deal. And despite all of that, you’re okay with me mentioning that I have kids occasionally and referring to them as something that exists and is part of my life without you feeling terrified.

But really, you should message me if you get that we are all more than what we do and what we like and where we’ve been. If you’re happy to do a little self-discovery together, to get back to some version of yourself you once were or to find parts of yourself you haven’t found yet.

If you don’t define yourself by the places you’ve visited or the jobs you’ve had or the degrees and accolades you’ve received.

Most of all, if you think a smart girl in her mid-30’s with chubby cheeks, curly hair, and glasses who doesn’t have great fashion sense or the greatest track record with dating sounds like a challenge you’re up to accepting.

 

Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

event Getting to Work in the Secret GardenWe finally had a day that felt a little bit like spring this week. But it was still chilly and cold when I headed to Macy’s last week for their Secret Garden Flower Show. Luckily all the floral displays inside helped give a glimpse of spring to come.

Big flower arrangements from different flower shops in Boston were scattered throughout the store. They were high drama and I loved it.

 Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

Butterflies from Bumble Bee Landing

 Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

Gorgeous layered flowers from Stapleton

 Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

Branches creeping through Winston Flowers’ Display

Macy’s lined up several events to celebrate, but the highlight was having a lunch & learn with the guys behind The Makers Kit. I am not much of a crafter, so an opportunity for someone to provide me with materials, help, AND lunch is too good to pass up.

When I got there, Mike and Jawn were ready and waiting for the group. I warned them that I was not exactly good at this kind of stuff and they assured me that they make sure their kits are simple and accessible even for the craft-challenged like me. And they were right.

makers kit full Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

 

Mike and Jawn started out in clothing boutiques with items from local artists. When they started holding workshops to get the community more involved, they suddenly found themselves in demand in a big way. And it’s not surprising, they’re really nice and funny and guided us through as if we were all old friends instead of a random group of people in a Macy’s. Plus I’ve wanted an indoor herb garden for AGES but haven’t gotten around to doing one. We got instructions on watering and even the chance to snap some pics.

 Getting to Work in the Secret Garden

Why yes, that IS me and the boys taking a selfie. You can tell they’ve done this a few times. I, however, come off as a total amateur what with my multiple chins. Holding the camera low so I have to look down? Silly Jess. It’s like you’re new here.

It was a great way to brighten up my lunch hour and I’m sad the guys are way out in San Francisco since we’re all besties now.

I am definitely liking the idea of florals for spring and there were a bunch of floral prints on display to compliment the Secret Garden theme at Macy’s. I want more color and pattern in my wardrobe and florals are so happy, aren’t they? Thanks for the little bit of Spring, Macy’s!

Disclosure:  I am a member of the Everywhere Society and Everywhere has provided me with compensation for this post about Macy’s. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own. 

Big Apple Circus in Boston Review

event Big Apple Circus in Boston ReviewThis weekend the kids and I rode the train into the city for the Big Apple Circus. Any outing with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old can be unpredictable. We didn’t even make it through an hour of The Lego Movie so I was prepared for anything that came our way.

 Big Apple Circus in Boston ReviewIn Boston, the circus is in a big tent right in City Hall Plaza. If you’re taking the train, it’s a block or so from the State station with the entrance on Cambridge Street. (Don’t forget–Government Center Station is closed!) What impressed me right away when we came inside was how cozy everything is. With seats most of the way around the center ring, no one was very far from the action.  They also have a live band, the sound levels were just right.

This was the first time I’d taken the littles to a live show and I was pretty impressed at the impact it had on the kids. Compared to a trip to the movies there was way less wiggling, way less whining, and less requests for snacks. (Not that there were none, there were still plenty, but much less.)

So what did they think of the show? They were big fans. The only problem they had was intermission, I thought about leaving then since they got a little restless and weren’t anxious to get back to their seats. Luckily the first act when they started again was horses and they are nuts about animals.

 Big Apple Circus in Boston ReviewGraham loved the tightrope, the acrobats, the clown (who made several appearances), and the horses. But his favorite (and Tessa’s) were the trained dogs. Only one act had them a little bored (they don’t quite get the subtleties necessary to watch a magic act) but it was a short one and didn’t cause us any real trouble. So if you’re looking for a show that’s little-kid friendly but that will also amuse the bigger ones, the circus is a good bet.

And I’m a fan of this selfie we took while waiting for the show. You can see how happy and excited they were.

As a parent I was happy to see that the circus wasn’t too heavy on pricey toys and trappings like I’ve run into elsewhere. (*cough*SesameStreetLive*cough*) The snacks and drinks were more than you’d find outside a show, of course, but they were still better than lots of others. $3 for a hot dog and $1 for a juice box meant I could satisfy those intermission whines without breaking the bank.

On the train ride home I asked Graham if he wanted to join the circus. He said no, it would be too scary. So Graham, he reminds me of myself as a kid, a little more cautious and sensitive. Definitely moreso than Tessa who tends to just keep on going forward no matter what. I agreed that the tightrope might be scary, but made some other suggestions. Juggling? Too hard, he said. Good point. But then I suggested the acrobats, who used a springboard to catapult themselves into the air and he was hooked. Yes, he wanted to do that. That’s my boy.

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The Dosov Troupe with Big Apple Circus. Maybe we’ll see Graham there one day?

Big Apple Circus will be in Boston until May 11th. Don’t forget, you can use promo code BIGAPPLE to save $10 per ticket.