When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies suddenly, he and his wife Ginny, without hesitation, pack up their lives and move into her house to help care for her three small children. Making Toast is a record of that time – of the grief and sadness, but also of learning to laugh again.

Amy died from an asymptomatic heart condition at the age of 38. Her sudden and unexpected loss ripped a hole in the community of family and friends whose lives Amy had touched. Rosenblatt realizes that he learns more about his daughter – her selflessness, her humor, her generosity – after her death than he did while she was alive. He struggles not only with his own overpowering grief and anger, but also that of his grandchildren who each cope differently, his stoic son-in-law, his wife who must now step into Amy’s footsteps, his adult sons, his many friends. He finds solace in the mundane – reading stories, helping with schoolwork, making toast to order. Gradually, they all learn that while cannot escape the terrible loss, they can learn to live with it and to continue.

Written as a loose collection of essays, anecdotes and remembrances,  this small book is an eloquent and understated  study on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the coming to terms with terrible loss and a fitting tribute to a life that made a difference.

The French film Séraphine stars Yolande Moreau as the 20th century artist Séraphine Louis–a poor housekeeper/painter who was discovered in 1912 by the German art collector Wilhelm Uhde. Uhde was only able to give Séraphine minor support before he had to flee France due to the war, but he eventually came back to France and happily found that Séraphine was not only alive, but had continued her painting. He immediately became her lead patron, giving her an allowance and finding exhibitors and buyers for her work, until the world economic woes hit the art world and Séraphine’s mental instabilities paralyzed her painting.

I absolutely love to watch people paint–from Bob Ross to Jackson Pollock to craftsters on Martha Stewart–and so I also love films about painters since they often include a variety of short and long scenes where the artists fervidly creates their famous masterpieces. However, the greatest part of this film is not watching Séraphine’s actual painting (although that is fantastic), but seeing her gather pigments and create her own paints (for example: stealing hot wax from the church’s prayer candles). The artist never revealed her methods of creating her vibrant colors, but the film’s version of her ingenuity is, nonetheless, absolutely fascinating!

After reading Graceling, one of my favorite books of the year, I was excited to read Kristin Cashore’s companion/prequel titled Fire. In the Dells, an area beyond the mountains of the seven kingdoms, there live creatures called monsters who look like regular animals but are brightly and irregularly colorful.  The monsters are capable of not only sensing human thoughts and emotions, but controlling them as well.  There still exists one human monster in the Dells, a 17 year old girl named Fire (after her flame-colored hair).  She gets caught up in an impending war because of her unique mental skills and, through her service to the king, gets to know the initially distrustful military commander Brigan.  The book is filled with suspense, romance, action, and surprising twists.

Cashore has a gift for creating new and unique worlds.  I expected to be reading more about the seven kingdoms but was pleased to have a whole new place to envision and learn about.  Her descriptions are so rich that the Dells easily come alive in your mind, and her characters and complex and interesting (even the minor ones).  And even though I’m a little bummed that I didn’t get to learn more about what happened to Katsa and Po after the end of Graceling, I found Fire and Brigan’s story just as compelling, if not more.  Don’t be turned off by the fact that this book is found in the YA section of the library; it’s one of those great YA books that adults can easily enjoy.  I know I did!

Is it good for your mind? No. Is it a titillating hi-def splatterfest with Matrix/300 bullet-time effects enjoyable to watch? A definite yes. You wouldn’t be lying if you told your friends there were love stories and a healthy amount of unpredictable plot twists and skullduggery either.

I came upon Spartacus: Blood and Sand due to its free streams on the Roku box last year. I stayed because I could not look away, despite the thinly-veiled disclaimer at the beginning of the historical drama assuring us “the sensuality, brutality and language is to suggest and authentic representation of that period.”  Come on, it’s based on actual history.  Does that count?

The production and costuming is exemplary. Virtually every ancient Roman has the standard-issue Shakespearean lilt and some 20th century vulgarities.   You’re too busy watching heads and period garb falling off to care about the anachronism.  Lucy Lawless will NEVER be able to be called a warrior “Princess” again.

Sadly, production was suspended last spring for star Andy Whitfield’s (Spartacus) health, as he was treated for lymphoma. When it was determined he would need a more aggressive regimen, Whitfield bid the franchise and the most physically demanding role on television goodbye.

In just a few weeks on January 21st, a stopgap measure 6-episode prequel will begin on Starz network, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Whitfield is rumored to make a couple cameo appearances among the regular cast of seeming professional body builders.  Casting has begun on his Dick Sargent-esque replacement in Season 3.

I, for one, will lament the loss of Whitfield and hope for his full return to good health.

In other news, Kirk Douglas is 94 years old and could probably still reprise his original motion picture role. I wouldn’t rule that bruiser out as a replacement.

Many of you know Steve Martin as a comedian and as an actor, but he is also a best-selling author of both children’s books and adult fiction.  His newest offering is a fictionalized glimpse into the New York art world, An Object of Beauty.

An avid art collector himself, Martin traces the rise and eventual fall of a young woman, Lacey Yeager, whose ambition and drive to be at the pinnicle of the art world knows no boundaries.  Her tale begins when, right out of college, she accepts a position with Sotheby’s auction house.  Her position is at the bottom of art world ladder (her office is literally in the basement) but she quickly learns what, and more importantly, who you need to know – but it comes at a high price.

Lacey’s eventual fall from grace is explained in full detail at the end of the book (after the author only gives the reader bits and pieces throughout) and her final eviction from the art world is swift and severe – which make for a compelling and fascinating look into the world of million dollar artwork.

The author includes color photographs of many of the works of art mentioned in the book – it is a nice touch!

Devastated and haunted by guilt after the death of her best friend, Phoebe Swift breaks off her engagement, quits her job at Sotheby’s and starts over by opening a vintage clothing store in London in A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff.

Phoebe’s new shop soon takes off and she’s kept busy with customers and finding and purchasing new stock. This includes navigating auctions at Sotheby’s, assessing treasures her dealer in America finds, and meeting directly with owners of vintage clothes. Part of the fascination of this book is the peek behind the scenes – the work and skill and knowledge required to run such a shop from assessing the quality of fabric and workmanship, to understanding how an old dress can be fashionable again, with or without changes. Phoebe’s work brings her into contact with various people with a wide range of interests – vineyards to classic Hollywood cinema to Paris during World War II.

Light but not frothy, this charming book may be just the antidote for those “life changing” books on your list that we’re all supposed to be reading. Here, there’s a little romance, some mystery, interesting characters, history (nicely tied to the vintage clothing that Phoebe deals with) all in lovely settings in London and France. Just the ticket for something fun to read.

In Heart of the Matter, the latest novel by the popular Emily Giffin, Tessa is a former professor turned stay-at-home mom.  Her husband, Nick, is a renown pediatric surgeon, and in all appearances, the two seem to enjoy a charmed life.  On an evening out to celebrate their anniversary, Nick is suddenly called away to attend to a six-year old burn victim.  The boy’s mother, Valerie, is a high-powered attorney and a single parent, and though both families live in the same Boston suburb, the women seem to have little in common.  In the course of caring for Charlie, through several skin grafts and other surgeries, Nick ‘s devotion to his work soon becomes complicated by his attraction to Valerie.   Meanwhile, Tessa is left on the home front, trying to figure out why Nick is suddenly so distant, and imagining the worst scenario.

Giffin claims that she draws from her own personal experiences and this seems evident in the relationship the women have with their friends and other characters in the novel.  For example, the subtle judgment and conflict often felt by both career women and their soccer-mom counterparts is realistically portrayed.  Plus, one can’t help but wonder if Giffin used her own career days as an attorney in Manhattan to help flesh-out Valerie’s personality.  In all, an enjoyable read, with believable characters caught in untenable circumstances.

I’m a sucker for this nice linear, chronological sort of organization. What caught my attention is Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant. Doing something (anything!) for one year is really A Thing. Everything from working (The One-Week Job Project: One Man, One Year, 52 Jobs, as well as Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District) to eating (Eat My Globe:One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything) to spending time in prisons and other institutions (Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison and Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin).

Hobbies such as knitting and dog training can be mined for in-depth personal reporting (Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously and Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog).

There is a long tradition of both lengthy titles and documenting a significant year (see Woodstock, or the Cavalier. A Tale of the Year Sixteen Hundred and Fifty-one by Sir Walter Scott).

There’s something so seductive about making a plan that starts at a logical place and ends in finite time. What do you want to do in just one year? Maybe you can write a book about it (or start a profitable career blogging about it).

Courtesy of savvy shortcut website for modern living, Lifehacker, here are the top ways to stay warm this winter for less dough.  Some involve constructing genius DIY doohickeys, others tweaks on classics.

I like the machine that cycles absorbed solar heat through 180 empty cans of your favorite beverage.  Well, I’d let someone else actually “make” the device.

And powered longjohns?  Interesting and doable, but I’ll leave that one to the experts.

January 4

Dinner for Schmucks –  Steve Carell, Paul Rudd

Tim is a guy on the verge of having it all. The only thing standing between him and total career success is finding the perfect guest to bring to his boss’ annual Dinner for Extraordinary People, an event where the winner of the evening brings the most eccentric character as his guest. Enter Barry, a guy with a passion for dressing mice up in tiny outfits to recreate great works of art. When the duo shows up to dine, the lunacy kicks into high gear.

Catfish– Henry Joost

In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel’s brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception, and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.

Big Love – Season 4 – Bill Paxton, Jeanne Triplehorn

For years, Bill Henrickson wished for a world free from the corrupt ‘Prophet’ of Juniper Creek, Roman Grant. Now that Roman appears to be out of the picture, Bill and his family can breathe easily, or can they? Season 4 continues the Henricksons’ story, as Bill launches another business venture: a Mormon-friendly casino. At the same time, Bill eschews a chance to seize the Prophet mantle at Juniper Creek in favor of an even more high-profile calling: running for State Senate in Utah.

January 11

Piranha – Jerry O’Connell, Elisabeth Shue

A group of strangers on Lake Victoria must band together to survive after a sudden underwater tremor sets free prehistoric man-eating fish

January 18

Justified – Season 1 – Timothy Olyphant

Due to his old-school style, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his childhood home in the poor, rural coal-mining towns in Eastern Kentucky. Lawman Givens is a tough, soft-spoken gentleman who never gives an inch. Contained are thirteen episodes, such as: Fire in the Hole; Riverbrook; Fixer; Long in the Tooth; and more.

January 25

The Girl that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Swedish) – Noomi Rapace

The final installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Lisbeth Salander is fighting for her life in more ways than one. In an intensive care unit and charged with three murders, she will have to not only prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce the same corruptgovernment institutions that nearly destroyed her life. Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now, Lisbeth Salander is fighting back.

Secretariat –  Diane Lane, John Malkovich

Behind every legend lies an impossible dream. Witness the spectacular journey of an incredible horse named Secretariat and the moving story of his unlikely owner, a housewife who risked everything to make him a champion.