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.

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.

Our roll call of Personal Favorite books of 2010 from our Blogging Libraries continues….

Rita had two favorite books this year : “I couldn’t decide between these two as my favorite, of all the books I read and listened to this year. They both have a little magic in their stories. I enjoyed both books very much. I will let you decide.”

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman – For years, 12-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt has been the cartaker of her psychotic mother, Camille – the tiara-toting, lipstick-smeared laughingstock of an entire town. But when Camille is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee is left to fend for herself. To the rescue comes her previously unknown great-aunt from Savannah, Tootie Caldwell, who whirls CeeCee into her world of female friendship, strong women, wacky humor and good old-fashioned heart.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen – Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew – a reclusive, real-life gentle giant – she realized that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life.

Are you getting a little tired of all the Christmas schmaltz? Fighting off that Bah Humbug feeling about now? When all the holiday madness starts to get to be too much, but you don’t quite want to give up on finding some Christmas spirit, try watching one of these movies. None of them are about Christmas (or New Years), but each has great holiday scenes – just enough glitter and holly to keep you in the mood!

Love, Actually – Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Kiera Knightly, many others

This one actually has a lot to do with Christmas, but it’s really about love in all it’s funny, touching, heartbreaking forms.

When Harry Met Sally – Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal

Not Christmas, but New Year’s Eve. Funny with several classic, iconic scenes. Don’t miss it.

Trading Places – Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis

Everything starts at one of those dreaded Christmas office parties…… A modern comedy classic.

Meet Me in St Louis – Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien

One of the great American musicals, this movie introduced the heartbreaking song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

About a Boy – Hugh Grant

A trust fund slacker living off the profits of the Christmas song his father wrote years ago, gains a life – and a heart – with the help of a little boy. Sharp and funny.

While You Were Sleeping – Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman

Through misunderstandings that never get cleared up, lonely Lucy gains a family and falls in love – with the wrong guy! Set during Christmas and New Years. Bullock is at her charming best.

Deborah Tannen’s newest book explores the sister dynamic in family relationships. As one of three sisters, it was a relationship she knew a lot about. She also interviewed over 100 sisters of all ages and stages in life to discover more about the double edged sword that is sisterhood.  In this “combination of closeness and competition,” she says “the one constant was comparison.”

When siblings talk, every conversation is weighted by what has gone before. This fosters special closeness but also means that a comment that seems innocuous to an outsider can cause pain that would appear to be unreasonably exaggerated.

As a linguist, Tannen’s expertise is in how language shapes relationships.  Sisters are different from brothers in that they are often the glue keeping a family together – organizing get-togethers to celebrate birthdays, holidays and family reunions. They also foster closer relationships with the male members of the family. Because their conversational style is more personal and emotional, they allow men to be more open.

Tannen reads the audiobook version of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite which seems appropriate when she closes with very personal anecdotes from her own family. She says, “Having a sister adds an extra image in the mirror. Understanding who you are means discovering who you are in relation to her.”

If you’re looking for a little escape from the family togetherness during the next big holiday, try one of these dvds in which  families and friends display a range of dysfunctional behavior during the Thanksgiving season.

Jody Foster directed the surprisingly funny Home for the Holidays. Starring Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr., as her irreverent brother. Hunter plays a single mom who loses her job right before Thanksgiving. This is only the beginning of a very stressful holiday with her eccentric family.

Friends, the Complete Eighth Season had a classic episode with special guest Brad Pitt, (married at the time to Jennifer Aniston). He played Will, a high school classmate of Ross and Rachel’s. Unbeknownst to Rachel, they were both members of the “I Hate Rachel” club. Rachel doesn’t recognize Will because he is much slimmer than he was in high school.  Pitt shows off  excellent comic timing in this show.

The Thanksgiving episode of The Middle, Season One revolves around Mom Frankie’s doomed effort to force her family to celebrate a traditional dinner, and to accommodate her boss’ demand that she work at the car dealership.  (The Middle refers to the middle class family in the middle of the country).In typical Heck family fashion, they aren’t able to pull this off. If you haven’t seen this series, now is the time to start.

November 2

Toy Story 3 – Animated

As Andy prepares to leave for college, his loyal toys find they have been donated to the Sunnyside Daycare, where untamed tots with their sticky little fingers do not play nice. So it’s all for one and one for all as they join Barbie’s counterpart Ken, a thespian hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants, and a pink, strawberry-scented teddy bear called Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear to plan their great escape and ensure that no toy gets left behind

November 9

Charlie St. Cloud – Zac Efron, Amanda Crew

Charlie St. Cloud is a small-town hero and an accomplished sailor who has it all: the adoration of his mother and younger brother and a Stanford scholarship. His bright future is cut short when tragedy strikes and takes his dreams with it. Now Charlie is torn between honoring a promise he made years ago and pursuing his newfound love with a former high school classmate.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World – Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Meet charming and jobless Scott Pilgrim. A bass guitarist for garage band Sex Bob-omb, the 22-year-old has just met the girl of his dreams, literally. The only catch to winning Ramona Flowers? Her seven evil exes are coming to kill him. As Scott gets closer to Ramona, he must face an increasingly vicious rogues’ gallery from her past, from infamous skateboarders to vegan rock stars and fearsome identical twins. If he hopes to win his true love, he must vanquish them all.

Ramona and Beezus – Selena Gomez, Joey King

Ramona is a little girl with a very big imagination and a nose for mischief. Her playful antics keep everyone in her loving family on their toes, including her older sister Beezus, who’s just trying to survive her first year of high school. Through all the ups and downs of childhood, Ramona and Beezus learn that anything’s possible when you believe in yourself and rely on each other

November 16

The Kids Are All Right – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore

Nic and Jules are in a long-term, committed, loving, but by no means perfect relationship. Nic, a physician, needs to wield what she believes is control, whereas Jules, under that control, is less self-assured. They have two teenaged children, Joni, who is Nic’s biological child, and Laser, who is Jules’ biological child. A big-hearted, sexy, and uproariously funny movie that combines comedic surprise with poignant emotional truth.

The Last Airbender – Noah Ringer

Join Aang, an extraordinary boy with incredible ‘bending’ powers, as he journeys through an exotic land filled with magical creatures and powerful friends. As the Avatar, he is the only one who can end the age-old conflict between the four nations, Air, Water, Earth, and Fire.

November 23

Eat Pray Love – Julia Roberts, Javier Bandem

A happily married woman who is trying to get pregnant realizes that her life needs to go in a new direction. After a very painful divorce, she risks everything and embarks on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery.

The Expendables – Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis

The Expendables are a tight-knit team of skilled combat vets turned mercenaries. Hired by a powerful covert operator, the team jets off to a small South American country to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Once there, they find themselves caught in a deadly web of deceit and betrayal. Using every weapon at their disposal, they set out to save the innocent and punish the guilty in this blistering action-packed thriller.

November 30

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Nicolas Cage

The Expendables are a tight-knit team of skilled combat vets turned mercenaries. Hired by a powerful covert operator, the team jets off to a small South American country to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Once there, they find themselves caught in a deadly web of deceit and betrayal. Using every weapon at their disposal, they set out to save the innocent and punish the guilty in this blistering action-packed thriller.

Based in part upon her own life experiences, author Jean Kwok has hit the mark in her debut novel, Girl in Translation.  Much like her character, Kwok also emigrated from Hong Kong and starting working  in a Chinese sweatshop at a young age.  She and her family also lived in a roach and rat-infested apartment — without heat!   Still, this story is not so much about deprivation, but more of a story about hope and about overcoming adversity — in short, it’s today’s version of the American dream.

Ah-Kim Chang (translated to Kimberly once they moved to New York) had always excelled in school.  After her father died, she and her mother are indebted to Aunt Paula for financing their trip to America, so they both begin working long hours in a Chinatown clothing factory for much less than minimum wage.  On top of this, they live in a condemned apartment (think roaches, no heat, and garbage bags covering the window) and Kimberly must also attend school, where language and cultural differences abound. As she begins to master English, she again begins to show academic promise, eventually earning admission to an elite private high school, and thereby paving the way for her ticket out of the slums.

The author sometimes spells out conversations phonetically — an effective technique –especially since she  wanted the English-speaking reader to understand life on the “other side of the language barrier.”  She also incorporates a few surprising plot twists at the end, which helps makes the story even more personable and endearing.   Highly recommended.

Idella and Avis are The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay; the girls learned early on to fend for themselves.  In 1916, their family is barely scraping out a living on a rocky potato farm in New Brunswick, when their mother unexpectantly dies in childbirth. The girls, ages seven and five, are left in the care of an overwhelmed father who turns to alcohol for comfort.  Though Dad tries to create a semblance of normalcy by hiring  a series of French Canadian housegirls, none stay for long, and after a few years, he ships the girls across the border for a short stay at a boarding school in Maine.

Idella grows up to be the responsible older sister — always caring for someone.  First, it’s for her father, after he is accidentally shot when hunting deer out of season;  later, she cares for her very contrary mother-in-law.  On the other hand, Avis is the wild one — a free spirit who likes to drink and who runs through men,  but often pays painful consequences for her impulsive choices, including a stint in prison.  Still, all is not heartbreak in this story of family ties and remarkable resilience — there are equal doses of humor and hilarity as well.

What I found most intriguing about this book is that the author, Beverly Jensen, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, never having published a word of her writing.   So how did this book come to be?  Well, a group of supporters gathered around her work, initially getting one of the chapters of this book published as an award-winning short story.  Amazingly, the stories all fit together with convicing continuity and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear, even beyond the grave.  Every writer should have such friends.

Five Thousand Days Like This One is from an Italian toast and reflects the hope for legacy and whatever permanence exists these days. This memoir by Jane Brox is  beautifully written, and it’s  also a fascinating insider look at running an orchard and farm stand in Massachusetts Merrimack Valley.

This very slim book is specific to one family, and the history of textile mills. Yet it is also  a universal story of  losing one’s heritage – either that of a family’s or an industry or a region.

Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and its Family is an earlier book and also evokes the simple pleasures and the back-breaking rigors of farm life. Brox is a master of the telling detail; the satisfaction of growing things  blue Hubbard squash, corn, blueberries and tomatoes.