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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Ellen's LiveJournal:

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Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
7:05 am
I've been on a bit of an online shopping spree lately, starting with Memorial Day sales, but there's always some sort of sale. I can't get clothing since I need to try it on, but have bought several items for the apartment and computer. Thank you, Mommy! (she left enough for this sort of thing, but not enough to come anywhere near buying back the house I grew up in, which is now on the market. We got about 5% of that price when we sold in 1974, alas).

One of my purchases was a keyboard for the iPad. The price was so good I couldn't resist, even though I can also attach my old PC keyboard to the iPad with a converter. I still can't really solve puzzles on the iPad, since none of the apps recognize the old-style large keyboard Home/End and arrow navigation keys I use. I'm typing with the Logitech now (soooo much faster than typing onscreen).

I got 4 new bookcases recently (the ones in the photos with the thin bars on the sides), and had no problem filling them. I have enough books and magazines boxed and piled that could fill still more shelves, but I'm running out of wall space (there may still be a corner here or there that could fit the conveniently sized smaller shelf). I do often give away books after reading, and need to step up the pace: reading could be a full-time job! (unfortunately, one without pay)

Speaking of books, I need to review some I received from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review:

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican - I was lucky enough not to experience any Mean Girl culture in Great Neck in the '60s (and any separate social groups then are now all one big, happy family on Facebook), but the Pittsburgh Catholic school in this book is a hotbed of Mean Girls and Boys. Set in 1991, before social media and cell phones, Brutal Youth depicts a culture of bullying, hazing, and just plain nastiness. No one can truly be trusted, and even the teachers and administration aren't always invested in making the crumbling school a safe place. I would dread going there every day. Not much actual learning was described, but more the day-to-day lives of the kids. Occasionally someone showed warmth and humanity, but the general mood was bleakness. The book has a plot, and the characters are strongly drawn and interesting to read about, but go elsewhere if you want blissful escapism.

Expecting by Ann Lewis Hamilton - There was a bit of a mixup with NetGalley. They originally rejected my request to read this book, and then wrote asking if I was interested in various publicity events. Um, you rejected me, I replied. They then made the galley available, and all is well. A much more serious mixup occurred in the book (spoiler - but it's near the beginning and all the reviews mention it. Stop reading NOW if you want to be surprised). Laurie and Alan are happily married and have suffered 2 miscarriages, so decide to try a fertility treatment using Alan's own sperm. Laurie is thrilled when the pregnancy takes, only to learn that there was a mixup at the clinic, and she is carrying the baby of Donor 296 - Jack, an Asian-Indian UCLA student. They track Jack down, and he becomes part of their lives. We hear the story from all three points of view. Possibly a far-fetched premise, but it makes for interesting reading.

You're Not Much Use to Anyone by David Shapiro - This novel is about David Shapiro,  a recent NYU grad whose parents want him to go to law school. Meanwhile, he has a mind-numbing city job and starts a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, sneaking to write entries under the desk and in the bathroom. The author is David Shapiro (not his real name), a recent NYU grad who had a Tumblr blog about Pitchfork... you get the idea. In interviews, he says the story is not completely true, but certainly semi-autobiographical, and he eventually did become a lawyer. Fictional David leads a drifting, Downtown kind of life, with changing girlfriends, apartments, roommates. As an upper West Side, middle-aged nerd who didn't know what Pitchfork was until I looked it up, I don't quite relate, but the book was still fascinating.
Sunday, June 22nd, 2014
1:45 am
Reviews and musings from the terrace on the first night of summer
NetGalley emailed me asking where was my feedback, so I'd better get cracking. I do have a few books I finished to review for them and you. Also some from LibraryThing early readers' program.

I'm typing from my terrace on a warm night, the first day of summer. This 10-year-old laptop's battery is so shot (life = about 25 minutes) that the machine has to be plugged in to work. Its ill health was confirmed today at the Genius Bar, where I brought it when it failed to start. The tech took out and reinserted the battery and then it booted. But he advised the battery had no capacity, and Apple no longer sells it. iBook G4 batteries are available online and I'll investigate that, but I don't mind using this only when plugged in. I have an iPad for when I need portability. I'll probably get a MacBook Pro with retina eventually (I love the iPad display), but I just bought a new PC so will live with this a bit longer. And if you're wondering how I'm plugged in on the terrace, there is a covered outlet in the outside brick wall. I don't think I've ever used it, and was a little scared it would zap me, but I seem to still be alive. More likely the plug wouldn't work at all.

Now to the books:

Pretty in Ink by Lindsey Palmer - Heads are rolling and knives are being inserted in backs at the fictional Hers magazine as a new editor is installed to shake up the mag's stodgy image. The (mostly) women who work there take turns narrating what happens as staffers cope with the changes. The result is a fun, funny novel. I haven't worked at a magazine, but I'm a big reader (and my apartment is piled with magazines back through the 90's that I have every intention of getting to) and this seems to capture that world perfectly. My only beef is that some characters could have been covered more thoroughly; I wanted to know EVERYTHING. Received from NetGalley.

Real Happy Family by Caeli Wolfson Widger - Lorelei wants to be a reality star, and comes oh so close to getting a part on the young, fashionable gal pal show Flo's Studio. When she loses, her stage mother Colleen (who had her own aspirations a generation before) unleashes a drunken rant on national TV. Mortified, Lorelei flees to Nevada with her shady boyfriend, sinking into drugs and despair. Now estranged from her daughter, Colleen decides that the way to patch things up is to stage an intervention on another reality show, Real Happy Family. She works with its producers to make that happen. What could possibly go wrong? These people are sad and not always sympathetic, but interesting to read about. Received from NetGalley.

The Bluffer's Guide to Insider Hollywood (The Bluffer's Guides series) by Sally Whitehill - I don't have much experience with Hollywood, despite being a movie star. Actually, I do know Hollywood has no use for the likes of me (middle-aged female nerd? Get off my Wordplay DVD cover and let's put this anonymous model on instead!). I'm still endlessly fascinated with what I call "evil Hollywood" and its devotion to illusion. This book fit right in. I mean, what better place for a bluffer than the capital of BS? Written for Brits, this tongue-in-cheek yet actually practical guide lists terms a Hollywood wannabe should know, advises how to worm your way in without any discernable talents or background, ways to deceive, manipulate and fake fake fake. It's all in fun, yet probably sad-but-true on some level. Received from LibraryThing early readers.

Woman of Valor by Lihi Lapid - This was a best-seller in Israel and I don't understand why. Maybe something was lost in the translation to English. Or maybe you have to be a wife and/or mother to empathize. It was an effort to get through 202 slim pages. The book alternates between different women's stories (one apparently the author's real life) and letters from readers (the author writes a weekly column on women's issues). I had a hard time telling them apart. There is not much plot, just how the women feel and react to motherhood and other events in their lives. Many emotions are expressed, but it didn't really get through to me. Received from LibraryThing early readers. [While I was writing, someone on BookMooch requested the book, so away it goes. Buh-bye!]

I heard birds chirping and hightailed it inside (it was getting late anyway). My neighbor (in a nursing home for over a year, if he's even still alive) used to feed the birds on his adjoining balcony, resulting in feathered creatures on my terrace railings at all hours, making noise and leaving souvenirs. Ugh. A handyman came a while ago without my even asking, to hose off the stuff, and it's still not perfect though much better. I bought some special bird poop cleaner at the nearby Petco (probably the only time I'll ever be in Petco; the only animals I like are stuffed), but it gushes out of the bottle and seems to have little effect. I don't hear anything now, so that may just have been an isolated fly-by. [Update at 1 am: chirp, chirp, chirp. Hope there's no new white stuff tomorrow.]

Now coming to you from the dining area table (which I never moved back to the center of the room after window installation 2.5 years ago, so it's close enough for the shortish charging plug to reach an outlet in the kitchen). I've only finished one more NetGalley, and it's not being published until late July, so I think I'm not supposed to review it yet. But I have 3 shelves of "to be reviewed" books (after which I can trade them away and clear much-needed space), so there's no shortage of backlog.

Investigating the Hottie by Juli Alexander - This was a Kindle book, so I can't give it away, but I would if it were paper. There's even a sequel which I have no desire to read. It's really for a teen audience, so I'm not the target demographic. Amanda visits her aunt Christie as a break from problems at home. Turns out Christie is really a spy and needs Amanda to go undercover to investigate suspected hacker Will (the title hottie). Sure, that happens every day. It was mildly entertaining, but not really for me.

Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara McCarthy - Imagine not one but two Britney Spears, and not only that, they're Siamese twins! Olsens but REALLY close. Except one wants to go solo. That is the basic premise for this book, about teen pop stars Flora and Fauna Sparks, literally joined at the hip. Celebrity journalist Sloan is asked to write their bio, and moves into their palatial house, where they live with their father. There was something distasteful about all of this.

King Dork by Frank Portman - Being of the nerd persuasion, I wanted to like this more than I did. Tom is an angsty teen, yes, a dork, but he does have a close pal Sam and they're constantly starting bands with ever-changing names. They even play in public sometimes. Being an angsty teen, Tom also has girl problems. Mainly, who is the mysterious Fiona he met and made out with at a party? Is that even her real name? Trying to find Fiona, he encounters another strangely willing girl who hooks up with him when her other boyfriend isn't around. And there's his deceased father - did he kill himself, what do the mysterious jottings in his old books mean, and can the evil assistant principal shed any light? There is a sequel forthcoming, and I guess I'd read it if it fell into my lap (or appeared on the Times book giveaway table), but I won't go out of my way.

My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up by Russell Brand - This 2008 autobiography predates the Katy Perry era (I don't know about the sequel, which I also own), but there is plenty of dirt. The book begins when Brand enters sex rehab in 2005 and then flashes back to his wild escapades all over the world. I hadn't heard of Brand until Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), where he played a hairy, sleazy rock star, and he doesn't seem far from his character. He had some wild times, yes sirree - drugs, sex, drinking, and using MTV's car service to shuttle around family, friends, and drug dealers - but is said to be in recovery over 10 years now. The book has a quirky, British bad-boy charm. It sounds like his authentic voice, but who can be sure? I was supposed to hear Brand speak at the Times Center in 2010 (through a ticket club), but they cancelled me when it got overbooked; he was just too popular. So I watched from a 4th floor NYT atrium window, where I could see his tall, gaunt figure from the back as I also followed the web stream. Even from that distance, he exuded star power.

Gee, the last batch all have sequels, except for the twin book (I hope).  I didn't realize this when I pulled them out.

This is getting so long that the book I was waiting to review will be published by the time I finish, so that's all for now.
Monday, April 21st, 2014
7:08 am
Books mostly about women in the NYC area
You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz - One recent trend in fiction is the psychological suspense thriller with a twist, and I'm on board (though I can't see what's so great about other trends like dystopian societies, witches or vampires). NetGalley was kind enough to give me this book, and I loved the plot, with its frequent revelations (didn't see THAT coming). I had to downgrade it to 4 out of 5 stars (which is still good; I'm a tough grader) because the writing was a little windy. It took its sweet time getting to those revelations and let us in too deeply to the heroine's every thought (she is a psychologist, so maybe all that navel-gazing is on purpose). Without spoiling too much, I'll say it's about a psychologist (yeah, we know) who seems to have the perfect life - grew up in wealthy Manhattan, went to Harvard, psychology grad school at Columbia, married to a pediatric oncologist (who everyone is in awe of for doing such meaningful work), has a bustling practice of her own, one precocious tween kid, and lives in the sprawling pre-war apartment she grew up in (mother died, father remarried and moved into the new wife's place, and gave her the old one). There's also an adorable country house in rural CT.  At the start of the novel, Grace is being interviewed ahead of her upcoming book release (also titled You Should Have Known), about how women should heed early signs that Mr. Right is not so right - like, he's GAY, silly. Events then occur that make Grace need her own advice.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead - A young girl growing up in Manhattan in the '70s leads a seemingly humdrum life, but wait, there's a sci-fi element. Maybe I need to reread this, but that part was a little confusing. I didn't like this enough to want to check it out of the library again.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer - I met the author at a friend's book party, which was kind of neat since I'd read some of her (and her mother's) books. This one was about a couple of English teachers in suburban New Jersey, who have a  good marriage and one teenage daughter. The new drama teacher stages Lysistrata, and weird things start happening as women are seized by a magical spell driving them away from their men. It almost feels real, and when the dust clears, lessons are learned.

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger - I don't remember much about this book (some of the "to be reviewed" pile is a few years old), but it's my type of thing, about a New York showbiz publicist. Let's see... (reading about the book) Bette's job revolves around partying with the jet set, and she's soon dating a rich playboy and the subject of gossip herself. It's a similar environment to The Devil Wears Prada, but I liked the first book more (and do remember it).

In the Bag by Kate Klise - If you ignore the fact that the plot is somewhat contrived, this was a delightful little book (maybe not that little, 306 pages). A single mom traveling to Europe with her teenage daughter entangles with a single dad and his teenage son. There are notes, emails, mixed-up luggage, and much coincidence (oh gee, the mom's friend is able to lend them her Paris apartment because she is overseeing the exhibit in Spain that the dad is organizing). I was rooting for everyone. The plot seemed cinematic, but I didn't find anything about a movie version.

Everything Nice by Ellen Shanman - Mike (female) loses her NYC advertising job, and finds work teaching life skills to seventh grade girls. Sounds like BS, but I could have used a few lessons in this subject. Away from the fast-paced ad biz, she learns about herself and her relationships, etc.

L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad - I admit to watching more than a few episodes of The Hills (though not every season). I was not expecting great literature, and in this era of branding and packaging wonder if Lauren really wrote this. Not that it's so great that she couldn't possibly have written it, but c'mon. She does thank "collaborator" Nancy Ohlin. I don't know for sure who wrote what, so these remarks are "alleged," OK? Anyway, Lauren definitely knows about the subject matter, a young girl who finds her every move documented for a reality show. It's dishy, show-bizzy fluff. And I'll admit that it's not the only Lauren Conrad book I own.

Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen - This book wasn't perfect or overrated (groan). I loved the author's Following Polly, and this wasn't as good, but still OK (I gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars, which for me is decent). Kate is a former prosecutor now raising a child. Her marriage to an NYC cop has fallen apart, but he still lives in the same building. This comes in handy when moms in her daughter's posh preschool start dropping like flies.

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner - I saw Jennifer Weiner read a snippet from this at the Upper West Side B&N, and read it much later. Another book about a murdered mom, this time in suburban Connecticut (didn't realize this was such a risky job). Kate didn't know the victim well, but is a bit bored and investigates with the help of some quirky pals.
Tuesday, April 15th, 2014
7:33 am
I don't have more NetGalleys to report on (not surprising, since I wrote an entry yesterday), but realized if I report on my backlog of about 100 already-read books more often, I can catch up in the foreseeable future. We will not even think about how many shows and movies I haven't written about.

Today's category: Mysteries/Thrillers. Not a favorite genre (that would be chick lit and showbiz), but somehow I read these fairly often.

The Insiders by Craig Hickman - A business exec is in a coma after an attempted murder, and his son uncovers more than he bargained for when he investigates. I didn't really understand the corporate shenanigans and conspiracy and who were the good and bad guys. It seemed pretty convoluted. There was danger, hiding, chases, dead bodies... but I wasn't sure what was going on.

Echo Park by Michael Connelly - Decent police procedural, but I'm going to leave it on the laundry room shelf for my neighbors to enjoy (which may be where I got it). LA policeman Harry Bosch revisits an old case, when the bad guy confesses years later. There is a lot of police work connecting the dots, talking to people, going to crime scenes, etc. Solid but not especially thrilling.

Magic Hour by Susan Isaacs - A movie producer is murdered in the glitzy Hamptons and recovering alcoholic cop Steve Brady is on the case. He seems a little too obsessed with the ex-wife suspect. I don't remember who the killer actually was, so this book couldn't have been too exciting.

Riding the Snake by Stephen J. Cannell - Cannell is an action TV guy, so you'd expect this to read like an action show. Aging playboy Wheeler works with a female African-American LAPD detective to investigate the murder of his seemingly perfect brother. They run up against evil Chinese gangsters. Violent and fast-moving, not really for me.

The Letter of the Law by Tim Green - Ambitious female attorney Casey Jordan is called upon to defend her former law professor in a grisly murder of a young woman. The defense is successful, but the victim's father (a savvy rural guy) is doubtful and wants to take the law into his own hands. Is the professor really an evil murderer? Turns out there are some similar unsolved cases that fit the pattern. The story takes place in Austin and has a strong sense of place.

The Craigslist Murders by Brenda Cullerton - Charlotte is an interior decorator for the Manhattan elite, with a sideline of serial killing rich women. Don't ask. It's actually funny and satirical and I found myself rooting for her (so wrong...).

The Broker by John Grisham - I usually like Grisham, and this was a good one. A former DC power broker is pardoned and released from prison into a kind of witness protection program in Italy so the CIA can leak info and see who kills him. Or something like that. The hiding and cat-and-mouse game kept the pages turning.
Monday, April 14th, 2014
8:02 am
Tax time reading
What with the tax deadline and birthday (thanks, Mommy! Though at the time, Tax Day was March 15), this is always a stressful time of year. To add to that, Microsoft just withdrew support for Windows XP, forcing me to buy a new computer. I'm not crazy about my old, slow Dell that sounds like a Boeing jet, and heard bad things about Windows 8. Also thought I might downsize to a laptop, considering I'm on the iPad constantly (I also have an old iBook). Despite that, I bought a new, large fancy Dell all-in-one with Windows 8 (.1). Just didn't like the options with Windows 7, which will eventually go off support earlier and I'd have to do this again. It arrived last week, but I haven't taken it out of the box, since I wanted to do my taxes on the old computer. If I hate the smallish chiclet keyboard, I'm not sure if I can attach the old one (there are converter cords, but I haven't determined if the computer will automatically recognize a wired keyboard). I got a program to help migration, so I'll have to run both computers until I'm sure the new one is OK. Quicken 2011 is also going off support (downloading from the bank won't work as of 4/30). I own but never installed Quicken 2012, so that'll buy me another year.

In other computer stress, Verizon practically browbeat me to upgrade from DSL to FIOS (by the fourth phone call, I was like, "OK already"), though it's true it'll be faster and cheaper. I'm not sure they'll be able to work around the clutter in order to install next week, and I'm attempting to move some of the piles of books and magazines out of sight. I'm running out of room, even though I have great closet space. I need to be more efficient in my home organization.

I do give away many of my books after reading, so it's productive to get reviews done so I can then move the books out of here. eBooks don't go anywhere, but I can move those off the iPad and to the cloud, and in some cases fulfill my obligation to NetGalley.

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie - Got this from NetGalley, but also had an advance copy from the Times book table. Good thing, since the Kindle review copy is no longer authorized and was permanently deleted. I liked the author's first book Spin, and liked this so much I purchased her 2 other novels. McKenzie is Canadian, but there's no Canadian sense of place; the book is set in 2 generic Springfields. Accountant Jeff Manning works for a corporation in Springfield, and strikes up a friendship with HR person Tish from the "other Springfield" branch. The book is narrated alternately by these 2 and Jeff's wife Claire. Jeff is struck by a car and killed at the beginning of the book (spoiler?), but speaks from the dead. This isn't as weird as it sounds. It's unclear until the very end if Jeff and Tish (who is also married) are just colleagues, emotionally attached, or having a physical affair. This uncertainty, along with the use of modern electronic sleuthing devices, keeps things interesting as the plot moves back and forth in time. Complicating matters, Claire's old boyfriend was Jeff's older, estranged brother Tim. Once this got going, I couldn't put it down. Some Amazon readers found the narrative device jumpy and confusing, so your mileage may vary.

Slate by Brian Rowe - Evil Hollywood is one of my favorite topics. Vivien owns a not exactly A-list casting agency in the Valley, while pushing her teen son in his own acting career. After she walks in on her dentist husband cavorting in the hot tub with his young secretary (spoiler?), she realizes she has the perfect "casting couch" to find a replacement man. Shades of Argo, Vivien's wannabe screenwriter assistant writes a fake script for a fake movie called The Men, specifying hot studs of varying ages for her approval. I could have lived without some violent and graphic incidents, but generally relished this at times over-the-top, dishy tale. Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this.

Bond Girl by Erin Duffy - Wall Street isn't as much fun as Hollywood, but good novels can come out of there. This one follows a young woman in her job in the boys club world of bond trading. I'm not clear of the mechanics of her job, but that was less important than the people and relationships, from browbeating bosses to lecherous clients to the occasional good guy. Called Girlie, she was at first given a folding chair with no desk, and sent on crazy errands to get massive coffee orders and pizza from the Bronx. The few other women in the firm were not always supportive (one is known as Cruella), and it did not sound like the best atmosphere.

Trading Dreams by J.L. Morin - This is supposedly about the Occupy movement as well as a young woman working on Wall Street, but I gave up at Kindle location 2648. I never was clear what was going on. There was something about a past murder, mortgages, a diary, kinky stuff, who knows? The author is Harvard '87, and I'm Harvard reject class of '73 (though I did go there for grad school), so maybe I'm just not bright enough to appreciate this.

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld - I really wanted to like this more. After all, it's about contemporary downtown Manhattan... real estate porn. But the novel was more like interconnected short stories, and sometimes it wasn't clear who was who. Some characters were struggling, some raking it in, some committed to family, others not, good kids, mean kids, lots of casual drug use. Not awful, but it didn't grab me.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple - Loved, loved, loved it. Possibly the best book I read last year. There are some fun documents like letters and emails, but even without them the story would glow. Bernadette is a former award-winning architect turned stay-at-home-mom living in a fixer-upper (to put it generously) house in Seattle with her tech whiz husband and precocious teen daughter. The other private school moms don't get her, and she is so isolated and agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India does her daily chores. She eventually disappears, and her family's journey to find her takes them to very remote places. Fascinating, funny, biting, everything a novel should be. I'm NOT giving this away.
Monday, March 17th, 2014
3:06 am
I've kept pretty much up to date on listing completed puzzle books. When I looked at the pile done since I last updated, almost all were sudoku or kakuro (I do them while waiting for food to cook, etc.). I have nothing to say about them and won't even list them. Many of the sudoku books were won at tournaments, where all the crossword prize books were NYTs or others I'd already done.

Because I'm on the iPad so much, I've gotten far behind on solving online puzzles. I was behind to begin with on Matt Gaffney, Newsday and others, so it's gotten even worse. I don't like solving on the iPad; Puzzazz is the best of the apps, but it's awkward to speed-solve without a real keyboard. Before the tournament, I concentrated on catching up on online BEQs and am now in the fall of 2013. I like to read his blog and comments as I do each puzzle, so that takes time. I also made progress on Newsday, but insisted on solving them all and not just the Saturday Stumper, so still have a ways to go.

I finished these puzzle books:

Sit & Solve Spiral Puzzles by Byron Walden - These were hard. Sometimes I even peeked at the answers.

Sit & Solve Tough as Nails Crosswords by Todd McClary - I don't remember these too well, but I guess they were hard.

Simon & Schuster Mega Crossword Puzzle Book #11 by John M. Samson (ed.) - This was sitting on the bed for ages, and I finally finished it shortly before the ACPT - and started #12, in which I'm already up to puzzle 223 out of 300. I only have #13 left after that, but see that #14 is scheduled for November. This is a decent series.

Bet You Can't Do This! Crosswords: 75 Really, Really, Really Hard Puzzles by John Samson and Sam Bellotto, Jr. - I bet I CAN do these puzzles. They were on the hard side, but not ridiculously so. I did have 5 wrong squares in the 75 15x15s. However, one was due to an editing error where the crossing did not work both ways (#71, 16A/11D). The last puzzle would have been right at home as an ACPT puzzle 5.

Merl Reagle's 100th Anniversary Crossword Book by Merl Reagle - This was just delightful. Merl has a unique sense of humor and makes solving fun. I've probably done some of these puzzles before, but am not consistent in downloading them online and I never remember puzzles anyway.

Since I signed up with NetGalley, I've downloaded 45 books to my iPad (usually Kindle app), but only reviewed 10 so far. So I need to get cracking on the reading, which got behind during tournament prep. I did finish 2 books from other programs:

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson (web copy from PulseIt) - After losing her father in an auto accident, Amy is barely going through the motions of living. Her twin brother is in rehab in North Carolina and her best friend has moved to Florida. Left alone in California to finish the last month of junior year while her mother gets settled in Connecticut, she won't drive and limits social interaction. With money tight, her mother arranges for college-aged family friend Roger to drive Amy and the car east, carefully mapping out their route and making hotel reservations along the way. Amy barely knows Roger, so is pleasantly surprised when he turns out to be cute and nice. They ditch her mother's regimented itinerary and take off across the country, visiting places and people of significance to them, and eating mostly junk food. I have never made such a trip, and it was fascinating. iPod playlists, receipts and handwritten lists every few chapters didn't add much for me (I'd never heard of most of the songs). Amy was a little too angsty and the details of the accident were slow to be revealed (and weren't that earth-shaking), but the journey was generally satisfying and enjoyable.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White (requested from LibraryThing Early Reviewers, but never arrived. I obtained a Nook copy) - When I was younger, I read Betty Martin's memoir Miracle at Carville, about life in a leprosy treatment facility in Louisiana (yes, that's the same family as politico James). I think I also read the sequel No One Must Ever Know. Betty Martin is a pseudonym; leprosy had such a stigma that patients used other names, and were often buried with aliases or numbers. Even the word leprosy has its own alternate name: Hansen's disease.

In later years, Carville shared its site with a federal prison. Magazine publisher Neil White was convicted of white-collar crime and sent there in 1993. When I started reading this book about his incarceration, images of sleepy, old, Southern, dignified grounds and buildings that I'd conjured up while reading Martin's books came back. The prison part of his story wasn't especially compelling, but the interaction with the leprosy patients was. I was most grabbed by the story of Ella, an elderly patient who was dropped off at Carville as a child and never saw her family again. Leprosy had quite a stigma. Yet she tooled around in her antique wheelchair, always upbeat, wise  and giving.

After release, White managed to rebuild his life in Mississippi and published this book in 2009. I'm not sure I'd want to do business with him (ex-con has more of a stigma to me than leprosy), but I was intrigued by this glimpse into a vanishing world. Carville now houses a museum and camp for at-risk youth. The treatment center has been phased out and only a handful of patients remain.
Sunday, March 9th, 2014
5:50 pm
Baby picture update
I previously posted a baby picture in front of my old building in Brooklyn Heights.


This weekend, jeffurrynpl took pictures of me at the same angle, 60+ years later.

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014
6:16 am
Girly books
The books I pulled for review are all on the girly side, though a few may have broader appeal.

Phone Calls by Ann Reit - I once bought a box of teen novels from eBay, mostly from the Wildfire series which was after my time in the '60s, but not current. This is one of them, dated 1983. Juliet has lots of friend-boys but no boyfriend. She starts getting phone calls from a mystery swain who quotes Shakespeare. Could he be the Romeo to her Juliet? This sounds creepy, but isn't. I'm really too old for this stuff.

Here's to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume - Judy Blume is also after my time (this is from 1993), so I don't hold her in beloved esteem. Rachel is in seventh grade, and deals with perfectionism, family and friends, and that unattainable boy. Didn't grab me, but might have had a different effect if I were 12.

Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single by Heather Mcelhatton - Jennifer has hit 30, has an unsatisfying career as a copywriter for a family-owned Minneapolis department store and bad luck with men. When she meets the heir to her store's family, he seems too good to be true. Maybe I don't relate to the Minnesota setting, but I couldn't get into this or relate to Jennifer. There is a sequel where she is sick of being married (spoiler?), and I think I'll pass.

How to Be Single by Liz Tuccillo - The author worked on Sex and the City and cowrote He's Just Not That Into You, but I just wasn't that into this book. Julie takes an international road trip to research singledom around the world, and has many adventures. The foreign settings and people just didn't do it for me.

Hot Property by Michele, Samantha and Sabrina Kleier - You'd think a novel set in the world of high-end NYC real estate would be up my alley. While there was plenty of real estate porn with sumptuous locations, there wasn't much plot and there was a faint air of privilege that turned me off. The authors have an actual real estate firm, and maybe I'd enjoy their HGTV show Selling New York more than the fictionalized version.

The Girlfriend Curse by Valerie Frankel - Peg's exes seem to settle down immediately after dating her. She decides to escape NYC for rural Vermont, but finds her new home infested with mice (ewww), so enrolls in a month-long relationship workshop the cute guy on the train was telling her about. Inward Bound is filled with psychobabble and quirky characters, and makes for a fun read.

Hollywood Girls Club by Maggie Marr - I read the second book in this series first and sometimes got the characters confused. I had the same problem in this first book. Maybe it's because these female Hollywood power players seem interchangeable, as they go through the ups and downs of getting a movie made. That may sound negative, but I enjoyed this book enough that I'm now reading the third installment in the series (all 3 books are packaged in a reasonably priced Kindle edition).

Spin by Catherine McKenzie - Kate shows up drunk to an interview for a dream job at an entertainment magazine, but gets another chance when they offer to send her to rehab if she'll write about a celebrity patient there. This undercover assignment gets complicated when she finds herself becoming friends with the celeb, and realizes that she may not be pretending to be an alcoholic but actually is one. It's a different sort of plot than the usual chick lit, and felt authentic. The author is from Montreal, but the atmosphere didn't seem especially Canadian (whatever that means).

L. A. Woman by Cathy Yardley - Sarah moves to LA ahead of her fiancé to set things up, and then he stalls and is soon no longer her fiancé. Stuck in a strange place, she soon meets Taylor, who becomes her new gay best friend. He in turn introduces her to party girl Martika, who moves in to help with the rent and schools her in the club scene. Not my thing, but interesting to read about.

Following Polly by Karen Bergreen - Alice loses her casting agency job and with nothing better to do, begins following her much more successful Harvard classmate Polly around Manhattan. When Polly ends up dead, Alice becomes a suspect and ends up hiding out with her school crush, Charlie. This sounds bizarre, but unfolds realistically and with great humor. Liked it a lot.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014
3:10 am
Still have piles of books to review, and I never seem to make much of a dent.

40 Love by Madeleine Wickham - As Sophie Kinsella, the author wrote the Shopaholic series. I liked the one Shopaholic book I read, but this wasn't quite as good. Financial adviser Patrick and his wife host a tennis weekend at their estate in the British countryside for a small group of friends. Besides tennis, the weekend includes business deals and hanky-panky.

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan - Another weekend with a group of friends, this time at a 20th Harvard reunion. There is also some hanky-panky, as well as drama, reflection, conversation, and traumatic events (I won't spoil the plot). The titular red book is the alumni anniversary report bound in crimson, eagerly awaited by Harvard graduates every 5 years. I have no personal knowledge, since Radcliffe rejected me in 1969. The characters' red book pages dot the text and by the end of the book, you feel you know these people.

Wild Bananas by Sandra Thompson - Barry and Baby are newlyweds living in Birmingham, Alabama where he goes to law school and she has a dull government job. Maybe I'm not into sleepy southern life, but this book seemed even duller than the job.

Lessons in Love (Flirt series) by A. Destiny and Catherine Hapka - I read this through PulseIt. Bailey studies hard, hopes to go to MIT and be a scientist, and works in her family's restaurant/bakery near the local university. She has no room in her life for distractions like boys. New kid in town Logan walks Into the restaurant one day, and her plans go out the window. What are these "sparks" she feels? She eagerly accepts their bio teacher's suggestion that she tutor Logan to catch him up, and shares her growing feelings only with her best friend. Meanwhile, two of her more popular friends take an interest in the new guy and go over the top with mean-girl antics, trying to get his attention. Even with this competition, could he possibly be feeling sparks for Bailey, too?

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller - At almost 600 pages, there's no point in picking this book up without an interest in the subject. That was not a problem for me, since the subjects are 3 singers whose work provided an important sound track to my youth: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. Tapestry, No Secrets, and Ladies of the Canyon (and Blue) all came out when I was in college, and Joni especially got played over and over. These artists also had men falling all over them (some famous), and there's plenty of gossip.

I finished 3 books from NetGalley:

Cinderella & the Carpetbagger: My Life as the Wife of the "World's Best-Selling Author," Harold Robbins by Grace Robbins - Although much of the gossip in this book is from the same time as Girls Like Us, it feels a little musty. I haven't read any Harold Robbins (who died in 1997), but he was a hugely best-selling novelist. Grace said it took 20 years to get her book out, so she might have missed the window of timeliness. Both Harold and Grace were married to other people when they met (she cast commercials in the Mad Men era), and they stayed together about 30 years (until she was supplanted by the new assistant/caretaker, who also later wrote a book). Theirs was a life literally in the jet set, with yachts and multiple lavish international homes. It also had its sordid side, with drugs and wild parties that became orgies. After a while, Harold asked for an open marriage and was blatant in his infidelities. Grace had her flings as well, but was much more reluctant to participate in the hedonism. The author talks about her life at this event.

What Nora Knew by Linda Yellin - Nora is Nora Ephron, whose writing and movies are frequently referenced in this humorous novel. Molly is a New York-based writer for an online magazine filled with quirky co-workers. As she approaches 40, she wants more from her job (her own column) and love life. Divorced and dating dull chiropractor Russell, she keeps running into intriguing author Cameron. She breaks up with Russell, but things don't always go smoothly. This book felt too short.

Sutton Place by Louise Gaylord - I usually like books set in upper class New York, but not this one. Julia is a young psychiatrist from a wealthy family (who live in the title address), who suffered past abuse that prevents her from having healthy relationships. The abuser is back to stalk her (even after she relocates to the southwest), and he is downright creepy. Tense, violent and generally unpleasant.
Monday, February 3rd, 2014
3:46 pm
It might have been easier to skip the shot and get the flu
Many phone calls later, I think I see what happened with my flu shot insurance claim.

Called UHC, who said they couldn't see the rejected flu shot claim at all. Huh? It was right there on their site. The woman did not want to listen, and switched me to Oxford.

Oxford also had no record of the flu shot claim being submitted. Duane Reade (DR) had given me a claim number earlier, which Oxford said was not valid for their system.

Called DR pharmacy, spoke to a different person from over the weekend. According to their system, the claim appears to be paid and was submitted to my insurance at the time. She advised waiting until I receive a bill, and then bring it in and they'll resubmit. She didn't want to resubmit now since it looks like it was paid, so on their end nothing needs to be done.

I was set to wait for a bill when I remembered that OptumRx HAD mentioned something about the claim when I called over the weekend. I hypothesized that DR submitted the claim to OptumRx as drugs instead of to Oxford as medical. I called OptumRx and they did have a record of it: $15.86 for the flu shot serum, rejected as "product/service not covered" (this doesn't show when I look at the OptumRx site, so must be internal. Also the amount on my rejected claim was $31.99, so someone is taking a markup). I don't know why they didn't bounce it over to Oxford (it's all the same company). I asked if they could move it over, but they said the provider had to do that. By the way, the DR claim number was not one of theirs, either.

Called Oxford and asked if THEY could retrieve the claim from OptumRx and they also said it had to come from DR. They also advised that it needed to be paid within 120 days of the service date (which will be early March), so if I wait for a bill it might be too late.

Called UHC again and used their automated system, which DID find the claim the other rep couldn't locate. I switched to a rep and asked if they could send the claim over to Oxford (again, they are all part of United), but they said they  couldn't. They also couldn't identify the DR claim number. When I clicked online on "pay this" (which I had no intention of paying, if insurance covers it), a form came up for paying a central Walgreens (who own DR) site.

I called the phone number on the Walgreens form. They said the claim had indeed been sent to OptumRx and after it was rejected, it went to my major medical. Except by the time they did this, my insurance had changed and it went to my current UHC number, which then rejected it because the plan wasn't effective on the date of service. I'm not sure if they got the wrong insurance info from OptumRx or from their own system. I did have an earlier problem with drug claims and effective dates and perhaps my old Oxford member number was no longer in the system (or maybe the dates are still screwed up). I gave them the Oxford info, they entered it... and that system was down! They will try later, and HOPEFULLY it will finally go through, and the pending amount on UHC will be deleted. I asked why my local DR thought the claim was paid, and they said it might appear that way to the front end of the system, but it was still pending to them on the back end.

So maybe we have some resolution. But I wonder, in all the thousands of flu shots, did DR mistakenly send them all through drug insurance instead of medical, or just mine? And why is it so hard to tell what my coverage was for the applicable dates? So much hassle!

UPDATE: Walgreens Central called back, and the claim still isn't going through. They will call Oxford. Crazy! I would wait until this is resolved to update this blog, but who knows when that will be?
Saturday, February 1st, 2014
9:59 am
Health insurance update and other hassles
United (UHC) did change me to Dr. H at Cornell, and I received the new card. That's about all that's gone smoothly.

I wanted to pay the February premium and the UHC billing site was only listing January (as paid, so that's another thing done right). I called and they said they needed to get the premium amount from NYS, as it could change (great, it could increase?). January wore on, and still no option to pay. I called again, and they said it would be up soon. Late in the month, the billing finally was enabled, for the same amount. It didn't immediately show up as paid, but eventually did. They had never notified me of the premium due, so I guess I have to make sure I pay every month. There is an automatic payment option through your bank account, but I like to use my credit card with rewards (might as well get SOME benefit out of this), and that has to be done manually. You'd think they'd invoice or remind you.  What a system. (Who knows, maybe they do remind you if the premium hasn't been paid by a certain date, but I don't want to find out the hard way that they don't, and risk losing my coverage.)
UPDATE: I received the premium bill today, postmarked 1/29, which warned coverage would be terminated if not paid in full by the first of the month, with no re-enrollment possible until the next open enrollment period. Since it already is 2/1, they really don't seem to want people to be covered. I paid on 1/24, so now I have to call and make sure they recorded it (appears to be so online, but I'm not taking any chances).
FURTHER UPDATE: Premium was received.

Even though I emailed my new UHC insurance info through the Cornell group's web site and to Dr H's assistant personally, they still submitted the claim for my office visit to my former insurer, Oxford. It got rejected saying I was no longer covered. I also got a bill from New York Hospital for the same visit (facility charge, as opposed to professional?), saying it had also been rejected by Oxford as no longer covered. These charges come to over $500. I'm going to have to pay anyway since I have a high deductible, but I want it to count against that. It's also possible that the contracted HMO amount is different. I called the numbers on both bills and gave the info again, so they can resubmit to UHC.

I went online early this morning to check if UHC processed the claim, and found a rejected claim for a flu shot I had at Duane Reade in November, because it was before the effective date. Huh? Why are they submitting this now, and why are they using the new UHC info when I gave them my Oxford info at the time?  There was nothing about the flu shot on the Oxford site, or on OptumRx (not sure if the flu shot is considered a drug claim). How hard is it to keep the coverage dates straight? It claimed I owed $31.99. Not a lot, but do I really owe it?

OptumRx was the only place open to call in the wee hours, and they first claimed I needed precertification (weird, since I'd never needed this before with flu shots under Oxford), and said they were seeing an approx $15 charge instead of the $31.99 I saw online, so I'm  confused. They claimed they did have the correct coverage info. The guy referred me to another number at UHC, but I got bounced back to him when I tried it. He acted like he hadn't spoken to me 5 seconds before and sounded like he was reading a script. When he finished collecting my date of birth and such again, and went off script, he seemed to think it was a certification rather than a date issue. I'm not sure of anything anymore.

I called the Duane Reade pharmacy when they opened at 9, and they had my correct old and new insurance info, said they submitted the flu shot claim to Oxford in November, and had no indication that it had NOT been paid. I called back OptumRx, and a different rep said she could not pull up the claim since the flu shot was considered medical and not drug. I would have to call UHC. I don't know where the other guy got his info.

So I'll call UHC and possibly Oxford Monday, since they are closed for the weekend. Meanwhile, the resubmitted claim I was originally checking apparently hasn't been processed yet.

In other customer service hassles, I went online in September and renewed my New York Magazine subscription, 2 years for $74.97, to expire November 2015. I then got an offer in the mail for $30 less. I called and asked if that could still apply, and they said yes, and they would refund the $30. They did apply the refund to my credit card (so something was done right - don't want to be a total complainer), but the first issue reflecting the renewal had a 2/5/15 expiration on the mailing label. Then the issue 2 weeks later had 7/7/14! I emailed customer service and they replied that they would be changing it to 6/29/15. Yeesh, where were they getting these dates? I called and said it should be November, and they said they would fix it. The online customer service site then had a last issue number and not a date; I called and asked what that was, and it was 10/13/15. Getting closer! The mailing label still didn't reflect a change, so I called again (by now, it was the middle of December) and they said it will expire the end of 2015. My mailing label now says 12/22/15 (oops, that may be too many issues - or maybe they're rewarding me for all this hassle). The magazine goes to twice a month soon; I can't wait to see how they adjust the expiration date.

Similarly, I renewed with a professional organization for 3 years. It was set to expire February 2014, but after the renewal, the online site said the new expiration date was December 2014 instead of Feb. 2017. I emailed, and it then went to December 2016.  I wrote again, and now it's right. Come to think of it, there's another cultural organization that always gets my renewal dates wrong, and I end up emailing back and forth until it's correct. I'm not naming these entities since I enjoy the memberships, the people are nice, and these are relatively small hassles.

But it's getting so I have to assume all administrative things will be done wrong. 
Thursday, January 30th, 2014
10:08 am
More book reviews, in no order
Empty by K. M. Walton - I read this book through PulseIt. Anyone who thinks YA books are unrealistically sugar-coated will have a rude awakening. Life is bleak for high schooler Dell (Adele). Her father ran off with a bimbo, forcing the family (including a new baby) to move to a small apartment. Her mother works two jobs and takes refuge in prescription pills, and Dell turns to food, gaining 70 pounds in a short time. The weight pervades her life, affecting her position on the softball team, where she was the star hitter. She puts on a game face, joining in self-deprecatingly when the other kids MOOOO, but is aching inside. Her longtime best friend is still somewhat there for her, but seems likely to run off with a more popular crowd. There are very mean girls, awful boys, oblivious teachers, no support system at all. Her singing talent could blow them all away at the school talent show, but... I won't spoil, but it's not a fairytale ending.

The First Affair by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus - While the authors' previous book featured a Britneylike pop star, this one had a Monicaesque DC intern doing Monicalike things with married President Greg. There was even a stained coat. Monica, I mean Jamie, seemed naive, needy and trusting, as she let the affair (which was not consummated) consume her personal and budding professional life. She badgered Greg's staff, trusted the wrong people, and did not act very maturely. This wasn't even her first bad choice of man. Not a sympathetic character, even if she was only 21. Her backstory of a dysfunctional family (recovering alcoholic sister, relapsing alcoholic father) did not win me over to her side. I felt like cringing much of the time. Thanks anyway to NetGalley.

Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat by Adam Langer - I loved Thieves of Manhattan and also loved this. It helps that both take place in my general, sort-of-near-Columbia neighborhood. Ellington Boulevard is the gentrified name for W 106th St., where clarinetist Ike and his dog live in a rent-controlled apartment threatened by development. The characters, from the worlds of academia, publishing, and real estate, are well drawn and feel real.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett - I haven't seen the movie, but have high hopes if it's anything like the book. Meaty story of black maids in '60s Mississippi and the families (especially the women) they work for.

Where There's Smoke by Sandra Brown - Eden Pass, Texas might as well be Peyton Place. Tackett Oil pretty much owns the town, and the Tackett family is full of colorful characters, from bad boy son to crusty matriarch to dutiful daughter. There's also the newly arrived female doctor who has a Past with a Tackett, the town hussy, and the handsome ex-con looking to start over. Add to that revolutionaries in an unstable Central American country and you've got quite a plot.

Fishbowl by Sarah Mlynowski - 20-something roommates in Toronto struggle with normal roommate issues as well as having to pay for repairs after a kitchen fire (they throw parties in bars and charge admission). Just didn't grab me, maybe because I'm way past the living with random strangers stage (which worked out OK in grad school, but I wouldn't especially want to do it again).

i am neurotic (and so are you) by Lianna Kong - Cute little book of photos detailing people's quirks and neuroses. I am not without quirks (which we won't go into at this time) but nothing leapt out as being "Omigod, that's me!" Turns out it's based on a blog http://iamneurotic.com/

I Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey by Paul Rudnick - I absolutely adored Rudnick's novel I'll Take It and this book of essays interspersed with the "diary" of Elyot Vionnet was pretty good, too. There are stories about showbiz (what really happened in I Hate Hamlet, working on Sister Act, producer Allan Carr), New York (apartments, the Chelsea Hotel) and topics also covered in I'll Take It (Jewish families, junk food diet). What's not to like?

My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall - Garry Marshall has an impressive career writing, directing and producing TV and movies (along with some theater and acting). He's been involved in many classics, and I've enjoyed his work. In his memoir, he comes across as a genial nice guy with interesting stories to tell.

It's Not About the Pom-Poms: How a 40-Year-Old Mom Became the NFL's Oldest Cheerleader--and Found Hope, Joy, and Inspiration Along the Way by Laura Vikmanis with Amy Sohn - The author has not had an easy life, dealing with young motherhood and a bad marriage. She always enjoyed dance and fitness, and at an age when most cheerleaders were long past their glory days, became a Cincinnati Ben-Gal. Good for her! Not the most interesting book, though.

31 Dates in 31 Days by Tamara Duricka Johnson - After hitting a snag in her social life, the author decided to undertake an experiment, dating 30 guys in 30 days, and then choosing one for a second date. She cast a wide net for referrals and set up ground rules: dates would cost less than $31, last more than 31 minutes, take place in a public setting, no drugs or alcohol, no married men and no physical contact. The result wasn't as fun to read as I thought, even though it took place in my home turf of New York City. I couldn't keep track of all the men, and it just seemed exhausting.

Sunday, January 19th, 2014
8:26 am
Endless piles of books
I heard a crash. One of the piles of books already read and needing to be reviewed came tumbling down. So I'd better do a few. This barely makes a dent, and some of them are ebooks which weren't in the pile (but the people who send those books want to see a review). No particular theme; I just grabbed an assortment.

A Week with Fiona Wonder by Kelly Huddleston (received ebook from LibraryThing Early Reviewers) - Everything in this novel is bleak. Mercy's single, asthmatic mother works two waitress jobs, her best friend is not very nice, the town mall is dying, and no one has any hope. The only bright light on the horizon is Mercy's upcoming contest prize trip to meet a movie star. I need to read about happy people living in mansions to erase this depressing story from my mind.

One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell -  A venerable Manhattan apartment building is close enough to a mansion, though these residents aren't always happy. I loved watching Sex and the City (based on Bushnell's writings), even though it didn't resemble my life other than the "city" part. Here, Bushnell chronicles the fictional residents (allegedly based on real people) of a real building. Rich, famous, striving, struggling to hang on.. we meet them all. One character was particularly icky, a spoiled young manipulative recent arrival looking to hitch her wagon to a star. There's plenty of dirt and deceit, and I ate it all up.

Summer Intern by Carrie Karasyov and Jill Kargman - This is meant for teens, but I never let that stop me. It also takes place in upscale Manhattan, this time in the fashion magazine world. Kira gets a coveted summer internship at fictional magazine Skirt, and deals with mean girls, cute guys, wannabes, coworkers, and her nemesis Daphne who happens to be the owner's daughter. We called such people "nepotees" at my old job. Kira's hard work and long hours may go unrewarded, while Daphne takes long lunches and leaves early to get ready for evenings at the hottest clubs. Or will Kira triumph in the end? (Well, I know what happens, but don't want to spoil it.)

Fifty Million Reasons by Heather Wardell (received ebook from NetGalley) - Angela wins fifty million dollars in the lottery (not a spoiler, as the book would have had another title if this was supposed to be a secret). They're Canadian dollars (it takes place in Toronto), but that's still a lot of cash. Wardell explores the consequences of this win, as Angela deals with friends, neighbors, family, strangers with their hands out, even an ex who suddenly materializes (gee, wonder why). As Angela navigates new financial waters and changes her phone number repeatedly to fend off the inundation of requests for money, she learns about giving and receiving, and who her real friends are. I disagreed strongly with one of her decisions, but it was still a fascinating ride.

Skinny Bitch in Love by Kim Barnouin (received ebook from NetGalley) - Leaving the world of rich people, this is the story of LA vegan chef Clementine, who pulls her life together after a coworker sabotages her dish and causes her to lose her job and reputation. She teaches cooking classes, launches a catering business, and catches the eye of millionaire carnivorous steakhouse owner Zach (so we don't completely leave the world of rich people). The author also writes vegan cookbooks, and there was a hint of "this is the only right way to eat" but the recipes did sound delicious. It's basically a fairy tale.

The Finishing School by Gail Godwin - This is considered literary fiction, but I couldn't appreciate it. Justin (female) moves with her widowed mother to live with relatives in rural upstate New York. There she falls under the spell of their worldly neighbor Ursula and her pianist brother. The whole situation was depressing, and I was anxious to, well, finish (groan).

Thursday, January 9th, 2014
3:42 am
Back to the ancestral home

I thought this was a picture of Nana carrying Baby Mommy, but closer inspection shows:

1) The baby looks exactly like my father

2)  They are in front of the Breukelen (57 Montague St., near the ACPT Brooklyn Bridge Marriott), where I lived as a baby.

So the baby is me.

Here I am 56 years later (2008) in the same location, facing the other direction:

Monday, January 6th, 2014
12:01 pm
Sweating the small stuff
Yesterday I wrote on social media: "The OptumRx site was updated with my new plan (something done right... fainting), but Duane Reade called to say I was inactive, when trying to fill the ear drop prescription. It worked after I gave them the info. Yay. Copay of $10 on $41.99 drug. Now let's see if this has any effect (sitting here with cotton in ears, after keeping head tilted)."

Silly me, I spoke too soon. While the OptumRx site was fine over the weekend, I just checked and it had my old member number and old plan info (and no sign of the ear drops). This happened if I linked through the United (UHC) site or logged on directly. I called OptumRx and they said there was a weird error where the start date on my new plan was 1/1/14 but the end date was 12/31/13. Since it can't end before it starts, the system reverted to the old info (who knows, maybe this happened to Duane Reade... but they were able to put through the claim after I gave them my new info). OptumRx said the dates came from UHC and had to be changed by UHC.

Called UHC, and they claimed everything looked fine on their end and my termination date is actually open-ended. They said OptumRx was a separate system and not their expertise, and switched me back to OptumRx help. Oy. I got a different person, gave the whole story, and she said it looked fine to her, too. Was I in a parallel universe? Could there be a cookie problem? The tech person signed out and then signed back in, and finally it was right on my end (for now, anyway).

My PCP is still wrong when viewing the card PDF on the UHC site. I mentioned this while on with UHC, and the guy said I needed to  request an updated card. I thought I already did, but I guess I'll wait a little longer. He claimed that despite the card looking wrong, Dr. H is definitely in the system as my PCP.

Also spoke to R in Dr. H's office who did not receive the email with the insurance change info (I'm beginning to think their site's messaging is a black hole), so I sent it to her regular email. She doesn't think they billed yet for Thursday's visit, so it would be nice to get that updated and avoid another hassle.

These are relatively small issues, but they add up to one big Oy. I don't know if these problems are due to badly designed systems, misguided policies, incompetent workers, or ... DRINKING.
Friday, January 3rd, 2014
11:10 pm
Long-winded Healthcare Update
The more I think about it, United's not letting members choose PCPs ahead of the insurance's start date, and then making them wait a month for changes to take effect, is a terrible business decision. Unless you have absolutely no preference and take whoever they give you, it effectively makes the first month of coverage meaningless, though you still could get care in an emergency. I don't know if this is just for NYS exchange enrollees; if so, we are being treated like second-class citizens.

Don't get me started on United not only assigning people to PCPs without any patient input, but giving them NONEXISTENT doctors like Dr. D, with wrong phone numbers yet. I was curious what happened to him, and tracked him down (Google is your friend). He's now in Virginia - a little far to travel! And his credentials do not match Dr. H's (who went to the same universities I did, in reverse order), though maybe I'm being a snob and he could be a wonderful doctor. Should I be insulted that they assigned me a doctor whose subspecialty is geriatrics?

Not knowing for sure if Dr. H was still officially my PCP, I went to my appointment (which was actually with a resident, since Dr. H is on vacation. I am fine with going to different doctors in this practice, but don't want to start with a new group). Before leaving, I emailed my new insurance info through the practice's site. Turns out that went only to Dr. H's assistant R, who was not there. The check-in  person said he had no access to that email and I didn't have the info on me, so he had to enter me as self-pay and said I could update when I got the bill. Great. More red tape. They did give me a nice desk calendar as a holiday gift (I do like this group).

I didn't visit just to get a gift. I was having slight, intermittent pain in my ears since early November, and got Debrox to clean them (maybe there was impacted wax), which didn't have much effect. I use Q-tips and know you're not supposed to, though they haven't unearthed much in ages (did I stop making wax?). A few weeks ago, I noticed a hard lumpy area deepish in front of the right ear that had no equivalent on the left side. I emailed Dr. H, hadn't heard back, finally called (he's away, and it's also possible the email went into a black hole), and decided to have the resident take a look. Google is not always your friend when it comes to this sort of thing. There are Bad Things it could be, as well as many not so bad. If I needed surgery, had a nasty infection, or was about to go deaf, I couldn't wait another month to get the PCP situation straightened out. And if referrals were needed, it made no sense to have another PCP coordinating.

The resident checked my ears, found them exceptionally clean (so there's no wax problem), didn't see signs of infection, and didn't think the lumpy area was anything alarming. An attending also came in and examined me, with the same conclusion. They advised no more Debrox, Q-tips, or even touching the area as I may be irritating it even more. We'll keep an eye on it, and they'll refer me to an ENT if necessary.

In passing, I mentioned I used earplugs recently (the calendar shows it was for events on November 5 and December 15, which meshes with the timing of the symptoms), and this could be the cause of the problem. Even though I use small-size plugs, they aren't easy to insert in my narrow ear canal and aren't very comfortable. Not sure why one ear is worse, though.

Today I got two relevant calls. The United supervisor called as promised, and reaffirmed that I would be changed to Dr. H, effective back to 1/1. I'm wondering if they are letting everyone do this, or only if you got a nonexistent PCP. I got off and checked the system, and the change was not on my card. I called back and they told me to try again Monday, so we'll see if they confused which doctor I wanted, or if they are just slow. Maybe it's just as well the practice doesn't have my new insurance info, if United's system still has the wrong PCP.

The other call was from the practice following up on the visit and asking if I had any questions. Did I say I like this group? I had been Googling again (neither friend nor foe) researching medication to lubricate my ear since it's apparently dry. But I wasn't sure what was effective, and much of it was prescription. Another doctor from the group called back later, said prescription drops couldn't hurt, and sent an order to Duane Reade. Turns out they are out of the drops and there's a delay, but it's not urgent (and it's COLD, so I wasn't planning to go out anyway). I also asked if they could get the insurance data from R, if she was there, so I could avoid a billing hassle. I'll call her Monday to make sure.

And to think I used to work for this evil health insurance industry...
Thursday, January 2nd, 2014
10:22 am
Adventures in healthcare
I had health insurance under a small group plan that a broker set up with Oxford. It was not cheap (my tax program flagged the premiums as being too large a percentage of my meager freelance income), but my longtime PCP (primary care provider) Dr. H at Cornell was in the network, and it was adequate.

I was hearing horror stories about freelancers losing their coverage with the upcoming ACA and asked the broker if I would need new insurance. She was still dealing with Oxford, but it looked like sole practitioners would be forced out of small group plans and made to get individual insurance. The Times had an article about that very thing, featuring someone I happen to know from high school.

The broker came back with the expected news that I was on my own. She did not have any good alternatives to the state exchange, so off I went. Reports that the NYS site had no problems are wrong. The site is very clunky. The doctor search was temperamental, and listed Dr. H 10 different ways with slight address variations. I clicked on every one, and all pointed to one United HealthCare plan. I was trying to avoid United on principle (they also own my previous carriers Oxford and OptumRx, so I wasn't doing a good job of avoiding them), since they downsized me out of a job after taking over MetLife's health business (where I worked as a statistical consultant in health claims from 1979-1996). But they were the only game in town.

Not very affordable either. The premium for the Silver level was about the same as I previously paid, but with a $2000 deductible (former HMO plan had no deductible). Total costs are probably more than my freelance income. Additional investment income (thank you, Mommy) will probably put me over the limit for state financial help. Luckily, it's only for 3 years, until I'm old enough for Medicare.

I enrolled in the United plan, plus a small dental plan (I previously had a limited dental schedule plan that the broker threw in). When I went online to look up another doctor, the exchange system listed me as pending twice (what a system!), but it appears I'm only enrolled once. At least I thought I was enrolled. I didn't hear anything until I got a call from United asking where my premium was. That was the first I'd heard about it. They allowed me to pay over the phone, and eventually I received both the original letter requesting payment, and a plan booklet.

The letter mentioned a billing site, and there I found my member ID and was able to register for the main UHC site. Turns out the system had automatically assigned me a doctor (a different Dr. H, so let's call him Dr. D). When I tried to change to Dr. H (who is indeed in the network for the new plan), I got an error message. I called and was told I couldn't change until 1/1. I did this on that day, and found that it wouldn't be effective until 2/1! Oy, so I'm supposed to go to a completely different doctor and then leave?  I have some ongoing issues, plus I'm on my last pair of monthly contacts and need a referral (insurance won't pay for the lenses, but covers some of the exam since I have floaters that need monitoring).

I had an appointment with Dr. H's office this afternoon (optimistically assuming the insurance would be straightened out) and didn't want to wait another month. I called and the nice man put the change request in the system (I  already did that myself, but OK). Then put me on hold and came back with the unfortunate news that there was still no way to activate it before 2/1. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told they might not call back for 2 days, a little late for my appointment. I asked if I could have Dr. D just refer me to Dr. H, and they said that might work.

So I tried to call Dr. D's office. The number on my insurance card (which I don't yet have, but exists online as a PDF) led to a Caribbean sweepstakes line (dialed it twice). I'd heard tales of the health exchange referring people to auto mechanics and coffee shops, so that's par for the course.  Googling gave a number at St. Luke's (they must have picked the nearest provider). I have nothing against St. Luke's, but I've always used Cornell. The woman there informed me that Dr. D was no longer there, and hadn't been for at least a year. They assumed another doctor in the group could be used as a PCP (though this is not certain). They wouldn't refer me to Dr. H over the phone, so I made an appointment for tomorrow.

I called back United and told them my PCP didn't seem to exist, and they said he must have signed up with the exchange. They gave me another number for him. I didn't get a cupcake store, but the nephrology department at St. Luke's. They also said Dr. D was no longer there, and double checked their directory.

Back to United a third time. I confirmed that my PCP did not exist, and I had a perfectly good PCP if they could just make him effective now. They conceded that perhaps there had been errors in assigning PCPs (ya think?) and told me that Dr. H would indeed be entered and for his office to call if they had problems (since my card still has the phantom Dr. D). I canceled the appointment with Dr. D.

Boy, this is fun. Now I have a headache.

Update: Just got a secure email from United. Had to go through a rigmarole of registering for this Cisco thing in order to view it. Finally  opened it, and it was just acknowledgment of my request to add my email address to my account. When I first signed on the United web site, my email was missing. It said I had to add it through the NYS exchange, but the exchange DID have my email so somehow it wasn't communicated.

What next?
Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
3:26 am
I'm not a huge mystery fan, which is too bad, since that is the most represented genre on the laundry room bookshelf. Here are some mysteries I've read:

Saving Faith by David Baldacci - Baldacci is a popular author and I have 6 of his books (thanks to the laundry room), but this is the first one I've read. Faith is a government whistle-blower who finds herself on the run with an enigmatic private investigator after an FBI rendezvous goes wrong. They are not sure who they can trust (even each other), and the sense of danger and thrill of the chase keep things moving. How do you stay under the radar in this electronic age (or 1999, when the book was published)? Not bad.

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child - Any book that takes place in New York gets extra points, and this one had a definite sense of place. Jack Reacher witnessed a late night incident on the subway, and the story progressed from there. Cops, foreign operatives, good guys, bad guys, violence... just an ordinary few days in Reacher's life.

Wanna Get Lucky? by Deborah Coonts - Las Vegas is the star of this book, with female impersonators, adult film industry functions, and general debauchery overshadowing the mystery. A woman jumps to her death from a sightseeing helicopter... or is it murder? Lucky, who works for a casino, is on the case.

The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver - Lincoln Rhyme (played by Denzel Washington on the movie, which I didn't see) is a disabled criminologist who solves murders from his home, with the help of police detective Amelia Sachs (Angelina Jolie). The forensics and police procedure seemed authentic, but things got grisly and I didn't always want to be there.

Dying to Get Published by Judy Fitzwater - Jennifer is having trouble getting her book published, and blames it on evil literary agent Penney, so what could be more logical than murdering Penney and using that as the plot for a book. WHAT? This premise seemed distasteful, though it was done tongue in cheek. As Jennifer solicits opinions from her writing group on the best way to carry out the hypothetical crime, things happen which I won't spoil. I dunno, it didn't sit right with me.

The Appeal by John Grisham - Nasty corporate polluters, struggling lawyers, corrupt judges in the Deep South. Yup, typical Grisham. I liked this one less than usual.

Hollywood Confessions by Gemma Halliday - Allie is an LA tabloid reporter yearning to work for a more legitimate outlet. She rubs elbows with dubious reality show characters, sleazy Hollywood types, and quirky coworkers investigating the murder of a producer. One hysterical scene had her sneaking into a salon, pretending to work there, and doing a bikini wax on an unsuspecting source. This is part of a series, and I'll have to check out some more.

Compliments of a Friend by Susan Isaacs - "That's it?" I thought when I finished this. Granted, it was a short story (given to me by NetGalley), but it seemed unsatisfying. The fashionable Vanessa kills herself, or is it murder? Judith Singer (from Compromising Positions) plays detective. The Afterword explained that this story was written for a writer's group and was the basis for the novel Long Time No See (which I own, but haven't read). So I'll hope that the return of Judith is more substantial in the full book.

The Strip by E. Duke Vincent - Vegas is again the setting, specifically heavily Mob-influenced Vegas. A TV producer with a shady background of his own back in the Midwest deals with mobsters, blackmail, fast women, and snoopy reporters. Of course this is totally fiction, and there are no real people anything like this.

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
3:50 am
More books
I must again fulfill obligations to review some books obtained from various early reader programs, so here goes:

Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia Ephron - I received this from Penguin First to Read program, but didn't finish in time and the ebook magically disappeared from my iPad. However, all was not lost as I obtained a paper copy of the uncorrected manuscript. Delia Ephron does not try to avoid the shadow of her recently deceased older sister, Nora. Nora appears throughout the book, including the very first essay, "Losing Nora." Sigh, she was gone too soon. The sisters were close and also collaborated professionally, on movies and theater ("Love, Loss, and What I Wore" had a long journey to the stage, where I saw it a few years ago). Though they had a privileged Beverly Hills upbringing with screenwriter parents, alcoholism was an issue ("Why I Can't Write About my Mother"). Other than the piece about dogs (I am not an animal lover, and indeed the author recommends non-dog owners skip to the next essay), I enjoyed this trip through a more upscale, celebrity-filled New York than I live in. And Delia went to Barnard, yay! (she graduated just before I arrived)

Falling Off The Fast Track by Gail Hewitt - Samantha Hudnutt is a consultant in Manhattan struggling to maintain her business. The work descriptions were full of management jargon which struck me as BS-y, but clients pay big bucks for this sort of thing. Her personal life was messy, with the married guy looking for action, the cute ex-colleague seemingly not interested... I won't spoil anything. The situations felt realistic, with current events like Hurricane Sandy adding to the atmosphere.

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger - I'm a sucker for books in the form of letters, notes, emails and other forms of communication that aren't straight narrative. An early favorite in this vein was Up the Down Staircase. The Divorce Papers drew my interest immediately due to its interesting visual presentation. Besides the NetGalley copy on Kindle, I also had a paper Advance Reader's Edition (which I got from the book giveaway table where I freelance). The paper copy rendered the documents more clearly, as some were in handwriting, different fonts, highlighting, and varied formats. While I'm all for electronic reading, this book is better suited to paper.

I'm also a sucker for quality chick lit, and this filled the bill. The characters were upscale and educated. Rieger is a lawyer with extensive academic experience, and puts that background to work in the legal documents and correspondence that form part of the story. Mia (stay-at-home mom from a wealthy family who gave up her career to move for her husband's job in medical academia) and Daniel (renowned MD who loves his daughter but is consumed by his work) and daughter Jane were going through an at times acrimonious divorce in the fictitious New England state of Narragansett. Due to circumstances at her law firm, young lawyer Sophie took on Mia's case even though she normally defended criminals. Office politics were part of the plot, and the reader saw the back and forth of negotiations, official memos, and court documents. There were also personal letters and emails concerning the characters' families and private lives. The characters are richly drawn and the plot tooled along smoothly and plausibly. I might have liked to see some shock value, melodrama, or twists, but this is not a big minus.

I was surprised to see that the author is married to movie critic David Denby (who is briefly mentioned when the characters are discussing films), as I thought his wife was novelist Cathleen Schine. Subsequent research showed they split a while ago, and furthermore that the author's ex is Peter Pouncey who was Columbia College dean when I was at Barnard. Wow, impressive connections. I'm also a sucker for all things Columbia and everyone in this paragraph is an alum or admin or faculty of some division of the university (the fictional husband is also a College alum).

So this book was in my wheelhouse, even though I think law is intrinsically boring (all that nit-picking precision and argument is not for me). It's a story about people, told in an unusual, eye-catching way.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls - In her memoir The Glass Castle, Walls describes her harrowing childhood of poverty and parental neglect. In this novel, physical conditions for teens Liz and Bean are a little better, but their mother is somewhat flighty and their fathers deceased. When Mom takes a break from her responsibilities, the girls find their way to their uncle back east. Life in the mill town formerly run by the family has its ups and downs, and heroes and villains. The plot moves at a leisurely pace, but I was never bored and would love to meet these characters again. Come to think of it, Jeannette is another Barnard grad, class of '84. Lots of writers in the ranks.
Monday, December 2nd, 2013
7:10 pm
Lame Cyber Monday
I hate to shop. On Black Friday, I took advantage of an offer to renew MoMA membership and get an extra 6 months, but that was it. I really need new computers (my desktop and laptop are 10 years old and limping along), have no cell phone of any kind (but do love my iPad), my TiVo and non-HD TV are also about 10 years old, my winter coat has a weird rip and missing buttons, my shoes are falling apart, and I need boots.

I did attempt to get boots a few months ago, but learned once again that I have to try on clothing. I had some Totes bought for Sundance in 2006 that had developed holes, so what could be simpler than ordering the same thing? That exact model was discontinued but I found something similar, in my usual size 7M. It was warm when they arrived, so I didn't try them immediately. Unfortunately, when I did, I discovered they were too small. My feet were killing me after a few brief errands. Back home, I placed them next to the old boots and indeed they were a tiny bit shorter. Yeesh! By then it was too late to return them. Does anyone want them (free)? Seriously; just worn once.

So here it is, Cyber Monday, the perfect time to get much needed items. But I couldn't deal with heavy duty shopping and instead (at least so far) have just bought assorted crap. Mostly practical crap, but still... This reminds me of someone who shall go nameless, who registered for very practical items in their wedding registry. Who needs fancy decanters? They wanted things they would actually use. One of their guests reported that when they went to the store, the salesperson said, Oh yeah, those were the people who registered for all that junk (paraphrased). Hey, it was useful junk. They still got multiple decanters.

So, ignoring the large things I need, I looked through my lists (I keep a lot of lists). Drugstore stuff is saved for tomorrow, when Duane Reade has their monthly Senior Savings Day. Not once have they asked for ID (the limit is 50 or 55, depending on if you use the DR Balance Rewards card or AARP ID). Humph.

And here's what I got (from Office Max, eBay, Overstock and Tanga):

Pens - I like medium point Paper Mate Write Bros. but I've used them all up and am down to random pens from hotel rooms or  promotional giveaways.

Pencils - I'm going to try the Pentel twist erase .9mm that everyone loves for crosswords. It could turn out I prefer one of the other size leads, as was argued at Lollapuzzoola.

Blue painters tape - I'm still working on a roll the building gave me during the window installation (exactly 2 years ago! Maybe it's time to move back the furniture and piles of magazines that are still bunched away from the windows), but figured I could use more (and needed another item to make the free shipping amount). It's most recently come in handy for sealing the top of the kitchen faucet where water is spraying out. I really need to call maintenance, and also have them re-unclog the kitchen sink drain that's still sluggish. The guy used a plunger a few weeks ago, and probably should have tried a snake.

Umbrella stand and wastebasket - They match, but won't be going in the same room. The umbrellas, including the famous broken Wordplay one, are gathering dust under a chair. And one of my wastebaskets is dented and rusty. I was going to insert an image, but multiple methods didn't work (either it's the iPad's fault or I'm technically challenged).

Sleep mask - I constantly fall asleep with the light on. Even though I have no trouble sleeping, I put "sleep mask" on my list just last night when I noticed I was putting my arm over my face to block out the light. I found a mask with an audio input so I can listen to music while dozing off.

Neck pillow - I sit up and read a lot, and the neck can get achy. Not sure how much effect this pillow has, and the reviews were mixed, but it was cheap.

Memory foam slippers - One can always use slippers. I might be able to get away with wearing these outside; they are black, so won't look as weird as the hot pink quilted slippers I'm sometimes seen in. My family pretended they didn't know me when my feet started hurting while walking around UChicago, and I had to put them on. Chicago students are supposedly quirky, but I admit I didn't see any other pink-slippered feet.

Ben Tausig's new book - http://www.amazon.com/The-Curious-History-Crossword-Puzzles/dp/1937994457. While on Overstock to get the furniture, I wondered if they had this and they did.

FlipFold laundry folder - I came upon their video while researching something else. This may not be easier than just folding laundry normally, but it looks like fun. I did the wash on Thanksgiving Day and it's still unfolded.

Cyber Monday is not over, so who knows, I could have a new computer by the end of the day. Or another questionable gadget. I'm pretty sure I won't be buying any decanters.
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