Monthly Archives

July 2009

Interview: Nerdy Questions for THE PENNY PINCHERS CLUB's Sarah Strohmeyer

Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Author Sarah Strohmeyer must have a crystal ball. When she started this book, our 401(k) hadn’t been reduced to 201(k). But now the title of her new novel, The Penny Pinchers Club, could apply to our nation as a whole, not just the support group that Strohmeyer’s protagonist joins.

Kat, a forty-something New Jersey mom and shopaholic, finds evidence that her husband, Griff, is preparing to leave her for his research assistant. Instead of throwing him out or driving off in a huff, Kat must pretend she doesn’t know anything and bide her time until she saves enough money to live on her own. She joins a group of eccentric, budget-conscious people to help her accomplish this goal.

pp clubIn the midst of all the coupon clipping and Dumpster diving, Kat’s old boyfriend resurfaces, someone who conveniently has loads of cash. Many years ago, he had proposed to her but she turned him down for Griff, choosing the hot, romantic guy over the nice, stable one. A couple of decades later with her marriage on the brink of collapse, Kat wonders if she made the right choice.

This synopsis doesn’t do justice to Strohmeyer’s witty prose and endearing characters. It’s a fast, sexy read that surprises just when you think you know where it’s headed. It also gives you easy tips on how to save money and who can’t use that?

I’ve always enjoyed Strohmeyer’s zesty writing from the Bubbles Yablonsky series and now that I’ve had a chance to do an e-mail interview with her, I like her even more (she’s a Colin Firth and Daniel Craig fan!). Read her answers to my nerdy questions and tell me you don’t want to invite her to dinner and have her dog drive her over.

PCN: If you had to start a club to pinch something else besides pennies, what would that be?

Colin Firth

Colin Firth, Photo: Jim Wright

Sarah Strohmeyer: Colin Firth. Or maybe Daniel Craig. Nah, he’s too wiry. Definitely Colin. More to pinch.

PCN: Ooh, I’ll take both. One for each hand, please. What’s the one thing you will never give up, no matter how cash-strapped you get?

SS: Books. Wine. Dark chocolate with cherries. Though not necessarily in that order.

PCN: Kat chose to marry a man she was crazy about over one who had lots of money. What’s the most romantic but cheapest date you’ve ever had?

SS: This is horribly corny and I’m embarrassed to admit it—walking hand in hand as a light snow fell on a quiet December night 21 years ago, stopping to kiss under a tree as my future husband asked me to be his wife.

PCN: That is romantic but neither cheap nor corny. What’s cheap is when Kat goes Dumpster diving with her friend for groceries and an antique chair. What would you Dumpster dive for?

SS: Colin Firth. No, wait. He can’t be the answer to EVERYTHING.

PCN: Sure he can!

SS: I would Dumpster dive for more talent. And maybe if I accidentally threw out my engagement ring. When my brother was 13, we had to comb a landfill on Cape Cod for his retainer that he “accidentally” tossed in the trash. Ninety-degree heat. Stinking lobster shells. Seagulls threatening to pick out our brains. Fun times. (And, no, we did NOT find the retainer.)

PCN: Um, maybe that’s a good thing? One of the characters in the book turned out to be worth millions but struggling with the burden. What would you do with that kind of money? Would you still write if you didn’t have to work anymore?

Strohmeyer's dog, Fred

Strohmeyer's dog, Fred

SS: I would still write but I wouldn’t care if I sold. (Bliss!) I’d like to say I’d use the money to make sure no child anywhere went hungry at any time, but I think that’s a pipe dream. In truth, I’d buy a house I just saw in the New York Times that’s built over a stream in a California forest. Then I’d read, write, cook, hang with my family and play with my dogs. Kind of like my life now, except the $2 million crib.

PCN: I love your list of DOs and DON’Ts for saving money at the end of the book, which included a recipe for making your own mildew-remover. Any cheap, easy dinner recipes you’d like to share, too?

SS: Tortilla casserole:

1 package corn tortillas

2 cans black beans (or be a Penny Pincher and pressure cook your own)

1 large jar salsa

3 Tbs cilantro

8 oz cheddar cheese


Heat oven to 350. Combine drained beans, salsa, cilantro in saucepan. Heat on low and stir until warm and flavors meld. Grate cheese.

In a casserole dish, spoon some of the salsa sauce on the bottom, cover with two or three tortillas, 1/3 sauce, 1/3 cheese.

Then another layer of tortillas, sauce, cheese and repeat, topping with cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 1/2 hour. Remove foil and broil for a few minutes until cheese bubbles.

Let sit five minutes, cut and serve. Reheats well. Serves tons of people. Can be made ahead of time easily and is great for weekday dinners. Plus, it provides complex proteins and is suitable for vegetarians. (My son’s one—grrr.)

Serve with a green salad. I usually make this on days when my son has a game and then put it in a timed oven so it’s ready when we get home.

PCN: I have no immediate plans to invite tons of people over so that will feed me for a week. Thank you. Next question: It’s said that the best things in life are free. What are some of the best things in your life right now?

Strohmeyer's backyard

Strohmeyer's backyard

SS: Generic antidepressants. Not free, but cheap. Best things are my husband and kids (though my 18-year-old daughter’s a bit of a trial). The view of the mountains out my back door. Running around the dirt roads in my neighborhood. My basset hound, Fred, aka Mr. Bigglesworth. My friends and books. The hat I’m knitting. The fact that my cholesterol is 177 and I feel healthy and alive.

PCN: What would you tell someone who said he/she’s on a budget right now and can’t afford your book?

SS: “I’m sorry.” Then I’d suggest the library, a Penny Pincher haven.


Review: BRÜNO

Here’s what you need to know about Brüno: you will laugh and you will see lots of full-frontal penis. Will you be offended? Depends on your sensibilities. I wasn’t (I expected the raunchiness) though I’ll admit to some squirming and groaning.

bruno w. OJSacha Baron Cohen plays a flamboyant fashionista from Austria who’s obsessed with fame. After becoming persona none-gayer for literally crashing a fashion show, Brüno goes to Los Angeles seeking stardom despite having no marketable skills. He looks for an agent by (atrociously) reading scenes from Jerry Maguire, tries adopting an African baby to use as accessory, attempts to trap Ron Paul (the 2008 presidential candidate) into making a sex tape with him, and even travels to the Middle East, begging terrorists to kidnap him so he’d receive worldwide attention.

It’s hard to review this movie because it’s difficult to pin down. It takes aim at many targets—homophobia, gay “converters,” vacuous celebs—with varying degrees of success. The casting session Brüno holds for a photo shoot of hot babies reveals the parents’ disturbing willingness to subject their kids to anything, even liposuction on a 30-pound baby, just to get the job.

But this kind of desperation for fame—and Brüno is no different from the parents—is old news. People like this are all over reality TV these days. It’s hard to satirize them when they’re doing a pretty decent job humiliating themselves. So, while some of the bits are very funny, they don’t exactly feel fresh. And the surprise superstar cameos don’t have as much punch as I’d like.

My feelings for the movie may have fluctuated from scene to scene but one thought remained constant: Cohen is a brilliant actor. His transformation into Brüno is as impressive as Sean Penn’s into Harvey Milk, though I’m hardly suggesting an Oscar for Cohen since his performance is a one-note gag instead of a complex human being.

Still, doing what he does requires total commitment and a large dose of bravery because he puts himself in real danger at times. While in the Middle East, Brüno confuses Hamas for hummus and tells a very unamused terrorist that “your king Osama looks like a dirty wizard and a homeless Santa.” In Arkansas, he pushes a mob almost to the rioting point by doing something extremely inappropriate at a cage fight. Brüno may never get any respect but I had to give some to Cohen for his all-out approach to making a point or just making us laugh.

Nerd verdict: Brüno is full-frontal funny if not completely fresh

Editor’s note: The question of how much this movie is staged vs. real has been oft-mentioned in other articles. Check back next week for my interview with Lloyd Robinson, the agent in the movie whom Brüno wants to represent him. Robinson gives a detailed account of how he was approached, what he knew and when he knew it.


Inside Michael Jackson's Memorial Service

This morning, the world watched and celebrated Michael Jackson’s life with a memorial service that took place in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, where Jackson had been rehearsing his “This Is It” tour. Police warned people to avoid the downtown area if they didn’t have tickets so I stayed in front of my TV like a dutiful citizen.

CHARLENEBut a friend of mine, actress-singer Charlene Modeste, won tickets in a lottery to attend the service. I spoke to her afterwards about her emotional experience and she shared some details we didn’t get to see on TV, along with these photos she took.

PCN: What was it like getting there this morning?

Charlene Modeste: I was up around six, turned on the news, saw people were already waiting to get in. I didn’t leave my house until 7:30-ish [the service was scheduled for 10 a.m. PT] so there was traffic and I had to redirect myself and get a secret back way on the 2 [freeway]. Usually takes me 15 minutes but it took me half an hour.

ticket wristbandMy friend lives downtown so I parked at my friend’s lot and we walked over…There were all these people selling Michael Jackson T-shirts, buttons, posters. Parking lots were $40. Everyone was really calm and respectful, there were cameras pretty much all over the place. Police were checking for wristbands and tickets. There were a lot of people but everyone was really subdued.

PCN: Was that because it was early and people were still waking up or was it because of the occasion?

CM: I think it just hit everybody. To hear about him passing away is one thing; it didn’t really register until the memorial started. There were people there for different reasons—for the spectacle, to celebrate, to pay respect. Some were there just for the community, to share in something we all had in common. There were some who were there for the party, you know, Whoo hoo! I thought it was strange, but you have to take into consideration whose funeral it is. People react to things in different ways.

The overall feeling of the crowd…I wouldn’t say it was somber but people were very quiet. I was in the overflow in the Nokia [Theatre] but [my friend and I] were texting someone who was in the Staples Center.

Smokey [Robinson] came up first and read letters from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela. We thought someone would come up right after him but no one came for a really long time. If that happened at a rock concert, people would’ve reacted but no one made a sound. Everyone was so patient, anticipatory for sure, but very respectful.

When we walked in they were playing Frank Sinatra, whom I adore, but someone behind me started playing Michael Jackson songs on his mp3 player. I said, “Can you turn that up?” He said, “This is as loud as it can go but maybe if I hold it up higher, you can hear it better.” I started thinking, “Why aren’t they playing Michael Jackson songs?” I mean, no disrespect to Frank Sinatra. I asked one of the ushers to say something to someone in the booth to start playing Michael Jackson songs and two minutes later, they started playing his songs.

PCN: So you wanna be startin’ somethin’! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyway, what were the most emotional moments for you?

CM: There were so many! There was Paris [Jackson’s daughter], of course. There was Marlon; the first words out of his mouth that I could hear were “I hurt.” That was definitely a moment.

mj insideI didn’t know what to expect. I got these tickets as a fluke. As far as I knew, it was gonna be a concert. From the beginning, when they were singing the hymn, setting the tone, that was the hymn I grew up with in church. And they rolled out the casket, which I didn’t expect at all. So that knocked the wind out of me. It hit me—I’m at a memorial service, it’s gonna be an emotional service.

Usher was another [emotional moment], Brooke Shields, anyone who shed tears, Jermaine. Paris broke my heart. That’s not her dad, it’s her Daddy. She’s still a little girl.

I wasn’t expecting to be moved as much. I shed so many tears this morning, which was definitely a surprise because it wasn’t someone I knew personally.

PCN: Did anything special happen that wasn’t televised?

CM: Absolutely. When the telecast was over, we were just gonna leave. But they brought mikes, floral arrangements onto the stage. Someone said, “The family’s coming!” Everyone who was making their way to the door turned around, found a seat. Everyone squeezed in to make room for everyone else. We sat and waited quietly for a while.

Then the three sisters came out—LaToya, Janet and Rebbie—to specifically thank us all for being there. Amidst losing their brother, they came out to say thanks. They didn’t have to; we were on our way out. I think that was absolutely great.

LaToya, Janet and Rebbie Jackson

LaToya, Janet and Rebbie Jackson

PCN: That’s very classy. So, was the whole process worth it?

CM: It was so worth it; I’m so glad I went. It was a great experience which really put things in perspective for me, the influence he had in my life and the influence he had on the world, the possibility of what one person can achieve in their life and what’s possible for those of us who are still here can achieve as we move forward. It definitely had a huge impact on me. Even with his passing, he’s continuing to inspire.

MJ dates


ABC’s THE FORGOTTEN Will Be Ignored By Me This Fall

Several months ago, I was excited about news of British thesp Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) coming to our shores to do a Jerry Bruckheimer pilot. I got even more excited when ABC picked up the pilot to series. But then the bad news came: Penry-Jones and Reiko Aylesworth (whom I liked in 24) would be replaced. I was displeased but wanted to see who the replacements would be. reports today that, while Aylesworth’s role hasn’t been recast yet, Christian Slater is confirmed to take Penry-Jones’s place. Whaa…?! On one hand, you’ve got a sexy and classically trained actor and on the other, you’ve got someone whose appeal I never understood even when his career was at its peak. Though I liked Heathers quite a bit, Slater drove me nuts with his Nicholson-lite poseur act. Last year, when he played a spy with a split personality on the NBC series My Own Worst Enemy, he couldn’t make even one persona compelling enough to keep me watching beyond the pilot.

OK. Now that my rant’s over, I think this may be best for Penry-Jones. Word is that the script was pretty weak and perhaps the actor (along with Aylesworth) was a scapegoat since ABC couldn’t exactly fire Bruckheimer. Penry-Jones was also forced to speak in an American accent, which dulled some of his charm. Meanwhile, I’ve heard about another project which might be better for RPJ and allow him to retain his British accent.

Warner Bros. optioned for television a book called The Baker Street Letters (read my review here). It’s about two British lawyers (and brothers) who move into Sherlock Holmes’s address at 221b Baker Street and end up being amateur sleuths in Los Angeles after receiving letters addressed to Holmes from people asking for help. If Penry-Jones is still interested in working in America, he’d make an excellent choice as the suave older brother. It’s free casting advice, WB, so call RPJ’s agent and make it happen!


Review: Michael Robertson's THE BAKER STREET LETTERS

I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and have read most things ever written about him so when I heard about Michael Robertson’s debut novel, The Baker Street Letters, I had to get my hands on it. I’m so happy I did. It’s a funny, clever tale with only a tangential link to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation but much of the spirit of his stories.

Reggie and Nigel Heath are London barristers who have just rented offices at 221b Baker Street, well-known address for the fictional detective. The rent is cheap because part of the deal is they have to respond to mail from real people asking Holmes for help. Instead of sending a standard form letter in reply, Nigel decides to fly to Los Angeles to follow up on one, believing the young woman who wrote it is in grave danger.

Problem is, he departs without telling anyone of his plans and leaves behind a dead body in his office. Reggie must then track down his brother in America, keep Nigel away from police in both countries who want him for murder (they stumble upon more bodies in L.A.), protect the young letter-writer from very real danger, and solve the twenty-year-old case of her missing father before it reaches an explosive conclusion.

Robertson’s lively prose, strewn with dry humor, makes the pages fly by. He imbues Reggie and Nigel, as well as Reggie’s actress girlfriend Laura who tags along, with deductive skills evocative of Holmes’s. They’re an engaging lot I’d like to see more of so it’s a good thing this book is first in an intended series.

Furthermore, Warner Bros. has optioned television rights and I’ve got just the actor to play Reggie: Rupert Penry-Jones, who’s apparently available after leaving a Jerry Bruckheimer pilot. As for Nigel, I think John Simm, who starred in the BBC versions of Life on Mars and State of Play, could knock it out of the park.

Nerd verdict: Well-written Letters


Does This List Make You Feel Stupid?

Newsweek recently published this list of Top 100 Books of All Time, using some number-crunching method based on other book lists. Browsing through it, I was dismayed to find I’ve read only 13! (It’s even more disconcerting considering I was in Advanced Placement English.)

This does not include the ones I’ve only seen a movie version of, or those I didn’t manage to finish. C’mon, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy went on forehhhhhver. I attacked that massive tome (900+ pages) twice, in high school and college, like Jason on his quest for golden fleece, determined to break through walls of dense prose and get past monster run-on sentences. Alas, I had to admit defeat both times due to induced narcolepsy.

So the books I can claim to have read (and their ranking on the list) are:

2) 1984—George Orwell

15) The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger

18) The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald

21) The Grapes of Wrath—John Steinbeck

36) Winnie-the-Pooh—A.A. Milne (one of the best books ever written)

49) Hamlet—William Shakespeare

54) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain

58) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—Ken Kesey (even more amazing than the film, if that’s possible)

61) Animal Farm—George Orwell

62) Lord of the Flies—William Golding (freaked me out but blew me away)

66) The Big Sleep—Raymond Chandler

83) The Maltese Falcon—Dashiell Hammett (required reading for noir fans)

99) The Color Purple—Alice Walker (cried like a baby through most of it)

I know this list is far from definitive because there’s nothing on there from the 21st century and only two from the last 25 years. Loads are from at least 50 years ago, many are from several centuries back and a few are from the time Before Christ. I’m surprised stories told via cavemen drawings didn’t make the cut.

But it’s fun to play along. So, which ones have you read? What books do you think should’ve been on there? And if you’ve truly managed to finish War and Peace (#1 on list), please send in a photo and/or book report so I can see you’re not an urban legend.


AMELIA Trailer on the Fourth of July

In honor of Independence Day, I thought this gorgeous trailer for the movie Amelia, as in Earhart, would be appropriate. In it, the pilot, played by Hilary Swank, says she flies because “I want to be free.”

This reminds me of being a kid living in Viet Nam during the war, looking at planes from the roof of my house, hoping some day I’d get to fly on one, maybe even go to America where people are free.

Luckily, though the ride was turbulent, I got my wish.

Celebrate your freedom. May it extend beyond the skies.


The movie opens October 23, 2009 in the U.S. (Update: Read my review here.)


My Thoughts on the Alice Hoffman Twitter Controversy

By now, you may have heard about the Twitter controversy which flared up last weekend surrounding author Alice Hoffman’s reaction to getting a tepid review from the Boston Globe. If you haven’t, her Twitter account has since been deleted so you’ll have to read the details on Gawker.

In short, Hoffman seemingly became enraged at Roberta Silman, the Globe critic, for being unenthusiastic about Hoffman’s latest novel, The Story Sisters (read that review here). The author proceeded to fire off more than 20 tweets attacking Silman (calling her “moron”), the Globe, the city of Boston, and people who try to keep women down.

So, she’s human and got her feelings hurt. What’s the harm, right? Except Hoffman posted Silman’s e-mail and (supposedly) unlisted phone number, rallying her fans to tell off the “snarky” critic. At this point, Hoffman became much nastier than anything Silman wrote in her review. My feelings towards the author shifted.

I’ve long been a fan of Hoffman’s work, have enjoyed most of her oeuvre, and Story Sisters is in my TBR pile. But I think she crossed a line. If someone posted my unlisted number, there’d be hell to pay. So I find myself pushing Story Sisters farther down the stack because suddenly, I’m not as eager to pick it up. I know this isn’t logical—the book was written before all this happened so one thing has nothing to do with the other—but I have to admit an author’s personality does affect how much I want to read his/her books.

Many years ago, I was a devoted fan of an author who shall remain unnamed. I thought his books were the most beautiful creations. But I attended a signing one night and he was so dull during the reading with his monotone voice, he actually put me to sleep. I haven’t picked up another of his books since, fearing it’ll have a similar soporific effect on me. I didn’t blacklist him or anything, but subconsciously stopped gravitating towards his books.

Conversely, I’d never read British author Peter Robinson when I went to a signing to get a copy inscribed for a friend who couldn’t make it. Robinson was so charming and smart and made me laugh so hard during Q & A, I had to immediately check out his books, hoping his sense of humor is contained in them.

This isn’t to say I expect authors to be perfect people or put on an act at appearances. In fact, if they try too hard to be “on,” that turns me off, too. But I do want writers to be a little entertaining since they are storytellers. If they come across duller than dirt, how exciting can their stories be? Then again, maybe they’re just shy.

I know I shouldn’t deprive myself of someone’s talent just because they lack a sparkling personality, but there are more good books in the world than I can read in my lifetime so why should I waste time supporting wankers and bores?

Do you ever feel this way when you hear about a writer behaving badly? What about actors? Did Christian Bale’s on-set decimation of a crew member deter you from seeing Terminator Salvation? Post a comment and let’s discuss.