Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Paris In July Wrap Up & Other Fun

How did July get away from me?  I've had a delightful time focusing on Paris and France, even though I only posted two posts about it.  Yea, that wasn't so good.  I managed to cook Madeleines (which I will definitely be doing again--maybe I'll make them for my mother, who is coming to visit this weekend) and I also read and posted my review of Paris My Sweet.

I did get through a couple of movies as well, but I didn't get them posted.  That will have to happen here soon.  No worries here.  Thank you to Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Karen at Bookbath for hosting this fun challenge this month.  It was nice to just give it a try!

This summer has been very nice and calm, which was fine.  I went into it knowing that I wasn't going anywhere, that I'd be working, and that I'd have to deal with it.  Personally, I thought I'd go a bit bonkers without a trip planned, but it was just fine.   A small group of us have been planning a pretty major trip to Europe (France, Italy, and Austria) when my mother retires, so I have a goal in mind.  She actually retires this coming February, but we're going to hold off so that my friend "Doc" (as she likes me to call her) can finish up her residency.  The trip should be pretty amazing, so it's definitely something to look forward to down the road.  It's in three years--and counting!

All right.  For now, I'll head back to the glorious Olympics.  Talk about a reason to hit the gym!  Now, does anyone know where I can find a water polo team, because I've been looking in all the wrong places?  :)

I have to include this awesome YouTube video from the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, mocking to the song "Call Me Maybe."  Too darn cute.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Triple Threat Sunday Post: Review, Paris In July, & Weekend Cooking.

Do you ever feel like there is a clock ticking in the background of your life?  That has been a strange, overwhelming feeling I've had this week.  I'm sure that having online parent-teacher conference with my online job & work meetings this week all led me to this feeling that summer is ticking along.  Someone slow it down!

I'm still in the game for the Paris in July challenge, even though I feel like I need another month or two to finish all that I've started! Thankfully though, I've finished a great book that was a great challenge read & a great foodie book for Weekend CookingParis My Sweet makes me want to cook, travel, and all the good stuff of life!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Part love letter to New York, part love letter to Paris, and total devotion to all things sweet. Paris, My Sweet is a personal and movable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned. Organized into a baker’s dozen of delicacies (and the adventures they inspired) that will tempt readers’ appetites, Paris, My Sweet is something to savor."

Review:  Looking back on that first and only trip to Paris, I'm still kind of sad that we didn't get a chance to explore the treats that the city had to offer.  Thankfully, I was in the group that decided to walk down to Lauderee to try out my first French macaron.  First of all, the store was such a pretty site to see, with pastel colors and sweet smells all around, that my senses were in overload.  I still remember what macaron flavor I picked out and tried first--salted caramel.  It was heaven.  I purchased a small box of these jewel-box delights, with everything from pistachio to cherry, and went on my way.  It was a harried exchange of euros and mercis, with a fast-paced walk back to the opera house, but we had our goodies!

The author, Amy Thomas, dedicates a chapter to these ethereal delights and describes them to us:
Those crisp but chewy, light-as-air meringue cookies...They're delicate yet persnickety.  A feat of mixing, folding, stirring, and timing.  A delightful combination of powdered sugar, finely ground almonds, and egg whites and not much else, save for the luxuriously creamy ganache or buttercream filling that holds the two cookies together.  Firm but tender, shiny yet ridged, with ethereally light shells and heavy middles, they're miniature studies of contrast--and deliciousness.  (105)
What's left to say that she has not, other than the innumerable varieties of flavor combinations that bakers are coming up with.  While I stuck with some pretty classic flavors, these little confections are coming in bold and crazy flavors like green tea, lemongrass, passion fruit, and green apple.  The sky is the limit, and whether you can head to Lauderee in Paris or Kee's Chocolates in NYC, macarons are the much deserved, sweet-treat craze of the moment.  
For me, reading Paris My Sweet was a journey with someone living the life I would love to live.  Because of that, I loved her candor in the book.  You get a real sense that in the midst of her love affair with the cuisine and culture of Paris, she saw its flaws and how it compared to the life she had left behind in New York City.  For every travel story, there really does seem to be "grass is always greener" version that we're not being told.  In this case, the author is very candid about the difficult time she had making friends, meeting men, and missing family.  I really appreciated her candor and felt that her story was less of a fairytale and more about opportunity and vision; she looked for moments to be thankful.  With the bitter though, came the sweet, and that was an even bigger part of her story--the food.  She recognized the invaluable opportunity she had before her, of living in Paris, and she wasn't going to waste it thinking about her New York home for too long.

Mainly told as a personal exploration of sweet delights, we are introduced to the styles of cooking in Paris and New York.  We see the difference in macarons, cookies, carrot cake, cupcakes, and Madeleines & muffins.  What a sweet journey it is!  The chapter on cookies seemed to be the strongest dissimilarity of any of the treats, as Paris prefers a lighter, crunchier cookie to our American mix of buttery-crunch with the chewy.  She also talked about how much she missed French Toast (ironic, right?), which is an American standard and treat for breakfast.  In Paris, however, they enjoyed la pain perdue, an eggy, caramely, bread-soaked dessert served after dinner.  Both were similar in some ways, but very, very different in others. 

I could go on and on about the confections and treats that author, Amy Thomas, shares in her book Paris My Sweet.  If you are at all a foodie or love to travel and soak in the culture through its food, you have to read this book.  My only sorrow is that I didn't have this book last year before we went to France!  Now, I have to make a trip to New York and Paris before these shops and goodies disappear.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a review copy of the book.

As mentioned earlier, this post was done in participation with two great challenges I'm joining in on.  Stop by these sites to see some more great recipes and posts for Paris in July and Weekend Cooking!

Paris in July is a challenge being hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Karen at Bookbath.  See their sites for more information and great posts about all thing French.  They have posts up about books, food, music, culture, etc. 

Weekend Cooking is a great, weekly post run by Beth Fish Reads.  There are some really great food-related posts there.  Stop by to check out other great posts from this weekend.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

What took me so long to get around to reading this one?  Pure stubbornness. Sometimes I shy away from a book that is getting a lot of buzz, and this was one of those cases.  However, I'm so glad that I finally broke down and read it.  What a captivating read!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "When Henry meets Clare, he is twenty-eight and she is twenty. Henry has never met Clare before; Clare has known Henry since she was six. Impossible but true, because Henry finds himself periodically displaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. Henry and Clare's attempts to live normal lives are threatened by a force they can neither prevent nor control, making their passionate love story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable. The Time Traveler's Wife is a story of fate, hope and belief, and more than that, it's about the power of love to endure beyond the bounds of time."

Review:  Told in a series of non-linear stories that pop back and forth (and almost seemingly sideways) through time, The Time Traveler's Wife journeys through the life of time traveler, Henry.  In an interesting, and strangely plausible set up, time travel is explained to us as readers as a problem on the cellular level that makes a person slip to another time.  The only problem is, regardless of whether it's a medically explained problem or not, Henry has to deal with the consequences of popping up--unclothed--in a new time and place.  In his case, he relives gut-wrenching moments in his life, realizing that he really can't do anything beforehand to change these moments.  In a sense, it wasn't as if he could change the direction of time, but had to become an observer.  There was one slight exception to this, Clare, or was she always part of his destiny?

What a strange concept to imagine your future husband visiting you as a little child and even as a teenager.  How strange and angsty would that be to know that the person you had grown up seeing off and on was actually your husband at some future date?  In a strange way, it ended up feeling very sweet, nurturing, and romantic.  Henry and Clare have a relationship built over a long, non-linear amount of time.  Their crossings over time make for a strange relationship that no one would really be able to help walk them through.  How would you ever really deal with your husband leaving you for stretches at a time when it isn't his fault--just poof! and he's gone?   

As a finicky reader who switches books a lot, this one grabbed my attention and kept it.  Changing from character to character, from time period to time period, doesn't always work, but this one really worked for me.  Besides, that was the premise behind the book!  My empathy for Henry was always greater than my frustration, and Clare allowed herself to believe in him in such a way that really made this into the romantic novel that it was.  The novel is long, and can feel very descriptive at times, but with a good escape into different times and places, it flies by.  I'm just sad I waited so long to read this one.  My stubbornness must take note.

On one last note, I felt as though the movie version depicted more tension and anger between Henry and Clare than the book did.  In a way, I don't know that visually depicting it could reach the same emotional depth or understanding as the book.  That's just my opinion though!

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs. Fiction is based on real black and white photographs. The death of grandfather Abe sends sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and explores abandoned bedrooms and hallways. The children may still live."

Review:  You know those restless moments you have with reading where you're dying to read something new and original?  I realize that every storyline is based off a very small family tree of stories, but Ransom Riggs' novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a strange little ride through a variety of stories that make it feel very, very new.  

Admittedly, I'm an impatient reader with certain genres, so I feared that I would be that way with this novel.  That wasn't the case.  The first 75 pages or so set the novel up in a pretty catchy sort of a way that had me flipping pages to find out what happened to Jacob's grandfather, and what were the eerie pictures and creatures all about?  I really liked the mix of a fantasy-like tale mixed with the realism of young Jacob's life.  It didn't feel as though you were reading a fantastical story until he was actually on the island.  Then, things got interesting.

I really enjoyed this story and think that the eerie pictures and juxtaposition of real and fantasy worlds to be intriguing.  This was one story that I didn't feel like I was simply being told, but that I was actually IN the story as well.  My heart would accelerate in certain creepy scenes, and I even jumped a time or two.  Chalk that up to me being a big chicken, but I really got into this read.

For anyone who is looking for something new, that doesn't feel like it's been hashed over a million times, then you should give this novel a try.  It was refreshing, spooky, and beguiling--an odd combination, right?  That is just how this novel came together!  For sure, this is a book that I'll be sharing.  

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the novel.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Paris in July Meets Weekend Cooking

Hartini, "Madeleines" July 17, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
Happy Sunday!  What a strange week, but so nice at the same time.  I'm working on a professional development course online, as well as teaching a class, so I often feel like I spend way too much time online.  As I mentioned earlier this week in my "The W's of Reading: Required Reading," that has taken me away from some of my own reading.  I'll get back there though.  I always do.

In the meantime, I've been reading a couple of books set in France, I've watched a couple of French films, and I finally tried out my new Madeleine pan.  I've wanted to make these cute little desserts for awhile now.  I know they are supposed to be a cookie, but they have a bit more of a cake consistency and texture.  My first introduction to Madeleines wasn't from my trip to France (I wish), but from the show Extra Virgin on the Cooking Channel.  It stars Debi Mazar and her adorable husband Gabriele Corcos.  In one episode they whipped these little beauties up and I was sold!  The real struggle was the pan.  I looked here in my area and I found a couple of different types--small and medium molds.  I finally settled on the smaller ones and purchased one little pan.  Using the Extra Virgin recipe they provided for Madeleines (see link), I made a batch today. 

I'm kind of kicking myself that I didn't go ahead and take a picture of them, but I was embarrassed by their turn out and want to try again.  Because I only had one pan, I overfilled the molds.  As a result, they puffed up as they cooked and many of them cooked together along the back.  Now, that didn't affect the taste, just the look.  I also noted that if I left them in a little longer than the recipe called for, they had a really nice, buttery flavor to the lightly browned edges. 

Here's my take away:
  • 1st attempts sometimes aren't perfect (imagine that).
  • Don't overfill the molds!
  • Maybe use a piping bag to load the molds so you don't spill in between the cookies--the look is essential to these beauties.
  • Be prepared to share!  They taste best right out of the oven, so I think these are a treat I'll be making when I have more people around who want to snatch them up right out of the oven.
  • Take a picture! Regardless of whether they're messy or not doesn't matter.  Right?  It's a journey, not a destination.  
Well, this was a fun experiment.  I'd like to try it again and hope to dig up a few more recipes that I can try out.  For now, I'm pretty happy about my first try!

This post was done in participation with two great challenges I'm joining in on.  Stop by these sites to see some more great recipes and posts for Paris in July and Weekend Cooking!

Paris in July is a challenge being hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Karen at Bookbath.  See their sites for more information and great posts about all thing French.  They have posts up about books, food, music, culture, etc. 

Weekend Cooking is a great, weekly post run by Beth Fish Reads.  There are some really great food-related posts there.  Stop by to check out other great posts from this weekend.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: Going Home by Harriet Evans

I really enjoy Harriet Evans' novels, and this one didn't disappoint.  I'm embarrassed though to say that I started it around Christmas and didn't finish it until June.  Yes, here is one of those novels that just seemed to take me forever to read thanks to life!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "They say love feels like going home . . . But what if your home is no longer there? Leaving her tiny flat in London -- and a whole host of headaches behind -- Lizzy Walter is making the familiar journey back home to spend Christmas with her chaotic but big-hearted family. In an ever-changing world, her parents' country home, Keeper House, is the one constant. But behind the mistletoe and mince pies, family secrets and rivalries lurk. And when David, the love of her life -- or so she thought -- makes an unexpected reappearance, this one ranks as a Christmas she would definitely rather forget.

As winter slowly turns to spring, all the things that Lizzy has taken for granted begin to shift. Keeper House is in jeopardy and might have to be sold for reasons Lizzy doesn't understand. Her family seems fractured like never before. And, with a new man in her life, she may finally have to kiss her dream of a reunion with David good-bye. By the time the Walters gather at Keeper House for a summer wedding, the stakes have never been higher -- for Lizzy, for her family, and for love."

Review:  Harriet Evans writes great novels with a lot of characters and story going on.  This novel was no exception.  Let me cut to the chase though in saying that once things switched from a lovely English countryside Christmas to the toils of going back to work and her family's drama, it became a novel filled with tension.  I wanted to  enjoy my reading and relax, but found myself tense over the main character, Lizzy's, stubborn streak.  Things that needed to be talked about with her ex-"love of her life" and with her parents always got side stepped.  In fact, in the novel, the other characters commented on her inability to face the music and talk about things that were going on.  People wanted to involve her, but she strangely kept choosing to avoid everything.  I suppose she was protecting herself?  Obviously, this was how Evans meant to create the character and her story; I just found it put off any hope of resolution and kept the story dragging along a bit.  If we as readers don't know what's happening, then in some ways it doesn't matter to us.  

Thankfully, we find out that her family might lose their lovely family home and why.  Everything starts to unfold and Lizzy begins to be more honest with herself.  I appreciated that and finally really started to enjoy the novel after that point.  For me, the first 150 and the last 100 pages were the best and had me enjoying that escape reading experience that I love.

On the whole, I liked Going Home.  Admittedly, I'm a bigger fan of A Hopeless Romantic, but can now see some of the techniques that Evans might be using to draw out the storyline a bit.  I still find myself relating to her main female characters (stubborn streak and all) and hoping that they will get their final bit of happiness.  If you like British "Chick Lit" then you should try Harriet Evans.  I will continue to read her novels because they are interesting stories with a setting and themes I enjoy and just can't seem to get enough of in the long run!

*FTC Disclosure:  Review is based on a personal copy of the novel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The W's of Reading: Required Reading?

I know.  I've been a little MIA again.  The truth is, I've been working on professional development courses this summer that require A LOT of online reading (because the courses are online).  Trust me, it has been a nice change from my normal grind, but all this reading has led me to this "W's of Reading" post.  What do you do when "required reading" starts to weigh you down? 

Honestly, I can hear myself answer this question.  Here's how that would look:

Me:  Well, I like to use fun/choice reading as an incentive to get the required stuff...out...of...the...way!

Me Now:  Yes, I usually do that, but reading all this professional stuff is bumming me out.  I just want to play Jewel Quest or online solitaire when I finish.

Me:  Fine.  Whine about it.  I gave you my answer, so what more do you want?

Horror of horrors, I realized that this is probably how some of my students feel. *sigh*  That means that I have to figure this out. 

Truth be told, I think that this is more about the level of burn out I felt this year.  Maybe I should have considered this before I signed up?  It seems like you have to come at required reading with gusto--which I don't have.  In school, I was that student who got all excited when we checked out a new novel; I was that college student who looked forward (yes, it's crazy) to getting new textbooks!  I just love(d) books.  That's why this feeling is a little odd.

All right, so I think I've figured out that I was just too burned out this year, so all of this professional/required reading is getting to me and driving me away from the things I love (i.e. my blog, my fun reading, etc.).  What about you? 

What do you do (or have done) when required reading (review requests or professional reading) gets you down? 

Anyone else out there escaping to a mind-numbing game of Jewel Quest???  Please come take it away from me!!!  I'm matching three cars in traffic that are alike.  It's just wrong.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Stitches by David Small

What a nice week!  Although my Goodreads Challenge tells me I'm 2 books behind, I've been reading a lot this week and will have several books finished in no time.  It has been a great, relaxing week with my family.  Besides one absolutely KILLER cold day yesterday, the weather has been beyond temperate.  It's delightful.

Thankfully, all this R&R has made me so much more eager to get online and get back to blogging!  It's time to catch up on reviews, so I have to share this amazing graphic novel I read last month. 

Synopsis:  In this graphic novel, we get the startling and touching memoir of David Small.  As a child, his well-meaning parents raised him with a starkness that left him unhappy and even angry.  Not understanding his parents' issues until he was much older, the story merely enters into the trauma and tragedy that young David experienced.

After developing cancer as a young boy, that resulted in him losing one of his vocal chords, he spent a lot of time growing up with an imposed silence and a scar that left him feeling tormented.  How do you talk back to clueless and sometimes cruel parents and family members when you can't speak? 

Review:  I've had Stitches on my shelf for some time, possibly intimidated by its ghoulish looking cover.  Thankfully I pulled it out and was completely absorbed in the story from the beginning.  Told from the perspective of the author as a little boy, his memories are clouded with the surreal and the stark.  The memories that stood out to him the most were those that shaped him and transformed his future.  His story was and is mesmerizing and one that I couldn't put down.

The writing and pictures in this graphic novel are superb.  They set this gray-about-the-edges tone to the piece that makes you feel an incredible amount of angst for this child.  I wanted nothing more than for him to triumph, which is hinted at by the fact that he has published this genius piece and been the finalist in multiple awards, including the 2009 National Book Award. 

His story is haunting, human, and humble.  In some strange way, those things that tormented David are the grand-size version of things that haunt all of us as adults.  Although I haven't experienced a fraction of what he has, his story touched me and reminded me of some of the isolation, fear, and anger that always go along with growing up--even if it's only minuscule.  His ability to create a life out of what appears to be some of the greatest horror, is inspiring.

Stitches is genius.  For graphic novels, this is definitely on the serious side, with dark tones and topics; however, it was one of the best stories I've read in awhile. 

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th of July!

Happy Independence Day to everyone here in the U.S.!  We skipped the parades this morning in exchange for sleeping in, which was a great decision, in my opinion.  Now we're heading off to a family BBQ and a bonfire later tonight.  It's going to be a great celebration that is as chilled out as possible. 

I don't know that I'll be sneaking in any reading today, which is fine with me.  I have family that will be moving to the Midwest soon, so we're just going to all hang out together, while we can.  It's going to be great, relaxing fun!  If you don't believe me, let me share the beautiful, sunset view from my mom's house.  This reminds me why the country is so darn relaxing.

Have a great day, wherever you're at!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Paris in July 2012

Bonjour! It's that glorious time again to celebrate Paris in July!  Last year I had just gotten home from France, so I was really eager to join in.  Although my trip was a year ago, that one month wasn't long enough and I'd like to participate again. 

As with last year, Tamara at Thyme for Tea and Karen at Bookbath are hosting this fun month.  It will run from July 1st to the 31st, and as they mentioned, "...the aim of the month is to celebrate our French experiences through reading, watching, listening to, observing, cooking, and eating all things French."  Here are some of the things you could do to participate:
  • Reading a French book--fiction or non-fiction
  • Watching a French movie  (Here is my "triple" review from last year if you want options!)
  • Listening to French music
  • Cooking French food
  • Experiencing French art, architecture, or travel (or reminiscing about past travel to France)
  • Or anything else French inspired you can think of...

I'm really excited to do something non-work related, so I'm eager to get going on this fun challenge!  I know I have two books already started and a few other ideas brewing.

Last year I purchased some Edith Piaf music, thanks to a little experience on our bus ride through France that I'll share later.  I've seen this movie before, but remember very little about it and had next to no context for the story.  This time, I'm coming with a bit more knowledge and a lot more curiosity!

Remember this disaster?  Well, I'd like to try this again.  I'm going to do a little reading up on Apple Tart Tatin and see if I can get it right.  Now, who can I take all my attempts to, because this would ruin my diet!

I'm actually already reading Paris My Sweet and want to finish it up soon.  The discussions about food are torture, but such SWEET torture! 

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is actually Juliet Grey's follow up novel to Becoming Marie Antoinette, which I reviewed here on my blog.  (See review here:  Becoming Marie Antoinette)  I've had this on hold at the library for months now, so I'm excited to get reading.  I actually started it today and got sucked in pretty quickly.  I've been reading a lot about Marie Antoinette and the kings of Versailles, so this will be another fun one to read.

Well, that is what I'll be doing.  I'm not sure if I'll be posting on specific days or not, but I really am excited to get started.  For information, visit Tamara or Karen's blogs to get started.  I'd love to know if you'll be joining in and what you're thinking about doing for it.  Au revoir!