Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Blatherings: Just Another Week

Excuses, excuses, excuses.  I get so tired of my own excuses, but life is hard sometimes.  Even though I have more papers to grade than I even want to think about, I still thought I'd have time this last week to do a little bit on my blog.  Didn't happen.  This past summer, our department worked on a grant that we were approved for.  It was nice to have that work completed before school started, but I had the paperwork to turn in as proof of what we'd accomplished hanging over me.  I know.  It should have been simple and easy, but it was one more thing to add to the list.  On Wednesday night I stayed at work until 7pm to get things done, including that paperwork.  Next thing I knew--boom--I got sick.  That's just the way it works, right?

Have you ever had vertigo?  Well, I hadn't.  Thursday morning I woke up feeling like the world was spinning off of its axis.  I had never experienced anything like that before.  I had so much work to do that I really couldn't spare a day out of the week, but there you have it.  I was done.  Thanks to some great people at work, my classes were covered, and I had to stay home (on the floor for the first three hours) and recoup from the spinning in my head.  I had a killer headache the next day and have felt pretty nauseous ever since, but at least I'm past that horrible day.  Maybe it was a virus or something?  All I know is that I don't want to experience that one again!

Thankfully, my mom is here for the weekend to celebrate an early birthday; I'll be too busy for my real birthday, so she headed down this week.  She's been 100% okay that I haven't felt good enough to do much, but we did take the time to go see the fall colors.  Talk about gorgeous.  Where I live, I'm about 15 minutes from the base of two major canyons.  We drove up through both canyons along with what seemed like the rest of the state.  Regardless of the traffic, it was a really nice drive and view.  Now we can head into October!  I'm completely ready for the fall now.

Despite being crazy busy and sick, I still finished two books.

I listened to this on audiobook, which helped with my busy week.

Now, time to kick into gear and get some reviews posted!  How was your week?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: The Mafia by Marco Gasparini

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "An illustrated history of the Mafia, focusing on this highly developed criminal organization both as a cult subject and an important social phenomenon. Movie classics like The Godfather epitomize our fascination with the underworld of the Mafia, conjuring images of cigar-smoking dons and shoot-outs in pizzerias. But behind the romantic myths of "men of honor" and omertĂ  lies a very real world of murder, racketeering, and organized crime. Marco Gasparini traces the evolution of the Mafia from nineteenth-century Sicily to the streets of twentieth-century New York, to the international cartels that rule the illegal drug and arms trades today..."

Review: Like many people, I've had a fascination and curiosity about the mafia and what fuels it today.  This book, however, really helped me put together the history of the mafia in what was essentially a coffee table book that nails down the background, beginnings, and big players in this legendary crime powerhouse.  What I especially liked about this book was the organized way that Gasparini broke down the history.  In the book, he takes us back to the foundation in Sicily, Italy and what the mafia meant in the beginning.  Since I had often heard ex-mafia family members say on television that it was an organization that was created to "take care of ones own," especially here in the United States, I always thought it had some creepy, honor code behind it.  What I found through this book, however, was that it really was motivated by thug mentality that hid behind a code of honor.  Originally, it was a band of men who grouped together to basically tax all the landowners and workers in their area.  When people were too poor or resisted their brute ways, they sliced their faces and terrorized their families to make a point to everyone that this is what would happen if they resisted their control.  Needless to say, the history and reports over the last century have blown my mind.  The number of retaliations, murders, and criminal activities are shocking to me.  

Gasparini really helped to put a human face to the victims.  In the book, he showed news clippings and pictures of people the mafia held as ransom (one a little boy that they kidnapped to prevent his father who was in prison from ratting them out, who they later murdered) or were caught in the crossfires of grudge matches.  I can't even imagine what judge or police officer would dare go against these men, especially when so many of them were murdered along the way.  It was all pretty nauseating and frightening.  To be honest, the one thing the book leaves open is how the mafia can be stopped.  From the way the book lays out their history, their power seems endless.  Yes, they have captured and put away hundreds of powerful players and their pawns, but the system is very much still in place.  It's all very frightening.

If you're at all interested in learning some of the history of the mafia, but don't want to read a 400 page break down, this is a great place to turn.  Although it seems like a giant coffee table-like book, there is plenty of history and information to help fill you in.  I highly recommend it and think it is a great way into what I'm now realizing is a pretty convoluted history.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Blatherings

All right.  I had a lengthy blog post written that I deleted parts of over and over again.  I decided that it's time to let the post go and give a summary.  Here's what I've been up to, that once again, drove me away from any online presence:
  • Online Open House
  • Parent-Teacher Conferences, which went really well!  
  • Midterms
  • 95 4-page essays from my Juniors
  • 57 AP Literature Timed Essays
Anyway, that's some of my life in a nutshell.  It was a great week, but so busy that all I did was come home, grade a few papers, and then head to bed.  My students have been so great this year that I keep wondering if I'm in a really great dream.  They are just a really great group of kids which motivate me to work harder for them.  Now, how can I get through all these papers and still sleep?!?

Life has been pretty calm otherwise.  I bought my tickets to head to Michigan next month to visit my best friend who is in residency out there.  After a summer where I stuck close to home, I'm eager to get out of Dodge and spend time with my friend.  Now that I'm trying to really pay everything off, I don't see many other trips in my near future, so this will be a fun get away.  I can't wait!  I guess it will be my own little kick off to the holiday "season." (Speaking of awesome getaways, I so want to head to this awesome cottage in Cornwall, England called "The House in The Sea."  Awesome!)

Other than that, nothing much going on.  Here's what I finished reading this last week.  Talk about my great escape when I couldn't take how busy I was all day!

It's funny that my fiction reads were both vampire books!  These were my escape from my crazy schedule.  How do I end up reading more?  Yea, I turn the TV off early and I read so that I can unwind.  That's just the way I roll. 

Well, there's my exciting life in a nutshell!  I think this week will be a lot better and much slower.  Let's hope I can get back to the treadmill and maybe some healthy cooking?  Hopefully I'll get through some more great reads!

What did you do this weekend?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

What a great weekend for reading.  Why is that?  Well, I had a lot of work to do and I always seem to be able use reading as a good excuse to escape.  Let me be clear.  It's not work that I HAD to finish by Monday, so it's really not that big of a deal, but I have been procrastinating a bit.  That's okay though.  Life is good and I had a great, relaxing weekend. 

In the midst of all my reading, I purchased my tickets to head out to Michigan to see my bestie.  I'm so excited to go visit with her and to see her place!  In all honesty, I've really missed her and can't wait to just hang out together.  We see eye to eye on so many things and are like sisters.  Not having her close by over the past year has been tough, and I'm secretly hoping and praying that she tries to move back here when her residency is finished.  *crossing fingers*

All right, since I've finished a couple of books this weekend, I figured I'd better get myself back in gear and get some reviews posted! 

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder-a fantastic realm of fiction, history, and places she's never been to, yet somehow knows by heart. She retraces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family- looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota. She immerses herself in all things Little House, and explores the story from fact to fiction, and from the TV shows to the annual summer pageants in Laura's hometowns. Whether she's churning butter in her apartment or sitting in a replica log cabin, McClure is always in pursuit of "the Laura experience." Along the way she comes to understand how Wilder's life and work have shaped our ideas about girlhood and the American West.

The Wilder Life is a loving, irreverent, spirited tribute to a series of books that have inspired generations of American women. It is also an incredibly funny first-person account of obsessive reading, and a story about what happens when we reconnect with our childhood touchstones-and find that our old love has only deepened."

Review:  How much do I love the Little House of the Prairie series?  Enough so that I wrote a paper on my fascination with them and how they influenced my life for a grad school class.  When I first heard about this book, I ran to check it out and definitely was not disappointed.  Author, Wendy McClure, goes on a road trip and personal journey to see home sites featured in the series, as well as to recreate some of the foods they made.  Honestly, as a fan of the series who has read these books at least twelve times (if not more), I could totally understand the compulsion to dive into that world.  There is something magical about those books, especially if they first captured you as a child.

The journey that McClure takes us on as readers is really enjoyable.  Rather than a laundry list of sites and facts about the real people and places behind the novels, she weaves it into her own tale.  This makes it all more enjoyable and made me want to do the same!  McClure definitely seemed like a person I could sit down and have a chat with about these books and feel like we were on the same page.  The only discrepancy would be her feelings about the 3rd book in the series on Almonzo's childhood.  She admits to not connecting with his story, which felt shocking and a bit flabbergasting to me!  Who wouldn't love Almonzo's life, with the big fair, the gigantic breakfasts, and his parents big trip out of town?  

What can I say?  If you are a fan of these beloved children's novels, then you really have to get McClure's piece.  I loved the journey back into my favorite books so much that I started reading them all over again and then went and checked out Season 6 of the television series!  Yes, I am a fan.  And if you're not a fan and don't know what I'm talking about, then I shed a tear for you and urge you to read them--they're really sweet and fun.  (Besides, I'd be interested to see what a "grown-up" thinks of the books?  Maybe the magic came from a childhood journey to the West?) 

When did you read this series and do you think that being a child when you first read them is an important factor to loving this series?

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: Zombies Hate Stuff by Greg Stones

Does anyone else think that somehow zombies are becoming the new vampire?  Not that they are the romantic lead of a story, but they sure are the new "it" monster.  I can't say where I found this cute little zombie jewel, but it sure cracked me up!

What's the premise?  Well, don't you know that Zombies Hate Stuff?  This little book is a hoot and there's no other way of putting it.  What does a zombie NOT hate?  Well, not much.  Each page pretty much focuses on one item at a time.  The funniest has to be the juxtapositions the author included, from kittens to hippies.  Talk about a weird contrast of items, but it had me snickering the whole way through it.  Honestly, this was a wacky, fun zombie-party of a time. This makes me wonder if this author has thought about a series of these books featuring different monsters/paranormals?

By the way, this is a picture book, but I'm not sure if a hatchet carrying zombie is meant for small children.  Then again, Halloween is on its way!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lidon Simonsen

Synopsis:  Set against Regency England, World Wars I and II, and postwar England, three love stories intertwine in surprising and fateful ways...

American Maggie Joyce, touring Derbyshire in 1947, visits an 18th century Georgian country house that she is told was the model for Jane Austen's Pemberley. More amazingly, the former residents of the mansion, William Lacey and Elizabeth Garrison, were the inspiration for the characters Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Through letters, diary entries, and oral history, a couple in the nearby village share stories of the people they say inspired Jane Austen. They also tell their own love story, made difficult by their vastly different backgrounds—she was one of the social elite while he was the son of a servant. When their son, Michael, travels home from his RAF station in Malta, Maggie may have just found her very own Mr. Darcy..."

Review:  I really liked the idea of this novel, but will admit to having struggled with all that was going on.  Between the historical possibility that Darcy and Elizabeth might have been real people, to the relationships between Maggie and several other characters, it was about all I could keep up with.  The writing is good and solid, with a classical feel to it that lends itself well to this story.  You feel like you're reading about several different time periods and I think Simonsen manages to set the tone really well.

As mentioned, however, I did get lost a bit.  Maggie is not only dealing with her role in WWI & WWII, which would be overwhelming and daunting all on its own, but she is also dealing with the history that she is uncovering about Jane Austen's most famous couple.  I couldn't tell who I wanted to latch onto.  Was I supposed to be watching Maggie's reaction to finding out that Darcy and Elizabeth might be real, or was I supposed to be more concerned with her survival and relationships in the present?  I realized that they were supposed to mix together, but it did take me until about half way through the book before I really cared about both stories.

Overall, I thought this was a charming book, but one that takes a little bit of a commitment to stick to in order to get the story.  I do think there is a specific audience for this book.  If you're a fan of Jane Austen and like these stories that consider the conditions in which Austen wrote her novels, then you might check this out.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher, Sourcebooks.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Giveaway Winner: Breaking Beautiful by Jennifer Wolf Shaw

Yes, still using this pic.  I love it still, even though I'm not in Hawaii!
Thank you all for your patience as I missed the day to get this posted.  Why I ever chose a Friday to post it, I'll never know!  :) 

I am really excited though to pass along the name of the winner for the giveaway of Jennifer Shaw Wolf's great novel, Breaking Beautiful.  Thank you to everyone who stopped by to participate; I wish I had a book to send to each one of you!

Thanks to RANDOM.ORG, I drew numbers for our lucky winner, and it was

Elizabeth F.

Happy reading to you and I will have your book out in the mail to you later this week.  Congratulations!

Sunday Blatherings & Weekend Cooking

What is it about a four-day week being, at times, longer than a normal week?  That's a little bit of how I felt this past week.  Work is work though, right?  I vowed to myself this year that I would try to "let things go" in terms of holding onto stress.  I've only been partially successful at that, as I still tend to let things stay with me after I've left work.  I have, needless to say, let a lot of things go that were especially toxic.  I love that as I've matured, I feel less and less of a desire to please people and more of a desire to just do my job and then let it go.  That doesn't mean I'm okay with the "amount" I have to do, just that I let the nonsense go.  You know?

Do you know what else I've only been partially successful at?  Exercise.  Talk about impossible.  There is this hideous fatigue and let down that hits once I leave work, and the endurance I thought I was building this summer with my 3 mile a day walks--well, it went out the window.  When I do manage to hop on the treadmill, my feet are still so achy from work that I manage to get about 20 minutes in before I'm calling it quits.  I suppose I'll just have to keep at it, because otherwise it's all just a big vicious circle.  Here's to trying and never giving up!

Reading has been especially satisfying lately.  At school we've challenged our students to a 40 Book Challenge, to read 40 books by the end of the school year.  I'll have to share the categories/genres we are challenging them to read, but it's a fun and exciting time to talk about what we're reading.  Some of the kids are doing a great job and TRYING, which is exactly what I wanted them to do.   As for me, I've been reading some great stuff lately.  One in particular has really stayed with me--The Love of Her Life by Harriet Evans.  I can't say much without spoiling the plot, but there is some real emotional turmoil in this novel.  It feels very real and close to my heart.  I know it sounds a bit "chick-lit" like, and I love that stuff so I'm not knocking it, but have to say that this one has hit some pretty emotionally charged situations.  I can hardly put the book down, except when sleep comes a callin' or I have work to do.  My hope is that I can knock out some more pages later tonight. 

All right, to end my post today, I wanted to share a little cooking experiment I tried out.  One of my new favorite shows on TV is The Chew.  I love their banter and the fun things they cook.  Daphne Oz is on the show and recently made her own easy version of a fudgesicle, minus the chemicals, additives, and excess calories.  (Click link for "Daphne Oz's Fudgesicle".)

The recipe is pretty straight forward, which I whipped up in my little smoothie machine.  I then poured it into my cute sailboat popsicle molds and there you go--homemade fudgesicles. 

After letting them set up last night, I finally tried one today.  They are pretty good.  I wouldn't say that mine were especially creamy, and I'm thankful that I cut back on the amount of cocoa that she called for.  You'll notice that I used coconut milk (not the canned stuff), which I think led to them being less creamy--also fewer calories overall.  I also used agave instead of honey, but only because that's all I had in the house. 

My final verdict?  Yes, I'd make them again.  They were easy, fast, and satisfying.  Mine were probably less than the 50 or so calories that she mentioned in the show, so I'm happy with them and think I'll definitely make these again.  Besides, the cost per fudgesicle is a real steal! 

Adjustments in the recipe for next time:  I'll keep the cut back on the cocoa to 2 1/2 TBSP, add a bit more agave, and try adding a TBSP of peanut butter maybe?  I think it would really add great flavor to them.  Overall though, they're still pretty fantastic.

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.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

Every night this week I've reached for my laptop to post a review, only to fall dazzlingly short of the goal.  Work has knocked me flat every day, which I think is always normal near the beginning of a new year.  Even though we're three weeks into our new year, I'm still getting used to the voice strain, achy feet, and psychological fatigue.  Does it mean I'm getting even older if it's taking longer and longer for me get back to "fighting" shape?!?

Thank goodness reading takes very little energy, because it has been my good friend after a long day at work.  Speaking of which, I have to share one of my favorite reads from this summer, I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella.  Talk about a fun read!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Poppy Wyatt has never felt luckier. She is about to marry her ideal man, Magnus Tavish, but in one afternoon her “happily ever after” begins to fall apart. Not only has she lost her engagement ring in a hotel fire drill but in the panic that follows, her phone is stolen. As she paces shakily around the lobby, she spots an abandoned phone in a trash can. Finders keepers! Now she can leave a number for the hotel to contact her when they find her ring. Perfect!

Well, perfect except that the phone’s owner, businessman Sam Roxton, doesn’t agree. He wants his phone back and doesn’t appreciate Poppy reading his messages and wading into his personal life.

What ensues is a hilarious and unpredictable turn of events as Poppy and Sam increasingly upend each other’s lives through emails and text messages. As Poppy juggles wedding preparations, mysterious phone calls, and hiding her left hand from Magnus and his parents . . . she soon realizes that she is in for the biggest surprise of her life."

Review:  Let me say it straight.  This was one fun book!  I smiled and laughed a lot while reading Kinsella's newest novel.  Poppy was every woman and I can't imagine a person not finding something to relate to in her character.  She lost her engagement ring in a "let me try it on" shuffle between friends.  Her cell phone got snatched by a rotten thief.  So then, her only option was to take that cell phone abandoned in the trash can.  Right?  Here's the thing, would you really answer it--honestly--when someone called?  I would be too nervous to take those calls, but Poppy pulled it off in a pretty hilarious way.

I loved Poppy, but once she met up with the owner of the abandoned phone, Sam Roxton, the story took an entirely different turn.  Sam is your stereotypical serious, driven, and stern businessman.  Somehow though, Poppy's witty personality became a great sparring partner as she convinced him to let her hold onto that phone and even forward his important calls and emails to him.  Then what do you do?  Well, spy on his life--of course!  

I really enjoyed I've Got Your Number for all of its laughable moments.  Honestly, I haven't seen an author capture flirting as authentically as Kinsella did in this novel.  There is that funny moment where flirting is just what you naturally do, to what you really want to do, to what you can no longer do because you like someone too much.  Somehow, she captures it all.  It's been awhile since I read a chick lit that had me smiling and laughing aloud this much.  If you've read Kinsella's novels before, I would definitely compare this to some of her other stand alone novels like The Undomestic Goddess.  If you liked those, then you have to give this a shot!

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

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sunday Blatherings: Three-Day Weekend Edition

As is typical of me, I'm reading way too many books all at once. When is it too much; when do I call it a day and stop adding to the pile?!? I suppose I don't know what a limit is and I keep adding to it with every passing day or week. I've always been an impatient reader and have rotated what I read, but this is a bit much, even for me. Let me share some of what I have in my current pile:


You get the hint.  This is only like half of them.  I had high expectations to spend my weekend reading and ended up watching television, cleaning, and sleeping,  It's not that any of that isn't good, but I wanted to make more time for reading.  I suppose I have ONE MORE DAY to get to it!  Tonight I'll be diving into this beauty and am pretty excited--although, do I need one more book on my pile?!?

 So, at work we just finished our second week of school.  My students are so good that I keep waiting for something to happen.  Maybe I need to count myself fortunate and get things on a move on with curriculum right, and stop bracing myself.  It's funny that I still wait for issues to pop up.  

One change I'm trying to make this year in my teaching is the number of informational texts I use.  The common core that our state has adopted has a large focus on these kind of texts so that students can practice comprehending and then synthesizing the information to make certain decisions.  I definitely think it makes them more ready for the real world, but I miss all the literature that I'm used to.  On the flip side, I get to do book talks and encourage them to read more great things for fun!

Well, not much is going on here, and I am perfectly fine with that.  Other than achy feet and losing my voice on most days, things are great.  I have very little to complain about, which is glorious; the bills are paid, I'm happy, and I'm healthy.  What more could you ask for?

I suppose that tomorrow I'll do a little cooking and maybe whip up a batch of banana or lemon poppy-seed bread to help me through the remainder of the week.  Other than that and a batch of response papers to grade, I'll be enjoying my Monday off.  What will you be doing tomorrow?