Monday, September 30, 2013

Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes

Just a mid-day list about my favorite things:

1. Coffee. Caribou was selling a pink mug for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it comes with free refills for a whole month! Now if they just had a drive-through, I'd be set. Also, they have the best slogan.

2. Katy Perry. No, seriously, have you heard her new song? It's like Ace of Base meets Madonna meets 2013.

3. Mindy Kaling. Just read this interview and then try to tell me she's not the best thing since sliced bread. 

4. Greeting cards! The Postal Service might be a little slow, but mailing things is totally underrated. Who knew Halloween cards could be so much fun?

5. Baby clothes. I am now an auntie (horray!) and I plan on having the best-dressed little nephew around.

Coming soon, part three of Anna Karenina. I know, you've just been dying to see how the story continues . . .

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Another Nora to Love

Maybe when I have a daughter I should name her Nora, because everyone named Nora is awesome. 

I've already "waxed poetically" about my love of Nora Ephron and now here I am, singing the praises of one Nora Roberts - yes, the New York Times bestselling author of over 200 romance novels (that's a lot of novels!!!!).

Romance novels often get a bad rap. While there are certainly some stinkers out there, I don't believe the genre as a whole should be dismissed. There is bad science fiction, bad children's fiction, bad historical fiction, bad mystery novels - and yet, romance novels are written off as silly stories with flighty women that create unrealistic expectations for real world romance. Well, I am here to tell you that Nora Roberts is no Walt Disney. 

In the eyes of my mother and myself, Roberts represents all that is good about the genre. Not only has Roberts written many great stand-alone stories, she has trilogies (and some quartets) down to an absolute science. Some might argue that Roberts formulaic stories and consistently happy endings are indicative of vapid, empty story telling. I aim to disagree. In all of Roberts stories the main characters are strong, generally independent women (or even men! Some of her novels have male main characters! I challenge you to name another romance novelist who does that (and if you do, please tell me because I will definitely read it)). The romance story line is always framed by a greater journey - be it a fantastic journey of strength and ghosts, or four women building a business from the ground up - and that journey is what gives women agency and power. Roberts books may be romance novels, but Twilight and silly damsel-in-distress tales they are not (yes, I read the entire Twilight series, and it is silly and harmless for someone in their twenties, but it portrays a fairly dysfunctional relationship which could be problematic for the young girls reading it). And yes, Roberts books include descriptive sex scenes, but they aren't anything crazy a la E.L. James. The sex in Roberts books function as just one aspect of the relationship, not as the central focus.

My favorite stand-alone novel of Roberts is Honest Illusions. It's rich in detail, the characters are absolutely magnetic, and the main conflict is super-duper suspenseful. The troupe/family of magician thieves makes for an entertaining and morally ambiguous read. Sure, they're stealing jewels from "horrible" wealthy people, but does that really make it okay? Perhaps the Nouvelle family deserves the misfortune which befalls them. Furthermore, this book spans several years and the love between Roxy and Luke is certainly no fling, so there is no room for the "love at first sight" criticism.

For the most part, Roberts trilogies and quartets follow a similar outline and that's what makes them so great. The series generally revolves around three women, who are either friends prior to the story or become friends because of the central conflict. The female camaraderie in Roberts novels provides warmth and depth to the characters in a way that I think elevates her work beyond typical Harelquin fare. Each book follows the love story of one of the group, with sprinkles of the other relationships. I love this aspect to Roberts work - it gives the love story extra mojo and believability. Sure the couple in book one might get engaged at the end of the story, but they don't get married until book three, so the reader spends more than one book becoming invested in their love. The final book usually involves the two more cynical or "damaged" characters because they (REALISTICALLY) took longer to come around to love and each other. Though some of her books, specifically the Key Trilogy, can be more fantastical in the storyline, I have always found the love stories very realistic. Sure, they fall in love pretty fast, but Roberts characters are full-fledged adults (usually in the late twenties, early thirties), not young bright-eyed 21-year-olds. 

When I asked my Mom for help explaining why we love Nora Roberts she said "I think because Nora follows a certain formula for her writing. Readers know what to expect and that's sort of comforting. Some books can be stressful to read.  When you find an author who writes really well even though there is a formula you read them over and over". And she is totally right! I've already told you I love to re-read books, sometimes multiple times. And because Nora has so many books to choose from, it can feel like catching up with an old friend. 

Romance novels can provide a great escape, especially when well-written. If, like me, you experience moments of anguish as the bookstore because you can't afford the entire stack of books in your arms so you tell yourself to JUST PICK ONE, pick the Nora Roberts book, because it's sure to surprise you and is totally re-readable (which means it's a good investment! I always regret buying a book I end up disliking because that means I'll never read it again). 

And now some unsolicited recommendations:

The Villa - This one holds a special place in my heart because it's the first Nora I remember reading. Sophia and Luke are the grandchildren of neighboring wineries who join forces in more ways than one. They've known one another for years, making their love story all the more meaningful. 

The Key Trilogy - It's hard for me to put in to words how amazing these books are. The female friendship in this series drives the storyline and the men become secondary. The women meet when they are invited to a reception at a mansion in town owned by mysterious folk. Little do Mallory, Dana, and Zoe know when they embark on a quest to save the souls of three demigoddesses. 

The Inn at Boonsboro Trilogy - This is a recent series and is a great example of Nora's ability to write well-rounded male characters and allow them to steal the show from the women. Three brothers in a small Maryland town are rehabbing an old inn and these books follow their journeys towards love and family. Their mother is a real treat, giving Ryder, Beckett, and Owen a solid foundation from which to grow their family business. The girls don't hurt either - Clare, Avery, & Hope are equally as great, it's just nice to read a romance novel from the male perspective. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pondering Prep

There are many things I could write about Curtis Sittenfeld's coming of age novel Prep. One week later I still cannot fully make sense of my thoughts. So, for the purposes of this post, I will only remark upon the sexual relationships of the main character.

Prep tells the story of Lee, a young, bookish girl from Indiana who, through her own planning and effort, is accepted in to a preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts. Despite her parents misgivings, Lee attends on a scholarship and narrates her trials and tribulations, both internal and external, of her time there. A large part of the book takes place in Lee's mind - she internalizes many of her feelings, rarely exposing her true self to those around her. To be honest, I could not relate to Lee very well. I myself was a fairly regular high school student. I generally enjoyed academics, with few exceptions, and never struggled socially. Not to say I was Miss. Popular, but I floated somewhere in the middle of the pack and had a core group of friends, all the time remaining friendly with everyone.

During Lee's freshman year she develops a crush on a male student named Cross (after a brief interlude where she contemplates her own sexuality and the possibility that she could be gay). Throughout four years of high school there are only a handful of times when Lee and Cross interact. Much of the novel is spent dissecting her friendships with other girls and her general social awkwardness and insecurity. So, when Cross, seemingly out of the blue, slips in to her bed one night early in senior year, I am angry, confused, alarmed, and unconvinced. 

Unconvinced because the author failed to prepare me for this development. Lee embarks on a "relationship" with Cross that continues throughout the school year. I am embarrassed for Lee (perhaps that is the point). The entire relationship is degrading and ends in humiliation. While I could hang Cross for his part in the matter, Lee has pitifully low self esteem when the whole thing starts and she immediately tells him she doesn't expect or ask anything of him. The second time they are together Lee tells him "when we see each other in school we can just act normal." He doesn't understand and when she replies with "I won't come and kiss you in the morning at breakfast . . . it's not like I expect you to bring me flowers."

I am so angry with Lee - even one week after finishing the book. I am angry at Sittenfeld for putting Lee in this situation. I am angry with Martha (Lee's roommate) for not being more firm with her disapproval of the whole thing. 

Now, before you jump down my throat and accuse me of being a prude, let me explain. Lee comes from a small town in Indiana. In all the scenes with her parents they are upstanding, supportive, seemingly loving parents. One of their most memorable moments occurs when they come visit for parents day of her junior year and a horrible argument ensues because Lee is embarrassed by her parents middle-class status. Lee's parents are clearly angry because they taught her better - it's implied they taught her to value people. In particular, Lee's father is appalled by a friend of hers with plans to stay over with a boy. This begins the argument (in which Lee reveals to the reader point-blank that she's never fooled around), which leads me to believe Lee was raised to value herself and her body and not throw it around to a boy who didn't even so much as buy her dinner first.

So when Lee kisses Cross for the first time and engages in oral sex in one meeting, I am flabbergasted.  Prior to this Lee had never been kissed by any boy, let alone the object of her affections. Sure, Lee has low self confidence, but Sittenfeld did little to prepare or convince me she would allow this to happen. I just don't buy it. Lee and Cross begin sleeping together regularly, with few people knowing and Cross consistently attempting to avoid detection. The cheapness of their interludes doesn't help the matter. 

In their final confrontation Cross is certainly a jerk. I don't want to ignore the blame he so surely deserves. I'm simply commenting on the plot holes I wish to be filled. Perhaps the relationship is a manifestation of Lee's attempt to be accepted, but to my mind her great friendship with Martha fulfilled that need. Sure, she pines after Cross throughout high school, but not so much that it's constantly occupying her thoughts. Lee rarely mentions Cross to anyone until he and Martha are both elected class prefect. 

It seems as if, with other things, Lee didn't know how she felt about sex, so she allowed Cross to run the show. Earlier in the novel Conchita, a mutual friend of Lee and Martha, angrily tells Lee she is "shallow and conformist. You don't have an identity, so you define yourself by who you spend time with." That seems to be the case with Lee throughout the novel. So, in light of this, I can't fault her character for the toxic relationship with Cross. I want to, I want to shake her, I want to remind her of her own worth. I believe the novel would have succeeded in its portrayal of high school and the terrible parts of ourselves the experience can being out without the Cross relationship. Other than her friends disapproval, Lee seems ultimately unscathed by her experience with Cross. There isn't enough novel remaining to indicate she learned something from it. I am sure every girl endures mistreatment from a guy in one form or another and certainly to varying degrees, and I wish Sittenfeld had explored the effects of this relationship further, rather than just the immediate affects. 

Because, ultimately, the end of Lee's story could have transpired in the same fashion without Cross. The interview, the article, the school administration, graduation - everything could have happened without Cross.If anyone out there has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts. I owe a dear friend of mine some credit on this one - over G-Chat she helped me bounce around some ideas and discuss the book in some way. 

Have you ever read a book and been upset by the subject matter? 

All quotes from Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2005

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Channeling Matilda

Sure, I have a Kindle, but my wallet can't support my reading speed quite yet, so I often head to the library. Sometimes I am a little, shall we say, ambitious, and I come home from the library like Matilda with a wagon full of books.

Unfortunately, of the books I mentioned here, only one of them was available (well, technically I already bought The Night Circus, so I wasn't looking for it). But what happens when the library doesn't have what you're looking for? You find something else! (And add your name to the waiting list.)

I've been reading Anna Karenina on my Kindle, but then writing about it was proving difficult, so I snagged a paper copy in hopes that my thoughts will take better shape.

Then I passed through the "K" isle and had to get a copy of The Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I love this book - though oddly enough I obviously don't own a copy. If you're unfamiliar with Kingsolver, I highly suggest starting with this one. I owe my love of Kingsolver to Rachel McAdams, yes the actress. Several years ago Marie Claire ran a piece about summer reading and the editors read this book with Rachel. So maybe I picked up this book because it was celebrity endorsed, who cares?  It's a story of rebirth and personal discovery, set in the Appalachian mountains. The main characters at first seem dissimilar (and their stories are not connected in the beginning), but by novels end you will find their growth and personal struggles bring them together in a way that's both surprising and enlightening. Not that it's necessary for a book to be successful, but I find myself rooting for every character, even the supporting characters. And it's not that they are trying to overcome something concrete necessarily, but that you want what's best for them, whether that be to leave town and start anew or to put down roots. 

A college roommate of mine read American Wife when we were in college. It's a fictional imagination of a presidents wife and her experience in the Whitehouse and public eye, I am super intrigued. Then, a local friend of mine posted a recent newspaper article by Curtis Sittenfeld about the merits of living in the Midwest, specifically Saint Louis, and so now I have to read her books. 

Which brings me to Prep, also by Sittenfeld. Prep has always been on my reading list, another good reason to stroll through the library, you'll remember book titles you scribbled haphazardly years ago. I read this over the weekend and I am still not sure what to make of it. On one hand, I agree with the book jacket reviews which compare the main character, Lee, to Holden Caufield. But I don't know if I liked the book. At times I found the main character whiny and other times perfectly normal for an introspective high schooler. I made notes throughout the book, so once I get my mind wrapped around this depiction of high school I'll post about it - and hopefully I can articulate my feelings about the use of sex without sounding like prissy. 

Nothing like getting new books from the library while trying to read Tolstoy and a book club assignment. Opps!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Words of Wisdom from Nora Ephron

I have often struggled to properly express what reading means for me and my life. It's not that I feel ostracized by my love of reading, but when I attempt to explain to someone why I find such joy in it, I fail. Sure, my close friends and family understand because they actively see my reading. But new acquaintances and strangers on planes peer at me with mild interest, as if I'm telling them I like to play squash on weekends at the club.

Reading is so much more than a hobby. A hobby is something with an end-product, with an expiration date. Hobbies can come and go, they can wane like the moon. For a true reader, there will never be hiatuses or off-seasons, because to experience a time such as this would be like suddenly developing asthma in adulthood. After years of gulping down air you'd be taken aback by your shortness of breath and inability to make it painlessly up a tall flight of stairs. 

Finally though, I have found a passage which poetically and perfectly expresses how essential reading is. Enter, stage left, Nora Ephron. I picked up a copy of I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, a collection of essays published in 2006, this weekend and boy did it speak to me. 

"Reading is everything. Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."  

Add this excerpt to the list of reasons Nora Ephron was amazing. Perhaps this doesn't make sense to you, perhaps you think the amount of reading I do borders on crazy, but it would have made sense to Nora. 

*Ephron, Nora. I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Anna & Me: Part Two

As I mentioned here, I'll be reading Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, and blogging about my journey through one of the great classics. The novel is broken in to eight parts, so I'll post after finishing each one. To read part one of my journey with Anna, click here

Look how many copies the library had! Come on people, read a classic.

Perhaps I should have named this series "Russian Aristocrats and Me." While Anna is certainly a key player, at the end of part two I still don't find her story all that compelling. I imagine that her affair (which at this point is full blown) will become more torrid as time moves on, but I am still waiting for it to ensnare the other "subplots," not to mention my attention. 

Part two begins with Kitty, very ill, and a Shtcherbatsky family discussion regarding her state. Eventually it's decided they will go abroad (elsewhere in Europe) to see if a change of environment perks her up. Kitty's story throughout part two was my favorite - it's clear from the get-go that she is ill from embarrassment and heartbreak. Sure, perhaps her reaction is misguided, but at age eighteen I was certainly no level-headed beauty.

While abroad in Germany Kitty meets Madame Stahl, a bed-ridden woman and her adopted daughter Vrenka. Kitty grows as a character immensely. Where in the first part she is vapid and rather self-centered, when she experiences Vrenka's calming personality and general happiness of self, Kitty transforms - despite what her father says. Tolstoy writes that "it was characteristic of Kitty that she always imagined everything in people in the most favorable light possible." This realization makes me hopeful Kitty will return to Russia and reconcile with Levin. When Kitty leaves Germany at the end of part two, Vrenka jokes that she'll never come to Russia until Kitty gets married - her reply "I shall be married simply for that." And with that, I am a Kitty-Levin shipper. When Kitty refused Levin earlier in the novel I was not terribly upset because of her vanity and materialistic personality. However, now that she has been reborn, as it were, I have to root for the two of them. Levin, with all his family troubles deserves some happiness and lightness. 

When Levin discovers Kitty's has taken ill, because Stepan dropped by for a visit, he kind of well, loses his shit. Levin's reactions were just so honest - his internal struggle between wanting to ask after Kitty and trying to avoid the subject in order to stay on the path of healing was the most emotional part of this story so far. I've never read Tolstoy before, so hopefully he is nothing like Shakespeare - because everyone knows those dramas never end well.  

The affair between Anna and Vronsky comes to fruition in part two - and while I am curious about how Anna will navigate her marriage now, due to some major plot points I can't divulge without spoiling the story, I am not invested in their "romance." It seems so unintelligent on her part. Karenin seems only concerned when he realizes society is gossiping about Anna. In part one there was some glimmer of emotion and feeling from him, but Karenin quickly dismissed it because "jealousy was an insult to one's wife." Seems an odd approach to take in such a situation, but society was quite different back then. Karenin himself also comes to know of the affair during part two - and there is little discussion between man and wife regarding it. Tolstoy has caught my attention in that regard - HOW can this possibly end well for Anna? - but I don't necessarily want to root for her. 

I've been trying to take some notes while reading, so when I finish I can make a proper assessment of the novel, but I've discovered it's a little difficult with a Kindle - so, I did what any smart girl would do and grabbed a hard copy at the library today :-)

*All quotes are taken from the 2012 edition of Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy and edited by Constance Garnett

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Well Shoot, Now I Need to Order STARZ

Seriously, how did I not know about this? Outlander is amazing. Ridiculously, stupendously, incredibly amazing. If you are a fan of long books, Scotland, romance, or historical fiction, read these books. Diana Gabaldon has woven a story so rich in detail that I spent three months of my life reading this series and nothing else. 

I discovered this when I was trolling through Vulture and saw a casting announcement. How I missed that initial announcement, I'll never know - so let's move on to more important things: 

5 BIG reasons I recommend this series.

1: Real romance and passion. No joke, the love between Jamie and Claire spans centuries, time, and space. When Claire, a nurse in post WWII England, is magically (not with wand or something, just magic okay? Don't think about it too much) thrown in to 18th century Scotland, she ends up marrying Jamie Fraser, a lord with a tragic past who's attempting to evade the law, when she gets into a sticky situation. Despite having been married back in the real the world, Claire quickly grows to love Jamie, as will you. Their relationship is a battle of wills, due in part to Claire's innate modernity and Jamie's seemingly "ancient" ways. Hell, the title of the novel is a nickname Jamie dubs upon Claire when they meet.

2: A seriously evil villain. Without giving away too much of the plot, it's hard to describe the series main antagonist. Suffice it to say, he could rival Voldemort. Black Jack Randall's evil seems so sadistic give that he is a mere human. I have always found human villains more compelling than supernatural characters. There are more foes throughout the lengthy series, but Black Jack Randall is certainly the most memorable.

3: Historical fiction is the best! Didn't you know that? Well, in case you forgot, Gabaldon will remind you. The culture of 18th century Scotland serves as a wonderful backdrop for this story. Jamie Fraser's Scotland is in some turmoil when Claire enters the scene and potential rebellions are cropping up all across the country. In one of the books Claire and Jamie attempt to prevent a battle - with unforeseen consequences. The series even includes a journey across the ocean to America, where Jamie and Claire become major players in the Revolutionary War, so you don't have to be Scottish to enjoy the history.

4: Time travel. Stay with me on this one! In the first book, Outlander, Claire travels through time and there is little explanation. Some readers and movie-viewers always want an explanation for time travel - I am not one of those viewers. It's fiction people. Just suspend your disbelief and roll with it. I love fantastical elements in stories, that's what makes them a great escape from real life, and that's also why I don't want to know how time travel happened. I am far more interested in society and culture of a story and the relationships than the technicalities of time travel.

5: Did I mention how awesome Claire is? As a nurse in WWII and after, Claire had her own career and life prior to marrying Frank (her 20th century husband). Even for our modern times, Claire is a strong, independent woman - her personality and strength are only enhanced by her life in 18th century Scotland. Sure, things were certainly very different for women in that time, but they weren't just sitting around looking pretty and making babies. Sure, women didn't have voting or property rights, but life was much harder in the 18th century an at times women had to fend for themselves in times when their husbands were off to war. Claire blossoms in the 18th century - she not only learns new domestic skills, but she puts her medical training to good use and becomes a "healer." Her strength, perseverance, and heart drive the story in a way that makes me want to be zapped back to the 18th century myself.

Suffice it to say, I am very excited for this series. My mom got me hooked on these books and she said there have been movie rumors for years. I am thrilled the books will become a television series - imagine balling a class room full of five-year-old Christmas excitement in to one person. Then multiply that times 100. The time travel and plot make it near impossible to make a movie which could do it justice. Not only that, but these books are pretty damn long. Like, Game of Thrones long. Perhaps STARZ has found its own obsessive fan base - I know I'll be tuning in. If I could just figure out a way to get STARZ without paying for it . . .

Monday, September 9, 2013

Loving Classic Lit

I believe there are different types of reading. First, we read to gain information. Whether it be textbooks, the news, or an appliance manual, we read in order to learn something. Then there is leisure reading, solely for pleasure with no goal in mind. But to some, reading classical works or anything deemed too difficult or "dense" can fall into a subcategory of boring. But I'd argue that classical works are far more interesting than many contemporary works. 

Though I am often found reading recent best-sellers and contemporary fiction, I find love reading classic, seemingly difficult texts. High school and college forced me to branch out and read books I otherwise would have ignored. Now I find, outside of an educational environment, that I don't read them as often as I once did (part of my motivation behind Anna & Me). So, recently I've been trying to read new classics and find more must reads for my ever-growing list of favorites.

One main reason I want to continue reading classic books is the recent downward slide I see in high school English curriculum. My younger brother isn't required to write a single paper in his college course, and his writing skills are a little shaky. A friend of mine who is a high school English teacher, was reprimanded for assigning her students homework. In college I discovered some of my classmates had read The Notebook in their high school classes (I love Nicholas Sparks as much as the next girl, but does his work really have a place in a classroom?) Meanwhile I read 1984, The Scarlet Letter, The Things They Carried, more Steinbeck than I care to remember, and plenty of Shakespeare and Dickens - all works and genres I assumed were part of every high school. The funny part is, seven years after high school and three years post college I can't even begin to consider myself to be well-read. There are so many books, so many genres, so many authors, I can't even imagine how one could get through them all.

I love to read contemporary fiction, chick-lit, the occasional horror novel, fantasy, young-adult fiction (Jessica Darling, what-what?!), cookbooks, historical fiction, memoir, self-help, trashy romance novels - basically I will try anything once. There is just a part of me that misses being required to read older texts. I believe there is so much to learn from older books, about society and culture and humanity, that is seems a shame to discount those works because they have a reputation for difficult. When I began reading Anna Karenina I was admittedly intimidated. Not only is Tolstoy's novel heralded as a masterpiece in literary achievement, but Russian is not exactly my native language (obviously I am reading the English translation). But, you know what? It's not difficult. The language in AK is no more difficult to comprehend than Austen's novels. This realization just reaffirms my beliefs - if we learn to disassociate certain texts with "learning" and "school" and "grades," they can become something great. 

All this to say: if you haven't read classic literature since high school, make a change now. There is so much to be learned from their pages. And if, in the end, you still don't like classic lit, you haven't lost anything - classic books are practically free these days.

p.s. Is anyone else excited about the new Paperwhite? I haven't even had my Kindle for a year and I am already chomping at the bit like an iPhone addict for the new upgrade.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What, You Don't Read Cookbooks?

There is nothing more satisfying than finishing a good book. Except maybe finishing a book packed full of scrumptious, tantalizing recipes and photos that leaves you hungry for more. 

Since becoming an "adult" I've amassed quite the collection of cookbooks and my husband and I have been adding to it since we got married. We just bought two new books: Where There's Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling by Barton Seaver (is that not the coolest name?) and Joy the Baker Cookbook: 100 Simple and Comforting Recipes by Joy Wilson

I plowed through both books, cover-to-cover, in one sitting, because yes, I read cookbooks. They're fun! And easy! And delicious! And they often make me get up off my butt so I can make something. Now I've been day dreaming all day of chocolate cake and banana pancakes. And a good steak. 

In recent years cookbooks have become a thing of beauty. Gone are the days of list style recipes and few pictures. Cookbooks are now brimming with personality through the use of anecdotes, glossy photos, and general advice. I love to bake - don't misunderstand me, I wouldn't buy them if I didn't actually cook - but reading the tidbits sprinkled throughout a cookbook is a great experience. It's like reading someone's memoir or following your favorite chef around for a day. 

J plucked this from the shelf at Barnes & Noble last week and we both promptly fell in love. Seaver's book is chock-full of grilling, entertaining, and general eating tips. Seems pretty standard, but in a world full of quick and "easy" pre-packaged food products, the information in this book becomes unique. All of Seaver's cooking tips and recipes use the grill to prepare multiple-course meals. I have very little experience grilling - having bought in to the idea that it's a man's job - and I found all of the advice in this book novice friendly. Seaver gives readers the confidence and tools to try new, unexpected ingredients. Each section begins by breaking down preconceived notions about the subject, be it oysters, grilling techniques, pig parts, or chicken, and then provides information and resources from which you can grow as a cook. Though I have yet to use a recipe from this book (weekend, look out!), I anticipate it will help be become a better cook. The Pioneer Woman has certainly helped me in this regard and I believe Seaver's text will do the same. 

 Ooooooooo!!! I am super excited about this book. I might gain ten pounds over the weekend just baking away. I found Joy's blog through The Pioneer Woman and I just love her! Joy brings a great lightness to baking, even with all the butter, and her recipes are unique without being a crazy-unatainable-fancy-schmancy-mess. Joy's personality really shines throughout the book. I have always been more experimental in my cooking than my baking because there is so much chemistry behind it and I am terrified my cake/cookie/brownie/pie will end up flat and gross. Hopefully this book will change all of that! There is a section in the beginning full of tips, for instance, did you know brown sugar is just regular sugar with molasses added? I love baking because it satisfies my sweet tooth (well, my whole mouth of sweet teeth) in way that candy bars cannot.

So pick up a cookbook this weekend. You can be proud you read an entire book in one sitting - no one needs to know it was a cookbook - and you'll come out the other end with some new tricks up your sleeves.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dance, Dance, Dance!

I have been blogging about books for a few weeks now and it's time for a break! So buckle up folks, because the new cast of Dancing with the Stars has been released and I could not be more excited!

- I love Nicole (yes, I said it). She is very sweet in interviews, a total quote machine, and just real. I know, I know, she became famous by getting drunk on a reality TV show, but I think motherhood has helped her mature tremendously. I think Nicole could surprise us all and become a really great dancer. The only thing working against her could be the fact that her partner is a newbie. Hopefully Sasha Farber (team Saki?) will be a good instructor so Nicole has some good moves for her upcoming wedding.

Valerie Harper
- I love RHODA! How great is this? Valerie has a background in Broadway dancing, she has an awesome, natural personality, and is a talented actress. Many celebrities go on this show with no acting experience and struggle with the performance aspect - this will certainly not be a problem for Valerie. She'll also benefit greatly from being parred with Tristan, aka. the leprechaun. Tristan has often been parred with older contestants (oh how I wish, wish, wish the producers would give him a younger girl so we could see more physical moves from him), so he will have a lot of experience choreographing for someone with Valerie's skill set. 

- Oh, how I love nerdy guys on this show! Bill Nye hasn't been in the spotlight for some time, so I think he will bring some welcome humility and grace to the show. Apparently he already loves dancing, so if he can bring the same enthusiasm he has for science to the ballroom, he could go pretty far. Bill is partnered with a new pro, Tyne Stecklein, so hopefully he will have enough audience support to get them votes! DWTS has been on for so long now, I definitely think some of the professionals have their own fans who will support them with votes despite their partners.

Elizabeth Berkley
- Seriously, this cast just keeps getting better! I think Elizabeth will put on a great show. I'm sure the producers will use her background as a "showgirl" to their advantage, especially if she makes it far, but I think her previous work on Saved By the Bell will be far more compelling! Elizabeth is also parred with Val (yes, that Val), there is nothing standing in her way - unless she totally sucks. Val has a great personality and has developed really well as an instructor over the years. He made it to the finals with Zendaya and lost, so I think Val will be truly motivated to win it all this season.

Jack Osbourne
- Can't say I am very excited about this one. I don't know much about Jack Osbourne other than his family and his recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. If his sister Kelly shows up to root him on . . . she might just be the new Coco of the ballroom. Although, Jack is parred with Cheryl Burke, and she's won this thing a million times (okay, just twice, but she's been in the finals a million times). Jack looks a little stiff in his first promo shot, so hopefully Cheryl can loosen him up.

Corbin Bleu
- I gotta say, I love the fact that DWTS always puts a Disney Star, or former in this case, on the show. They are always energetic and enthusiastic about performing. If Corbin's performance in the High School Musical movies wasn't enough proof that he has moves, check out the lesser-known Jump In! Corbin is also parred with Karina Smirnoff and she has always been one of my favorite pro dancers. Karina's choreography is excellent and she always brings the right amount of sexiness. 

Christina Milian
- Hmmmm. I am not sure what I think about Christina. Other than her appearance as the Brooke Burke equivalent over on The Voice, I'm not sure what she's been up to since her pop-career fizzled out. I bet she'll have great dance moves - she is partnered with Mark Ballas afterall - but I don't know how her personality will translate into ballroom dancing. 

Leah Remini
- Oh boy, the tabloids were right! Leah was recently seen in the tabloids for leaving the church of scientology behind, so I am sure she'll bring some new viewers to the show. That aside, I've always liked her on King of Queens and I think she'll bring great spunk to the dance floor. Leah is parred with Tony Dovolani, so they should have great chemistry and probably some pretty funny banter in the studio. 

- Think I'm excited about this one????? I didn't watch Glee last season, but Amber's character Mercedes was not a big part of the plot. However, in the first three seasons she was amazing. I am also very curious about her dance skills. On Glee, Amber's character was singled out as a poor dancer, so I wonder if Amber herself has any moves? Amber is parred with Derek (aka. the Walking Ken Doll), so she will certainly be in winning hands. 

Keyshawn Johnson
- You didn't really think there'd be an entire season without a professional athlete did you? Keyshawn is a former NFL wide receiver, and if history is any indicator, he should do just fine. And if he doesn't, well Emmitt, Hines, and Donald might have some words for him. Not only is the lone football player a personal favorite of mine on ESPN, he is parred with Sharna Burgess. Sharna was Andy Dick's partner previously - she was so sweet and quirky! I am excited to see what Sharna puts together for her and Keyshawn. 

Brant Daugherty
- Who? This is the only cast member I didn't immediately recognize! Apparently he is on Pretty Little Liars, a very popular teen show on ABC Family (so almost a Disney star?). Brant is parred with Peta Murgatroyd and I have liked her every season, so perhaps this couple will go pretty far. Realistically, the core audience of DWTS didn't have any idea who Zendaya was before she hit the ballroom and she came in second place! That's what I love about this show. It's only really partially about your celebrity and fan base - because if you're a good dancer, the DWTS fan base will vote for you.

Bill Engvall
- Obviously there had to be a total wild card, right? Bill should be really fun to watch. As a comedian he has been super successful, but stand-up doesn't exactly require finesse. Though I guess it does require good timing. Bill will be a great contestant because he's fun and has no qualms about embarrassing himself, so there shouldn't be any hesitation to look goofy. As with Nicole, Bill is parred with a new pro dancer, Emma Slater, so hopefully that doesn't hurt his chances of becoming a good dancer.  

Overall I have to say, this will be a great season! I think there is a good mix of potential talent just waiting to be unlocked. The show is also changing its format slightly and dropping from two nights a week to just one. I think this is a great idea, I never watch the results show anyways (I'm guessing no one else does either, since ABC is dropping it from the schedule).

Now all I have to do is bribe my husband so I can watch the show in real-time every Monday and post a re-cap . . . hmm.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Learning to Have Great Expectations

I didn't know what to expect with the following books, but I ended up loving all of them - I highly recommend reading any of the three.  Always be open to book suggestions, even from new people or even strangers (that's how I discovered David Sedaris). I've never published a book, let alone written one, so I've learned over time to always expect the unexpected when it comes to a new book. 

- Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore.
We read this in my book club to kick off a love stories theme. This book was so surprising. The bible documents the adult-hood of Jesus, but there is very little known about his childhood. With some irreverence and hilarity, Moore attempts to rectify that by telling a rather tall tale about "Joshua" and his best friend Biff on their journey to become the Messiah. While the book is certainly fantastical in nature, there are moments throughout which make one pause and think about the true teachings of Christ. I found myself asking questions about life, love, the meaning of it all, and so many other things I didn't expect when I began reading. For anyone hesitating, I highly suggest reading the author's note at the end of the novel to assuage any fears.

- The Summer Guest, by Justin Cronin. 
Anyone who read The Passage and its sequel The Twelve knows that Cronin is a brilliant writer. I knew this, but was still happily surprised by the beauty of S.G. Where Cronin's other books are post-apocalyptic, S.G. tells the story of a fishing camp in the mountains of Maine. The characters - Joe, Lucy, Kate, Jordan, and the wealthy yet slightly mysterious Harry Wainwright - are deeply written, such that every character becomes your favorite from page to page. The story spans many years, but is told through the framework of one dying man's wish. Despite narrating with multiple characters, Cronin was able to create great romantic stories without taking away from the central narrative. This was one of those unexpected novels, one that slowly puts down roots in your soul and when you've finally finished, you realize how wonderful it truly was. Perhaps part of its beauty, at least to me, was its distinction from Cronin's other novels. I am always impressed by an author who successfully writes different genres and styles, without so much of a hint of their previous work (well, other than the book jacket). 

- Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
- Yes, I love young adult fiction. Ever since Harry Potter the market has been inundated with new series. I hesitate to compare these books to Twilight because the narrative is far richer and the magical world of casters (witches, werewolves, etc) in which the story takes place is more imaginative and more interesting than anything that happened in Forks, WA. The underbelly of a small-town in Carolina serves as the backdrop for a story of adventure, destiny, romance, and friendship, all told through the eyes of one adorably earnest 17 year old. Ethan and Lena's romance reads more realistic, despite the supernatural nature of their meeting, than those in other young adult novels. The existence of a love triangle is so short, I hesitate to even reference its existence. Ethan's loyal friend Linc and Olivia don't just seem like plot fillers - both are well developed and I found myself equally invested in their futures. If you're looking for a reprieve from the every-day, read this series (there was also a film made recently of book one, which received poor reviews, that I have yet to see - has anyone else?)

Next on my reading dock:

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern (this has been on my list forever and we're reading it next for book club!)
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan (per a former teacher's suggestion)
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield (darn those Kindle Daily Deals!)
The Light Between Oceans - M.L. Stedman (this has also been on and off of my list many times. I just read a post on EW that a director has been attached to the film, so obviously I have to read the book so I can then see the movie and hate it)
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (everyone raves about this thriller, I swear)

All of this, while trying to plow my way through Anna Karenina. What, don't tell me I'm the only one who reads more than one book at a time?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Anna & Me: Part One

As I mentioned here, I'll be reading Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, and blogging about my journey through one of the great classics. The novel is broken in to eight parts, so I'll post after finishing each one.

After finishing part one, I must admit I find the title of Tolstoy's novel to be a bit of a misnomer. The first few chapters are narrated by Stepan Arkadyevitch, a member of the Oblonsky family and devoted brother to Anna. Though Stepan mentions Anna, her character is not properly introduced until 6% in to the novel (I am reading AK on a Kindle so I am not sure how many traditional "pages" in to the novel I am, but every hard copy I've ever seen is pretty hefty). While I can appreciate a slower introduction to Russian society before meeting such a momentous figure, I assumed Anna would take over the novel once she entered the plot. But no - thus far the story has been narrated from various perspectives. There are several plot lines, none of which seem to be the primary.

Stiva (Stepan) begins the novel by whining about his self-made predicament - he has been caught cheating on his wife, Dolly, and she will not speak to him. I am not yet sure for whom I am to feel sympathy. While my initial reaction was to feel sorry for Dolly, her timid nature and malleability is rather pathetic and off-putting. 

We also meet Dolly's young sister Kitty, a young, romantically idealistic girl who probably reminds Dolly of herself before she was wed. Levin, and old family friend, comes in from the country to propose to Kitty, having left town several years ago thinking he had no chance. Levin, while on the surface appears to be a sympathetic character - his proposal is rejected after all - becomes whiny, a little misogynistic, and irritatingly idealistic once he begins narrating. Though he initially expressed ardor for Kitty, after much thought it seems he just wants a wife, any wife. Now, this is certainly not abnormal in 19th century Russia, but I hoped Levin would fill the role of romantic hero. 

Kitty rejects Levin under the assumption and hope that another more "acceptable" suitor, Vronsky, will make her an offer. Kitty's parent are split on the issue - interestingly so. Kitty's father believes Levin to be the better man while her mother much prefers the pretty refinement of Vronsky. I think it's a compelling role reversal - the father desires a strong, protective family man for his daughter while the mother wants someone shiny and new. 

Once Anna is introduced it becomes evident that she has a great affect on the people around her. Stiva called upon Anna to help mend his relationship with Dolly, which she does with little to no effort. Kitty immediately takes a liking to Anna - as does Vronsky. The interchange between the two of them will be the driving force of the novel, and though I am intrigued by their potential affair, I find the other characters more engaging. If Tolstoy doesn't set up Karenin (Anna's husband) as a right prick, I might find myself disliking Anna for her impending infidelity. 

Though Anna attempts to remove herself from temptation by fleeing Moscow and returning home to Petersburg, I cannot yet connect with her "plight." Obviously I don't know what 19th century Russian society was like for women, as I sit here in 21st century America next to a husband of my own choosing. Vronsky doesn't seem very honorable - when he narrates he fully recognizes Kitty's feelings for him (prior to meeting Anna) and yet still engages in behavior which would make her believe he loves her. He openly admits to loving his bachelor life with no plans to change it. 

Part One ends with Anna back home in Saint Petersburg and Vronsky in a nearby hotel, having followed her to confess his feelings. Levin returned home to his own estate in the country to nurse his wounds. Though I know, based on general knowledge of the story line  that Anna will eventually engage in an extra-marital affair, I cannot help wondering how this story will transgress among the other characters. 

I don't want to ask "does it get better," because like any classic book I'm sure it does, but I can't help wondering if Anna will ever become the character I long for her to be? Is Karenin truly that awful? Does Kitty snap out of her stupor and regret refusing Levin? Does Dolly and Stiva's reconciliation last? (I think no on this one). 

p.s. Happy Labor Day!