The best Christmas exchange theme ever!

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For this year’s gift exchange theme, our family has decided on this ridiculously fun one:  find out what “holidays” are on your birthday and pick a gift related to that holiday.

Simply type in your birthday (month and day) into google with the word “holiday” to find out what unusual things are celebrated on your day.  http://www.checkiday.com seems to be a good site for this too. 

For example, if your birthday was December 2, 2016, then you could choose from the following holidays:

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Today is Business of Popping Corn Day!

Gift Exchange Themes

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Back in 2012, I wrote about our family’s tradition of fun gift exchange themes, and it has proven to be a very popular post.  So many of you have contributed comments with your own great ideas (thanks for sharing!), that I thought it would be helpful if I compiled a new and updated list of gift exchange theme ideas.

The idea of a themed gift exchange for our family came about when I started to despair over the fairly meaningless gift exchanges we were resorting to, where we would pick a name of a family member and then buy them what they asked for.  There was little thoughtfulness, and the gift giving did little to help bring us together as a family.  I wanted to turn the gift giving time into something more significant, where we would all join together and laugh.  Thus our themed exchanges began.  Sometimes we do practical, sometimes silly, themes.   The exchanges have been fun and successful, and we all enjoy and look forward to this tradition on Christmas day.  We do the exchange with the only the adults, but the kids look forward to watching the action just as much as the adults do!

With so many fun ideas, I have tried to group the themes into broader categories.  Take a look, and let me know which ones you have tried, which are your favorites, and which you want to try this year!  Be sure to set your ground rules ahead of time: set a price limit (we do in the $20-30 range, depending on the theme), provide tips on how you want the theme interpreted, etc.

Practical or Useful

  • yard and garden, outdoors
  • emergency preparedness, survivor, end of the world
  • things to hang on a wall
  • games and puzzles
  • restaurant gift card (no fast food)
  • curious kitchen gadgets
  • food, sweets, treats, snacks
  • coffees, teas, liquor (often combining a drink with something else, like a book or movie)
  • magazine subscriptions
  • winter wonderland (gifts related to cold weather)
  • sports, scouting, beach
  • bags (backpacks, gym bag, purse, fanny pack, reusable shopping bag, beach bag, etc.)
  • bath and shower
  • condiments (a bottle of your favorite)
  • plush: cushions, pillows, blankets
  • notebooks, journals, calendars, pens, stationery
  • socks

 Personal

  • homemade, handmade, crafty
  • refurbished or repurposed
  • one thing you can’t do without (and buy one for everyone – small things like sticky notes, zip ties, diet cokes, etc.)
  • we have one and love it; thought you might like it too
  • all about dad, mom, grandma, etc. (especially appropriate if loved one has recently passed)
  • related to your birth year (do some research on when you were born)
  • gifts inspired by certain movies, songs, decades (that are meaningful to your family or group)

 Silly

  • As Seen on TV”
  • smelly theme (have some type of scent)
  • “’staching through the snow” – something with a mustache on it
  • ugly salt and pepper shakers
  • New Year’s outfit bought at goodwill – (exchange names) – must be modeled and photographed
  • fairy tale theme (anything inspired by or related to any fairy tale), magic
  • bacon related

 Random

  • boxed gift sets, gift baskets
  • must be purchased at a certain kind of store: truck stop, big box store, $20 at the dollar store, home improvement center, etc. 
  • must be purchased from a certain part of a store: such as a specific aisle (Aisle 9), the clearance section, on an end cap, etc.
  • starts with the letter of your name, or other letter
  • color theme, circles (dots), stripes, animal print
  • travel theme, global, around the world
  • seasons, holidays
  • “one pound” of something
  • science theme

My favorite books that I read in 2014

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Back in June, 2014, I gave a little workshop on good summer reads for my women’s group at Church, and in preparation I delved quite heavily, though somewhat haphazardly, into the “clean romance” genre. This included some Christian romance, classics, YA titles, and some random online picks that had good reviews. Unfortunately this field was very patchy for me, and I read a lot that was hardly worth mentioning. On the other hand, this exploration led me to one of my very favorite books of the year, Susanna Kearsley’s “The Winter Sea” (although I didn’t read it until AFTER my summer presentation, so it didn’t get on my list for that class, but I’m delighted to add it to this list today). Additionally, there were some great titles that I read for my book club, but, with the exception of “Call the Midwife,” I just didn’t feel like putting them on this favorites list. So, in the end, and once again, out of the 116 books I read in 2014, most of my choices come from the rather stellar world of YA fantasy. My first two picks are interchangeable in position; either could have landed in the top spot. They are so entirely different from each other that it is comparing apples and oranges, but in the end I put “The Screaming Staircase” first because it is such a uniquely fresh voice that I felt it deserved an extra edge.

2014 book 11. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud.  Although this book came highly recommended from somewhere (npr perhaps?), I was a bit hesitant to read it because it just didn’t seem my type (I haven’t read any other Jonathan Stroud either). On the one hand, the title is slightly off-putting. But, on the other hand, that same title reminded me a little of Nancy Drew mystery titles, hinting that this book is a mystery with a young sleuth/s geared to younger readers. That’s where the commonalities stop, however. Despite my fond affection for the Nancy Drew stories of my childhood, this book is far superior in so many ways, and will undoubtedly appeal widely to a young millennial readership (older readers too!). Stroud’s writing is top notch, and the story is witty, clever and fresh. He imagines an eerie future London that has been widely infested with generally evil ghosts, intent on malicious harm, destruction and revenge. Unfortunately, although the hauntings continue to spread, adults are unable to see or 2014 book 2combat these spirits. Only young children can. Thus a necessary ghost-fighting industry has emerged, largely employing precocious pre-adolescents. Yes, these books are scary, but in a sort of enjoyably goose-bumpy kind of way (not in the nightmarish, can’t sleep kind of way). Also in a silly, Ghostbusters-y kind of way. Add to the mix some fabulously intriguing characters (including our intrepid trio of Lockwood & Co. ghost hunters: Anthony, Lucy and George), an exciting mystery (on top of all the ghostly battles), and Sherlockian deductions, and you have a recipe for greatness. I loved this book, and am excited to report that #2 in the series (The Whispering Skull) is equally as good. I can’t wait for more! 2014 book 3

2. The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley.  This book was an absolute pleasure to read! That alone makes it deserving of a high rating, but there is much more to recommend it. I enjoyed the twin plots of a modern-day British writer and the early 18th-century Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. Both stories are well told, and I enjoyed being in each place equally. And I was utterly fascinated with the idea of “genetic memory.” Carrie McClellend discovers she is related to one of the 2014 book 4historical figures she is researching, and visiting Slains draws out ancestral memories of past events. This plot is both clever and compelling.
The Firebird makes a nice companion book (we find out more about the historical part of the story), and although there are no genetic memories to supply the continuing story, Kearsley introduces another character with a paranormal angle, a modern heroine who can touch art objects and sense their past history. Art that tells its own stories! And a trip to Czarist Russia. Of course I loved it.

2014 book 53. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth.  I became all kinds of obsessed with the BBC TV series based on these midwife books because the characters were so rich and the stories so absorbing, so I was highly motivated to add this book to our book group’s reading list in 2014. The book did not disappoint. Worth’s memoir is equally as compelling as the TV show. She is a frank narrator, unflinching in describing some fairly horrific living conditions and medical conditions common to the poor people living in the tenements (or worse) of post-war London. It seems incredible that anyone not born to it would willingly submit themselves to this environment, so I especially enjoyed Jenny’s revelations about the evolution of her feelings, as she warms up to the people she serves and finds a deep well of love and compassion motivating all with whom she works.  These insights make this book not only entertainingly informative, but also satisfying and enriching.

2014 book 64. Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones.  Kermit the Frog, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love your bold energy, your unfailing optimism, your innate goodness, your musical talent, your quirky humor, your leadership, your froggish charm, your casual greenness. With my unabashed crush on this loveable frog, it should be no surprise that I have also always been a big fan of Jim Henson. I knew that Jim was supremely creative and quirky, even beyond his beloved Muppets, but this book revealed a lot about the man that I had never known: from his childhood, schooling, family, dreams and goals, and friendships, to chronicling even some of his failings and failures. The book starts out in an almost-too-folksy manner, but once I warmed up to the simple, if stylized way in which Jones presents his facts, that very writing style seemed to represent Henson himself, so it ended up working for me. This was a very pleasurable read. As a side note, one of my goals for 2014 was to learn how to check out e-books from my library, and this book was my first effort at doing so. It was such a successful endeavor that I have become a devoted borrower of digital books. I love being able to immediately download available titles, and I really appreciate that the books are automatically returned when my time is up—no more overdue library fines!

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The last six books on my favorites list are representative titles of six wonderful YA series. Any of the first books in the series are superb and could stand alone, but in all cases, the stories and characters are only enhanced by a continuing narrative.

  1. The Far West, #3 in the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede

A magical western series? Oh yes. Eff and her family head to the borders of the Western Expansion to study the magical creatures that live beyond the explored edge and to assist the homesteaders in creating magical boundaries as they push into this new frontier. So much is still unknown since Lewis and Clark never returned from their exploratory trek (did a fierce dragon get them, or merely a stampeding mammoth?), but the amazing magical protection dome set up by the founding fathers, (Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and their like were powerful wizards all) still keeps out the most dangerous beasts. Our young heroine, Eff, must rise above the stigma of being a thirteenth child, and learn to control her magic while discovering who she is and how she fits into the world. These books have a bit of a leisurely feel, filled with lots of details about the frontier and the expeditions, but I think this is a strength not a weakness. I enjoyed hearing about their exploratory findings, both magical and otherwise. Wrede writes with such a confident and consistent hand that I always find her books worth my time.

  1. Palace of Stone, #2 in the Princess Academy series by Shannon Hale

This book is Hale at her finest: she’s an impressive writer and storyteller. Even though it has been a while since I read the first book (The Princess Academy, also first rate), Hale skillfully drew me back into the story and had me rooting for Miri and her new life in the city, without her losing her sense of home and old friends.

  1. Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris, #1 in the Mira’s Diary series by Marissa Moss

Mira can time travel in these books, and although some of the time-travelling back-story and rules are a bit murky in the book, the history is not. In this first book of the series, Mira visits the artist Degas in Paris and gets caught up in the Dreyfus affair. This was a great way to bring light on an episode of history that should get more attention. I also read the second book, wherein Mira travels to Baroque Rome to visit Caravaggio (!).

  1. Song of the Quarkbeast, #2 in The Chronicles of Kazam series by Jasper Fforde

16 year old Jennifer Strange is acting manager of Kazam’s Mystical Arts, where she scrounges up as much work as she can for her cadre of aging magicians and sorcerers. This series is so creative and whimsical and Ffordian (gosh, I love his books). This second book in his children’s series is just as delightful as his first, and I may have even liked it better.

  1. Waistcoats & Weaponry, #3 in The Finishing School series (with #1 Etiquette & Espionage, and #2 Curtsies & Conspiracies, and a 4th title to come out later this year in 2015) by Gail Carriger

I know you’ve been waiting for a steampunk series set at a girl’s boarding school, right? Of course you have (even if you didn’t know it)! And of course this finishing school (housed on a constantly floating dirigible) is, in reality, a training ground for espionage. The instructors are vampires, werewolves and mad scientists, all with impeccable manners and breeding, and the girls are talented, witty and resourceful, with Sophronia leading the pack. Great companion series to Carriger’s marvelous Parasol Protectorate, though these Finishing School books are ostensibly geared for younger readers. Delightful!

  1. United We Spy, #6 in The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter

While we’re at it, here is another series of books set at a girl’s boarding school, which is not all it pretends to be (yep, it’s really a super-secret spy school instead). Unlike Carriger’s steampunk books, this series is set in the “real” world, assuming that the real world has unbelievably precocious teenager girls, who are tremendously smart, intuitive and deadly. Most of the story is rather ridiculous, but that is part of the fun. The writing is fast-paced, light-hearted, smart and quirky.  These books are “cute” in the very best sense.  And, as the series progresses, Carter injects the stories with a weightiness that adds real life experience to the fun (and sometimes scary) unrealistic elements upon which the series started. These books were a fun and satisfying journey. I am enjoying Ally Carter’s writing and will check out other titles by her soon.

my favorite books of 2013

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I read 109 books in 2013, which is about 20 or so books less than previous years.  I was comfortably on my way to surpassing the numbers of past years when complications in my family life at home during the last few months of the year caused me to fall off my reading habit precipitously.  I’m not sure how things will fare for the coming year, so I’m lowering my goal to a hopefully manageable one book a week for 2014.

On a whimsical note, and to guide some of my reading this year, I tried seeking out books that feature talking cats, not only because I happen to enjoy a good talking cat character but also because, well, why not?  Unfortunately, quality talking cats books are far and few between—heavy sigh.  (However, I can mention one book, “Plain Kate” by Erin Bow, which has one of the finest talking cats you can ever hope to meet).  I also read a lot of good fantasy in 2013, as well as some fun books in the YA genre.  In fact, many of my favorites are labeled as YA books, although most of them will also appeal to a much broader reading audience.

Here are my top ten picks of the books I read in 2013, in rough order of preference:

10. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (Contemporary Adult Fiction)

Clay Jannon gets a job on the night shift of an independent bookstore in San Francisco, where a few customers repeatedly come in in the middle of the night, but they never buy anything.  Eventually, Clay and his friends try to piece together the puzzle and to solve the mystery of these strange customers.  It’s a book for the bibliophile, but it also crams in a lot of technology, and a little bit of fantasy too.  It’s a fun and crazy book, and it basically charmed me the whole way through.

9. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (YA Fantasy/Science Fiction/Steampunk)

Although it took me a little bit of time to get into this book initially, once I was in, I loved it.  And the ideas and images of the chalklings coming to life have really stayed with me since then.  Sanderson is such a skillful world builder, and this is one I will be happy to revisit whenever the sequel comes out.  Such fun fantasy.

8. Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer. (YA Fantasy)

I loved “Cinder.”  I thought it was a successfully clever cyborg update of the Cinderella fairy tale.  And I was highly skeptical that Marissa Meyer could do justice to a sequel branching off into another fairy tale (Red Riding Hood).  Happily, Meyer pulled it off—in a big way.  “Scarlet” might even be better than “Cinder,” or it could be just that I was so impressed at how masterfully she weaves the stories together so that they become integral to each other, and how cleverly Meyer adapts the traditional tales to her futuristic story.  Brava!

7. Quintana of Charyn, by Melina Marchetta (YA High Fantasy/Magic)

This is book 3 of the “Lumatere Chronicles,” and the whole thing is one massive trilogy of goodness.  I read “Finnikin of the Rock” (Book 1) back in 2012 and at that time, I thought it was an outstanding stand alone book, which really excited me in this era of plethoric series.  And, even though Marchetta went on to write a continuation of the story, I still commend that book for being complete in and of itself.  That being said, and with the additional caveat that Book 2 (“Froi of the Exiles”) and Book 3 need to be read together, I’m so glad Marchetta gave us more of these compelling characters.  She is a master storyteller.  The plot is so full of twists and turns and the narrative appears to have so many internal restrictions that I did not see how Marchetta could pull off an acceptable ending to these two companion books, but I needn’t have feared.   These are richly good, and so memorable.

6. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein (YA Historical Fiction)

Talk about surprises.  This book is an amazing one!  I found this story to be a fresh and intriguing angle in the genre of WWII historical fiction, with the focus on young British women (sometimes mere girls) as aviators and spies.  I was full of admiration for Queenie and her colleagues by the end of the story.  And kudos to Wein for her near-genius plot.  It won me over completely.

5. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro (Contemporary Historical Fiction)

It may be that this book appealed especially to me because I am a geeky art historian, but I think it’s good enough to have broader appeal than just my narrow niche.  As an art replicator, Claire Roth, is asked to make a copy of a stolen Degas masterpiece, but in the process of duplication, she suspects the masterpiece is itself a master forgery. And so the mystery plot thickens. This was a fun and informative read, even if there were parts that were less enjoyable (Claire’s romance had less spark than her art), and even distracting, such as the non-existent Gardner letters (the revelations to the audience actually take away from the enjoyment of the mystery, especially since the characters never see these letters….). But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable outing.

4. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson (Urban Fantasy/Science Fiction, Magical Realism)

I read this book back in January 2013, and it has resonated with me throughout the year.  It is a unique story that dares to combine a computer hacker, the Arab Spring, a vampire jinn, and ideas from the Qu’ran into one book that I found to be daring, compelling and thought-provoking.  “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”  There is another quote from the book that talks about how “…something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.” And yet the book explores how it might be precisely living in this “post-fictional era” that may allow people to again believe in the tales of the past. If the Qu’ran can acknowledge the existence of the jinn, why can’t our modern minds? The ancient alchemists wanted to produce a living book that could produce knowledge that transcended time–have we now reached a time when technology will allow us to combine the mythologies and religious beliefs of the past with the philosophies of a optimally digitized future to create an acceptable blend of the riches of all these things?  If you’re looking for something fresh and different to read, this book might just fit the bill.

3. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (YA Realistic Fiction)

Everything in this book is unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”  Not only do our main characters, Hazel and Augustus, bandy about their sardonic wit and perfectly placed observations and zingers, they have a cadre of friends and family who actually appreciate that stunning wordiness about them.  And then there’s the part where the kids go to Amsterdam, and it’s made painfully clear that the perfect words can cut both ways, for good and bad, and that makes this book all the richer and more meaningful.  I pretty much adored it

2. Life as We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA Dystopian Science Fiction)

This was hard to read in that it was almost too real.  And, once I read it, I just couldn’t (can’t) get it out of my head.  This is dystopian fantasy without the feel of fantasy.  Pfeffer imagines what would happen to the world if the moon were struck by a meteor in such a way that it gets thrown out of orbital alignment and wreaks havoc with the tides and other natural phenomenon on Earth. What works about this book is the very narrow viewpoint, which shrinks and shrinks as the story moves along. It makes the scenario extremely personal. Not only did I find myself wondering how I would deal with such a scenario, I continue to find myself pondering how characters in other, completely unrelated, books would fare (“I wonder how these characters making cheese in a remote Spanish village would deal with the tragedy in that other book?”).  Talk about memorable.

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helen Wecker (Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism)

Take historical fiction (not only of turn-of-the-century New York immigrants but also of medieval caravaners of the Sahara), mix in traditional folk tales of the jinn and Jewish golem, add modern twists to all of that, and you get a mesmerizing story of myth, religion, humanity and magic. The writing is lovely, the story is masterful, the imagery is memorable, and beyond all that, there are tantalizing messages of love and acceptance, of belief and wonder, of creation and art.  Simply wonderful.  Stunning.

the top ten books I have read in book club

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My book group has been meeting for 10 years now, and although the ladies who have attended have changed a bit over the years (due to people moving, time constraints, and even, sadly, death), we have finally settled into a reliable core group of outstanding readers who look forward to our monthly meetings of socializing and discussion.

We have read 112 books to date, and I have only missed reading 4 of those. Of those number, I have awarded 18 books with the full 5 star rating (“it was amazing”), and 51 books with 4 stars (“really liked it”). I only gave 2 books just 1 star (“did not like it”): “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult and “The Thistle and the Rose” by Jean Plaidy; while there were 4 books at 2 stars (“it was ok”), leaving 33 books at 3 stars (“liked it”), with a remainder of 4 unread, and thus unrated, books. That means we chose extremely well! So many good books. Of course, my opinions about a certain book did not always correspond with the group’s sentiments, but that’s just how those things go sometimes.

Our first book, way back in September 2003, was “The Princess Bride,” by William Goldman. I absolutely adored that book and I gave it 5 stars in my review, but like a handful of my other 5 star reviews on the list, I had read it BEFORE I read it again in book club, so I am choosing not to count those among my favorites in this list. Among those wonderful titles are: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.  These were all books that I considered for my top ten list, but, as I said, I had to cut somewhere, so I used the reasoning that it wasn’t book club that brought me to these stories (rather, because I liked them, I recommended them for the group).

The rubric I did use went something like this:

  • I liked it well enough to give it 4 or 5 stars in my goodreads review
  • The story has stayed with me or resonated in some special way
  • I had not read it before book club (see above)
  • It taught me to see the world a little differently

Beyond this, the book could just have had a certain je ne sais quoi that set it above another worthy volume in my memory.  That being said,  here are my top ten picks:

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10. The Help.  Books told from multiple perspectives can sometimes be distracting, however, this device, in the hands of Kathryn Stockett telling this story, adds welcome dimension, richness and perspective. I loved all three of the women who helped tell this story about black maids and the women who hire them (after being raised by them) in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. This story is full of warmth, fear, love, prejudice, injustice, friendship, dignity, heartbreak, and courage. I absolutely loved it, and admire Stockett’s own courage in putting such a compelling voice to this time period and these civil rights issues.

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9. Bel Canto.  I had thought about putting The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in this spot, but I changed my mind.  As I am thinking back to when I read these books, I feel like this one better represents my reading preferences.  Bel Canto also has the advantage of  being about music and the transcendence of art.  It also helped me become an Ann Patchett fan.  Her books are quirky (that’s a good thing!) but also thoughtful and resonant. 

HUNGER GAMES, THE8. The Hunger Games.  I remember when a member of our group pitched this dystopian novel as her choice for us to read, because in her description of its premise, it didn’t sound too enjoyable (and, at that time, it had yet to become so popular as to be a household name).  But we went along with it and were all drawn into the the compelling, and thoughtful, story of these children fighting to the death for public entertainment.  Chilling, but engrossing.  Definitely one to stay with you.

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7.  A Walk in the Woods.  Just say the title of this book by Bill Bryson and I start chuckling.  This book was so entertaining, along with being somewhat informative.  This was my introduction to Bill Bryson and it is still my favorite of his.  It did not necessarily make me want to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it did make me appreciate that it exists and to vicariously enjoy its beauty.

 

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6. Unbroken.  Hillenbrand is an able researcher, she has an ear for a good story, but most of all, she has the skill to weave many facts together to make a book that is compelling, informative, and down-right riveting. I would often stop reading just to comment on how impressed I was with the writing. And then, of course, there is Louis Zamperini, who is a remarkable human being. What heroes he and his compatriots (and his family) were and are. This was an absolutely fascinating and worthwhile story.  We also read Seabiscuit earlier in book club, and it was surprisingly good.  This was better.

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5. The Fault in Our Stars.  I adored this book.  It was unbelievably precocious, but I still willingly and happily went along with it: the witty writing, the perfectly clever dialogue (that could never happen in real life), and the drama of this “not a cancer book,” because “cancer books suck.”

 

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4. A Town Like Alice.  With a title like that, I was simply not prepared for how good this book was.  I had not known about the Japanese led forced death-march in Malaya during WWII, and it was pretty painful to read about.  But Jean’s humanity and courage has resonated with me in the years since I read the book, as well as the triumph of the love story in Australia after the war.  Absolutely worth reading.

 

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3.  The Woman in White.  How had I never read this book before (I was fairly steeped in Victorian literature as an undergrad)?  This is a creepy mystery with a deliciously evil villain and lots of lovely descriptions and language.  It is a bit of Gothic horror, psychological thriller and 19th-century romance are twisted up together.  Sometimes the classics are better.  I couldn’t put it down.

 

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2. Destiny of the Republic.  I never read much non-fiction before I joined my book club, but I have discovered that I really enjoy the genre.  This book is a gem.  It is a fascinating, excellent book that is both well-researched and well-presented.  I knew almost nothing about President Garfield before reading this, and I really enjoyed learning about not only this remarkable man, but also the other characters associated with his assassination and death.

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1.  A Sense of the World.  It’s been three years since I read this book, and I can’t get it out of my head.  For that reason, it is sitting here in my number one position.  Jason Roberts is a tenacious and talented writer, but the star of this book is its subject, James Holman, the Blind Traveler (1786-1857).  Writer and traveler give us a remarkable glimpse into a very different world at a very different time—the many cultures, lifestyles and wonders of the 19th century; but more than that, I still think about Holman when I am feeling unwell or sorry for myself, when I would just like to curl up in my bed and ignore the demands of the world: when Holman was deathly ill and had every reason to languish in his sufferings, he didn’t complain; instead he climbed an erupting volcano!  The man was fearless, courageous and resourceful.  Definitely someone to admire.

I’m really grateful to my book group for getting me to read things out of my regular reading patterns.  Sure there were a few that I didn’t like, but that is a small price to pay for the many wonderful and memorable books that I was also exposed to.  I’m glad that we persevered through the sparse years, when only a small handful of us would show up with any regularity (sometimes only two!), because now we’re a tight group of friends with a passion for books who tend to schedule our months around book club night.

Pomegranate Chicken Salad

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Pomegranate Chicken Salad on Croissant

006Last year during pomegranate season I added a couple of my favorite pomegranate recipes, including this one, but I wanted to revisit it again because it is so addictingly good that I have made it about a dozen more times already this year because my trees were so full of pomegranates that even after sharing bags full with all my friends and neighbors, we still have tons to seed and freeze.

Here’s the recipe again.  Try it!  It’s super easy:

  • 13 oz. can chicken breast
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing (adjust to your taste)
  • seeds from one pomegranate
  • 1/2 cup cashew pieces (I like a lot; you could certainly use less)
  • fresh ground pepper

004Mix all the ingredients together and enjoy on your favorite bread or roll.  The pomegranate seeds are a wonderful and unexpected crunch and burst of flavor against the chicken.  I have also tried it with left-over rotisserie chicken, and it worked out great.

If you haven’t discovered the ease of seeding a pomegranate in a bowl of water yet, check out my post on that technique here.

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artistic optimism

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CREACI~1  icarus

Comparison Essay (20 points).
Compare Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel (1508-12) ceiling to Matisse’s Icarus (1943-47).  Both of these images are products of talented artists who were using art to portray strong beliefs that evoke the feelings of their respective times.  Briefly explain how the style of each work reflects the ideas of the artist and the time in which they lived.  In other words, discuss characteristics of what they LOOK like, and how the way they are depicted helps us understand the attitude of the Renaissance or Modern eras.

Although many of my students thought I was crazy to pair these two images, thinking they had NOTHING in common, I saw something intriguing, and the more I looked, the more I saw….

My first instinct in comparing these images was for the students to pick up on the optimistic outlooks both images represent.  Michelangelo shows us a glorious and hopeful creation–God reaches out in his power and magnificence to impart the spark of life to the first man, his ultimate creation, Adam. This image is a clear representation of Renaissance humanism, a philosophy focusing on man’s potential, an updating of the classical intellectual “ideal” to a more perfect religious one.  Matisse’s image is not that different in theme: it represents an optimistic expression of man’s potential in a modern age.  In the 20th century, technology, science and the arts have combined in an outburst of hopeful expectation: man has learned and grown through the ages so that he has almost achieved that long sought-after perfection.  In evidence–we can fly!  The contrast comes in differentiating the motivation of a faith based, organized religion versus a knowledge based, individual spirituality.

Of course each of these images look completely different due to the contrasting artistic styles of their times.  Michelangelo expresses the idealistic realism typical of art at the height of the Renaissance: finely sculpted bodies, revealing both a scientific understanding of anatomy and an artistic eye for composition.  There is a balance in shape, position and symbolism.  Matisse, on the other hand, simplifies his image into abstraction, intensifying the emotion through pure color, and invigorating the composition through the uneven edges of his cut-out forms.

See, it really is a nice, solid comparison.

And then, I saw something exciting….
If you turn Icarus on his side….

Picture1 CREACI~1 (2)

Isn’t that cool?

The more I thought about this comparison, the richer it became.

Let’s consider the source stories.

The biblical story of God creating Adam stresses the connection between creator and created, Father and son, but then it goes on to tell of man’s fall from grace, his separation from God, and the need for a Savior (is that Eve peeking out through God’s arm, awaiting her part in the unfolding of this tale; or is it Mary with her infant son Jesus, He who will become that Redeemer?).

Greek mythology tells of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, imprisoned on the island of Crete.  In an effort to escape, Daedalus creates wings from feathers and wax.  As father and son glory in the freedom of flight, Icarus ignores his father’s warning, flies too close to the sun which melts his wax, and he falls to his death in the sea.

In both stories, creation is glorious, but in both stories there is also a fall.  Is it significant that Matisse assigns God’s pose to Icarus, the son?  Is it his over-ambition to become “as the gods,” in his soaring through the heavens, that becomes his downfall?  Is Matisse hinting that the 20th century’s technological ambitions may be its forbidden fruit?  Is there a hint that the same scientific breakthroughs that helped us understand life and the universe also led to greater destruction in the world wars?

Hard to say.  Matisse’s Icarus appears to be still in his soaring phase, his red heart pulsing to the rhythm of the stars, small suns of joy and wonder.  But, in another interpretation, could they be explosions, and Icarus’ pose read as a free-fall?

I prefer the optimistic reading.  Matisse’s work in general is filled with joy: color and light and joy.  Michelangelo also believed in man’s potential, equating himself as artist in many ways with God in his role as creator.  And isn’t it in this act of creation, of wings or art or airplanes, that we most reach that human potential in each of us?

fairy tales in a digital age

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I love fairy tales.  I have always loved fairy tales.  I read the usual ones as a child, and then I got books from the library so I could read more.

I went to graduate school in art history, but I wrote my masters thesis, in part, on fairy tales (and their illustrations).  I read more fairy tales than I had ever done before.  I read about fairy tale philosophies.

As an adult, I love reading the new crop of fairy tale re-tellings–you know the books that take the short tales of history and flesh them out, enrich the stories, create back stories, or update them in some way.  Some of these stories are rooted in the past; some try to reinvent the classic characters in a modern time.  Here are some especially good ones:

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But what I’ve noticed in the last few months is several books that have kept the classic tales as they are in the past, but show how they have been affected by a modern digital world.  Take, for example, Julie Kagawa’s “The Iron King.”  This book centers on the land of the fey from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Oberon, Titania, the fairie courts, even Puck (reimagined here as a sexy teenager), plus a Cheshire-like cat named Grimalkin (who I make special mention of because he is my favorite character in the book).  The spoiler of the book (and yes, I’m giving it away here, so be warned) is that there is a new presence in fairy land–a new kingdom, in fact–one not susceptible to the curse of iron, but rather born of metal, emerging from a modern age of technology and industry.  It’s not the greatest book, but I am fascinated by this premise.

The next book that struck me was “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer.  Here the Cinderella tale is recreated fairy literally, stepmother, prince and all.  However, it is not set in some medieval past, but in a future of science fiction.  Our erstwhile heroine is a techno-wizard as well as being cyborg (part robot).  Soon she is drawn into a plot to help the prince against a possible lunar invasion, not to mention find a cure for a plague currently ravaging the population.  Sure there are plot holes, but the innovation of this updated fairy tale made it extra memorable for me.

13239822Finally, I wanted to talk about a book that surpasses the others in originality and the philosophical queries it ponders.  This book is “Alif the Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson.  This is what Wilson says of writing the book–she has tried to:

imagine a world composed not only of recognizable twenty-first century dangers, but of the supernatural threats that inhabit our myths and dreamlives. Alif the Unseen is a story about the flow of information, about the power and danger of coded knowledge in a time when much of life is conducted from behind the anonymizing veil of a computer screen. And it’s about stepping from behind the screen into the real world, more fantastic than any fiction, where the choices we make shape the lives of those we love and those we’ve never met, in ways both seen—and unseen.

I found this story that dares to combine a computer hacker, the Arab Spring, a vampire jinn, and ideas from the Qu’ran into one book to be daring, compelling and thought-provoking.  There is a quote from the book that talks about how  “…something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.”  And yet the book explores how it might be precisely living in this “post-fictional era” that may allow people to again believe in the tales of the past.  If the Qu’ran can acknowledge the existence of the jinn, why can’t our modern minds?  The ancinet alchemists wanted to produce a living book that could produce knowledge that transcended time–have we now reached a time when technology will allow us to combine the mythologies and religious beliefs of the past with the philosophies of a optimally digitized future to create an acceptable blend of the riches of all these things?

I don’t have an answer for that, but I’m glad that the fairy tales of the modern age are allowing us to ask such new and intriguing questions.

favorite books I read in 2012

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I read 138 books in 2012, including 2 re-reads, one college textbook (a new text for the class I teach), and even one book that I abandoned (yet still reviewed).  Of that number I have chosen my top ten favorites of the year.

11235712In the number 10 spot I have chosen “Cinder,” by Marissa Meyer.  I have been enjoying the recent trend of fairy-tale retellings, and this one is especially inventive with the Cinderella story so adeptly reimangined in a futuristic cyborg setting.  It is very creative and fun, but most of all memorable.  I was left wanting to know more at the end of the story, so I’m glad there are more books coming out, though I’m a little hesitant that the forthcoming books will be focusing on other fairy tales–we shall see.  If Meyer handles it half as well as Jessica Day George does in moving from the 12 Dancing Princesses story in “Princess of the Midnight Ball” to the Cinderella story in “Princess of Glass,” with overlapping characters and a consistent world of magic, then I’m sure they will be worth reading too.

6060130Although a large percentage of my favorite books are fantasy novels this year, I do have a couple of other selections to highlight.  Sarah Dunant’s “Sacred Hearts” is one such book and comes in at number 9.  This book is set in a 16th-century Benedictine convent and explores the many reasons why women would come to spend their lives in such a place.  In that way it gives a little historical background of Renaissance Italy, and although the women described are fictional, you do get a sense of how restrictive the culture could be for women and how the convent could be seen as allowing its nuns a certain amount of options or even freedoms within its confining schedules and prison-like walls.  I enjoyed the main characters, especially Suora Zuana (the dispensary mistress) and even Serafina (a novice incarcerated against her will), and I was satisfied by the ending.  In addition, Dunant’s writing is lush and luminous in description.  I can see why this book got on a list at NPR of novels that should be made into movies.

1743390Another book of vivid imagery that sticks with you is “A Curse Dark as Gold,” another fairy-tale re-imagining by Elizabeth C. Bunce.  This is just my level of scary ghost story–it’s truly spooky, but not gross or horror-like.  With the story of Rumplestiltskin underlying the main plot of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution (despite an enduring curse and the death of their father), there is a lingering atmosphere of darkness and danger (but only in a delicious fairy-tale way).  I loved the characters, I loved learning about the weaving trade, and I thoroughly enjoyed the love story.  The magic and ghosts were extra bonuses.  Save this book for Halloween time for a seasonal read, or, if you can’t wait, read it now.  It’s that good.

10763598  Speaking of spooky, Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is also dark and dangerous, but in a completely different way.  This book is a wow book.  It is set in a gothic and ghostly Prague and is filled with so many memorable and unique characters.  As I was looking back through my year of books trying to fill an empty spot on my top ten list, I kept coming back to this one and finally realized that it needed to be counted among my favorites (here it is in the number 7 spot).  Although it is touted as a romance (“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.  It did not end well.”), I found those parts to be overblown and less successful than the story of Karou and her “monster” family.   I was very intrigued by the conflicts she faced of good and bad (are the angels good?  is her “father” bad?), and the consequences of choices.  I like the idea that good and bad are not always as evident as black and white, and that demons can be loving parents too.  It reminds me of a line from the song “No One is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods: “Witches can be right, Giants can be good, You decide what’s right, You decide what’s good.”  If you like fantasy, especially fantasy that is a little dark, a little funky, and a little bit turned around, then I know you’ll be drawn in by Taylor’s luscious writing in this book.  And, I have not been able to think about teeth in the same way since reading this novel.

11277218I am delighted to include another Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley in my list again this year.  “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” once again brings us back to Buckshaw, this time to enjoy the filming of a movie on site as the days lead up to Christmas.  Unfortunate about that murder, but Flavia is in her element as resident sleuth, only allowing herself to be a little distracted by the raging snowstorm and her determination to come up with some chemical concoction to catch Father Christmas.  Flavia is one of those characters you can’t wait to visit again and again.  And even though I would not be the sort of person to get caught up in her shenaningans in real life, I sitll relish reading about her adventures and quirky world view.  Plus, the writing is a joy.

SorceryCecelia_mech.indd“Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot” is delicious!  It is the perfect sort of fantasy, regency era, witty, magical, silly, original, romantic, mystery fluff that I just eat up.  I love the magic of charms and spells here–the characters are fun and enchanting.  And I adore the epistolary framework of this book, especially since it came about by the authors, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, playing a “letter game.”  Their writing excercise was so perfect, they got it published.  I am so impressed by this idea that if any one of my writing friends wants to have a go at our own version of this game, I’d be willing.

8041873Sometimes the books that make it to my favorites list are obvious–they were simply excellent books, well written, enjoyable, memorable.  Other times it is much harder to decide: do I choose one that I loved reading at the time but didn’t stick with me over time, or do I opt for one that I may have rated lower but has kept coming back to mind?  I generally go with the latter.  For example, I loved a book called “Cat Girl’s Day Off” by Kimberly Pauly–it was a delightfully funny read, witty and inventive, and it even had talking cats (I can’t resist those!), but it was just a fun, fluff book.  I really can’t remember much about it these many months later.  On the other hand, a book like “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer,” by Lish McBride, which I also thought was fun and funny when I read it, has only grown in my estimation as time has passed.  I continue to chuckle just by thinking about it.  I want to read it again and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel this year (“Necromancing the Stone”).  “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer” has a lasting, if macabre, charm to it (and it’s hard to get Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” song out of your head).  Did I mention that it also has a talking cat (sort of)?

9361589“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern was a book that I knew would be on my favorites list from the minute I read it.  It was a stunningly spellbinding book.  I loved the battle between a sort of natural magic vs. a magic of spells.  I found the story fascinating, full of evocative images, and simply magical.  I loved it all: the physical book with the lovely cover art, the striped paper inside, and the ribbon bookmark; and I loved the story and characters: that amazing clock, the magical competition, Marco and Celia, Poppet and Widget, and so much more.

10335318I knew next to nothing about President Garfield before I read this book, “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard, so it was a real pleasure to get to know a little bit about this remarkable man.  Of course finding out about how capable, honorable and compassionate Garfield was made it harder to read about how incapable his doctor was, and what a needless loss his death was after Guiteau shot him.  Candice Mallard does a remarkable job telling this historical story with precision and thrilling pacing.  There were times I could not put the book down.  This is non-fiction that is accessible, readable, and surprising (even when you already know the ultimate outcome).  An excellent book, and it is only my passion for all things Nextian, that keeps it out of the number one spot.  It was by far the best book we read in book club this year.

13001274For my top pick of the year, I simply had to choose Jasper Fforde’s brilliant continuation of the Thursday Next series, “The Woman Who Died A Lot.”  Thursday Next is getting older.  She no longer has her position at SpecOps, she has false memories of a non-existent child, and her body is stiff with pain and injuries.  Her children are intelligent young adults, but the timeline has changed so that their opportunities for success are not what they once were.  Goliath is still causing trouble.  Aornis has escaped and is always a danger.  Moreover, God has revealed himself to the earth again, and has begun smiting unrepentant cities—next on the list: Swindon.  Can her new job as head librarian at Wessex All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library Service provide her adventurous spirit with enough fuel?  Since she lives in a literature-obsessed alternate world, with the Book World only a read away, not to mention the tantalizing possibility of access to Dark Reading Matter, of course it can!  This was a fabulous addition to the Thursday Next series.  Yes it was a bit chaotic, but when the end of the world is looming, it is to be expected.  Jasper Fforde’s sense of humor shines bright in these wacky adventures.  I absolutely love these books.  Warning: Do not attempt to read them out of order.  Go back and start with “The Eyre Affair.”  And then keep going.  Fun, fun, fun.

snipping snowflakes

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2012-12-18 053I went a little snowflake crazy this year!  I have always enjoyed cutting snowflake designs from paper, and I have some that I made out of regular white computer paper years ago that I iron and keep for use from year to year at the Christmastime.  Sometimes I hang them from string from the ceiling; sometimes I add them to my tree decorations; sometimes I scatter them about.  This year, I bought an extra Christmas tree so I could let the kids decorate one and I could make a snowflake wonderland out of the other.  It was beautiful.

Disclaimer: I live in sunny Southern California and I don’t really like snow, but I think snowflakes are beautiful!

2012-12-18 032This year, I tried cutting snowflakes from coffee filters.  I have read about this method for a long time, but as I don’t drink coffee, I never had any filters just laying about to try it.  So I finally went out and bought some.  And, let me just say: I am a convert!  Filter snowflakes are so much easier.  The round shape makes it a snap to fold (in half, then in thirds, then half again), without any wasted paper.  2012-12-18 039The filters are much thinner than copy paper too, so cutting is also cleaner and crisper (and easier).  I cut dozens and dozens of snowflakes this year.

2012-12-18 014Granted, the paper snowflakes hold up better hanging on my Christmas tree, but the filter snowflakes were perfect draped on my garland and scattered about on surfaces for decoration.  I even started getting a little creative in my designs.

I’m rather proud of this snowman flake:

2012-12-23 002I made smaller snowflakes to decorate my packages as well.  It made the simple gifts more personal and festive.2012-12-18 054

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowflakes help make my Christmas decorations a little more merry and bright!  And they are a super affordable way to add quite a bit of impact.

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