Favorite Books of 2015

Hello, friends. Happy belated New Year.

I started this post, then Milo got sick. I have lost my train of thought about everything for a few weeks, but if I don’t publish this soon we’ll be halfway through 2016.

DT will surely call me a certifiable nerd for this, but….I’m so mad I missed my Goodreads 2015 reading challenge by about 200 pages. Where did December go? I got off to a great start early in the year and had a few spells where I was just tearing through books, but alas. Came up short.

I read some good books in 2015 (also some not-at-all good books). You win, you lose. Below are the highlights, hope they bring some reading inspiration to you.

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg – I read Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage right before and knew I’d want to check out her first book. Food, storytelling, and reflecting on life always go well together. (I also started listening to her podcast, Spilled Milk, and following her blog Orangette.)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – A rather eccentric, loner, curmudgeonly bookstore owner receives a surprise delivery that gives his life new meaning and a reason to find joy again. I could easily transport myself to Alice Island in this sweet story.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand – Wow. This is an extraordinary story. I was in awe of the capacity for human survival and spirit for nearly 500 pages. I don’t know how many times I said, or thought, “I can’t imagine….” Because I can’t. I really, really can’t. A true history lesson.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain – I just enjoyed this unapologetic behind-the-restaurant-scenes memoir. I love watching cooking shows and I have my favorite celebrity chefs. This book showed a completely different side to the industry, and I didn’t mind the raw honesty.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick – This was a strange, but sweet story. I’m kind of over the quirky, over-the-top-out-there characters I feel like I’ve read a thousand times. But Bartholomew Neil stole my heart a little bit and made me sad. I wanted him to come out of his shell and I was so happy when he and his little motley crew of friends set out on their adventure.

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper – Whoopsie, I watched the movie before I read this book. I enjoyed both. A dysfunctional family grieves their patriarch over the week-long Shiva and learns a whole lot about each other. The movie has a big-name cast, so I found myself thinking of the actors and actresses who played each character as I read the book. Which wasn’t a bad thing.

The Dinner by Herman Koch – Dark. I felt like the whole time I was reading, it was dark. Two families hiding the horrible secret of their sons. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likable, if that comes as any surprise with that description.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler – I listened to Amy Poehler read her book to me in the car, and as if I didn’t already like her….I LOVE HER now. I loved her stories and her wisdom, and she has plenty of both.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell – The mafia and a hospital….two of the most fascinating things to me in one book. So, LOVE. This book is fast-paced – Dr. Peter Brown is in survival mode and doesn’t give a flying rat’s behind about anything.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – A story, actually two stories, that toggles across the ocean and women who are distantly intertwined. I enjoyed the relationship between Nao and her 104- year old Buddhist grandmother. This was a bond the girl seemed to so desperately need for the wisdom, grounding, and esteem she could not find at home.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – This book was so sweet, and I just ached for June and her grief for her uncle Finn. Finn’s sad death comes with the revealing of a new friend for June, also revelations about her family and the complicated circumstances around Finn and Toby. I really, really liked it.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – I couldn’t help but think of Gone Girl when I read this book. I didn’t feel quite as dirty, but certainly as uncomfortable. A lost, lonely, woman with an addictive personality rides a train to a job she doesn’t have. Every day, she observes the world outside the tracks, and eventually gets herself wrapped up in a big old mess. The end was a little like….”Wha?” for me. The story, and its characters, just kind of messed with my brain the whole time.

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Favorite Books – 2013

I have to say, I read some really bad books this year!  (In my humble opinion.)  Or, put another way, I read a lot of books I really did not like.  That’s probably more appropriate (and accurate).

It’s always so disappointing to start a book and find 5, 10, 50, 117, 239 pages in that you have no way to relate to it, you aren’t drawn to the characters, the story does not move or inspire you, and you’re just stuck.

I’m one of those people who cannot NOT finish a book I’ve started, so I’ll power through even the worst of them – which is an enormous waste of time, and ultimately really gives me no satisfaction.  But an unfinished book would haunt me for years, I’m fairly certain.

It’s also a bummer to read something you’ve heard so many good things about – whether from family, friends, fellow book-clubbers, or reviews – and not like it one bit.  Then I feel like I’m missing something, or I didn’t get it and should have.  That happened several times this year.

Well, anyway.  This is about the books that were GOOD!  Here are those I really enjoyed:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – My book club read this last winter, almost a year ago!  For me, The Paris Wife kicked off three stories about women drawn to creative, artistic men, following them as they pursue their ambitions.  Paris in the 1920s was rollicking, filled with an artistic community that lived hard and fast.   At the center of this social circle:  Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley Richardson.  While Earnest is proving his worth in the literary world, Hadley struggles to define her place and hold their marriage together.  At first it sounds like a novel, carefree life, but it’s easy to see how quickly it can unravel.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle – This was one that my book club absolutely loved.  It was an extremely difficult story to read, and by the end you’re just exhausted for the characters fighting adversity day in and day out.  There was a passionate discussion and we actually spent the entire time on the book – no tangents that night.  It makes you think long and hard about how quickly we place judgment and the stereotypes we unfairly assign.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse – This book was….quirky.  I liked it.  I can’t even remember where I heard about it, but I loved the idea of this literary super team uniting to build a storefront with cherry-picked titles.  Not everyone appreciates their efforts, though, and the store owners unexpectedly find themselves having to protect their dream and the secret committee behind it.

Z:  A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler – I had to read this on the heels of The Paris Wife.  Another perspective of the Lost Generation, this time from Zelda Fitzgerald.  Like Ernest and Hadley, the Fitzgeralds’ marriage begins passionately and compulsively, but grows strained under the pressures of F. Scott’s career and the high intensity of their lifestyle.  Zelda seems largely misunderstood, living in an era when women often took a backseat to their husband’s dreams and eccentricities were mistaken for some darker malady.  In the end, Zelda’s talents and zeal appeared to be lost and it felt like she was largely alone to find her way.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan – I knew mostly nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright, his work, his life, or his affair with Mamah Cheney until reading this story.  It was fascinating, but the most frustrating after The Paris Wife and Z.  The characters are so much less sympathetic to me.  While I could applaud Mamah Cheney’s quest for independence and yearning to break free from the world she was expected to live in, and the person she was expected to be in that world, she often came off as totally indifferent.  She just got up and left her husband, her kids, her best friend, her life – and never really apologizes for it.  The ending, though….after everything, just made me feel hollow and sad for everyone.

Tell me – what did you read and love this year?  I can’t wait to kick off 2014 reading!


Feline Fridays

Hi!

Christmas is next week – next week! – ….are you ready?

I’m juuust about.  After a big wrapping session I’ll be set.

Milo, sink 1

It’s the last weekend with the kids before Christmas, so we’ve got a list of festive flicks to view and an early holiday celebration tomorrow with them and DT’s mom.  All shall be good.

Milo, sink 5

Milo, sink 3

Oh, and in case it’s not obvious, Milo approves of the new sink….

Milo, sink 4

(Because, naturally, that was of utmost concern when we were choosing a sink.)

Have a fantastic weekend, friends!


Book Club Snacks

I had the lovely ladies from my book club over last night.  We just read An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff – kind of a disappointing pick on my part.  The story had potential, but the writing was pretty dry, unemotional, and one-sided given the subject matter.  It just didn’t captivate, and to be honest I had some reservations after reading the description.  I just wanted it to be so much better and thought it might surprise me.  It didn’t.  We still had a lively discussion (for a little while anyway – before the inevitable non-book related tangents began 🙂 ).

I had Mexican snacks on the brain for some reason – maybe a delayed nod to Cinco de Mayo?

I threw together a super-simple bean dip, starting with a layer of refried beans, then a layer of (light) sour cream….

refried beans, sour cream

A sprinkle of Mexican blend shredded cheese….

sprinkle of Mexican cheese

Then topped with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and green onions.

bean dip, shredded lettuce

bean dip, tomatoes

Done!

bean dip 1

bean dip

And soooooo incredibly dip-able.

I’ve been having a love affair with avocados lately (sorry DT, I’ve been meaning to tell you), so guacamole was a must.  I need to do an entire post solely devoted to guacamole because it is one of the most wonderful things in the world.  But for now:

avocados

diced avocados

I also had a sweet onion salsa for another dipping option.

Coincidentally, I’d picked up cherries and strawberries for a fresh fruit offering, only to see this post come through from Heidi Swanson yesterday – how timely!  I didn’t jazz up my salad like she did, though – I stuck with straight fruit.

cherries

strawberries

strawberry and cherry salad

The table is set!

book club snacks

And oh, must have wine.

wine

Another fabulous evening with the book club gals!  We did some damage.

empty plates

Until next month, bookworms!


Favorite Books of 2012

I’m close to reaching my goal of reading 25 books this year….I feel like I’ve had my nose in a book nonstop and I love it.  I wanted to share some of my favorites here – I definitely found some great ones!

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is smart, talented, and successful – duh – we all know that.  This book shares her upbringing, her roots in comedy, her time on SNL, the creation of her own show, and comical anecdotes along the way.  She has clearly earned her stripes and further blazed a trail for funny women everywhere.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I could not put the first book of this trilogy down.  (Is it odd that I felt hunted while I was reading??)  The second and third installments – they just couldn’t come close to comparing and it kind of bummed me out.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

My book club read this last summer and we all really enjoyed it.  At times I thought it was a bit self-indulgent and Eat, Pray, Love-ish, but I admired Strayed’s courage to face her demons by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on her own.  Her upbringing in northern Minnesota was an interesting and familiar tie for us “locals.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

OMG.  This was another I could not peel myself away from.  The story is haunting, gut-wrenching, a train wreck – but I had to keep reading.  I just kept thinking, “I can’t imagine, I can’t imagine, raising this monster of a child.”  That you felt like you were actually living the mother’s life was all the more disturbing.  Chills and goosebumps.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

My interest in food and the culinary arts really made this book come to life.  I also couldn’t help but think of the movie Ratatouille (which I also loved) at times while I was reading.  Hmm?  🙂

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My book club recently read this and it was a unanimous favorite – right up there with The Help.  Death narrates the story of a little girl who learns to read in the era of World War II.  But there’s so much more….a kind and gentle foster father, a Jewish man hiding in their basement, stolen books that bring light and hope, and a small German village anxiously awaiting the impending war.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Oh boy.  I couldn’t put this one down either, and although there were a few uplifting moments, it was mostly drenched in sadness. This story painfully illustrates how a moment’s decision forever impacts the lives and relationships of its characters, and the enormity of collateral damage caused.

What have you been reading lately?  Tell me your favorite(s)!


The Happiness Project Journal

Last summer, our book club read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

For those who haven’t read the book, it chronicles a year of the author’s exercises toward happiness.  Each month, a new set of resolutions.  For example:

  • Get more sleep.
  • Quit complaining.
  • Clean closets.
  • Give proofs of love.
  • Ask for help.
  • Forget about results.
  • Find more fun.
  • Start a blog.  Hey, I like that!  🙂
  • Keep a one-sentence journal, which leads me to….

A friend, fellow bookworm and blogger surprised me with a little gift for the new year….The Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal.

Happiness Project Journal

Oh my, a journal!  A happiness journal!

I haven’t [faithfully] kept a journal in….well, faithfully….ever.

I had my little locked diary with key when I was a silly young girl with deep thoughts about my days.  I had a gratitude journal for a while in my early 20s.  I used to write down my dreams every morning.  But eventually, these fell by the wayside and I just didn’t keep up.

I’m really excited about this, though – one sentence a day is completely doable and will help me capture where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and how I’ve felt.

I started writing entries immediately:

journal entries

I imagine looking back at what I’ve written weeks, months, years from now.  Maybe every entry won’t be overly insightful or profound, but a memory will be recorded and I’ll see where genuine happiness was had.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

Isn’t that the truth.

Do you keep a journal?  Do you write every day or every now and then?  How often do you look back at what you wrote?


Book Club Snacks

Last night my Book Club met to celebrate the holidays and discuss our book of the month.  It was my turn to host, therefore also my turn to pick the book.  I chose A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flag.

I made a few snacks to feed my fellow bookworms, one of which happened to be included in the recipes section in the back of the book.

The Corn Casserole required just a few ingredients to be mixed together in a bowl, poured in a 9×13 pan, and baked for 45 minutes.  Easy breezy!

Corn Casserole ingredients

Corn Casserole ingredients

corn

Creamed corn and....corn.

corn casserole pan

Into the oven it goes!

The second little app I made was baked Brie with caramelized apples and onions (modified slightly).

Baked Brie ingredients

Baked Brie ingredients

Sliced garlic cloves were sauteed in butter….

garlic

And joined shortly thereafter with slices of a yellow onion and Granny Smith apple:

onions and apples

The vegetables were poured over a wheel of Brie, wrapped up in aluminum foil, and baked in a square metal pan.  (Notice I omitted the pastry crust.)

brie in pan

Can't you see the Brie under all that yummy stuff?!

I also warmed up some pre-made spinach and artichoke dip from Costco….LOVE this stuff!

artichoke dip

Of course I had to include a tray of goodies from the baking bonanza mi madre and I had Sunday.

treats

Wellll….I was in such a frenzy to get food on the table for my guests that I forgot to take pictures of the baked products.

No matter for the Brie….it turned into a puddle of cheese, onion, apple, and garlic.  Clearly it stayed in the oven too long.  Not photo-worthy in the least, my presentation failed.  This had the potential to be look so.  Much.  Better.  Poo.  The flavors were delicious, though.  I would definitely attempt this again, when I am paying more attention.

The Corn Casserole appeared to be a hit, though:

casserole eaten

Our book club did a white elephant gift exchange.  Here was my awesome contribution….

hangers

Anyone need a wooden hanger??

gift bag

Here was the even awesomer gift I got in return:

gift

I mean….those gloves??!!

I really enjoyed A Redbird Christmas….it was a quick read, and while nothing super deep or profound, left me with a warm-fuzzy feeling for the holidays.  Fluff, and some parts far-fetched maybe, but I felt uplifted.  I felt like a member of little Lost River….or maybe an onlooker staring into a snow globe and watching the town tick through each day.

The characters’ lives took on a sort of simplicity and there was an unmistakeable sense of community.  Ritual, too.  It was just the sort of read I need this time of year.

What are your favorite books or stories around the holidays?