Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Five: New Year's Eve

From RevGalBlog Pals:

For some of us, this has been an incredibly difficult year; for others it has been a year of many joys. For all of us, there have been challenges and questions and there have been blessings and--maybe even an answer or two! As we say our goodbyes to 2010 and look towards 2011, share with us five blessings from 2010 along with five hopes or dreams for 2011.

My blessings for 2010:

1.  Having a chance to visit with all my sisters and their families over the July 4th holiday.  We all live in different states - NH, NY, MI, and IN- so it was a wonderful blessing to gather in MI with all 3 of my sisters and enjoy some wonderful family time.

2.  Having a chance to visit with my "little" brother and his family also in July.  He wasn't able to join us for the MI reunion earlier in the month, but my husband and I were able to go down to Virginia Beach to help his daughter celebrate her engagement.  

3.  Having my 2 of my sisters and their families, both my sons, and one son's girlfriend spend Thanksgiving with us.  I miss having big family gatherings.  My MI sister and my NY sister and their families were able to come for Thanksgiving, as was my Los Angeles son and girlfriend, and our MA son.  We had a wonderful time and everyone when home with a great story "The year Aunt Debbie (Mom, Deb,) tried to burn the house down."  I had a huge grease fire in my oven as the turkey cooked.  My MI sister gave me a fire extinguisher for Christmas.

4.  Having our health is always a blessing.  My husband had a heart attack 10 years ago, and I appreciate every year we have together.

5.  Being able to complain about work!  With so many people unemployed or under employed, it's a blessing to be able to have a job to complain about.  And my husband is an employer so it's a blessing that he can offer 35 people jobs.

Hopes and Dreams for 2011:

1.  That  Elder Son find new work quickly.  His job was eliminated as of Dec. 23rd.  He was told Dec. 21st.  He is optimistic, and in relatively good financial shape at the moment.  My dream is that he finds the type of job he wants, quickly.

2.  That both my sons find happiness with someone who loves them.

3.  That I am up to the task of taking on a new role as church moderator.  It's a huge responsibility, and I have huge shoes to fill.  

4. That I can find a way to be happier with my current work situation.  

5. My hope is that I will take better care of myself -- physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.  I need to find balance, and I need to find ways to feed my spirit.

Not too much to hope for, and mostly things that I have to rely on others and lots of prayer to accomplish!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Blizzard Books

A couple of great reads to keep you occupied while the winds howl and the snow piles up!

The first is Fannie Flagg's new book. I've read all of her books, and this one is terrific!

I Still Dream About You: a NovelI Still Dream About You: a Novel by Fannie Flagg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hysterically funny, quirky, and vintage Fannie Flagg.  Maggie Fortenberry, former Miss Alabama and current real estate agent is planning a major life change.  She's closed her bank account, given away her belongings, and has left messages for all her friends.  Now is the big day!  But wait!  Babs Bingington, aka "The Beast of Birmingham", and Red Mountain Realty's archenemy, is about to obtain the listing for Crestview, Maggie's dream home. Crestview symbolizes all the best that Birmingham offers, so she delays her departure in order to steal the listing from Babs.  A mysterious skeleton and Turkish Whirling Dervishes also get in Maggie's way.  As Maggie tries to wind up her affairs and sneak away we get to know her friends:  Brenda, her African-American partner in the real estate agent, and aspiring mayoral candidate, Ethel, the nonagenarian purple-haired office manager, and Hazel, the midget who founded Red Mountain Real Estate and who rescued Maggie from failure.  I really loved this book!

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And other favorite author of mine:

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once again Lindsey Davis delivers a fast-paced novel of intrigue featuring Marcus Didius Falco, Procurator of the Sacred Geese, and imperial informer.  Falco and his entourage (Helena, his daughters, his sister Maia and her children) are still in Britain.  They are now in Londinium, visiting Helena's relatives, when Falco is asked to investigate the odd murder of a disgraced British courtier.  Petronius is also involved in the investigation, and we meet Chloris, the famed ropedancer and an important former girlfriend of Falco's.  Needless to say, Falco's investigative powers land him into trouble but as usual, he is able to disentangle himself and solve the puzzles presented. Along the way,a major tragedy brings Petronius closer to his new love.  I will be sorry when I run out of the books in this series!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the Day Before Christmas

And all through this house lots of busy-ness.  I was up at 6 making my final lists.  I wrapped 2 gifts by 7 am, showered, and got a load of laundry going.  I headed out the door about 8 am to finish up some shopping.  One of the difficulties I have each year is getting a chance to go shopping in a timely fashion.  Aside from a local Walmart,  and a few speciality shops, I have to travel 20 miles or more to go to a store that stays open past 6 pm.  And when I don't get home most nights till at least 6, that limits my shopping opportunities.  Someday I will get to Christmas Eve day with all my shopping done and all the gifts wrapped. . . but that won't be for a several years at least!  I have this "vision" that when I retire, I will have my house tastefully decorated, my Christmas cards written, and all my shopping and wrapping done by Dec. 15th or earlier.  I will spend the week before Christmas baking goodies to share with friends and family.  I will sit in quiet peace in the late afternoon with a cup of tea basking in tree lights and Christmas music.  That's my fantasy at least!!  Instead I rush around the 2 days between end of school and Christmas trying to shop, bake, wrap, etc.  My tree didn't get home until last Saturday, and then the lights went on it Sunday.  That's it.  No other decorations.  It's the most beautiful tree I've had in years with perfect branches for my ornaments, but it's just not going to happen.  It smells heavenly, and at night with the lights on it, I'm completely content.  During the day, it's a bare naked tree!

I'm waiting right now for the Best Buttermilk Pound Cake to finish baking.  This has been a tradition in my house for almost 30 years.  It came from a recipe my mom found in a Farm Journal magazine at least as long ago.  It's really simple -- butter, Crisco, sugar, flour, eggs, good vanilla, and buttermilk, and it makes the most tender rich pound cake I've ever had.  I dust it with confectioner's sugar and serve it for breakfast on Christmas morning.  It's one of the must have recipes in our household.  I try to bake it a couple of days before Christmas because the flavor improves with age . . .

Other must have offerings include Swedish meatballs on Christmas Eve.  I started making these years ago.  I put them in my crockpot, and then it didn't matter when they got served.  It's not really a recipe - it's ground beef with onion, celery, nutmeg, garlic, etc. shaped into meatballs. I usually bake them and then throw them it into a crockpot with a cream of mushroom soup base, with a little sherry, paprika, and sour cream.    We serve them over egg noodles. My kids used to complain that they hated them because of the mushroom soup.  One year however, I decided not to make them since they complained so much.  I served ham instead.  My kids were livid -- how dare I not make the meatballs!    So ever since, I have to make them.  My sons are now 29 and 30 and they say the meatballs are a dish they love to hate!    There are 4 kinds of cookies I "have to have" on Christmas too --- "Mrs. Greenhill's Shortbread"  which are a recipe my little brother came home with one year from his 2nd grade teacher,  Ginger Crinkles which are a basic molasses cookie, "Aunt Crissie's Butter Cookies" which are an icebox cookie that you roll out and cut into shapes, and the newest member of the must-haves, "Cranberry-Almond Biscotti."  I used to make Pecan Tassies, too and Magic 7 Layer Bars, but we've pared down over the years!   This year's baking has been off --- my shortbread tastes terrific, but the cookies themselves cracked and crumbled when I sliced them before baking.   The biscotti crumbled too.  I'm not sure what the problem is/was.  They look awful, but they taste good!

So now I'm waiting for Elder Son to arrive.  He's actually in town, at the office with his father, setting up a new office computer.  Younger Son stayed in California.  He and his girlfriend were here at Thanksgiving, and couldn't afford a 2nd trip back east.  We plan on a quiet and relaxed holiday.  My church service is at 6 tonight which is a bit of an awkward time for us this year.  It's always been at 7 or 7:30, and for some years we had both an early service and one at 11 pm.  I miss the 11 pm service -- it was the final cap on the best day of the year.   I actually like Christmas Eve better than Christmas Day. I've decided that it's the anticipation I enjoy -- I love seeing the wrapped gifts under the tree, thinking about how my family will enjoy what I've gotten them.  I love the waiting.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More Book Reviews

ImpossibleImpossible by Nancy Werlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my 7th graders read this book as part of her independent reading program.  Her comment on her reading log intrigued me.  "I loved, loved, loved, loved this book. I've read a lot of books and this is definitely the best.  You HAVE to read it!"  So she loaned me her copy.

Lucinda Scarborough is cursed as were her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so forth, ever since Fenella refused the advances of the Elfin Knight.  Until a Scarborough woman can fulfill the impossible tasks listed in the ancient ballad we know as Scarborough Fair, all Scarborough women will bear an illegitimate  child and go mad.  Lucy has been raised by a loving foster couple, and when she is raped on prom night, they stand by her as she chooses to keep the baby.  Along with Lucy's best friend Zach, they also help her try to break the curse.  Is Lucy able to make her true love a seamless shirt without any needles?  Is she able to find an acre of land between the sea and the strand and plow it with a goat's horn and one kernel of corn?  Can she accomplish all these tasks before the birth of the next Scarborough female?  I found the writing strong and the characters quite likeable.  I was really drawn into the story.  I certainly understood why the book appealed to my adolescent student so much!  I can't put this on my classroom library shelf although I know other girls who would enjoy this book -- the rape and later, the  references to marital sex (although very subtle) would not meet school criteria.  I will say that the author handled the rape scene very sensitively, and I think that some of my more naive girls might not "get it" until later in the book when the characters talk about it.

I love being able to "talk books" with my student readers, and I especially love it when they recommend a book to me!

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My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I chose this book because two colleagues recommended it.  I also love historical fiction set in ancient times so I looked forward to reading it.  As my 2 stars indicate, it was okay.  I wanted to like it more.  It's a detective story set in ancient Egypt.  Nefertiti is married to Akanaten who has dared to start a new religion, with himself as the center of it.  Rahotep, a detective from Thebes, has been hired by Akanaten to find his missing wife.  Several gruesome murders occur before Rahotep finds the missing queen, and he is tangled up in a life-threatening web of intrigue.  The author creates a believable setting, and captures the flavor of ancient Egypt well.  But I found the story itself plodding and not particularly compelling, and I didn't really feel connected to Rahotep who is telling the story.  I have the 2nd book on my kitchen counter since I checked both of them out from the library at the same time.  I haven't decided if I will read it. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Here it is the fourth Sunday in Advent, and I am still at Thanksgiving as far as preparations physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I hate the relentless pace I set, yet it seems there is little I can control as far as slowing down.   I put in long hours at school, and then work what amounts to a second part-time job in my husband's business.  I try to get to our Wellness Center at least twice a week for some serious cardio exercise.  Those are the have-to's.  In between, I try to put decent evening meals on the table, occasionally do some laundry and basic table/counter clearing, and get to bed at an early enough hour that I can get 6.5 hours of sleep.  I wish I could find time for more sleep, but 6.5 hrs is all I can eek out.

I hate that the weekend before Christmas I had to spend 4 hours doing the business bookkeeping, rush to finish the shopping  and wrapping for gifts that have to be mailed, and then rush to get to the bank and post office before noon to get everything mailed and deposited.  I had to find time to do several loads of laundry, grade several sets of papers, and run a number of errands.  We FINALLY got a tree yesterday, and we got it put up.  It's not decorated--it's a beautiful ceiling scraping balsam fir, perfectly shaped, very fresh -- and it's bare naked.  I don't think it will get decorated, although I hope to get a string of lights on it tonight . . .maybe.
I wasn't able to get to church this morning, although I made it to our council meeting.  Then we went to a gathering to honor a young couple who were married earlier this year in CA but are home for the holidays.  So now it's Sunday night, and it's back to work, and I still don't have a decorated tree, or cookies, or cards done, and I'm just not ready for it to be Christmas.  I'm not ready in my heart either - I need time to sit and be still and be silent . . . .and there has just not been the space for me to do that.

I'm not sure where I was going with this -- I got interrupted by a phone call and then a minor crisis which is resolved.  I was going to delete it all, and then decided to let it go out into the ether.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Books #110 and #111

The Cruellest Month (Armand Gamache, #3)The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Cruellest Month is the third book in the Armand Gamache series. Gamache returns to Three Pines to investigate the death of a woman who was apparently scared to death at a seance. The more compelling part of the story is the turning point in the "Arnot Case" plot line. The previous subtle attacks on Gamache become very public, and Gamache must deal with the fallout. His enemy is revealed, and in a very interesting plot twist, those who are loyal to him are also revealed. The familiar inhabitants of Three Pines all make an appearance, and Ruth Zardo shows a completely different side of her personality. I stayed up late one night to finish this one!

For something completely different, this book definitely fits the bill.  Aside from the odd choice of topic, the writing is brilliant.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most fascinating, interesting, funny, serious, and gross books I've ever read. Mary Roach researched the "after-life" of human cadavers and all the various ways they have been put to use.  From organ donations, to medical school anatomy labs, to industrial research, and military research, human remains have been an important resource.

Her writing is clear and descriptive, and she has a knack for imagery which can sometimes be off-putting.  The book is infused with a wry humor also, some of it from the people who actually work with cadavers, but often it's her own humor. Yet the reader never loses the sense of the enormous respect, Roach and the various researchers have for the real people who (usually) allowed their remains to be used.  A warning:  there are some passages that can make one squeamish.  I think the best line in the book is at the very beginning, when Roach compares a human head to the size of a roasting chicken.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Some Middle School Reads

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1)The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Red Pyramid is the first book in Rick Riordan's new adolescent series Kane Chronicles.  Carter and Sadie Kane are brother and sister who have been raised in different homes since their mother's death.  Carter has been accompanying his Egyptologist father around the world, while Sadie lives with their mother's parents in England.  Each teenager wishes they had the life the other has.  Carter and Sadie are reunited when their father takes them to the British Museum where he causes an explosion and disappears.  The two are questioned by the authorities about their role in the explosion and the disappearance of the Rosetta Stone.  They are rescued by their uncle Amos who divulges a family secret.  Carter and Sadie are direct blood descendants of the last Egyptian pharaohs, and they have an important task:  prevent the ancient god Set from destroying North America.  The book catapults the two protagonists across time and space to ancient Egypt, the Egyptian House of Life, and to modern America.  It's full of suspense, magic, Egyptology, and lots of action to please most middle school boys.  There's some romance too, to please the girls.  I had a hard time with this book.  I wanted to really, really like it, the same way I loved the Percy Jackson series.  But I just couldn't get into this.  I think it was partly because of the dual narration.  I think it's also hard to write the same great story twice.  Teenagers who are part ancient gods who have to save the world has been done by Riordan already.  I know it appeals to my middle school readers though.

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And this one is not only terrific reading, but it's a wonderful resource for modeling good writing!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing for young people I've ever read.  In Chasing Lincoln's Killer James Swanson paints a vivid, engrossing picture of the Lincoln's assassination and manhunt for James Wilkes Booth.  His description of the actual assassination pulls the reader right into the scene.  My middle school boys especially are glued to the book.  The research is meticulous and my readers are fascinated by the sepia toned pictures of Lincoln, the conspirators, and the newspaper accounts.  One young man even asked if I had a magnifying glass so he could see all the fine print in a newspaper clipping pictured.  Swanson has written an adult book Manhunt about the same subject.  Both are riveting.

A New Mystery Series!

Still Life (Armand Gamache, #1)Still Life by Louise Penny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still Life is Louise Penny's debut novel and introduces Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Surete de Quebec.  He is an intelligent, highly literate, and confident man who believes in teamwork and collaboration.  He is sent to the small village of Three Pines, a village so small that it doesn't appear on maps. to investigate the mysterious death of Jane Neal, the retired village school teacher.  Three Pines is a very close-knit, friendly community where doors are always unlocked, and everybody knows everybody else's business.  Despite its closeness, it's an open and welcoming community; its leading citizens include Olivier and Gabri, gay B&B owners, a famous angry feminist Canadian poet, a set of bohemian artists, and a black woman who gave up a lucrative psychiatric practice to run a used bookstore.  Who would want to murder a well-loved neighbor?  That is the puzzle facing Gamache.  He reminds me a bit of Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple.  He uses his innate knowledge of human nature as well as well as forensic evidence to solve the puzzle. As he ferrets out his evidence, he mentors the members of his usual team, as well as a very unsatisfactory new agent.  I really enjoyed the start of a new series, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Friday Five: Christmas Traditions

This is the current RevGalBlogPal Friday Five:  Whether a RevGal or a Pal most of us in this cyber community have enhanced responsibilities during this time of year. We also have traditions - religious and secular - that mark the season for us in a more personal way.

For this Friday Five please let us know five of the things that mark the season for you.
1.  Music:  I have an enormous collection of Christmas music which I do not allow myself to play until the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I held out until Advent this year which is a goal I had set for myself.  I have to admit that reaching that goal was more an accident of circumstances.  Had I not had Thanksgiving company, a Saturday full of busy-ness, I most likely would have caved.  My husband complains a bit about my collection because it's 97% traditional carols, classical, and religious, and only 3% secular holiday music.  And by traditional carols, I mean carols sung by choirs or by the great standard vocalists of yore: Andy Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford ,  Perry Como, for example, or instrumental versions (Windham Hill recordings, Manheim Steamroller, and recently the Transiberian Orchestra) of the same. My absolute favorite Christmas album is one from childhood.  It's a recording of a concert by the Harry Simeone Chorale.  The music selections followed the scripture readings for the season --and the carols are interspersed with the readings.  Unfortunately the vinyl is scratched in several places, but I still listen to it several times a season.  A couple of years ago, a CD with the same name by the same choir was released, but the music selections were changed and the scripture readings were omitted.  Not nearly as good!  Another must-listen is also from the past - John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album based on a TV special from way back when.  I've branched out a bit, with Jewel, Charlotte Church, and a few other more modern musicians, but I definitely trend traditional.    The last time I counted, I had more than 50 CD's and about a dozen vinyl recordings on the Christmas shelf.  

2. My tree:  Our tree is huge, and it's live. I prefer balsam fir which is readily available here in New England.  We plan to go pick it out today, but it probably won't be put up until next weekend.  My tree never comes down until Epiphany, or the Saturday after Epiphany.  My  Cuban father taught us that the Three Kings didn't arrive on Christmas, but on January 6th when they arrived bringing gifts for Jesus.  If he had had his way entirely, we wouldn't have received presents until then, but my stubborn Yankee mother convinced him that Santa Claus arrived on Christmas Eve after we were fast asleep!  We did occasionally put straw out for the camels on Epiphany Eve when I was really young.  Our tree is full of a grand mishmash of ornaments - many handmade by our sons over the years, some collected over the years on their behalf --- for many years our tree was full of Star Wars ornaments, but they have found a new home with the son to whom they belonged, assorted antique glassblown creations, and sundry others.  Every year I think I want to do a theme, but every year I realize that the pastiche of ornaments represents our life.  And the lights on the tree have to be multi-colored, tiny, and non-blinking!

3. Stockings:  In my childhood home, we hung our stockings on the mantel or stair banister in the houses that didn't have a fire place.  Sometime during the night Santa came and filled them.  He placed them at the foot of our beds.  We were allowed to wake up early (but not before 4 am!) and open our stockings, but we had to stay in bed until at least 7 am!  I have such wonderful memories of tiptoeing over to the windowsill to turn on the electric candle in the window, and then my sister and I (we shared a room) would go through our stockings in that warm, dim light.  When my parents FINALLY awoke,  all 5 of us children would all gather on their bed and share the delights of our stockings with them.  They were always, always convincing in their surprise over the treasures we'd received. That's probably one reason why naive, trusting me didn't know for sure the truth about Santa until I was 14!   My own kids enjoyed a similar tradition but they went one better once they reached high school.  They started filling a stocking for us.  We love the stockings our kids fill for us!  They give us the most ridiculous gifts which we thoroughly enjoy!

4. The Manger:  Growing up my mom had a cardboard stable with a fold down flap.  Inside were plasterish figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus.  On the fold down flap were the stable animals, shepherds, and the Three Kings.  Somewhere along the line, Mom acquired 3 plastic Wisemen on brown camels.  So our Nativity had SIX wisemen.  Over the years, the plastic camels lost a leg or two, and were propped up with matchstick or popsicle legs.   Who took ownership of that manger scene when we were clearing out my parents' house after their deaths was one of the toughest decisions we made as siblings!  A couple of years before my mother died, she bought me a Willow Tree nativity which I treasure.  It's on the sideboard in my dining room where we can see it daily.  It's the first decorating I do for the season.

5: Window lights:   I have 24 windows that need window lights during December and most of January.  It's the chore I hate most about decorating, but it'a also a must.  I spend the better part of an afternoon plugging in all the lights and setting all the timers, and then spend the better part of the week, getting all the timers synched.  Some day I will splurge and buy the automatic battery operated candles, but so far, the budget doesn't stretch to the outlay of cash, although I think in the long run they will cost me less.  My lights have to be warm white too.  And no twinkling!!

And the bonus? Tell us one thing that does absolutely nothing for you.

Blinking, flashing, garish light displays, especially when accompanied by music.  A new local tradition is a huge light display on the local Catholic school that has been choreographed to music. It's a donation from a prominent business in town, and it draws many visitors. But it does nothing for me.   I don't like garishness, I guess.