Short Reviews of Long Books

So the summer definitely took me away from the computer.  I did not post nearly as often as I had intended (though, to be fair, I had grand aspirations about daily posts), but I read far more than I thought possible.  This bookworm was apparently verrrrry hungry.

Here’s the thing.  I would love to do a beautiful, happy post for every book read or movie viewed over the summer, but I’m not going to.  It’s too overwhelming.  In fact, it has kept me quiet for the past week as I struggle to even begin talking about my summer.  Instead, I will give you a description of the book or movie in under 11 words or less and my thoughts in 20 words or less.  Feel free to add more ideas in the comments.

The Piano Teacher: A Novel by Janice Lee.

Summary: Sad woman and sadder man have affair in Hong Kong.

Thoughts: This historical backdrop (Hong Kong during WWII) was intriguing, but I didn’t like any of the characters.  Meh.

The Twilight Saga Collection by Stephenie Meyer

Summary: Bella must choose between creepy vampire and not-as-creepy-but-still-superhuman werewolf Jacob.

Thoughts: It teaches teenagers that the best kind of love is obsessive, controlling, and dangerous.  No thank you.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Summary: 3 witches, one a fairy godmother, must stop a happy ending.

Thoughts: Hilarious.  This is my first Pratchett novel and I now want to read the entire Discworld series.

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Summary: 3 photographers and their relationships as they photograph the Vietnam war.

Thoughts: Well-written and intricate storylines.  The background and the characters are fascinating.  I want to study photography, or go to Vietnam.

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

Summary: Sweet valley twins, 10 years later.  Sex, betrayal, and swearing.

Thoughts: So bad.  I read it because I loved the series.  It makes no sense and I hated both twins.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

Summary: Love triangle in Greece during WWII.

Thoughts: Loved it with 15 pages to go.  Then almost threw it across the room.  Still love it.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Summary: Follows two friends through school, love, and duplicity.

Thoughts: I may have used up an entire tissue box on this.  Read it if you want a good cry.

French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mirielle Guiliano

Summary: The title pretty much says it all.

Thoughts: Commonsense advice aside from drinking leek broth for three days and purchase enough champagne to have at every dinner.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (for the fifth time, at least)

Summary: Big brother knows all.

Thoughts: Love it.  Love it.  Love love love love it.  It gets better with every read.  Read it.

 

Phew!  Now that I have those out of the way, I can get back to posting on what I am reading right now!  Trust me, I have an awesome one coming up 🙂

Whale Talk (and a Make-Your-Own-Pizza Bar)

A varsity letter jacket: it’s exclusive, nearly unattainable, revered…and everything that’s screwed up about Cutter High, as far as T.J. Jones is concerned.  That’s why T.J. is determined to have the Cutter All Night Mermen–the unlikeliest swim team a high school as ever seen– earn letter jackets of their own.

It won’t be easy.  For one thing, they don’t even have a pool.  They will fight for their dignity, they will fight with each other, and sometimes they will just fight.  And then they will realize that a single moment can bring lifelong heartache or lifelong friendship.  For T.J. and his crew of misfits, the quest may be far more valuable than the reward.

~Back Cover

When I was in Kindergarten, I lived under the assumption that everyone was nice, that if I didn’t do anything bad to someone, then they wouldn’t do anything bad to me. One day, near the end of my Kindergarten year, I was happily walking up the sidewalk leading into school and, all of a sudden, I found myself on the ground with a skinned knee. My carefully organized folders with my meticulously colored “homework” assignments were scattered all over the sidewalk and even (gasp) in the mud. I looked up, embarrassed that someone had seen me clumsily lose my footing, when I saw another girl laughing at me. I quickly figured out that I had no fallen on my own accord. She had tripped me. Too proud to let her see how distraught I was, I calmly picked up my muddy papers and limped inside, making plans in my head to exact revenge.

Of course, I never really got revenge on this girl, unless you consider losing my friendship forever an act of revenge. Yes, I still remember exactly who this girl is. We are not friends.

In Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, T.J. finds another way to get back at the people who are mean for the sake of being mean- he creates a swim team.  The only real swimmer on the team is T.J.   The rest include an angry, one-legged student who everyone is afraid of, a body builder, a genius who is looking for a physical extracurricular activity, a massively overweight boy, and a special education student who is mourning the death of his athletically-gifted brother.

If dealing with each other isn’t enough, they live in a homogeneously white community that elicits strong undertones of racism, especially since T.J., our main character, is African- and Japanese-American.

I truly enjoyed this book.  I read it about a month ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.  It is heavier material, but told in a light way so that you do not feel yourself bogged down with dense and depressing reading.

If I Could Change One Thing… I would add a girl to the swim team.  This is a very male book in the sense that there are very few female characters that have any sort of impact on the plot.  I think it would have been fun to add a female character to the swim team to see how that impacts the team dynamic.

I Would Recommend This For… anyone who likes reading about unlikely friendships, fighting the bullies, athletic competition, or struggles against racism and abuse.  Although it is classified as YA Lit, it is valuable for adults to read as well.

Other Reviews

Make-Your-Own-Pizza Bar

After each swim meet, the team stops for pizza on the bus ride home.  It is on these bus rides that they begin to bond as a team and as people.  They tell things about themselves that they have never shared with anyone before.  While some might argue that is a result of the long bus trips together, I firmly believe it is the pizza.  Pizza is my favorite food and it only seems natural that it would make the world a better place. 

Since people have such unique tastes when it comes to pizza, I like to create a make-your-own-pizza station so that everyone gets exactly what they want.
Pizza Dough:

I make two types:  normal and whole wheat.

Normal- this recipe is originally featured over at Simply Recipes

Whole Wheat-  this recipe is originally featured over at Andrea’s Recipes

Pizza Sauce:

Since it is summer, I chose to make my own and my goodness, I am proud of it.

Ingredients:

  • 10 tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup, total, of chopped herbs of your choice (I used oregano, thyme, basil, and rosemary)

Procedure:

  • Preheat your oven to 250F and cut all of your tomatoes in half.  Place on a baking sheet, skin-side down.  Roast for 1-2 hours.
  • Take them out of the oven and remove the skin.  It should be easy to remove at this point.  Put the tomatoes in a larger pot and put the burner on low.  Stir in the cut-up herbs of your choice.  Let simmer for about a half hour.
  • Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a regular blender, blend your sauce until smooth (or leave it chunkier if you like it like that).
  • Put the sauce back in the pot and continue to cook on low heat for 2 more hours.  This will condense the sauce and make it sweet.

Other Toppings:

  • Grate Mozzarella and Parmesan  cheese.
  • Steam broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, and peppers.
  • Grill onions.
  • Grill eggplant.
  • I felt like two different kinds of pizza so I just went ahead and did it!

    Grill ham, sausage, chicken or any other meat you’d like.

Putting it all together:

  • Preheat the oven to 500F.
  • Have everyone assemble their pizzas.  Do not put too much sauce or toppings on.  In this case, less is more.
  • Pop each pizza into the oven for 10 minutes, or until the crust seems done.
  • Eat.
You know you want that.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (and Tiny’s Chicken Parmesan)

will grayson meets will grayson. One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers are about to cross paths. From that moment on, their worlds will collide and lives intertwine.

-Back Cover

One of the most important ideas that I learned in teacher school is that every single teenager is “at risk.”  Sure, some teens are at more risk than others, but, overall, teens go through a time that I have named the “Self-destructive hormonal tornado” phase.

For some, this phase does not last very long.  They are inherently confident and self-aware.  Others are not so lucky.  Questions like, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and “Who are you taking to prom?” lead to code red lockdowns.

Only once you leave your little microcosym and look out at the world can you begin to see that your problems are not so bad.  Try comparing some of your high school issues with other world issues.

You don’t have the latest fashion v.  Sex trafficking

Crush rejects you v. Bombs destroying your village

Ahhh the beauty of perspective.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-written by John Green and David Levithan, delves into this teen angst and shows us two “versions” of Will Grayson.  One version is a straight, middle-class kid trying to coast through life.  The other is a terrified introvert who suddenly realizes that he is gay.  Told in alternating chapters, it is up to the reader to distinguish between these two characters.

Are the two versions of Will Grayson the result of a schitzopherenic episode in an attempt to balance his two personalities?  Are there actually two Will Graysons?  Only time, and the reading of this book, will tell all.

This is a book that has content which is at times difficult to read, yet it is worthwhile for teens (and adults trying to understand teens).  It shows teens that they are certainly not alone when it comes to identity confusion, and even offers up some helpful (but not preachy) solutions to some of the code red level problems.

With that said, it is definitely not my favorite YA book.  That would most likely be this or this.  While I could identify with what the characters were going through, I really did. not. like. any. of. the. characters.  Chances are, I would not be friends with them because they remind me of people who annoy the heck out of me.  Perhaps I don’t have a lot of patience for this since my job description should include listening to teenagers whine, but I got really sick of the amount of moping done in this book.

No, I’m not saying it is easy to be a teenager.  I do think that some tough love does wonders.  Will Grayson(s), stop the whining and do something productive with your time!  Ahhhh!

Tiny’s Chicken Parmesan

Will Grayson’s mother makes a special dinner when he introduces her to his boyfriend, an absolutely giant fellow named (ironically) Tiny.  She is aware that he is a big eater, so she makes the quintissential dish for big eatin’ and elegance- chicken parm.  Tiny LOVES it and his enjoyment of it made me crave some myself. 

There are many ways to make chicken parmesan and I certainly can’t claim that this is the “authentic” or “best” way, but this is the way that I enjoy it the most.  It isn’t health food, but it doesn’t clog your arteries or make your stomach hurt with an insane amount of cheese. 

An additional perk for the busy cook, I make this in less than 30 minutes from start to finish.  Take that Rachel Ray!

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken breasts, cut in half so that you have two thin, and flat pieces of chicken, 4 pieces total
  • 3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs (I like Panko crumbs)
  • 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • Enough oil to fill a pan 1/2 inch (if you are pan frying the chicken)
  • 1 ripe tomato
  • pinch of salt

Procedure:

  • If you are going to bake the chicken breasts, preheat the oven to 450 F.
  • Get out 3 bowls.  In the first, put the flour.  In the second, beat the eggs together with the milk.  In the third, put the bread crumbs and cheese.
  • Set these bowls up as an assembly line, with an empty plate at the other end. Dip the piece of chicken in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumb/cheese mixture.  Shake off the excess and settle it on the plate.
  • Repeat this for all pieces of chicken
  • Once you have completed this, get all of the assembly line materials out of the way, preferably in the sink or dishwasher.
  • If baking, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, lay the chicken out flat and cook for 20 minutes, turning once.
  • If frying, heat the oil in the pan until it sizzles when you drip water into it.  Place the chicken in there and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Then flip and cook for another 3-4 minutes.   Once done, take the chicken out of the pan and place it on a paper-lined plate to drain any residual oil.  If you cook the chicken in hot enough oil, the end result will not be oily.
  • Meanwhile, dice up the tomato.  I don’t like the skin of a tomato so I skin it first and then chop it up.
  • When everything is ready, top your chicken with the tomato and serve with a yummy side dish (like the roasted asparagus seen here).

Shaken or Stirred? A Tale of Two Hot Chocolates

Rating: Chocolate Cake (of course!)

“For the first time in a decade, Willy Wonka, the reclusive and eccentric chocolate maker, is opening his doors to the public–well, five members of the public to be exact. The lucky five who find a Golden Ticket in their Wonka chocolate bars will receive a private tour of the factory, given by Mr. Wonka himself. For young Charlie Bucket, this a dream come true. And, when he finds a dollar bill in the street, he can’t help but buy two Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delights–even though his impoverished family could certainly use the extra dollar for food. But as Charlie unwraps the second chocolate bar, he sees the glimmer of gold just under the wrapper! The very next day, Charlie, along with his unworthy fellow winners Mike Teavee, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, and Augustus Gloop, steps through the factory gates to discover whether or not the rumors surrounding the Chocolate Factory and its mysterious owner are true. What they find is that the gossip can’t compare to the extraordinary truth, and for Charlie, life will never be the same again.”     -Goodreads.com

********************************************************************************************************

To say that my copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is tattered would be an understatement.  Its worn cover opens up to a bundle of pages that are just barely clinging to a well-loved spine.  The pages are curled and dog-eared, but the story they tell remains bright, shiny, and, most of all, delectable.

Most of us at this point know the story of Charlie and Willy Wonka.  What some of us may forget is my favorite moment from the book, a sweet gesture made by the Wonkanator (that is his superhero name) himself.  Charlie and his grandpa’s starved bodies tell the tale of misfortune and suffering.  Wonka helps them in one of the ways he knows how.  He reaches a ladle down into the flowing river of hot chocolate and fills mugs of hot and frothy goodness for them.

As a child, this prompted two responses from me.  First was a sniffle at how happy this moment made me.  Second was a desire for a bubbly hot chocolate that had been mixed by waterfall.

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At 24, Should Birthdays Still Be Exciting?

Let’s face it.  Most of the exciting birthdays happen early in life.  Until you are about 12, a birthday is like the combination of Christmas and a snow day.  You wake up early, try to eat cake for breakfast, go about your day making sure that everyone you come into contact with knows it is your special day, and then you get presents.  Nothing really bad can happen to you on your birthday.

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What Are You Hungry For?

Rating: Chocolate Cake

After I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I was hungry for more.

I flipped the last page and, with disappointment, flung the book down, frustrated that it had one of those open-ended conclusions, the conclusions that force you to fill in the blanks and imagine what happened.  I seemed to go through the stages of reaching acceptance- first denial, then sadness, then anger, etc.

Later that evening, I was browsing the internet, looking at reviews of the book to see what other people made of the ending, when I learned something miraculous.

**Insert drum roll here**

There are two more books. Two. More. Books.

In that instant of realization, I experienced a massive mood shift.  Before, I was glum, sitting on my couch, wearing pajamas, and trying to figure out what book I could read next that would even come close to The Hunger Games.  Less than 5 minutes later, I had made a phone call to my local bookstore, verified that they had the next book, gotten dressed, and was in my car, belting out whatever song happened to be on the radio.  I made it to the bookstore only 2 minutes before they were going to close for the night and I had to ask some nice looking worker to open a cash register and please, pretty please, let me buy this book.

As you may gather, this was an addiction.  I think that if I had to wait any longer for that second book, I may very well have started to start sweating or shaking.

Very few books inspire this level of passion from me.  Yes, it’s labeled as Young Adult Literature.  Yes, I have students that are also reading it.  That does not change the fact that this book (and series) are worth reading by any age group or gender.

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