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I’ve read four books in the last six weeks. Time for a recap!

First up, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.” 

I think, after considering it for a few moments, that the thing I like most about this book is the mood. Not that it’s a comfortable one – on the contrary. The mood is one of tenseness, of sharpness, but it’s soft around the edges, and occasionally warm and fuzzy. Lots of fuzzy. Maybe hazy. The world that Atwood creates is vividly real, making it easy to imagine the events playing out in our own future. But it also seems impossible in many ways – possible and impossible… and a tiny bit horrifying. 

I realize I didn’t describe the story here – I went in knowing nothing about it and liked the experience. I recommend you do the same.

Next was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Ugh. What a hard one to review. For me, this was a truly original book. The story was compelling, the twists and turns kept me engaged. My allegiances to various characters changed throughout the novel. Where the book goes a bit wrong for me, though, is the ending. After such an intense ride, the ending feels so incredibly rushed, tacked on. I’d have liked a bit more exploration of the whys and the what nexts, instead of such abruptness after a novel filled with details.

Then we had The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I have to say, I love me some Kurt Vonnegut.

This was Kurt Vonnegut’s second published novel, and in it he lays the groundwork for the rest of his admirable career.

Sparse, tight paragraphs that say just the right thing? Check.

Complex scientific ideas rendered almost impossibly simple and understandable? Check.

Tralfamadorians? Check.

This is a novel that is deceptively simple, but is expertly crafted and beautifully written. If you love great writing, but are skeptical of the sci-fi genre, give Sirens of Titan a go anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

Finally, I read Sula by Toni Morrison. You want a guaranteed good read? Go for the Toni Morrison.

“…but my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Toni Morrison is such a remarkable storyteller. There’s no other author guaranteed to get inside my creases like she does. Every word is so precise, every character knowable, every hurt is acute and every joy is rapturous. All of this is on display in Sula, a story of strong women and strong pride and strong feeling. There’s nothing like a Toni Morrison novel to remind me that brilliance can be displayed in the simplest, grittiest, plainest of ways.

Currently reading: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro.

So… when I last mentioned what I’d be reading, I said I’d have my head in a GRE study guide. My studying paid off – I got a good score on my GRE and submitted an application to graduate school in late April. In early May, I was notified that I have been accepted into the Masters of Education program with an emphasis in Educational Technology and a focus on technology in schools at the University of Missouri-Columbia! The EdTech program is completely online, and I if I want to get educational assistance through my work for each class, I will finish in 2 years.

Go me!

But before I submitted my application and was admitted, we made two trips to St. Louis on consecutive weekends. The first weekend, Mr. Awesome had to work on one day, so that left me to find something to occupy my day. Off to the Saint Louis Art Museum for hours of leisurely viewing and a fancy lunch at the museum restaurant, Panorama. I had such a great time wandering the halls and staring at beautiful things. I especially loved the Frans Hals Portrait of a Woman, painted around 1650:

I thought it looked sort of familiar, then I read that it was a companion piece to the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Portrait of a Man that I’ve seen dozens of times:

Cool, huh?! I thought so, anyway. :)

That evening, we ate an incredible dinner at one of St. Louis’s best restaurants, Niche. Oh my, was that a great meal. We opted for the 10-course tasting menu, and every course was outstanding. It’s not often that I taste something I’ve not had before, but here it happened many times. From the tea service (tea and pork broth with smoked lemon!) to snacks of trout beignets and gin/celery popsicles, to an incredible parsnip soup with ice cream… everything was perfect. Our server was attentive, friendly and informed. Cocktails were creative and delicious. One of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had.

The next night, we had the pleasure of seeing a small house concert performance by one of our favorite musicians, Eef Barzelay. He’s so incredibly talented. Why this guy isn’t a superstar, I don’t know.

Check out a great video of him via NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series here.

The following weekend, we returned to St. Louis, this time to see Ben Folds perform with the St. Louis Symphony. We had front row seats right next to the piano. It was spectacular. We ate at Niche again before the show. It was spectacular, too.

After I found out I had been accepted to graduate school – and believe me, I was nervous (although Mr. Awesome said I didn’t need to be because he is, of course, awesome) – I got to pick up something other than a study guide or math problems for a change. While in St. Louis the second time, we stopped at Barnes and Noble for a few minutes to look around. It was there I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Lucky for me, it was available for digital checkout through my library – I love that!

North Korea is a fascinating place, made even more so by the mystery that surrounds it and its people. It’s easy from the vantage point of an American upbringing and existence to question why the people of North Korea would submit to the wills of the rulers, but a reading of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson sheds a little light on the situation.

There’s something comforting about having your reality dictated to you, it implies. When you have no choices, you have no reason to think about anything, other than the task at hand, and Dear Leader, of course.

The storytelling in this book is masterful, switching between narrators, and immersing the reader in a world of unknowns. Nothing is predictable, nothing feels safe. There’s danger around every corner, but also the promise of hope, and a sense of deep love. You can’t ask for a better set of criteria for a good story.

I don’t start school again until the fall, so I’ll have a few months to read for fun. Next up, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The New York times magazine recently published a piece by journalist and author Ron Suskind about his son Owen’s struggles with autism. Until the age of three, Owen was a typically chatty and curious boy, but something flipped inside him, causing him to develop something diagnosed as regressive autism.

While much of what Owen was up to that point appeared to vanish, a connection remained between the boy and the Disney movies he loved as a toddler. Through those movies, Owen learned to navigate the world and form connections with others and himself.

So we join him upstairs, all of us, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in November 1994. Owen is already on the bed, oblivious to our arrival, murmuring gibberish…. “Juicervose, juicervose.” It is something we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks. Cornelia thinks maybe he wants more juice; but no, he refuses the sippy cup. “The Little Mermaid” is playing as we settle in, propping up pillows. We’ve all seen it at least a dozen times, but it’s at one of the best parts: where Ursula the sea witch, an acerbic diva, sings her song of villainy, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” to the selfish mermaid, Ariel, setting up the part in which Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.

When the song is over, Owen lifts the remote. Hits rewind.

“Come on, Owen, just let it play!” Walt moans. But Owen goes back just 20 seconds or so, to the song’s next-to-last stanza, with Ursula shouting:

Go ahead — make your choice!

I’m a very busy woman, and I haven’t got all day.

It won’t cost much, just your voice!

He does it again. Stop. Rewind. Play. And one more time. On the fourth pass, Cornelia whispers, “It’s not ‘juice.’ ” I barely hear her. “What?” “It’s not ‘juice.’ It’s ‘just’ … ‘just your voice’!”

I grab Owen by the shoulders. “Just your voice! Is that what you’re saying?!”

He looks right at me, our first real eye contact in a year. “Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!”

Walt starts to shout, “Owen’s talking again!” A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy. “Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!” Owen keeps saying it, watching us shout and cheer. And then we’re up, all of us, bouncing on the bed. Owen, too, singing it over and over — “Juicervose!” — as Cornelia, tears beginning to fall, whispers softly, “Thank God, he’s in there.”

The result of this interaction is a lifelong commitment to helping Owen express himself and learn about the world through something his parents call “Disney therapy.”

This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. So inspiring, heartbreaking, and beautiful. The article is excerpted from a book by Suskind, Life, Animated, that’s due out on April 1st.

I finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. More on that in a bit.

On Saturday night, we watched the movie Captain Phillips. It was good, but mostly forgettable. But there was one scene, at the end of the movie, that really stuck with me. Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips has just been rescued, and is being looked over by a medic. He’s visibly stunned by the change in situation that’s occurred in a matter of moments – from the terror of impending death by Somali kidnappers in a hijacked lifeboat, to the brightly-lit rigidity of a military rescue ship.The emotion Hanks displays is so incredibly real and moving. He conveys fear, confusion, gratitude, joy and horror all in just a couple of moments, with very few words. He’s great, that guy.

I should rewatch The Money Pit again.

On Sunday, we got up bright and early and headed to the Hunt Midwest SubTropolis to participate in the 32nd annual Children’s TLC Groundhog Run 5K. Children’s TLC works with young children with disabilities, developmental delays, and fragile medical conditions to provide educational and therapeutic services in an environment that fosters their independence and celebrates their successes.

The race was incredibly well-organized. We parked at the casino across the street, and school buses shuttled us back and forth to the race site. Inside the caves, the temperature stays around 67 degrees year-round, and with no wind or weather to contend with, and a flat course, we both thought that this race would be a breeze. Turns out, not so much, and neither of us really knows why. All we know is that we both struggled cardio-wise with this one, and neither of us posted a personal record time.

That said, our times were very respectable for each of us, and now we know we need to push it just a little bit more if we want to improve at a faster rate.

Here we are before the race:

We had to line up in waves, based on how long we thought it would take each of us to finish the race. Mr. Awesome was in the Blue wave, meaning he expected to finish in 25 to 30 minutes. I was in the Orange wave, expecting to finish in 35 to 40 minutes. Both of our times fell into the expected windows.

The course was predictably flat, and there was a good mix of turns and long straightaways. We don’t know if it was the air in the cave, or the people, or that we haven’t been running much (we’ve been doing elliptical, mostly) in the last month, but both of us got pretty winded and struggled to maintain a good pace. I’m sure it was the lack of actual running, which is why we’re going to start adding a mile run around the gym track to our regular workout schedule.

Mr. Awesome’s stats:

Time: 25:05

Age group place: 28th out of 93

238 out of 1801

My stats:

Time: 37:08

Age group place: 97 out of 146

1223 out of 1801

Not bad, but we’ve both done better. Which is why the quote I chose from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as a title of this post is fitting – races where the race fights back sure make running hard to love. But I guess that’s what makes the ones we do well at that much more rewarding.

As for the book…

Books that are filled with struggles, sadness, oppression and all that aren’t easy to love. But they aren’t easy to forget, either.

Mathis spends each chapter in the book telling about one or more of Hattie’s children, from the first twins she loses to pneumonia as a young mother of seventeen, to the granddaughter she inherits as an old woman of seventy-one. Each child’s story like a glimpse through a dusty window into a moment of their lives, be they infants, or teenagers, or adults – we get just enough of a view to have an impression, but we can’t really know the whole story. Hattie’s children love and hate her, just as she loves and hates her circumstances. Nothing is easy for any of them, and love is expressed in a multitude of ways, with varying degrees of success.

The storytelling is like looking through a book of photographs – here’s a little bit here, there’s something in the background there that colors the next photo a few pages later. By the end, we don’t really know Hattie or her children, but we get a sense of who they are and can imagine their legacies. There is a feeling, at the end of the book, of hopefulness and the possibility of new beginnings, which helps smooth over some of the rough parts.

I haven’t picked a next book yet… it will probably be a GRE study guide.

I finished A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson last weekend.

Two summers ago, when hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, Mr. Awesome and I found ourselves on a rather secluded, wooded trail about 2 miles in any direction from another person. The scenery was incredibly beautiful: tall pines and aspens, a carpet of discarded pine needles blanketing the path, making the trail soft and noiseless.

Into the woods.

The air was so clean, the smell so pure… we were so far removed from everything but nature. For about an hour and half, we were alone in the wilderness. The experience was awe-inspiring and a little bit terrifying. I want to do it again, and I never want to do it again. Which is exactly how Bill Bryson described his experience on the Appalachian Trail:

“I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”

I get it. Or, the gist, anyway.

I don’t like sleeping in tents. I did so once about 5 years ago, and it was awful. I woke up freezing and sweating at the same time, until I realized the “sweat” was uninvited dew, like I was a plant or tree trunk or rock. I like hiking, I like campfires, I like s’mores and all the trappings that go along with the camp experience except the actual business of living in nature. I need indoor plumbing and a comfortable mattress, thankyouverymuch.

Early in the book, before he sets out on his AT adventure, Bryson describes his experience hiking with his son in Luxembourg:

The footpaths we followed spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny back roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets. We were always able at some point each day to call in at a bakery or post office, to hear the tinkle of shop bells and eavesdrop on conversations we couldn’t understand. Each night we slept in an inn and ate in a restaurant with other people. We experienced the whole of Luxembourg, not just its trees. It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.

Now that’s my kind of hiking. It sounds positively delightful. Not at all like Bryson’s experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson and his friend Katz set off on their adventure in 1996, well before the mass adoption of GPS devices, Google Maps, or consumer dehydrated astronaut food. It’s two guys with some rudimentary gear and each other for company, although they don’t do much talking – just lots, and lots, and LOTS of walking, mostly uphill, in snow.

As with other Bryson books, this one is filled with colorful descriptions of people and places, interesting anecdotes, humor, and just enough tension to keep the reader moving forward. I got a good picture of what hiking in a remote area of the United States must be like – enough to know that I would be interested in summertime day hikes and nothing more.

I’m glad, though, that I had the experience of being in a remote wilderness, if even for just a couple of hours. It made this book that much more enjoyable.

Next up: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.

 

I just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. It’s a hard book to describe, because it’s so many things – a romance, a mystery, a science-fiction story, a history… so many things in one, and all told with such care. Atwood is a master storyteller and expert at drawing a reader into a world that’s *not quite* real, but at the same time so close and familiar. If all my thoughts could be phrased in Atwood’s prose, life would be so much more beautiful.

I’ve deeply enjoyed the three Atwood novels I’ve read – this one, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alias Grace. Each is so unique and shimmering. There’s a comfortable uncomfortableness about them… more experienced and breathed and stretched around in, than read.

The kind of books you’re sad to see end, but know the whole time that the end will be a great satisfaction.

A truly excellent way to start off my year of reading more.

Next up – Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

The last year was full of great experiences:

  • Orlando
  • Colorado
  • Running
  • Eating
  • Laughing

 

My goals (or should I say intentions?) for 2014 are to have more of the same, with regards to exercise, food and laughter, with a little travel thrown in for spice. There’s no telling how the year will ultimately end up, but really, the journey is what’s important.

So far, we’ve been enjoying the journey with great music courtesy of our new Sonos music system. It’s a wireless speaker system that is controllable via an iOS app, and can play music from various sources. Our current favorite is Dave Brubeck radio via Pandora. This, coupled with a good book (at this moment mine is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and his is Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds) and comfortable living room furniture makes for an incredibly relaxing way to spend an evening.

We’re also enjoying some great food, like a new recipe we tried for dinner last night, a dish inspired by the crab trofie pasta from Bluestem:

IMG_2384

Bluestem-inspired Crab Pasta
Servings: 4
Weight Watchers Points+: 15 per serving

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large shallots, diced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 c. white wine
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
2 c. half and half
1/2 c. 1% milk
12 oz trofie pasta
6 oz fresh crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, fennel, and garlic and cook until the shallots begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and tarragon. Continue cooking until the liquid has been reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the half and half and milk and turn the head down to medium-low. Continue to cook until the cream sauce is reduced by half, 10-12 minutes. Strain the cream sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the aromatics. Return the cream sauce to the stove in a small saucepan and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the sauce to 1 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just tender. Drain the pasta well.

Add the pasta, crab, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan to the cream sauce, stirring until the cheese has melted evenly. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the pasta among four bowls. Top each portion with 1 tablespoon of panko crumbs and more grated Parmesan.

We cut some fat by replacing what was heavy cream with half and half, and whole milk with 1%. We also eliminated prosciutto from the dish, but seasoned with salt and pepper throughout cooking. The end result was decadent without being too heavy. We served it with roasted broccoli, which has become a favorite side dish in recent months.

This weekend we will be doing our best to stay warm, but will still get out and about for culinary adventures and exercise at the gym. We’re running our first 5K of the year at the end of this month (the Children’s TLC Groundhog Run) and we’re both hoping for good times, in more ways than one!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

To start things off, Mr. Awesome and I went with my mom and her Mr. Wonderful to see the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries. So funny, but my favorite part was the terrific set. It was a huge gift-wrapped present that unfolded to reveal a little miniature Santaland. Good job, set designers and builders!

Shopping done and most presents wrapped, we had Christmas #1 with Mr. Awesome’s family on Christmas Eve. We gave and received excellent gifts, and had a terrific time laughing and celebrating with everyone. When we got home, we watched A Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine as Scrooge. As a Muppet fan, I’m a bit ashamed to admit I’d not seen it before, but I was also grateful to have gotten to experience it for the first time as an adult. It’s right up there now in the list of my favorite holiday movies.

Christmas day (aka Christmas #2) was spent with my mom, bonus dad, and bonus sister, along with Mr. Awesome’s parents. Mom made a turkey and we brought sides and everyone enjoyed a terrific meal and even more terrific company. We then exchanged presents and everyone got everything on their lists and then some.

Christmas #3 is this Saturday with my dad, sister and bonus mom, along with lots of other various family and friends.

Oh, and everything is on sale at the GAP.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

 

My appeal was approved – I’m officially a college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English!

YAY!

So now I’m thinking I haven’t been reading enough lately. In fact, I haven’t read a single book this year. But — I recently got a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet that came with the Kindle app installed, so I joined the ranks of the 21st century literary set and finally figured out how to check out electronic books from the library.

Oh. My. God.

This is the greatest thing since bookstores with comfy chairs. I have a whole library at my fingertips, all the time!

I looked through my Goodreads Want to Read list for ideas and decided that the first book I’d read on my device is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Again, I say: Oh. My. God.

I can not believe it’s taken me this long to read that book. I’ve seen the movie many times, and think it’s very good. But the book is really a masterpiece. It is structured as letters, first from Celie to God, and later as letters between Nettie and Celie. This structure gives more intimacy to the story, like a window into the lives of these characters. While the first part of the book is represented well in the movie, the latter half of the book is really not represented at all – and it’s this latter half that really shines. The first half, and what we see in the movie, is all about hurt, and struggle, with a little love thrown in. But in the books, the characters grow more, love more, share more, and forgive more. Nearly all of the characters find redemption and peace.

Towards the end of the book, Celie says of Shug’s potential homecoming: “If she come, I be happy. If she don’t I be content. And then I figure this the lesson I was suppose to learn.” It’s a powerful scene, with Celie on the porch, sewing next to the man who she hated, but who has found his own type of redemption in overcoming his loneliness. This is what’s missing in the movie – real, true, heartfelt forgiveness and growth.

Not to say the movie isn’t excellent. It’s just much more different than I realized.

Next on my download list – Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

I vow to read more in the next year!

What a great weekend.

On Friday, I participated in the UMKC Commencement ceremony. Before the ceremony, I took a pre-graduation selfie (I hate this word, but it’s in the dictionary now, so I am trying to accept it) and noted the following on my phone before handing it off to Mr. Awesome for safekeeping:

“I’m sitting here in Pierson Auditorium waiting to line up for graduation. There are so many young people. I’m feeling old. But the conversations I am overhearing are filled with uncertainty about the future, and I’m already solidly into mine.

I feel weird, and a bit out of place. I earned this, but it’s still weird. That’s the only word I can think of right now to describe any of it.

The hat is weird. The tassel keeps twisting. I should have curled my hair.”

See? My hair would have looked so much better curled.

The ceremony was thankfully short due to the threat of ice and snow. Afterwards, I found my mom and Mr. Awesome in the sea of people and we took some pictures:

Me and my wonderful mom. She brought me pretty flowers.

Here’s one of just me:

Woo hoo!

I still don’t have word on my appeal, but I will hopefully hear something by January 13th, which is when we graduates can pick up our diplomas from the Records office. Fingers crossed!

Friday night we ate homemade beef stew – it was okay. Does anyone have a good beef stew recipe? You know – the kind with gravy-like broth and lots of savory flavor? I’ve not found one I like yet. After dinner, we headed to Alamo Drafthouse for their Movie Interruption presentation of Lethal Weapon. Neither Mr. Awesome nor I had ever seen that movie (I know!) and having comedians make fun of it MST3K-style was a great way to experience it for the first time.

On Saturday we did a bit of Christmas shopping before preparing to run in our first-ever evening 5K, the North Kansas City 1st annual Christmas Light Run. This was probably my favorite run so far, because there were so many people dressed up with bells and lights and Santa hats. It was great! The course was great, too – nice and flat on streets with lots of decorated houses.

The only downside was that it was really, really cold – about 25 degrees. We both dressed in lots of layers, but it was still a bit rough starting out. Once we were running, though, we warmed up nicely. Because of the cold, I didn’t expect to have a very good run – my goal was to finish in under 38 minutes, if possible.

Mr. Awesome had another personal-record-setting run – he’s on a role, people! Here are his stats:

  • Finish time: 24:00
  • Age group place: 4th of 23
  • Overall place: 57th out of 588

 

I told you he rocked it!

As for me, I tried to keep a good pace, and pushed myself hard at the end, managing to fly past four or five runners just before the finish line:

My mom surprised us at the finish line – I was so glad to see her!

It was so cool to have her and Mr. Awesome cheering me on at the end, and for once, Mr. Awesome had someone there to cheer for him!

I ended up doing better than I thought I would:

  • Finish time: 36:59
  • Age group place: 40th out of 60
  • Overall place: 425th out of 588

It wasn’t my best run, but it was my second best run. I’m satisfied with it :)

Afterwards, Mr. Awesome and I had dinner at P.F. Chang’s, then went to the Cheesecake Factory for dessert – we ran so we earned every bite of that Key Lime Cheesecake! Thanks to reservations at one and a hidden bar table at the other, we didn’t have to wait at either restaurant at all. It was incredible, because the wait at each was well over an hour and a half.

Sunday found us doing a little more shopping and finishing putting Christmas decorations around the house. Our tree is so pretty – I need to remember to take some pictures.