New Fiction Friday: Vanessa and Her Sister

9780804176392_p0_v3_s192x300Virginia Wolf is one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. She was born into a family of writers and artists, and was closest to her sister Vanessa.  Vanessa and Her Sister is about these two siblings – who although troubled, were very close and continued to support each other’s work despite their differences.  Before picking up this book, I didn’t know much about her. I didn’t know much about her at all, actually, other than her name in the title of a play that became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest movie roles.  She grew up in Middlesex, England, in the shadow of her sister, and two brothers who always seemed to be outshining her. Vanessa is Virginia’s lesser-known sister, and the main character of this fictionalized account of their lives.

Virginia was known as suffering from mental illness, and in the book has frequent breakdowns. Vanessa, a talented artist, was her caretaker. She was the only sibling who really understood the depth opf her problem, the root of her problem, and how best to care for her.  Their two brothers were not unsympathetic, they simply lacked the compassion that Vanessa seemed to have had an endless supply of.  And after the loss of their parents, Virginia’s care naturally fell to her older sister.

They were well known in their respective communities – art and writing, they both also contributed to a group known as the Bloomsbury Group. At the time, these were young people, who got together weekly to discuss art, politics, culture, and to gossip. One famous individual who was part of this group was John Maynard Keynes, the economist. Vanessa’s and Virginia’s father had been a proper English gentlemen, and his second wife had been their mother. They were raised in England’s privileged society, and when they passed the four siblings were well taken care of, and able to pursue their own interests.

Although Virginia was a talented writer, and throughout this book, which only chronicles her teenage years and into her 20s, she needed constant supervision, reassurance, and frequent confidence boosts. She’s a liability. She and Vanessa are the only two women who are really active in the Group, and they remain single while the rest of their peers, marry and settle down.  There are plenty of eligible bachelors, and they both receive a few proposals.  When Vanessa finally decides to marry, their relationship begins to change, and that’s where the real story begins.

I don’t have any sisters – but have always wanted one. Vanessa is a much better sister than I could ever hope to be. The things she does for her sister, and even her two brothers, are admirable. And throughout this story, the things that Virginia puts her through practically makes her eligible for sainthood. I love the story of this family, what they went through, their discussions on art, literature, and politics. I also love the transoformation of women’s roles that is portrayed in the book. These two were young women during the early part of the 20th century, and though they weren’t suffregettes, they were strong and independent women, and the work of other women like them, helped to advance the women’s movement.

Although this is only a fictionalized account of their lives and their family, I am so interested in reading some of Virginia’s books.  I just picked up The Waves from the library yesterday, and I’m so excited to read it!

26 Books in 2016

unnamedI’ve seen quite a few reading challenges already this year – and they all seem so much fun!  Each challenge participants to read more – and read a variety of books, sometimes taking readers out of their comfort zones.  I don’t think I have a comfort zone when it comes to books – but with this list, I’ll be reading quite a variety of books.  This year I’m participating in 26 Books in 2016, which was started by BringingUpBurns.  I was super excited to get started this month, and can already mark two books off the list!  Not sure about the 24 books yet though…  Not sure what other challenges I’ll tackle next on the list.

Over Christmas break I read Vanessa and Her Sister, which I really liked, and with that I’m able to mark off a book about siblings.  For Christmas I got The Girl In the Spider’s Web, which was unputdownable, and clocked in at exactly 400 pages, so I can cross off book with 400 pages off.  I finished reading that book last night, and today started reading Dear Mr. You, which I am loving so far, and I’m studying the list to figure out what, if any, categories I can mark off.

Maybe I can even check off read a book from the library – for me, that’s the easiest, I usually only read books from the library!  We’ll see what comes next, I’m excited to try some of the other categories.  It’s not too late to join in, and this is just one of the many fun reading challenges I’ve seen online in the past couple of weeks.

Happy reading and enjoy!

Southern Made Fresh

9780848742942_p0_v1_s192x300I feel like I’ve been in a cooking rut lately.  For Christmas I got the Pioneer Woman’s latest book – Dinners, and am looking forward to trying some of those recipes.  Last night I tried her take on the classic cobb salad – and it was delicious.  For Christmas I also got Southern Made Fresh – which had been on my wish list for a while.  I also recently bought Rachael Ray’s new book Everyone Is Italian on Sunday, which I can’t wait to try.

Southern Made Fresh offers some new takes on Southern favorites: “vibrant dishes rooted in homegrown flavor”.  There are great, colorful pictures, that make all recipes look delicious.  Of course that’s probably the case with most great cookbooks – this one inspires me to cook!  Written by Tasia Malakasis, from Alabama, a seasoned Southern cook, and owner of Belle Chevre Creamery in Elkmont, Alabama.  So, she knows a thing or too about Southern dishes.  She also blogs at Tasia’s Table, sharing more delicious recipes there.

Some of the recipes include egg and chorizo quesadillas, which I made right away – my husband loves Mexican chorizo, and we both loved this recipe.  There are also recipes for buttermilk pecan pancakes (it’s the addition of the pecans I think that give these pancakes the “Southern” label), celery-apple salad, corn and crab fritters, yellow squash and zucchini gratin, buttermilk granola muffins (a basic muffin recipe with a bit of granola mixed into the batter, and a little more sprinkled on top).  My daughter loved helping me make these muffins – and we were able to use our own homemade granola.

One of the first recipes we tried was the Classic Tomato Soup.  It was the perfect thing for chilly weather, paired with a gooey, buttery grilled cheese.  I was also able to use the new immersion blender I got for Christmas.  For the picky eaters in this house, it was a great way to make it nice and smooth!

unnamedClassic Tomato Soup

2 T butter

2 C finely chopped onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

5 ¼ C canned reduced sodium fat free chicken broth

1 t dried oregano

3 (28 oz) cans crushed tomatoes

½ C half and half

½ t table salt

½ t freshly ground black pepper

Garnishes: small fresh basil leaves, croutons

  1. Melt butter in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 6 minutes until tender.
  2. Add broth and next 2 ingredients. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 45 minutes or until thickened.
  3. Slow stir in half and half, salt, and pepper.

If you were buried in snow over the weekend like we were (ok, so we just got an inch – but around here that’s a big deal!), this is the perfect remedy!  Stay warm and enjoy!!

American Wife

9780062398086_p0_v2_s192x300Just yesterday, one of my reviews was published online, and I’m super excited to share it today.  It was published on ESME, which is relatively new, and is an online resource for solo moms.  American Wife is about Taya Kyle, the widow of the murdered American Sniper.  As a former military spouse, she was a solo mom, now as a widow she has taken on that role again.  I am super excited that they posted my review on the book.  Here it is:

A few years ago, when the memoir American Sniper (HarperCollins, 2012)by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was released, I went out and bought a copy right away. I couldn’t wait to read the tale of the greatest sniper in American history and his war stories battling in some of the toughest fights in the war in Iraq. I didn’t expect to, but I loved the book. Though many aspects of his memoir have since come into question and are considered controversial by some, I still love it.

As a navy wife myself, I tried to understand the brotherhood he shared with his fellow SEALs. These men were his brothers who fought alongside him and who would give their lives to protect one another—not a concept that most Americans can understand. When Chris Kyle eventually left the SEALs and returned home after multiple deployments to transition to life as a civilian, he encountered a different kind of struggle. What drew me in most, though, was how I could personally relate to the stories he shared about his wife. He described her as somewhat reluctant to become romantically involved with him after they met, given the nature and reputation of Navy SEALs. And yet as much as I enjoyed American Sniper, Chris’s wife’s book resonated with me even more.

American Wife (William Morrow, 2015) is Taya Kyle’s story. It is part autobiography, part inside look at their life together, and, finally, a glimpse of her life after his death in 2013. The memoir is divided into sections about love, war, faith, and renewal. The section I adored most is titled “War” and is about how Taya lived her life during Kyle’s deployments to Iraq. I easily related to her words, and reading about her experience gave me an opportunity to hear from her about her day-to-day reality, not unlike other recent war-wife memoirs I’ve read. I’d already read her husband’s truncated descriptions of what her days were like in his absence, but I felt a void without hearing Taya’s insights, such as this one:

“‘I don’t want that on my shoulders,’ I answered. ‘Telling you not to live your dream. You love your job. But I also want to be honest. If you do reenlist, it will change the way I think about things. It will be different. I don’t want it to be, but I know deep in my gut it will be. You keep saying romantic things, things about wanting to stay and build your home here. If you go and reenlist, then I don’t know that I’ll think they’re true.’”

This passage broke me. It brought me to tears. Yes! Someone else gets it, I thought. I was glad she said this and vocalized this feeling to such a large audience. It’s something that I’ve said and felt so many times before. As a military spouse, you’re along for the ride with no say in decisions, and as career military members continue their upward journey in the military, the family does take the backseat. This is quite common. Because of these complications with balancing family with service, Chris ultimately decided to leave the military in 2009, with the surge in Iraq behind him but another surge raging in Afghanistan.

After Chris left the military, the Kyle family moved to Texas, which brought them closer to Chris’s family. Transitioning to civilian life was not easy for him, yet Taya remained supportive. They were able to buy a home in Texas, and he started his own company. With the success of his memoir, Chris was able to begin helping veterans—a true passion.

For Taya, Chris’s death in 2013 was devastating, and her world was shattered. Because of the book’s success and the nature of his death, the murder became national news. The final section of American Wife focuses on Taya’s attempt to carry on. It was heartbreaking, and yet a somewhat a familiar feeling to her. When he was deployed, she was a Solo Mom to their two children, but he left that all behind in an attempt to build a normal small-town life. And then, just a handful of years later, there Taya was, filling that same role of Solo Mom—only this time, it’s forever.

In Chris’s memory, Taya created the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation. Its goal is to help military members reconnect after deployment.

As If!

9781476799087_p0_v5_s192x300One of my favorite movies of all time is Clueless.  It is a classic movie, and having grown up in the 90s, it was my teen movie. I remember going to see it with a friend of mine and immediately loving it. Now, with the 20th anniversary of that movie, As If: The Oral History of Clueless commemorates the movie’s milestone anniversary, all of its influence, and also explores the importance of the movie. Jen Chaney, a writer and journalist, conducted a series of interviews with the movie’s creators, writers, directors, actors and actresses, producers, and crew. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, and a reminder of just how great this movie is.

When the movie came out in the summer of 1995, I was still a teenager, and up until then, my generation hadn’t had it’s own teen movie. Yes, 90210 was still on, and was still really popular, and Party of Five and Melrose Place were just beginning. So there were teen shows, there just hadn’t been any teen movies.

The bulk of the book is made up of Chaney’s interviews with the movie’s writer and director, Amy Heckerling.  Heckerling had already written and directed a teen classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That movie became the quintessential 80s teen movie, years before John Hughes would make his mark. Clueless became the quintessential 90s teen movie.  Here, she talks about the screenplay, casting process, production of the movie, and the movie’s premiere.  At the end, she talks in depth about the film’s ongoing influence. She also talks about the movie’s influence of Jane Austen’s Emma, which is what the movie is loosely based on. Emma was Austen’s matchmaker – and Clueless’s main character Cher takes on that role, in a hilarious and memorable way.

The movie became a cultural icon, and it’s still one of my favorites. It really launched Alicia Silverstone’s career, along with a few others.  One person missing from the interviews is of course Britney Murphy, but at the end of the book the stars of the movie, and Heckling herself, share their memories of her.  I loved reading through all of the interview, and it was interesting to learn that this movie that became so successful and so iconic, had trouble getting off the ground.  Heckerling shares the difficulties she had getting the movie made – but having learned that, I’m happy she overcame those obstacles!

This book is only for fans of the movie – and  those fans who read the book won’t be disappointed!

New Fiction Friday: Kissing In America

IMG_0523Based on the title and cover alone, I had to read this book. I read a brief review online of Kissing in America a while back, and had to check it out. After finally getting it from the library, I finished it over Christmas break and absolutely loved it. 16 year old Eva is the main character of the story. She lives with her mother in New York City, her mother is a committed feminist and college professor, who seems perpetually busy lecturing, meeting with students, and grading papers. Theirs is a strained relationship – she’s a busy single mother, and Eva is a teenager who has a hard time talking to her mother.  They are both haunted by a tragedy though, which makes their relationship even more troubled, her father was killed in a plane crash that remains an unsolved mystery.

9780062322371_p0_v1_s192x300Because of the accident, and also because she’s a single mom, Eva’s mom is overprotective, overbearing, and overwhelmed. It’s been two years since the accident, and even though it’s become the thing that defines them, they rarely talk about it.  Against all of her mother’s presence and, influence, she is a devoted romance fan fanatic – reading books by the hundreds. It was the only thing that seemed to bring joy in her life, until she met Will.

Will seems sweet and understanding, and she shares more truth with him than anyone else in her life. At first she lies about her father’s death, when he asks about his absence, and she’s used to doing that – just to avoid having to talk about it. She eventually tells him the truth, and he seems to understand, as he has lost someone in his life too. It’s because of his loss that he’s forced to move to California to start his senior year of high school with his dad that he hadn’t seen in years. It breaks them up, and it breaks her apart.

She and her best friend devise a plan to get to California during the summer, right before their senior year. Annie is set to be their class’s valedictorian, and auditions to be on a quiz show called The Smartest Girl in America. The show is taped in Hollywood, and Eva goes along with Annie as her guest.  It is the trip of a lifetime – traveling across the country by bus, they stop in some really interesting places.  Because Eva and her Mom refuse to fly, and being New Yorkers they don’t drive, the bus is one of their only options.

It was such a sweet story – even though the story of Eva and her mother center around her father’s death.  There is so much hurt – but there is also healing.  This trip helps Eva find out about herself, gives them distance and breathing room that they had never had.  It’s honest in the way the relationship between Eva and her mother is portrayed, but still hopeful.  I really enjoyed reading this book, and although there was very little “kissing” involved, there was all kinds of love.

The Big Short

9780393353150_p0_v1_s192x300I have become a fan of Michael Lewis. The first book I read of his was The Blind Side. It wasn’t something I normally would have read, but really wanted to see the movie version and thought I’d read the book first. Since then, I’ve read all of his books, the latest one Flash Boys, which I loved.  Now I’m anxiously awaiting his next book, though not sure when that will be.  I first read The Big Short a few years ago, shortly after it first came out. I’m so excited to see the movie version, but before seeing it, wanted to reread the book.

I remember taking economics in college, but not much of it actually stuck with me. I admit to knowing nothing about the stock market – so along with this book, I used Google frequently to learn more about the investing/stock market terms that Lewis used. I had no idea what value investing is (and kinda still don’t), or a mortgage-backed security, and wasn’t that sure exactly what a hedge fund is. So, reading this book (along with some of his other books) was like a learning experience for me.

At the center of the story is Michael Burry, who is incredibly smart, and seems to understand the stock market better than anyone. Once trained as a neurologist, he left medicine in order to pursue a career on Wall Street. Before starting this new career, he started a blog on the stock market, and become almost obsessed on Wall Street. His blog started to gain a lot of attention.  And from there, he decided to start his own hedge fund, with different rules than most hedge funds operated by. It was a risky move, and it was hard getting initial investors – he had virtually no experience. Had it not been for the death of his father, and a small inheritance he received, starting his own company would not have been possible.

So what exactly did Burry do that was so remarkable? Aren’t there plenty of hedge funds already out there? Yes, but he changed the rules. He also made a huge bet against Wall Street – a bet that no one wanted to make, but a bet many didn’t want to believe he would win. And he did win; he was able to identify a flaw in the economy – and what would ultimately doom the stock market – sub-prime mortgages. Burry becomes somewhat of a hero – in his ability to detect this flaw in the market. Unlike most of the major characters in the book, he doesn’t seem greedy. He is intrigued by the way the stock market works. He doesn’t seem in it just for the money – he did leave a promising career in medicine, after all.

This wasn’t my favorite Michael Lewis book, but I still thought it was pretty great. I think I needed the lesson on the economy, and I think most of us could. Things aren’t exactly explained in “lamen’s terms”, but instead he challenges readers to rise to his level. Instead of blaming politicians for their economic policies, we could gain a better understanding at the stock market, how it works, and what exactly went wrong before 2008 that got us in our current position. This is the perfect book for that!  Students of economics would probably learn more from this book than most textbooks.

I haven’t seen the movie yet – but I’m dying to.  My husband and I are planning to see it on our next date night.  He hasn’t read the book – but he loved the movie Moneyball, and we can’t wait!