The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria

51rahiqp-pl-_sx327_bo1204203200_It’s hard to avoid the ongoing conflict and violence in Syria.  This small country, rapt by civil war, has become a tragic humanitarian crisis. Janine Di Giovanni is a seasoned journalist, who had reported from Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. Born in New Jersey now living in Paris, she has spent several weeks in Syria witnessing almost the same thing in there as she once had reported on from Sarajevo.  The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria is a long report of what she witnessed there. Abuse, systematic rape, starvation, devastation.  I picked this book up from the library, committed to knowing more about what is really happening there. It’s a compelling story, and goes way beyond anything I had heard or read about Syria.

In my husband’s multiple trips to the Middle East, he has been all over the place. The closest he’s been to the Syrian conflict is Jordan.  I’ve never feared for his safety more than while he was there. Jordan continues to take in Syrian refugees, and after reading this account, I believe that many more countries could follow their example.  Di Giovanni visited a few places in the country, and each place she visited faced similar situations. The situation in Aleppo may be the most reported on, and she went there. But she also went to Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Darayya, and Zabadani.

In the beginning of the conflict, Syrian rebels were inspired by the Arab Spring. Bashar al Assad inherited his position from his father, something average Syrians weren’t happy with.  His father had actually picked a new name when he rose to power – assad actually means lion, which is an accurate description of his and his son’s leadership style.

If the Arab Spring was about democracy, and it could’ve meant other things to other people, Syrians believed in this promise.  What this civil brought to average Syrians is years of suffering – of torture under Assad’s regime. Even though Syria has been all over the news the past few years, I knew very little of what was really going on – and how the conflict started. The story Di Giovanni is an important one – and will either change opinions on the conflict in Syria, or strengthen them. There is so much heartbreak there, yet the saddest part of the story of Syria is that it is still ongoing.  I hope that it ends soon, but I’m not hopeful.


The War at Home

51honkwwpul-_sx325_bo1204203200_As a military spouse, I’ve experienced a unique kind of loss in my life. Yes, my husband and I have been married for 11 years. Yes, we have a beautiful 6 year old daughter. Yes, we own our home and our daughter goes to a wonderful school that she loves. What’s missing is him. He’s on yet another deployment, he left in January and will make another one next year too!  For us, that’s 3 deployments in 4 years. Yes, this is our home, and this is our life, but he’s not here. These are the same experiences Rachel Starnes has had. In The War at Home she talks about life as a military spouse, and explains how this is the life that she never wanted.

It’s not a life she was unfamiliar with. Growing up, her father worked on oil rigs. He spent weeks – sometimes months – away from the family. She watched what she calls a dance between her parents – and even between her parents and her and her brother. Comings and goings, goodbyes and homecomings. It was a constant emotional rollercoaster – one that she didn’t want to be a part of, one she didn’t want to continue in her adult life. As a military spouse, she does this dance with her husband – a dance that just gets harder to do once her son is born.

There are so many parts to this story that I identify with. As a Navy wife I have gone through struggles similar to hers, and this book was even more personal because her husband is an F-18 pilot and my husband has worked on F-18s for 24 years. We have been stationed at the same bases, probably even in some of the same squadrons (though probably not at the same times).  I understand her struggle to support his career, while still trying to have a normal relationship.

She talks openly and honestly about what its like to be a military spouse, and that’s refreshing. Reading stories like this, and hers isn’t the only one that I’ve read and loved, are somewhat reassuring.  Military life is hard, being a parent in general is hard, but being a single parent while your spouse is deployed is seriously challenging. It’s okay to feel like you’re not going to get through it. It’s okay to feel like giving up (though hopefully get through it). Outsiders may not understand what military life is like, but Starnes offers a window into this world.

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo

51j10qkqfsl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Amy Schumer is one of the funniest women in the world. Her brand of feminist comedy is bold, brave, and hilarious. I was so excited to finally get my hands on her book, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. In it is a collection of humorous essays, and a few of her journal entries from different stages of her life. She talks about her family, her relationships, her career, her crazy upbringing, and her love of New York City. I laughed out loud a few times – and found it very therapeutic. I actually had the book on election day and had a hard time sleeping that night. I got up, grabbed the book and finished it before I was able to go back to sleep. It was welcome comic relief, something we could all use right now.

Schumer is known for her comedy, but is also an outspoken feminist. She talks about being a woman in comedy, which seems like well-covered territory.  She adds to the argument though, not just repeats what others have said. Her experience is unique, and she tells all about her rise in comedy. One of the most hilarious skits from her show Inside Amy Shumer is one in which she addresses growing older in Hollywood. That’s something she talks about in the book too – and how she rejects the whole idea. She’s never really been in “Hollywood”, she’s a lifelong New Yorker. For this, and many other reasons, she’s doing her own thing.

This is one of my favorite parts, her belief that just because she’s not a size 2 and 20 years old, doesn’t mean that she can’t be funny, or entertain people:

“I’m sure no one is too shocked to hear that it’s an industry of people who judge most women almost solely on their appearance, and where every day women feel themselves barreling toward death and decay while smaller, hotter actresses like Selena keep appearing like Russian nesting dolls. It’s an industry where you go from playing a lead love interest to a turtleneck-and-knit-vest-sporting grandmother who, despite missing her husband, still has a lot of love to give to pets, in half the time a leading man turns into a grandpa”.

This is so spot on, and at the same time hilarious. She’s so honest about her experiences and who she is, and is also unforgiving. She is not perfect, and of course no one is, she admits lots of really embarrassing stuff here, and apologizes for none of it.

Love Warrior

51wytwcohgl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Glennon Doyle Melton is one of the most popular bloggers on the internet.  She reaches millions of readers, and has started a movement of giving, of compassion, and acceptance.  And not just acceptance of others’ differences, but acceptance of our imperfect selves.  Love Warrior is her second book, a memoir of her childhood, her marriage, and her struggle with bulimia, alcohol and drug abuse.  It’s ultimately a story of healing, of acceptance, and of carrying on, and that’s exactly what her blog is all about. It’s also what makes her such a compelling voice.  There is such power in this vulnerability that she exposes and shares openly.

I’m normally not even a fan of memoirs, and I can’t honestly remember the last time I read one and actually liked it. This one I could’ve finished in one sitting. She’s very critical of herself – and openly shares her faults. That’s something that is so familiar to me, and made me kept turning the pages.  I’ve never experienced drug abuse or an eating disorder, but I could relate to the judgement and criticism she places on herself.

Parenting was not the perfect role for her, but just like all parents, having a child changed her life. It brought her and her husband together – 3 kids later, they struggled daily for balance. Between the crazy schedule of parenting 3 busy kids, and constantly reparing what seemed to be a fractured relationship, they struggled. This made her role as mother even harder.  She found grace, though.  And in that grace there is hope.

I loved the relatability of all of her stories. Most of the stories she has written about on her blog, so followers of the blog won’t find much new material.  But in the stories readers will find the same kind of compassion and raw emotion she is known for.  Readers connect with her message, and it resonates so many women who think themselves imperfect.  We all may be battling demons, but that’s ok.  She shows us that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that’s perhaps her most important message.

My Reading Life

51nejrpxnol-_sx343_bo1204203200_Over the course of my life, I think I’ve read thousands of books. No official count though. Some have been good, some have been not so good. Some were quickly forgotten, some have made quite an impression. Pat Conroy wrote several great books in his lifetime, including Beach Music, and The Prince of Tides. He passed away earlier this year, and left the world with a great body of work.  My Reading Life is a long list of books that meant something to him. It was so interesting reading through the list of some of his favorite books, and it also made me want to read Gone With the Wind (which I just picked up at the library).

Conroy grew up the son of a decorated Marine fighter pilot (this upbringing was the basis of one of his most popular books – The Great Santini). This hero was celebrated seemingly throughout the military, and at every base they lived at during his service. Behind closed doors, at home however, his father was an abusive drunk, something his mom tried so hard to keep secret from the outside world. He was one of 7 children, and the family of 9 traveled all over the south during his father’s time in the service.

The transient life of a military family can be hard, and he describes this well.  He never really had “roots”, or a permanent home, but felt so connected to every library he visited.  Whatever chaos raged in his life, he and his mother always connected through books.  He clings to these books, each one in the book he describes lovingly, and talks about when and where he first read them.  He also describes what the books, the words themselves, meant to him.

He describes his Mom as very brave, and strong, despite the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of his father. She was the one who took him to the library, inspiring his love of reading and writing. They both loved Gone With the Wind, and he has a way of describing the book in a way that I don’t think anyone else I’ve ever read has.  He talks quite a bit about a teacher he had in high school. This teacher he kept in touch with for many years.  Gene Norris was an English teacher who inspired understanding – not only of the books he prescribed in class, but of so much of the changes taking place in the 1960s.

He also talks quite a bit about his favorite librarian. Not one in a libriary he frequented, or visited as a child.  This is a librarian that worked in a school he taught in. She was more concerned with preserving the books and protecting them than she was with encouraging students to read them.  Their interactions that he recounts are hilarious – he loved to get a rise out of her.  For someone who has lived in the south for most of his life, and though my daughter was born in the south, I’ve never really connected to – or understood – the spirit of the south.  He does that in this book, and in his writing.  He was an important southern voice, representing only the good parts of the old south.

I loved reading this book, and hope that one day I can remember my favorite books as fondly as he does here.

TLC Book Tours: The Dude Diet

9780062424389_p0_v2_s192x300Most “dudes” aren’t known for their healthy, balanced diets. The Dude Diet is meant to introduce ways to get “dudes” to eat a little healthier – to clean up their favorite foods.  Offering options – not drastic changes.  Serena Wolf is a chef – an accomplished chef, who as a Harvard grad, seems a bit overqualified as a chef.  Yet, she’s on a mission to deliver delicious foods, delicious recipes, ones that anyone can enjoy – “clean(ish) food for people who like to eat dirty”.

The idea for the Dude Diet came from her boyfriend, Logan. It’s a story that sounds so familiar to me – trying to get my husband to eat healthier is a losing, uphill battle. Now that we’re parents it’s a little easier, but I know he eats nothing but junk when he is on his own. She has a similar unnamed-1challenge – and while my husband claims to be allergic to vegetables, her Logan had no clue about calories, ingredients, and nutrition. This was her mission – to make healthier versions of his favorite dishes, eliminating certain ingredients, bringing down the fat and calorie counts, and in some dishes, sneaking in some veggies.

When I got the book my husband saw it laying out. On the cover is a pile of amazing – looking nachos. Thumbing through the book he pointed to several dishes he seemed really excited about. This is a sign!!! If only I can make these dishes without him seeing the all of the ingredients.  One of the first recipes I tried was her recipe for apple pie overnight oats.  I love overnight oats – and we tried this recipe right away and it was super easy and yummy! Anything between two tortillas is a hit in this house – so unnamedher ultimate breakfast quesadillas (with chopped broccoli snuck in) I know will be trying soon.  Her breakfast recipes would be a hit any time of the day – especially her English muffin French toast with berry compote.

A few great recipes sneakily hide servings of veggies – cauliflower mad and cheese with chicken sausage, super sloppy joes, and Italian herb meatballs with spicy marinara.  With big chunks of tomatoes and squash I don’t think anyone in my house would be interested in the summer spahhetti – but I think it looks delicious. I can’t wait to try the fiesta BBQ chicken nachos – perfect for football season!

thumbnail_tlc tour host.jpg.pngAfter the overnight oats, I wanted to try her meatball recipe.  Instead of using breadcrumbs, the recipe calls for cauliflower.  They are gluten free, which makes it a great option for some.  I was nervous about trying the recipe and wondering how this swap would affect the taste of the meatball.  No need to  worry though, they were delicious!  I really loved them – and so did my daughter!

Using the same meatball base I made BBQ ranch meatballs.  With 1 lb of ground beef, the cauliflower, 1 cup of finely grated cheddar cheese and a packet of ranch dip seasoning.  Both meatball recipes turned out great!

Italian herb meatballs with spicy marinara

1 C cauliflower florets

1 lb lean ground beef

½ C grated parmesean cheese

1/3 C basil leaves, finely chopped

1/3 fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 t drid oregano

1 t kosher salt

½ t freshly ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large egg

For the spicy marinara

1 ½ T EVOO

½ medium yellow onion, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

¼ t kosher salt

One 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray a wire rack with cooking spray and place it on top of the prepared baking sheet.
  2. Put the cauliflower florets in a food processor or blender and pulse several times until the florets become small granules. (The cauliflower should look sort of like couscous here.) Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients for the meatballs to the bowl with the cauliflower. Using your hands, mix gently just unil all the ingredients are combined. Try not to overmix, or you’ll end up with dry, dense meatballs.
  4. With lightly oiled hands, gently roll the meat mixture into 16 balls, and place them an inch or so apart on the wie rack. Bake to 20 minutes or until cooked through.
  5. Meanwhile, get gogin on the marinara. Heat the olive oil in a medium Dutch oven or sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add the onion, garlic, and salt and cook 5 to 6 minutes or until the onion is very soft and the garlic is fragrant. Add the crushed tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and sugar. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce for 15 minutes until slighltly thickened.
  6. Add the meatballs to the sauce. Simmer for 5 minutes more, then stir in the basil. Serve warm.

Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

9780399576775_p0_v2_s192x300When Eat Pray Love came out, it was almost an instant success. I remember it being one of the first books my book club ever read. I read it along with every one else, but I also wanted to find out what all the hype was about. I read the book and just didn’t get it. I’m not a fan of memoirs, though I’ve read a bunch. At the time, I just couldn’t understand why she needed to go on this journey, and couldn’t connect to any of the feelings she had. Overall, I felt the book was self-indulgent. I couldn’t imagine walking away from life, leaving it all behind, in search of self-discovery.  And there was incredible privilege that Gilbert had, not everyone can step away from life and afford an around the world trip.

After reading the book, I dismissed it, though its popularity continued to grow. I did watch the movie – and actually really loved it. There was something Julia Roberts did to the 9780143038412_p0_v16_s192x300character that made her endearing, and I think I understood Elizabeth’s quest a little more. The popularity of the book is not just because of Elizabeth’s story, it’s because of this incredible trip that she went on, which turned out to be a transformation.

After seeing Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It at the library, I knew I had to read it. It’s a collection of short stories, testimonials, women sharing their experiences with the book, and how the book changed their lives. From traveling around the world, leaving bad relationships, going to back to school, embarking on a new career, each women shares a personal story, and how their lives were changed after reading the book. They were really inspired by Gilbert. I can’t say that I was similarly inspired, but having read their tales, I can connect to the original book in a way that I hadn’t before.

Gilbert herself wrote the book’s foreward, which ties together these individual stories of love, adventure, and self-discovery.  She describes her surprise of the book’s popularity, and some experiences she had while meeting some of the book’s fans.

“Both had stepped out of their tired old selves – from one moment to the next – and walked forward into completely new lives. And Eat Pray Love, incredibly, had helped them do that. This is what my book is really about. It was never really about eating pizza in Italy or meditating in India or falling in love in Bali. It wasn’t about travel or spirituality or divorce. No, Eat Pray Love was about what happens when one human being realizes that her life doesn’t have to look like this anymore – that everything (including herself) can be changed. After that realization occurs, nothing will ever be the same again.”

There are stories of moving on, moving out, and exploration, and I liked it so much more than the original.  It also gave me a great appreciation for the original book.  I think I finally get it now.