Monday, October 13, 2008

It's Definitely Baby Signing Time

Did you know that Baby Signing Time now has Volume 3 and Volume 4? I was thrilled when I found out, thanks to an exceptionally well-targeted email sent to me from Two Little Hands Productions asking if I wanted to review these DVDs. The Communications Manager had noticed that I have before mentioned Signing Time and Baby Signing Time as shows that my daughter watches.

But let me expand a little about my daughter and these DVDs before I get into my review. The Pumpkin is not one for TV. I think it's more than just her age. It's that things on TV rarely hold her interest. Baby Signing Time not only holds her interest, but she has even begged (and signed!) to watch it! This from the child who usually barely notices what cartoons are on TV while kids around her are glued to it.

There is just something very engaging to her about Baby Signing Time, something about the singing, the kids, the animated Leah, Alex and Hopkins, the signs themselves (which we continue to practice later), and Rachel that my daughter loves. We tried Signing Time, but the Pumpkin was not as interested in that. Granted, we only tried the first one, so the others might have grabbed her. But we knew that she loved the Baby Signing Time Volume 1, so we got Volume 2.

I hate to even say it, but the second volume was not as engaging to the Pumpkin as the first. I myself wasn't as fond of the songs, although the signs were good ones to learn. The Pumpkin started wandering off in the middle of the show, like she does for other TV shows. I said to my husband that I wish they made more so that I could find another she liked. A few days later, I get an email about Volume 3 and 4 of Baby Signing Time! I hopped on that quicker than Hopkins catching a fly!

Baby Signing Time Volume 3, A New Day, includes songs about it being a new day, going outside, taking stroller rides, bugs, stars and nighttime. Not only does my daughter enjoy the songs and signs, but I love to sing the stroller song when I'm taking her for a walk in her stroller or even when we're walking her toy stroller around inside! The Pumpkin has learned most of the signs, which amazes me, because I hadn't really mentioned grass or clouds to her until watching this, and now she knows those words and the sings for the words.

Baby Signing Time Volume 4, Let's Be Friends, includes songs about being friends, feelings, opposites, foods and toys. When I first watched this DVD with the Pumpkin, I wasn't sure if she was ready for some of the concepts. She totally was. In fact, this was a great way to really get her to begin to understand sharing and what opposites are. I'd already been doing facial expressions with her, but to also have the signs as a way to express the feelings is a great idea. She also loves to watch the kids express themselves with their faces and signs.

Both Baby Signing Time volumes 3 and 4 were really well done, with a good flow, engaging concepts, cute animation, and really great songs. The Pumpkin may be ready for Singing Time (the older versions) soon, but she's just not ready yet. Until then, we are now able to enjoy more Baby Signing Time shows with new signs and songs.

I highly recommend these DVDs for parents and babies to toddlers who are interested in signing. Although my daughter speaks pretty well, and developed her oral communication early, she loves to sign and is able to express herself more clearly when she uses the signs and words together--because anyone with toddlers knows how understandable toddlerese can be! I think that it is so important to teach children another language, and this is a fun and entertaining way to teach sign language to young children and their old parent.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Impact of The Pact

My July read for the TBR Challenge was The Pact, by Jodi Picoult. I finished it in mid-July and am only now getting to the review. But that's nothing compared to how long I've had it and been meaning to read it.

This was another book that was part of a Christmas present from my sister probably 3 years ago. As I've mentioned before, my sister is a great gift giver, but the subject matter of this book (which is explained on the back of the book and in the early pages of the book, so I don't think it's a spoiler, but here it is: a teenagers suicide pact) made me hesitate to read it, even though the subtitle of the book is "A Love Story." It sounded dark and depressing. While I figured it would be a good book, I knew I had to wait until the right mood and the right season to read it.

Boy am I glad I read it. It was fantastic! It wasn't even so depressing like I thought it would be. It moved to fast to let you get too overwhelmed by the sadness, and it kept me guessing as to what had happened and what was going to happen. I was completely sucked in to both stories. I say both because the book was structured in a Then and Now fashion, with the start of the book containing the action that the Then leads up to and results in the Now. Does that sound confusing? It wasn't. It was beautifully put together.

In addition to the interesting plot and wonderfully constructed structure of the book, the characters were really fleshed out. While I didn't personally relate to any of the character and in fact would not likely not hang out with them in real life, they were very realistic and just about everything they did was true to their characters. I once read an author's response about readers who say that something a character does in a book is unrealistic, that they (the reader) would never do something like that. She said that it does matter whether or not the reader would do the thing they are complaining about, but would the character in the book do it? Is it true to the character, not the reader? In this book, there were things I thought were silly or even outrageous actions, things that I never would have done. But those actions usually did fit the characters. Picoult makes these characters so realistic that you just know that the actions are true to the characters.

I know I had little issues with the book. Little things not being truly discovered as I had hoped they would be. But it's not my book, not my story to decide how it should play out. And none of the issues were so great that they even left much of an impression on me. In fact, I'm searching for some negatives to balance out the raves I feel for this book. And not coming up with anything.

I really thought this book was fantastic. This is the first book I've read by Picoult, and I am excited to read more. My understanding is that this book is typical of her other books, both in the topics it deals with and in the settings. If that is true, my bet is that her other books will also have this kind of impact on the readers. I'm left thinking about this book for weeks after I finished it, both things that happened in it and the way it was written. Reading this as a parent, I'm constantly thinking about this book in terms of what I can do to protect my child and look for warning signs that are probably easily hidden from people who don't want to see them. Hopefully, I will see them because I don't just want to believe that everything is sunshine and roses if things are truly wrong. I don't want anything bad to ever happen to my child(ren), so I will hopefully also be looking for those things and be able to protect them from most of the ills in the world. But what happens when there is something I didn't see, something I was unable to protect them from?

I imagine I will continue thinking about this book for a very long time.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Nostalgia Mirror

I took a trip back to my youth for my TBR Challenge June book. The book I read was The Blind Mirror, by Christopher Pike. I say this took me back to my youth because when I was in my early teens, I discovered Christopher Pike.

Christopher Pike wrote thriller mysteries for young adults, but he wrote as if he was writing to adults. He did not talk down to his audience, and he wrote mysteries that I could not figure out. There was always a twist, a surprise that I didn't see coming. There were adult themes and interesting plots. I loved his books. After being introduced to his books, I discovered Lois Duncan, and then R.L. Stine came onto the scene and L.J. Smith (although I read only her early books). I really enjoyed all these books, but I thought nothing was as good as Christopher Pike.

As I got older, I stopped reading his books and moved on to other, older material, but my love for him and his books remained in my heart. He did come out with a few adult books, and I read and really enjoyed Sati and The Season of Passage. He took a few years off (there might have been a book or two I missed in there), and I stopped looking for him.

A couple years ago, I was telling my husband about how much I loved Christopher Pike books and mentioned that he had written some adult books. Londo asked me if he'd written anything recently, so I checked. And I found this book, The Blind Mirror, on Amazon. I immediately ordered it, but I didn't read it right away. It had been a long time since I read scary books and I wasn't quite up for a thriller, nostalgia or no.

I finally read it for my June book. And I'm glad I did.

The Blind Mirror was a good book. It had interesting characters, an intriguing plot, mysterious twists (including a couple I didn't see coming), and some classic Christopher Pike themes (which I enjoyed but did see coming). The book was about a man who left town after his girlfriend broke up with him, but on his return he discovers a dead body on the beach. Is it his girlfriend's body? The one who is calling him and wanting to get back together again? And what's going on with his old high-school crush who is suddenly all over him? And there is also some unanswered questions from the man's friends who died back in his high school days.

The book keeps you guessing about many different subplots. It kept my interest and kept me constantly guessing, wondering if anything was connected and in what way. I was able to keep up with all the different characters and themes, and in fact I thought they added interest.

I must say that it wasn't a perfect book. I was a little bit dissappointed in the end of the book. Not because it left me hanging, because he did answer all the different unanswered questions and mysteries. But some things were never adequately detailed. I never did understand why some of the things happened or what were the motivations of certain characters. I was left seeing what happened, but not always understanding why they happened.

Overall, I really liked The Blind Mirror, for all the reasons I've always liked Christopher Pike. I think it was a good book, one that could have been great. It was pretty short, and a definitely fast-paced read that was worth the time. If you like interesting thriller mysteries with a side of paranormal, I suggest you try this book and others by Christopher Pike.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bread, Pancakes and Low-Sugar Cake

I've always loved to bake. However there have been times when I haven't had much time to bake from scratch. Instead, I've turned to some excellent mixes for cookies, cakes, pancakes and much more. But lately, in my effort to be more healthy and use more natural and organic ingredients, I've gone back to baking with a vengence! I've told a few people that I would share some recipes that I've gotten from others, and I'm finally going to do it.

First, I would like to thank Jen at Amazing Trips for this fantastic recipe for the best homemade bread I've ever eaten. In fact, as soon as I get to the store to buy more yeast, I'm making this bread today. Everyone who tries it loves it, and it's SO EASY to make! Check it out by clicking here.

Second, I tried the whole wheat bread recipe on the back of the King Arthur whole wheat flour bag. It was not hard to make, and it turned out quite good. I used molasses to sweeten it, which worked well. I will make this recipe again and recommend it to others. The one not-so-great thing was that it didn't seem to keep as long as I expected, which wasn't long. But maybe if I'd covered/sealed it right away it would have kept better.

Third, when I asked online somewhere for good bread recipes, I received a recommendation for The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown. While I have not tried it myself, I plan to buy it soon and it sounds fantastic. I will review it after I try it out.

If you haven't discovered All Recipes yet, you are missing out. I have found some great recipes on that site, including some pancake recipes.

For a really excellent pancake mix recipe, check this one out. You mix up all of the dry ingredients and store the mix in an airtight container. I've actually been using a big Ziplock bag, which is working fine. When you are ready to make a batch of pancakes, you add the egg and milk. Prego! Delicious pancakes! It's better than Aunt Jemima, Bisquick or Hungry Jack... and as an added bonus, it does not contain aluminum, unlike some of those others! (Don't believe me? Check the ingredients on the back of their boxes.)

I've also made these pancakes! I used butter instead of shortening, and they really turned out fluffy and really good. They were pretty easy to make, too, and they froze well.

A friend recommended another recipe, which she posted in the comments here. I have to be honest, I have not tried these because one of the main ingredients is bananas, which I didn't realize at first. I have a real aversion to bananas and can't stand the smell or taste. But if Dana says it's good, I trust that it is good (for people who like bananas).

For the Pumpkin's first birthday, I wanted to make cupcakes for her and other toddlers at her party, but I wanted something low in sugar that wasn't a carrot cake. Someone recommended this site to me, and I made the Vanilla Cake as cupcakes. They were excellent! They did taste more like muffins than cakes because of the low sugar, but they were scrumptious muffin/cakes. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to make cakes for their little ones but don't want to deal with a major sugar high!

Understanding Animals and People

My May read for the TBR Challenge was Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. I had been really looking forward to this book, and it didn't disappoint. I don't know why I hadn't read it sooner, other than my life had been consumed by pregnancy and the baby.

Here's the story behind my buying the book. I'm an avid researcher. I research EVERYTHING! It's what I do. So when Londo and I first got a cat, I bought all sorts of books about cats--raising cats, how cats were domesticated, why cats behave the way the do, etc. When we got a dog, I looked into dogs--training dogs, the history behind different breeds, how to read their body language, etc. This of course carried over into pregnancy and raising a baby, and I have shelves of books dedicated to all these things. But once I research until I'm comfortable with an area of knowledge, I usually stop reading about it regularly.

When I was pregnant, a coworker and I were talking about our dogs and I mentioned some interesting books I read when I was in my dog research phase, especially my favorite book in this area How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, by Stanley Coren. My coworker told me about the Animals in Translation book, which he had seen in passing at an airport bookstore. He didn't buy it because he didn't want to carry it on his flight, but he said it looked interesting. It sounded fascinating to me, so I found it and bought it. I didn't read it at the time, because I was busy with my pregnancy books and then baby books. But finally, I read it for my May read, and I'm really glad I did.

The author of the book, Temple Grandin, is a prominent animal behavior expert who is also autistic. She believes that in many ways the way animals see and experience the world is the same as autistic people. For example, she says that she and other autistic people think in pictures (she has another book about this called Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, which also sounds fascinating), and she believes that animals also think in pictures. She talks a lot about how autistic people think and behave, how animals think and behave and how non-autistic people think and behave. I learned so much about all these areas, and just psychology in general, from reading this book, which I was immediately able to start using in real life.

In fact, the book made me realize that I need to think of things from my dog's perspective and keep realistic expectations of her. I realized that I've been trying to do that for my child, but since she was born, I've had much less patience and understanding for both the dog and cat. The rules have changed in our house since the baby was born, and the dog especially is having some trouble adjusting to it.

One great example of what I learned from this book that I'm trying to apply in real life is that dogs (and apparently autistic people) don't generalize. So if we are trying to teach our food-driven beagle that she can have the food that the toddler drops on the floor from her highchair but has to wait until the end of the meal, she does not understand that this will apply every single time for every single meal. She just doesn't get it. Food drops, she wants it, she tries to get it. We have to instruct her every. single. time. to wait outside the kitchen, and we have to have realistic expectations that she will try to sneak in when food drops. She wants the food, and she does not understand the human reasoning that we place on her waiting until the baby is done. We have to give her clear commands and reward her good behavior.

I learned that and much more. Because I'm now thinking about how animals think again, I find that I'm able to have more patience for the animals. I really needed to find my patience again, so I'm really happy that this has helped. I'm also much more creative in thinking of ways to train the dog and help both animals adjust to the constantly changing rules of having a toddler. One who now wants toddle around eating (and dropping) crackers that the dog is not supposed to eat--and especially not supposed to take from the toddler. Yeah, that one is tough, and I'm still trying to figure out how to work with the beagle on that one!

So, I highly recommend this book. I really enjoyed it, and I learned a lot. If you are interested in animals, autism or how people think, this is an excellent book.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Rockabye Rocks!

Over the past few months, I've read a few non-fiction books and memoirs. I generally enjoy memoirs because I like hearing about people's experiences. However, I have been a bit disappointed lately in many of the memoirs. Just because a person has an interesting story to tell, does not mean that they are good writers who can tell the story well.

Rockabye: From Wild to Child, by Rebecca Woolf, does not have this problem. Rebecca's blog Girl's Gone Child was one of the first mommybloggers I started reading. Because of her exceptional writing in addition to her interesting experiences, I never left her site. If you haven't discovered her yet, I suggest going to her site and buying her book. They are both worth it.

Rockabye is Rebecca's story of her unplanned pregnancy, subsequent marriage, and her transition into motherhood. While her story is perhaps in almost every way different from mine, I found myself related in so many ways to what she went through and the thoughts and feelings she had while going through these transitions. Even the areas that I could not relate to directly were told so well that I could understand and even embrace her decisions and feelings. That is a remarkable talent in a storyteller.

Rebecca's writing is simply amazing. I was maybe 10 pages into the book when I looked up at my husband and said, "Now THAT is how you write a book!"* Her rich writing is full of details that draw you in and make her world your world. I'm incredibly impressed by her ability to introspectively view her own life, feelings and emotions and express her deep analyses and conclusions. Even if you have no interest in what it is like to be a new mother, suddenly thrust into parenthood and marriage, her writing is so beautiful that this book would be a joy to read.

I happen to love the topic of parenthood, and I loved reading about Rebecca's struggles and joys. Being a new mom or dad is tough in so many ways, and Rebecca captured many of those ways that I believe are pretty universal, as well as some that are more unique. What she shared was not a day-by-day account of her son's growth, it was not four-page chapter sound bites with trite snippets of life or thoughts. It was the deep reflection of what went on in her head through pregnancy and the first few years of her son's life. She also showed how having a child is worth all the rough times and how the love you experience is greater than anything you knew before.

For those of you who wonder how I make time to read, try reading this book and you'll see how quickly you get sucked in and make time for it.

For other reviews, check out The Parent Bloggers Network's post on the book.

*This was in reference to the previous memoir I read right before this book which had an interesting story, but I found to be poorly written in many ways. Of course Londo got to hear all my grips about the previous book.

(Copied from a post originally on Cara Mama.)

Bel Canto Review

My April book for the TBR Challenge was Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Here is the story about this book, which has been sitting on my shelf for maybe 3 or 4 years.

My sister bought this book for me as part of my Christmas presents one year. It is an award-winning book that was a bestseller and had great reviews. My sister is a great gift buyer, especially when she buys for me. She has excellent taste, she knows my likes and dislikes, and she has bought me other books that I've totally loved. The fact I haven't read this book is no reflection on her. But honestly, if I had seen it in the store, I doubt I would have bought it. The plot isn't that intriguing to me, but I hear that the plot isn't what makes it great--it's the writing, the looks into the people, that is what is great. It must be good to have won awards and been a bestseller, right?

So, I finally made myself read it. I hoped that I would love it and wonder why I hadn't read it earlier. But about a third of the way into the book, I thought the writing is good, but it hasn't captured me. I thought it was just because I hadn't had much time to try and get into it. So I kept going on the book, hoping I would start getting into it.

Let me warn you there may be spoilers in the following paragraph. I won't give away details, but I may hint at what happens in a way that could be considered spoilers.

Bel Canto was a very well-written book, and I think that I did like the book. It was slow, very slow, but that was done on purpose to really make it more of a character study than an action book about a hostage situation. The characters were interesting and even believable, given the situation. But (you knew there would be a but, didn't you?) there was a lot of build up, a whole book of build up, and then BAMB! it was over. And even though there was an epilogue, there really wasn't any wrap up or closure. It was almost like a Twilight Zone ending that left me going "Huh? Really?" I can see what she was trying to do with the epilogue, but I don't think she explained it well which was just disappointing.

For two months in a row, my TBR Challenge books had to do with people being held hostage. I'm not sure what that was about... I must have been feeling hostage (maybe to the baby?) when I set my book list. hehe.

(Combined and edited from two posts originally on Cara Mama.)

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

In March, I also read one of my TBR Challenge alternates, a book I've been really excited about reading: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I've heard great things about this book from many, many people. I bought the book when the Pumpkin was only a couple months old. I was on maternity leave and would meet up with some other moms who had March babies. I went to the book store with one of the moms, who happens to be a child psychologist. When we were perusing the parenting section, she recommended this book. Since that time, I've heard one good thing after another.

This book is in a similar vein as Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen, a book that really spoke to me with its thoughts grounded in child psychology and great ideas that really make sense for dealing with children. I recommend Playful Parenting to everyone with kids!

As for How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Seriously, this book is one of the most amazing books I've ever read.

I don't just recommend this book to parents. I think everyone in the world should read this book. I think the book should be called How To Talk to Other People and Listen To Other People. It's really true. For example, last weekend Londo saw me picking through a bowl of chips he had set out for guests and he started berating me for touching them all (while looking for the best ones). Well, my instinctive feeling was to keep doing it to spite him, even though he was 100% right. I realized it was the way he talked to me that made me feel that way. As an adult, I'm able to do the right thing anyway, but I can totally see that a child would do the instinctive thing that they know is wrong because of the way we say things to them. I had another example of this, but I forgot it. My point stands though, that this book can apply to every. single. person. in. the. world!

It's a quick read and really makes you think about how you are talking and listening and gives concrete ideas for how change the ways you talk and listen. And the bonus is that you don't even have to read the whole book or do the activities in it! They put in little cartoons to illustrate each concept, so all you really have to do is read the cartoons! Although the entire book is well worth the read. It will change your life. I mean it. Read the book. Buy it, check out from the library, borrow it from me (after Londo reads it, that is).

(Combined and edited from two posts originally on Cara Mama.)

The Nerd Who Loved Me

In March, I read The Nerd Who Loved Me, by Vicki Lewis Thompson. While I have really liked the other two Nerd books by Thompson that I've read (Talk Nerdy to Me and Nerds Like It Hot), I found this one disappointing. You know how you are taught in writing to not just say it but show it? This book didn't show anything, but just told the reader. The hero was supposed to be so smart, but he never did anything smart other than play chess with a 4 year old. I also didn't find some of the romance part all that realistic (five years without sex and she is able to jump right into a two-day marathon? I know she's a dancer, but come on). And the hero's reason for not wanting to out with the Vegas showgirl in the first place wasn't really explained or fleshed out. The plot itself was okay and the characters fine, but there were just too many things that just didn't have any substance.

(Edited from part of a post originally on Cara Mama.)

Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning

For March, my TBR Challenge book was Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning. I love Amy Tan. She is such an excellent writer and story teller. If you like her but haven't read her book of essays, The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, you really should go out and buy it right now.

Of course, there is a story about this particular book sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. This book is actually my aunt's book which she has lent to me (for like a year and a half). As an adult, it's been very special to connect with this particular aunt through our love of books. She has lent me some fantastic books, such as The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears and The Blessing Stone by Barbara Wood. The latter was such a great book, I bought my own copy so I could re-read it and lend it to others. So for my aunt's 70th birthday, when my sister and brother asked what we should get her, I volunteered to go to the bookstore and pick out a bunch of books I thought she would like. She loved them and agreed to lend them to me after she had read them. This is one of those books. She has moved in with her son in Texas, so I don't see her much lately, but I still need to read this and give it back to her. Which is why it's my next book on the Challenge.

The book was really good. It was very different from Amy Tan's other works, but really well done. At first, I had a hard time following all the different characters and I was surprised that some of her normal themes were not in the book, but after I started getting into it I really enjoyed it.

The political commentary on Myanmar/Burma was well said, as was her look at how obnoxious tourists can be when visiting other countries. As much as the tourists she wrote about annoyed me, I still found myself rooting for them. That takes good writing, because usually if I don't really like any characters in the book, I don't get into what happens to them. In this book, I did. Although I did want to kick some of the characters in the butt and yell at them sometimes... Okay, frequently! But not enough to get frustrated and put down the book. Definitely a good read.

(Combined and edited from two posts originally on Cara Mama.)

Desiring Italy and Other Book Recommendations

My February TBR Challenge book was Desiring Italy, edited by Susan Cahill. The book is a collection of writing from some pretty famous women (and only women) about Italy. The point is that the historical women write about Italy in a different way than men historically have. I can't remember exactly how the editor describes it, but she's sold me on it--something about women's passion for it and their finding sensuality in Italy. The Overtures section has some snippets of writing from authors like Erica Jong and Virgina Woolf who talk about Italy.

Would you like to hear the story behind this book and why it's on my TBR Challenge list? I bought this book a few years ago because I saw it in an airport bookstore while waiting for a plane (this might be a recurring theme for the books in this list, because I used to travel for work a bit and would always pass time in bookstores if there were any in the airport). It had been sitting on my shelf to be read for really no reason, but there are reasons I was drawn to it and bought it.

First, you all must know how much I love Italy. Being of Italian decent, I have always felt a bond for the country and its people. In college, I took italian for 2.5 years, including a semester abroad in Florence. I haven't been back since that semester, over ten years ago, and that makes me want to cry. Londo and I have kicked around the idea of going there on a vacation, and we are currently saving up to attempt this hopefully before we have any more kiddies. When you haven't seen Florence in a while, you get what they call "Duomo-sickness"** like home-sickness except for Florence's Duomo (the dome of the cathedral). I've had it bad for a while.

Second, for a while, I thought I would become a travel writer. I studied Journalism and Mass Communication in grad school, and I truly thought I wanted to work for a travel magazine. That plan didn't work out, and I'm glad it didn't. I couldn't imagine a job that took me away from my husband, baby and home on a regular basis. Travel for work used to sound (and be) so much fun, but now I'm so happy being home that I'm glad my current project doesn't require much traveling. But I still have always loved to read travel articles and books and stories.

Third, I have a high appreciation for women writers. I studied English as an undergrad, and took a few gender studies/literature courses. I like reading things from a woman's perspective. I guess it's cause I can relate. But I especially like to read historical literature by women, because it really gives me an insight into a time period from a woman's perspective, which is too often overlooked by historical books and literature as they are usually written by men from a man's perspective. Oh yeah, and I'm bit of a feminist.

So this book combines all those things that I enjoy. I think I hadn't read it because I ache to go back, and reading about Italy makes the ache much greater. But since Londo and I have really been talking about going (he's never been), I decided to read this book and another book I have on Italy this year to help inspire me to plan the trip. Hopefully this fall.

As a side note about the book, I actually bought a copy and gave it to my italian Grandma for Christmas this year. She is now 93 and unable to travel all the way over there. She did go just a few years ago with my mom and uncle, but it was hard on her. I hope she is enjoying the book.

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy very much. It's a shame, because I was really looking forward to it, but either my expectations were off or the book itself could have been better. Probably both. I thought that a book with well-known female writers writing about how they love Italy would include interesting stories of their time in that country. I was expecting stories like I've read in the Travelers' Tales series (excellent books!), like A Woman's World, or stories reminiscent of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway about his time in Paris.

This book was a collection of stories by women writers, yes. Some stories were true, autobiographic stories and some were fiction taking place in Italy. But they were really all over the place, and I don't mean geographically. For example, Mary Shelley's piece read like a Fodor's guide to what to see or a walking tour of sites in Venice, while George Eliot's selection was parts of Middlemarch that take place in Rome but didn't really speak much about the details of Rome. It just didn't feel cohesive to me.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it at all. The short story by Edith Wharton (I can't remember the name) which took place in Rome was absolutely perfect. There was plenty of scenery which set the mood, the writing was excellent and the story itself was brilliant. I also discovered some fascinating women writers who I did not know before, and my next amazon order will include non-fiction and fiction books by Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Von Arnim and Iris Origo.

But it will also include Travelers' Tales Italy: True Stories, because those are the kinds of stories that I love to read about people's travels. It will also include a couple other Traverlers' Tales books, because looking up the links above brought some new books to my attention, such as A Mother's World: Journeys of the Heart and Family Travel: The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get. If any of you internetters enjoy travel writing, I highly recommend this series.

*That's right, morning. When the baby nurses for 45 minutes or longer at 6 AM, I actually have time to read in the mornings. It's kind of nice--a relaxing way to start the day and wake up slowly. I get to read while she nurses and plays with my hair.

**There is an italian phrase for this, which I can never remember.

(Combined and edited from two posts originally on Cara Mama.)

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

Because I finished my January book so early, I decided to read a book from my list of alternates for the TBR Challenge: Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen is my favorite author (just barely beating out F. Scott Fitzgerald in recent years). My favorite book of hers is Pride and Prejudice, which I have read so many times I've lost count. Since Austen is my favorite author, you'd think I'd have read all her books. After all, when Fitzgerald held the distinction (and it is an honor, I assure you), the only book--nay*, the only story (since I've read all his short stories) of his I hadn't read was The Last Tycoon. Since it was unfinished at the time of his death, I've not felt compelled to read it, although I probably should.

In fact, I have not read all of Austen's finished works. I had have never read Mansfield Park or Persuasion or Northanger Abbey. I own multiple copies of compilations of her entire works. I have no idea why I haven't read them. The Penguin Classic copy of Mansfield Park I'm reading was even my husband's copy from a college class. I've always felt remiss in not having read all her works. I'm working on remedying that, which is why this one is on the list.

Having finished the book, I must say that as much as I love Austen and usually am very pleased with her endings, I thought the ending of this book kind of fizzled. I had originally thought I didn't know how I wanted the book to end, but that was apparently not true. The character who I wanted to like, and was just starting to like, I did not end up liking. Oh, well.

It was very well-written and a great commentary of the time on many issues, including society, education, wealth (or lack of), charity, love and principles. Another really good book by Austen. I personally did not relate to any of the characters. There was no Elizabeth or Jane Bennett for me to love, no Mr. Darcy to make my heart swell up. But I can appreciate the book itself and Austen's excellent writing.

*Can you believe I said "nay"? My head is apparently in the Austen world right now.

(Combined and edited from two posts originally on Cara Mama.)

Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

My TBR Challenge 2008 book for January was Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. I did say there was a story behind each of these books, so I will now relate the story behind this one.

I love Neil Gaiman. I've loved Neil Gaiman for longer than I've known my husband. I discovered Neil Gaiman through my brother, who has introduced me to so many good writers, books, movies and comic books. That's right, I said comic books (I'm a bit of a geek*). Or in the case of Neil Gaiman, graphic novels. Neil Gaiman wrote The Sandman comic books/graphic novels, which are incredible. He has also written quite a few novels, including Anansi Boys. Neil Gaiman is extremely imaginative, coming up with new and unique plots, and he is dark, delving into places of the mind and psyche that many dare not go.

Even if you don't like the science fiction/fantasy genre, there are a few sci-fi/fantasy novels that are such amazing books that they transend the genre and are just great books period**. The way Battlestar Galactica is more than just a great sci-fi show--it's a great show. One of these books is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. It's one of the best books out there, and I recommend it to everyone.

So, my point is I love Neil Gaiman and everything he's written. This book came out in 9/2005, and I bought it shortly after. That's right, over 2 years ago. Londo read it right away and proclaimed it another excellent book by Neil Gaiman. But I still haven't read it. Why not? Why wouldn't I read one of my favorite authors? It was because I Wasn't Myself! This was one of those things I simply wasn't in the mood for while pregnant and during the early months of having a baby. Now, I'm back to being mostly myself, so it's the first one I've selected from the stack to read. Cause I missed me, and I missed Neil Gaiman!

I finished the book pretty quickly, and the book was fantastic.

Once again, Gaiman writes a great book, with an interesting plot, well-rounded characters and surprises that I didn't see coming. Some I did see coming, but as Londo and I agree, Gaiman likely intended the readers to see those coming. This story, like his others, is so well written, with things you don't suspect as important coming into play later. Things you might overlook become key to the plot, and you realize just how tight of a story it is. And that's how I like my stories.

I'm not going to sum up what the book was about. I used to hate doing book reports because I felt like I was just re-writing what was written on the back of the book. If you want to know what it was about, read the back of the book. Then, buy the book and read the whole thing. It was definitely worth it.

*I will just fess up that I'm a HUGE geek, especially in the area of sci-fi/fantasy/comics. Those of you who are not into these things, I challenge you to expand your horizons and discover the amazing stories that reflect our world in the form of other worlds. I've got a whole schpiel, but this isn't the time for it.
**My number 1 example of this type of book is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, which I've recommended to many people who look at me skeptically because they don't like sci-fi and come back to me within the week saying they stayed up all night finishing the book. It's that good. Hmmm, I should re-read that.

(Combined and edited from two posts original originally on Cara Mama.)

Pie Crusts

I have such trouble with rolling out pie crusts! It always sticks to the rolling pin or counter, no matter how much flour I use, and I can't seem to roll it evenly. This summer, I bought a ceramic rolling pin (like this one, but a different maker and design) which is supposed to help because you put it in the fridge for 20 minutes before you start rolling so the dough won't stick. This rolling pin really seems to help.

Two years ago, I discovered the book I Love Pies and Tarts, by Nancy Kershner, that has the best recipe for a No-Roll Pie Dough. It has been wonderful! I halve the recipe and use it for the bottom crust of my pecan pie. I'm not sure how you would use do a top crust from it, but it works great on the bottom. I highly recommend the book in general, too!

The recipe basically says to mix 2 and 1/4 cups of flour, 2 TBSP sugar, and 2 TSP salt directly in the pie tin, then add 3/4 cup oil and 3 TBSP milk to the mix, and press it into the edges and up the sides of the pie tin. You can bake it first at 425 degrees F for 12 to 15 minutes, or just add your filling and bake however long the pie recipe says. And then, enjoy tasty, tasty pie!

(Edited from part of a post originally on Cara Mama.)

TBR Challenge 2008

I am participating in the To Be Read (TBR) Challenge 2008. I buy, receive and borrow so many books, and I really mean to read them all. I just don't always get to them. So I'm doing the challenge! Below is my list of books and alternates (which are also listed on the side of my other blog, Cara Mama), and I will strike them out (or mark as "= DONE" on Cara Mama) when I've finished them. I will also review each book when I've finished it.

The books in order of how I plan to read them:
1. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
2. Desiring Italy, collection edited by Susan Cahill
3. Saving Fish from Drowning, by Amy Tan
4. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
5. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, By Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
6. The Blind Mirror, by Christopher Pike
7. The Pact, by Jodi Picoult
8. It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff
9. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
10. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, by Brian Greene
11. The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant
12. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The alternates (in no particular order):
1. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
3. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
4. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
6. The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl
7. A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss
8. Eon, by Greg Bear
9. The Accidental Buddhist, by Dinty Moore
10. Bella Tuscany, by Frances Mayes
11. Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
12. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

These lists initially looked really ambitious to me, especially considering that I read other books in addition to these. And I need to read a romance novel or two a month, because I need a regular stream of light-hearted, happy-ending stories to keep me a happy girl. But so far, I'm doing alright.

Oh, and there is a story behind each of the books I selected, so I'll also relate the story of why I bought the book and why it has been on my shelf for over 6 months.

(Edited from post originally on Cara Mama.)

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